That was one of the many things -- both physically and emotionally -- that the more than one dozen El Cerrito firefighters dealt with while helping battle California’s largest wildfire this year.
“The flames we saw were pretty spectacular. They were all around us,” said Hoyer-Nielsen. “You could hear it. It sounded like a freight train.”
Nine El Cerrito firefighters on two different strike teams traveled to the Yosemite area in late August. They were replaced after eight days by another wave of El Cerrito firefighters.
That second wave fought the fire for four days. They included Hoyer-Nielsen and his crew of Capt. Paul McCullough, Engineer Joe Gagne and firefighter David Hood.
Another firefighter, Aaron Schwartzman, was on the other El Cerrito crew. He has been a firefighter for only two months.
Hoyer-Nielsen said his group went to Yosemite a little tired because they were working extra shifts to fill slots left open by the first group that went to the Rim Fire.
That first group did the extra shifts when the second contingent headed up.
Once there, Hoyer-Nielsen and the others were stationed near the entrance to Yosemite Park off Highway 120.
They were about a quarter-mile from the main pocket of the Rim Fire, but they saw tongues of flames from the blaze that soared to 200 feet in height when they engulfed large trees.
The primary job of Hoyer-Nielsen’s group was structure protection. They kept the flames away from the buildings at Yosemite’s visitors center as well as homes in nearby neighborhoods.
That meant helping contain the back fires lit by California Department of Forestry crews as well as dousing any embers that floated into their area.
They also dug containment lines through dirt and sometimes soot.
“You start to work yourself into exhaustion,” said Hoyer-Nielsen.
The work was physically demanding but also emotionally draining. Hoyer-Nielsen said one firefighter was always assigned the task of lookout, perching on a hill watching to make sure flames didn’t approach firefighters and trap them.
Everyone is on constant alert.
“You have to have a combination of respect and fear,” said Hoyer-Nielsen. “If you lose a little bit of that fear, then you can become dangerous.”
His group worked the night shift. It was officially a 12-hour stint, but with preparation and breakdown time, the shift usually stretched to 16 hours.
When their shift ended, the firefighters would return to base camp, a place that had showers, dining facilities, places to refuel with water and gas and other basic amenities.
“Base camp is an amazing place,” said Hoyer-Nielsen. “It’s like a small city.”
The camp included a 53-foot trailer that had sleeping arrangements for 42 people. It included three tiers of bunks with the top level having 16 inches of headroom.
The firefighters usually got four hours of sleep but it was sound rest.
“We slept pretty hard,” Hoyer-Nielsen recalled.
Hoyer-Nielsen and the others spent much of their days in Yosemite constantly coughing. They returned to El Cerrito with that same hack, one that lasted for several days.
“The smoke was significant up there,” said Hoyer-Nielsen. “Most of us had a persistent cough.”
One of the hardest things for the crew was seeing what this intense fire has done to the landscape of the Yosemite area. Hoyer-Nielsen said there are strands of trees that may take decades to grow back.
“I’ve been to Yosemite many times. It was difficult to see the devastation there,” he said.
Despite the exhaustion, danger and lingering physical effects, Hoyer-Nielsen said firefighters want to take on a challenge such as the Rim Fire when it occurs. It’s what they’ve been trained to do.
“We were excited to go,” he said. “We wanted to go.”