Nathan Berro Krugman, a U.S. Forest Service forest technician, fighting the Caldor Fire last month.
Nathan Berro Krugman, a U.S. Forest Service forest technician, fighting the Caldor Fire last month.

Q&A: Meet a Jewish firefighter who battled the Caldor Fire

Five hours of sleep per night. Twice having to dodge bucket drops from helicopters. Carrying up to 70 pounds of gear and lugging a chainsaw.

This was how Nathan Berro Krugman just spent the last two weeks. As a forestry technician for the U.S. Forest Service, he battled the Caldor Fire that threatened the Lake Tahoe region and turned skies across the state dark and smoky. Krugman arrived at the fire soon after it started on Aug. 14, when it had burned only .15 square miles and had 200 people assigned to fight it. By the time he left, the fire had grown to over 312.50 square miles with 3,700 people battling back the blaze. As of Friday, Caldor was 29 percent contained and fire officials were “cautiously optimistic” about their progress.

Krugman, 29, was born in Long Beach and is a resident of Oakhurst in Madera County. He was raised Reform and said he still gets together with friends during the Jewish holidays. (For Rosh Hashanah, “My grandparents are sending me a challah, but I have to work.”)

He joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2019 and is now on his third fire season. He’s battled blazes from Stanislaus National Forest north of Yosemite all the way down to San Diego. He worked on the Creek Fire last year in the Sierra National Forest, which until this year’s Dixie Fire north of Lake Tahoe was the largest to hit the state.

But the Caldor Fire, he said, was different in how fast it spread.

“Because it was changing so quickly, our jobs were changing so quickly,” said Krugman. “It was a lot of back and forth, a lot of moving pieces.” He said he showered just twice during his entire two-week deployment, a “luxury” compared to other fires he’s worked on.

J. FaceTimed with Krugman while he was resting at his home in Oakhurst. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


J.: How long is your workday when you’re working the fire line?

Nathan Berro Krugman: You’ll usually wake up around 5:30 [a.m.] or so. We’ll go to the main briefing. We’re working by 8:30. Once you start working, you really don’t stop until around 7, sometimes 8. But there [were] nights [during the Caldor Fire] where we didn’t get back [to camp] until 9:30 because we were involved in a section where you’ve got active fire, that’s, for example, threatening homes.

What are you doing throughout the day?

Sometimes [we’ll be putting out] a spot fire [with hoses]. That’s like embers that come off of the main head of the fire that [can] cause another fire. Or we’ll be going along sections that have already been burned and doing what’s called “mopping up,” where you’re able to use water to put out heat that’s near the line. You’re essentially just stirring cold dirt with hot dirt with your tool in order to put that out. [Another thing we do is] digging a line. So you’re actually digging down to bare mineral soil, and whatever terrain that you’re in to stop the fires progression. We don’t really fight fire with water.

What do you mean?

Sometimes these fires have to get bigger in order for them to be put out. You can’t just put a hose on it and call it a day. Really the main way to actually put out forest fires is to create a fuel break, removing fuel between you and the fire in a strategic place.

What is something that most people don’t understand about fighting fires?

A human being can only do so much when there’s 150-foot flame links coming off trees, [moving] as fast as someone can run. It’s a lot more physically intensive, and a lot harder than people would think to put out a fire, especially when it has momentum.

What are you getting paid to do this work?

I make $15.10 an hour. Now, I get hazard pay, and I get overtime on [top of] that. But a representative from Cal Fire, or someone like that, they’re making upwards of $70,000 a year plus. You average mine out over a fire season, I may be making half that.

How long does it take to get the smoke smell off of you?

I’d say at least like two or three showers. My hands are finally clean. If you were to go to a campfire, right, and you’re touching a burnt log, and you actually touch it, it’s kind of hard to get that off. You’re doing that every day. We have gloves, but when you’re “mopping up,” you need to be able to touch the dirt with the back of your hand in order to know that it’s cool enough to move on.

Nathan Berro Krugman, a U.S. Forest Service forest technician, helped fight the Caldor Fire, Aug. 15-29.
Nathan Berro Krugman, a U.S. Forest Service forest technician, helped fight the Caldor Fire, Aug. 15-29.

When you’re not actively fighting fires, you’re helping to manage the forest. What made you want to get into this line of work?

A friend of mine recommended I check out this job. There’s two main types of fun. There’s type one, when you’re having fun while you’re having fun. But then there’s the type two fun, where you’re not really having fun during, but you’re having fun after. And that’s how he described it to me. When you look back on it, it’s a really fun time.

What makes it fun after the fact? 

There’s a lot of things that are extremely tedious about the job and physically intense. You’re hiking a lot every day, you’re digging dirt every day, you’re dirty every day. Even if you shower the night before, you get dirty within an hour. But when you look back on it, and you can see what you’ve accomplished, it all tends to be worth it in the end.

How’d you get that beard?

Patience.

And are you ever worried it is going to catch on fire?

No. It’s actually a good telltale if you’re too close to the fire or not. No, seriously, I had a section on my beard burn last year.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.