LA County Mechanics: Out of the Garage and Into the Flames

The choppy 17-second video, taken on his GoPro camera, shows the yellow and orange flames lighting up a black night through the truck’s windshield. Determined to get out of the path of the blaze where he was stationed, away from the billowing smoke and barricades, he calculates the danger of driving too fast and swerving round the downed power lines. 

It's all in the line of service -- though few would guess his job is as a vehicle mechanic. 

"It's something that if you've never been through it before, nobody really tells you how to deal with it,”  Francisco Martinez, 39, says reviewing the video on his phone the next day. “You just deal with it yourself." 

AFSCME Local 119 member Francisco, or “Frankie” as co-workers call him, maintains emergency response vehicles for the LA County Fire Dept.  He is one of 60 guys on the "ground team," while others maintain helicopters and emergency aircraft used in rescues. 

Most days, these mechanics can be found in a County garage or hangar.  But when a major blaze like Woolsey burns, any number of mechanics may be called to the frontlines so they are accessible to first responders requiring immediate mechanical support. 

This can be a problem when the unexpected happens. While firefighters receive extensive safety instruction for every conceivable contingency,  the mechanics tend to be overlooked. 

"They gave us one class, a crash course," Francisco says, “But what they teach you is really just, ‘If the wind goes this way, the fire goes that way.’"

Francisco and two of his co-workers, 15-year LA County Fire veteran George Castillo and Luis Aguillar, a contract worker for a private company, have been on call since day one of the raging Woolsey Fire, doing whatever it takes to keep  the rigs running. One moment an engine's transmission breaks down; the next, a truck's wheels get stuck in the mud after the area was hosed. Francisco rarely knows what he is getting into in advance of such situations and must improvise. The tiniest detail matters when these vehicles are pushed to extreme limits and people’s lives are on the line. 

Fire truck mechanic Harry Wong, President of AFSCME Local 119, says that he and his co-workers tend to be invisible in the public's eye, but accepts that that is the nature of the job. He recalls being called to the frontlines of another fire some time ago, in which he worked 36 hours straight.

"The mechancs are the hidden guys that people don’t recognize. What we do,  keeping the rigs running – nobody usually sees that. We are hidden figures there to do a job, and that’s it."  

Francisco has just come from fixing a transmission in the Ventura County town of Camarillo, a few minutes’ drive from where massive blazes are still burning. This is a command center, where there are endless rows of fire engines parked neatly side by side, distinguished from each other by different jurisdictional decals and bright colors.

The sprawling acreage resembles an enormous fire engine dealership, save for the portable tables stacked with hundreds of bottles of water, some scattered tents, and exhausted-looking firefighters resting here and there on small folding stools. Responders from fire departments across California and the Western states have arrived over the last week and a half to help the Ventura County and LA County crews with what has become one of the most devastating wildfires on record. More than 100 homes and other structures have burned, from Thousand Oaks to Malibu to Simi Valley and beyond.

When interviewed five days into his assignment near the Ventura County line, Francisco already had trouble keeping straight what day it was, as Friday turned blurrily into Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday….

“We’ve been sleeping in our trucks for the most part because it’s been chaos out here, so it was the easiest thing to do,” Francisco says. “On a good night we get about four hours of sleep. I mean you close your eyes and you are just out cold. But last night we got an hour of sleep before we heard the knock on the door and a voice telling us to go out again. So we jumped back out.”

Mechanics in the Fire Dept. are not often honored as heroes or featured in the press or on TV. But the reality is, it’s not only the first responders in harm’s way during a disaster. Francisco says he never signed up for glory. But, he admits, "a bit of appreciation" would be nice. “The thing is, a little acknowledgment that as easily as (firefighters) can get caught in a fire, I can have a truck fall on top of me and be alone when it happens. Just a little appreciation would go a long way.”

By the 11th day, Francsico still has not gone home yet. But the good news is that the fire is close to being contained.