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'Conditions are just perfect for a fire'

MALIBU, Calif – California Department of Forestry Battalion Chief Steve Shaw invited us to accompany one of his strike teams up to a ridge in the mountains above Malibu on Monday – the second day of the wildfires.

As he briefed his fire crew on what they would be doing, I was reminded of the many pre-op briefings I attended with coalition forces in Iraq. The precision and coordination of ground and air elements rivaled those of any military operation.

SLIDESHOW: Windy wildfires

The ridge where the fire teams were staging gave a magnificent view of the Malibu coast. The view was scarred however by an ugly brown blanket of smoke from the fires that refused to die.

"Don't let the lack of flames fool you," said Shaw. "The winds can kick up at any time and the flames can shoot right up."

'Keep it coming'

Almost on cue, a big gust buffeted me and my crew. As we traversed a ridge, a line of smoke eaters vigilantly watched the still smoldering fire down in a canyon below as a fire crew trudged up out of the canyon to dig another firebreak carrying picks, shovels and heavy packs.

Again, they looked like a line of infantry coming back from a combat patrol. Their faces smeared with black dust. Just then, a firefighting Huey chopper swooped in low and dumped its payload of water.  "Our air support," said one firefighter. He talked into his walkie-talkie to the helicopter driver. "Keep it coming, keep it coming."

"The conditions are just perfect for a fire," said firefighter Josh Janssen. "Strong winds, totally dry – if the winds pick up, the flames can be right on top of us in no time."

As we left to file our story and feed tape, I looked back at the thin line of brave young men and women standing with their picks and shovels. They are the only thing holding this conflagration in check.

Shaw gave us a weary smile and waved farewell as he went back to directing his crew.