Blisters bubble up on their tired feet and dripping sweat trails down their dusty faces. Dehydration, exhaustion and sprained ankles threaten them daily.
They are the Navajo Scouts firefighters working the Cave Creek Complex fire, and for 16 hours a day they endure temperatures that feel like 250 degrees, suffocating smoke and an unpredictable blaze that could torch everything in its path — including them.
"As long as everybody makes it out safely, we’re happy," said Leland Hermes, crew boss.
The medical unit at the command post at Sonoran Trails Middle School distributes lip balm, blister medicine, sunscreen and other items the firefighters need.
The unit also stands by around the clock in case any firefighter should be injured.
"We tell them if they wait until they’re thirsty to drink water, then it’s too late," said DJ Lopez, medical unit leader, "because that means they are already beginning to get dehydrated."
This fire season has seen few health problems and one reason is the preparation of the crews, Lopez said — they work hard to stay fit.
"The only problem are their boots," he said. "They are great for terrain, but harder than heck on their feet."
Firefighters face a range of health risks, including irritated lungs, heat stress, sunburn and West Nile virus, according to Will Humble, bureau chief for disease control at the Arizona Department of Health Services.
If the firefighters are working hard and the temperature is hot enough, their bodies can lose a gallon of water each hour, Humble said. The Navajo Scouts each drink about a gallon a day — not enough water to sufficiently hydrate them.
Despite the fact that the crew endures grueling schedules and must sleep in tents or a gymnasium, the Navajo Scouts love their job.
"When I first started fighting fires and I heard the beast roar, I knew this was the job for me," Hermes said. "The forest fire sounded like a jet engine."
It’s a good living that allows them to travel the country, Hermes said.
Many of the firefighters also enjoy camping out in tents.
"I just come home at the end of the day, sleep in my tent and stare at the stars until the lights turn off on their own," Hermes said.
The crews don’t know how long they’ll be battling the Cave Creek Complex fire, but at the end of two weeks, they get a required two-day break.
They are all looking forward to it.