Imagine pulling a few back-to-back all-nighters while weightlifting in a sauna and simultaneously having to block your mind from processing everything. That's kind of what it's like to battle the massive, historical wildfires raging across Northern California.
Nearly 11,000 firefighters from across the US, Canada, and Australia have come together to wage war against the massive wildfires that have killed at least 40 people, consumed 5,700 homes and businesses, and swallowed huge swaths of farmland, cities, vineyards, and rural towns.
For the past week, fueled by caffeine, adrenaline, random naps wherever they can close their eyes, community support, and each other, the red-eyed, dusty, crews have been working anywhere from 24 to 72 hours without sleep or much food.
Near the front lines of the Oakmont fire, which flared up from rustling winds Sunday, Captain Kevin Weaver and his Petaluma crew have only "seen a bed twice and a shower twice" since they started battling flames in Santa Rosa a week ago.
"This fire is going to go down in history," said the 43-year-old captain from the Petaluma Fire Department, about 30 minutes south of Santa Rosa. "It was the perfect storm."
After a week, 15 wildfires are still burning across a large chunk of Northern California. The magnitude of the blaze, which has charred about 220,000 acres, required just as enormous of a response.
"They all started at the same time and are screaming for resources," said Chico Fire Department Captain Carlos Munoz, pointing to a large map with big chunks of red marking their ongoing battle. "The first guys out there went for 72-hours straight without food."
Not to mention, the thousands of California firefighters dispatched to fight this blaze had already been relentlessly working since fire season started in June.
"It is draining to be so heightened and on your toes all the time without any sleep," said 32-year-old Alec Mederos. "But you don't have time to think of how tired you are."
Since they're out there for a full day or more, they take naps wherever they can. Like on each other.
Dozens of departments and agencies have woven together to tackle the fires. Crews of inmate firefighters have been hacking through brush, dispatchers are relaying information, some specialize in structural analysis protection, while others are brought on to assist with forestry.
When they finish their grueling shifts, most come to pass out at base camp, aka tent city.
There are nearly 3,750 personnel fighting fires in Sonoma County alone, so it literally is a city, outfitted with outdoor sinks, bathrooms, and showers. Every morning and evening they line up at the chow line. Sunday evening, a group of twenty-somethings played cards while a fifty-something had his feet up on a cooler reading his Kindle.
"It is hectic and crowded and hard to sleep," said Petaluma firefighter Chris Bonilla. "But they're super important and bring us together."
Officials don't know how long the will be fighting since they only just made headway against the blazes on Sunday and any change in weather could set that back. Meaning these firefighters could be living and working like this for and it's emotionally draining.
"Our families don't know when we are coming home and often it's hard to contact them," said Weaver, who is married with two kids. "Fighting something like this takes an emotional toll and has a ripple effect most people don't understand. Life stops when these fires happen."
Search and rescue crews and firefighters are still scouring ash for bodies, finding burnt animals, and letting weary, heartbroken residents back into completely decimated neighborhoods to homes that no longer exist.
"Fire doesn't usually do what it did here," Paul Greiner, an engineer from Rocklin Fire Department, explained while driving through a cordoned-off part of Santa Rosa. "This is the most fatalities I've seen in my career and it's incredible. The loss of life is mind-boggling and having to search through total neighborhoods with cadaver dogs. This hasn't happened before."
Normally, people don't see such a robust firefighting operation up close. But since the bulk of this wildfire is attacking a city of 175,000 people, plus several others, residents have poured in to volunteer any and all services to say thank you.
Like making hot meals and offering free massages.
Grateful, people on social media started sharing their experiences with the thousands of firefighters who have poured into the state.
Like the people that fed these firefighters on their front lawn.
"So thankful for everything these amazing men AND Women are doing," this woman posted.
People have also been calling out the efforts of their friends and loved ones.
"Right now he is at Oakmont working a 24-hour shift...we have food, a hot shower and nice bed when you are done."
Sisters shared stories and memories about their brothers.
"This is my little brother, Gordon, who is down here in Santa Rosa fighting the fires and falling hazardous trees."
Others shared moments with dads and husbands.
Firefighters say this outpouring of support is helping them get through this catastrophic disaster, which most have never experienced.
"This came through a major city. It's not normal. It looks like someone flew over in a C-13 and pulled the trigger and dropped a bomb," said Jason Jones, who came from Nevada. "I've been doing this 30 years and I still can't get over what it looks like."
Leaning against the engine parked in the front yard of a home they were preparing to protect, Bonilla said the emotional toll is just as demanding as the physical.
"You learn to deal with what you see. I know people who have lost homes here and it's hard to see how little we could do for how fast it went," the 31-year-old said.