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Firefighting Crews Get Relief, Rest as Fires are Slowly Contained

More than 1,800 firefighters are battling the Poomacha Fire in North County. It's 45 percent contained, but still threatening 2,000 homes around Palomar Mountain. Crews will be cutting more lines toda

More than 1,800 firefighters are battling the Poomacha Fire in North County. It's 45 percent contained, but still threatening 2,000 homes around Palomar Mountain. Crews will be cutting more lines today to create defensible space around those homes. Other firefighters are putting out hot spots left in the trail of the blazes. Reporter Rene Gutel spent yesterday evening with one crew from Gilroy, California, and she filed this report.

From 5,000 feet up Mount Palomar, you get a nice view of the C-130 air tankers flying overhead. They're from the California National Guard and are dumping water on the Poomacha Fire. Here on the mountain is where a strike team from Santa Clara County has been working. Twenty-five-year-old Steven Hayes is the team's newest member.

Hayes: Just making sure the fire doesn't re-ignite, after it's burned through an area, so a lot of chainsaw work, cutting out anything that's been burning, and then putting out anything that's left behind.

Hayes and his team-mate, 33-year-old Heinz Maibaum, are standing on a look-out that used to be filled with vegetation. The ground is now black, and trees that used to be full and thick with leaves and are now barren toothpick thin. The fire has destroyed more than 70-homes. 

Maibaum: Like you'd see in a war movie actually, just everything black, charred, nothing much living, actually.

Maibaum and Hayes have been working hard, wearing heavy gear. They're 12 hours into a 24-hour shift and they've been here since Monday. But, as the sun sets across the San Diego Valley, it's time for a short break, and a few creature comforts. 

Maibaum: Oh cowboy coffee. (what's that?) just another way to say, we say it's just strong coffee, something stronger than normal, we don't have an espresso machine.

Maibaum is proud of his cowboy coffee -- he's the one who brought the pot, and he's serving it up, from the back of their fire engine.

Mauibaum: Just something to keep us warm throughout the night, keep us warm.

Field Information Officer Mike Sawyer looks on. He says as more resources poured into the area over the past week, from across California and the country, crews like this one area able to work in shifts, and that helps morale.

Sawyer: Earlier in the week, the mood there has changed, they're taking shifts out on the fire line, so that always raises spirits.

Just a few miles away from this make-shift camp, is the Palomar Observatory, home to a 200-inch telescope. Sawyer says firefighters have been able to protect it.

Sawyer: There is a chance the fire might shift in that diretio, but as of right now it's not immediately threatened, we're just keeping a close eye on it.

Heinz Maibum and Steven Hayes have finished their coffee… and are moving on to dinner…. packed by volunteers and sent up in paper lunch bags.

Hayes ticks off the menu.

Hayes: Ham, cheese, and bread - a bean burrito that you're supposed to microwave that's about to pop, a Gatorade, an apple, chips, bubble gum, a cookie - apple sauce - I'm freaking starving. (so how does this look to you right now?) excellent… I can't re-iterate enough that you pass somebody's house that is now ashes - you could feed me dirt and I'd still eat it, because I have a house and my family is safe, so yeah, I'm stoked to be eating.

The crew was on the line all night. Today, they get a day off.

For KPBS, I'm Rene Gutel.

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