Gus Boston is one of those people who plans for the worst. When he enters a movie theater, he locates the exits. He sits in the emergency row on airplanes. He bought his northern California home in a location away from the high risk of wildfire. This mentality is part of what makes him so good at his job, and it’s most likely what has saved his life a time or two.
“We think we’re in control,” he says, “but we are not.”
Working for CalFire, Boston has been called to the front lines of some of the biggest, most out-of-control fires California has seen. Two of those fires are the Carr Fire and the Camp Fire.
THE FIRE HE THOUGHT WOULD DEFINE HIS CAREER
It all started with a flat tire on July 23, 2018. The rim met the pavement, creating a spark that ignited a 37-day blaze known as the Carr Fire. Boston got the call. He knew the landscape. He had fought fires here before. “I had been on that same ground both in the French Fire and the Bear Fire back in the early 2000s, so I was familiar with it,” he notes.
The problem was what was different. This area of the region had multiple large fire scars. Rather than well-developed forest cover, most of the landscape had regrowth that was more uniform — all the same height and density. “It was primarily a brush field with fallen dead trees from previous fire scars,” says Boston. Adding to that was the extreme drought that has plagued the entire state. And some of the forest canopy had been damaged by insects, leaving more weak and dead trees to fuel the flames.
The land was stressed, and the fire took advantage.
When the wildfire reached this area, it was also met with weather conditions unique to the region. Cooler air moving in off the ocean and warming was causing the winds to constantly change direction in the late afternoon. In the end, keeping his crew and equipment safe as they fought this fire would be more of a challenge. “The rates of spread were pretty extreme. That first operational period, I think we had to bring our resources into safety zones three times,” recalls Boston.
As he reflected on battling the fire, everything came down to awareness. “When you’re out there, every decision you make on the ground is a very complex situation where your life depends on the decisions you make — because the only thing that’s going to get you out is your boots. You’re far away from everybody and everything. You have to be really in tune with your fire environment. Your decision-making has to be right on the money. You make a wrong move out there, and you could be in a serious situation,” explains Boston.
Once the flames were extinguished on August 30, the devastation felt unprecedented. Nearly 230,000 acres were burned, eight lives were lost (including some who were battling the blaze), and thousands of homes were destroyed.
“In the Carr Fire, I thought I had seen everything. I thought that was a career event,” says Boston. “And then I saw the Camp Fire.”
Gus Boston thought the Carr Fire would define his firefighting
career. Then the Camp fire started.
A FIERY REMINDER THAT NATURE’S IN CHARGE
On November 8, just four months after the Carr Fire was finally extinguished, the Camp Fire raged to life. High winds brought down a powerline, and the wildfire spread quickly from there. It was heading directly for the communities of Paradise, Magalia, and Concow.
Right away, Boston knew this fire was different. “It was Mother Nature telling us that she is in control.”
He had fought previous fires in this watershed area as well. He knew the old fire scars had exposed the land, creating a clear path of least resistance for the wind. “I refer to it now as a gun barrel. It really has this effect that, as the wind is coming down the canyon, it compresses and increases the intensity and speed. And there’s nothing holding it back now,” he describes. With these factors, the land was ripe for a catastrophic blaze.
The first 24 hours were beyond anything he had experienced in the past, but unexpected crisis situations are what firefighters prepare for. “It was overwhelming. It really was,” says Boston. “But it’s about leadership. One of the things we’re taught is that you have to have a plan. If the plan doesn’t work, you still have to have command and control until you have a solution to the situation. I came in, developed a plan early on, started breaking divisions out, assigning resources, and working in conjunction with the incident commander. That’s what keeps people in focus given the situation that we’re in.”
And keeping focus was key. The fire was moving rapidly. People’s lives were at stake.
Training and instinct were what kept Boston and the other firefighters going. They always rely on the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and 18 Watch-Out Situations — as well as their guts — to guide them. They prioritized saving lives, evacuating communities, and protecting homes. They faced falling powerlines and flames cutting off escape routes. They fought with everything they had. And after 17 days, the fire was finally contained.
In the days following the Camp Fire, devastating statistics began to stack up: more than 150,000 acres burned, 52,000 people evacuated, and 9,000 homes destroyed. Sadly, 85 people lost their lives, making the Camp Fire America’s deadliest fire in the last 100 years.
THE IMPORTANT INSIGHT HE NOW SHARES
Still with CalFire, Boston now spends his days planning and executing projects that can help avoid such severe fires. But his time on the front line will stay with him always.
“I was so scarred by what happened during the Camp Fire that I didn’t really speak my mind. I just shut down post-fire. Now I’m actually starting to open up,” he reflects. “I hope that people are able to take the lessons that we learned from these big events and utilize them within their communities and their forests.”
What are those lessons? Fuels (grass, shrubs, downed trees, leaves, and needles that burn in a wildfire) need to be reduced within forest cover, making a forest resilient from the impacts of wildfire. Communities need to be ready for not only the flames but also challenges like being without power or cell service during an emergency event. And nature needs a boost from forest restoration efforts.
“I live in Paradise. I know what it is to watch my community be destroyed,” says Boston. “But the fire environment is also destroying so much habitat in so many watersheds at just an extreme rate that it’s changing our environment. It’s changing our perspective on what we thought was the Western United States.”