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Three-man crew operates 95,000-pound dozer to fight blazes

Dousing fire by dozing

Posted: August 3, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 3, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Dozer Team 1 crew members from left, Pat Valerio, Bryan Kaufmann, and David Wright meet with Capt. Dan Shuford, right, at Fire Station 156 in Santa Clarita on Thursday.

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Some people can’t handle the heat, and others thrive in it.

This threesome qualifies as the latter.

Known as the dozer crew, the trio — a big-rig driver, a bulldozer operator and a “swamper,” or a brush fire specialist — receive a call-out any time there’s a brush fire in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Gathered from all corners of the county, the team converges at Dozer 1’s headquarters and waits for the alarm that sends them into action.

Their job is operating a $1.1 million, 95,000-pound tractor outfitted with firefighting equipment meticulously maintained out of Fire Station 156 on McBean Parkway in north Valencia.

“It’s a whole different world from construction,” said Dave Wright, who spent more than a decade in developing oil wells, among other things, for a Ventura County-based company before joining the county Fire Department eight years ago.

Dozer crews are a little different than hand crews because only one member — the swamper — receives traditional firefighter camp training. The Fire Department often gets its dozer operator and big-rig driver from construction, because the department seeks at least a journeyman’s level of experience with the equipment, Wright said.

The operator and driver receive a nine-week training at a specialty camp in Ione, near Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and are then paired up with a rotating series of swampers.

The crew — Wright, a Fillmore resident who runs point on operations and works the dozer; Pat Valerio, 42, of Monrovia, the swamper; and Bryan Kaufmann, 38, of Canyon Country — work in unison to maneuver a 16-foot-wide dozer blade anywhere they need to for fire containment.

There are 10 crews of three who operate at locations throughout the county — at stations in Pacoima, Lancaster, Malibu, San Dimas and, locally, in Valencia.

“This is the time we usually have the most to do,” Wright said. “We had two calls by 11 a.m.”

The scheduled shift is a 10 a.m.-to-6 p.m. work day, but when duty calls, they have to be prepared for a one-hour trip or a grueling, 30-hour shift, Wright said.

On these extended shifts, Kaufmann offers an important auxiliary role. While the dozer and swamper work directly on fire containment, the driver who delivers them on site is at the ready with tools, equipment or any type of support — such as providing fuel for the dozer’s 120-gallon diesel tank that burns about a gallon every five minutes, Wright said.

Kaufmann, a former long-hauler, said the state-of-the-art equipment is one of the best parts of the job.

“It’s like driving a freight train,” Kaufmann said with a wide grin. “There are no quick turns or sudden stops.”

The ability to help save lives is also a nice perk, Wright said.

“It’s humbling,” Wright said. “Here, sometimes, people will come out and thank you when you’re done. No one does that in construction.”



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