Recalling standing feet away from flames reaching up to 250 feet in height, one local firefighter on Wednesday coolly described what it was like to fight the Rim fire.
"There is always a little fear, nothing big, but that's why we train," said engine boss Juan Ybarra of Reedley about the massive Rim fire in and around Yosemite National Park -- now the fourth largest blaze in state history.
Ybarra was among a crew of 25 firefighters from Sierra National Forest Strike Team 5611c that returned home Sunday after two weeks of 16-hour days fighting the blaze that's grown to more than 237,000 acres.
The team was among the first responders on the front lines of the fire. The team used five engines, and each carried up to 600 gallons of water. Throughout the day, engines would be refilled by giant water-tender trucks.
Strike team leader Carlos Cabanas of Visalia described the first week as "running and gunning" -- going everywhere and doing a little bit of everything.
They helped protect half a dozen communities from encroaching flames, performed burn-out operations -- fighting fire with fire -- cut fire lines and laid hose, extinguished spot fires and worked to prevent flames from jumping roads.
Among the saved structures was the Evergreen Lodge, a historic Yosemite hotel near Hetch Hetchy reservoir. The team put out many spot fires around the lodge's cabins, including one that was burning dangerously toward some propane tanks.
"We work hard and at the end of the day, everyone is dead tired, but you can look back and see you've accomplished something," Ybarra said, adding that "it feels good."
At one point the massive fire had five heads, each burning up remote canyons, he said. Flying embers from the fire can travel up to a mile and half and spark new spot fires, Ybarra said.
Rivalry didn't exist among the array of agencies fighting the Rim fire, Cabanas said. The Forest Service said more than 4,000 personnel from 44 states and the District of Columbia were on the fire.
"We get together as one, he said. "We have to fight the dragon and we do."
The Sierra National Forest strike team was housed in one-man tents at a camp east of Groveland.
"It looks like a military base," Cabanas said. "You've got food, showers, buildings. It looks like a little town."
Their day started with 5:30 a.m. briefings and ended around 10:30 p.m. when night crews relieved them.
The Sierra National Forest has 12 stations, three hot shot crews and a special unit that gets ferried to a fire by helicopter. Another Sierra National Forest strike team will likely be sent to the Rim fire within a matter of days, Cabanas said.
"My strike team fought fire aggressively, provided for safety first, and did a heck of a job in the initial attack phase for the first week of the Rim fire," he said. "They showed professionalism and experience. I was proud of those guys."