Transcript

727: Boulder v. Hill

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

To fight those massive fires out west... there are these camps, hidden from view. If you were driving by, you might not even know they're there. One of the largest fires in California history, the Creek fire, has a base camp for 700 people in the parking lot of a ski resort in Central California, just outside Fresno.

Man 1

Hose that!

Girl

Pull!

Man 2

Pull!

Ira Glass

So if you know where to go, the first thing that you see when you pull up to camp is these 20 somethings running back and forth with bright yellow firehose, hundreds and hundreds of miles of it. Their job is to untangle miles of hoses all day, every day.

One of our producers, Miki Meek, recorded the sound that you're hearing right now and talked to these guys, including RJ Brown, who's 23, in a dirt streaked yellow jacket and a face mask with a panda nose and mouth printed on it. The official motto of his employer, the California Conservation Corps, which sends young people all over the state to do this kind of job?

Rj Brown

Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions, and more.

Miki Meek

You guys, what?

Ira Glass

"Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions, and more"-- that is the actual motto.

Miki Meek

What's the best part of your job, and what is the worst part of your job?

Rj Brown

The best part? Oh, I should know. Hang on. I'm going to start with the worst part. Just the worst part is when they say over here on the walkie talkie, oh, we got 60,000 layers of hoses coming in. And then, once the 60 comes in, they bring in another 30.

Miki Meek

So when you hear 60,000 hoses coming over the radio, what is going through your head when you hear that?

Rj Brown

Defeat. Like, I want to go home. I'm like, oh, no, no, no. I don't want to do this.

Ira Glass

The way this job works is this. Trucks come back from the fire line and dump huge piles of jumbled hoses. Five guys untangle them. And then, with each hose, they take one end--

Man

All right, ready? Everybody grab a corner.

Ira Glass

--and sprint across the parking lot. Each hose is 100 feet long, so it's kind of a long way to go. They lay down one bright yellow hose next to another next to another, until the whole parking lot is blanketed with tidy yellow hose.

Miki Meek

What do you do to keep yourself sane when you're rolling hoses?

Rj Brown

I'll just be thinking about music in my head that I have already listened to. And it just keeps me going.

Ira Glass

They're not allowed to wear headphones on this job. His teammate, Kory Rovy, has a different strategy to deal with that.

Kory Rovy

I sing it out, and I tell everybody.

Miki Meek

What song's on your mind lately?

Kory Rovy

"Can't Break My Stride." It goes like, last night I had the strangest dream. I sailed away to China in a little rowboat to find ya. Ain't nobody going to break my stride. And so, that song just keeps going in my head.

Miki Meek

Why that song?

Ira Glass

Next step in this process, they wind the hoses up in coils, put them on pallets, wrap them in plastic wrap, and send them to be cleaned. After that, the hoses go out to the fire line again, then back to the hose rolling crews, then back to the place where they're cleaned over and over, week after week after week, which is life at a fire camp. They have the same day over and over and over, until the fire's out.

When Miki visited, the Creek fire had been going for nearly two months. It burned more than 350,000 acres. It's over 500 square miles. Putting out a fire that large is a mammoth task. The base camp that Miki met RJ and Kory at, it was like a mini city with a makeshift laundromat, a cafeteria, a mechanic shop, sleep trailers with triple bunk beds. Like most people at the camp, Kory and RJ work 16-hour days. And they sleep right on the asphalt, right next to where they work in tents they've pitched. They sleep in their uniforms so they can squeeze in a few extra minutes of rest each morning.

Miki Meek

I was curious. What do you guys dream about at night?

Rj Brown

[LAUGHS] My dream yesterday was about hoses. It was about rolling hoses. I was so mad. Like, oh, I can't take no breaks, no days off.

Ira Glass

But the thing about RJ and Kory, they love their jobs, despite the repetitiveness and exhaustion. Before this, RJ worked retail and at a car wash. Kory had an office job coding. Now it feels like they're part of something important. They're team captains for their crew, and they have this can-do attitude that it's actually kind of the culture of this camp.

Rj Brown

I just make sure that the crew's PMA is always at its highest.

Miki Meek

What does that mean?

Rj Brown

Positive Mental Attitude.

(SUBJCET) KORY ROVY: Me and Ricky will say something like, hey, yeah, just keep the PMA up.

Miki Meek

Is that a well-known acronym?

Rj Brown

Yes.

Miki Meek

I had never heard of that acronym. I could use some more PMA in my life right now.

Ira Glass

With the fire season running longer than ever, it's seven or eight months out of the year now. There's this entire ecosystem of people like RJ and Kory who swoop in and live in fire camps for months all over the west. Today on our program, we meet the people putting these fires out, doing all kinds of jobs you never think of to do it in this unusual situation where they have to push the same boulder up the same hill every single day.

And in the second half of the program, we have a different large group of people who are battling a different large sort of threat. And the stakes could not be higher. They're literally trying to save the world. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: The Extinguishers

Ira Glass

Act One, The Extinguishers. So we heard about these fire camps from Lizzie Johnson. She's a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle and spends most of the year chasing fires around California, covering them, and knows so much about them. She took Miki and one of our other producers, Lilly Sullivan, to the fire camp at Creek Fire and has these stories of the people there and what they do and of daily life in this place. Here's Lizzie.

Lizzie Johnson

The drive up to the Creek Fire base camp should have been beautiful. This is Ansel Adams country in the High Sierra. But the two-laned highway was lined with trees that looked like charcoal toothpicks. We passed houses where the only thing still standing were the chimneys. The local gas station reminded me of a Salvador DalĂ­ painting. The letters on the big sign out front had melted, dripping down like icicles.

I've been to dozens of fire camps. At the big ones, there's always a stand selling T-shirts printed with the year and the name of the fire. And you see firefighters wearing them. There's a predictable rhythm to daily life at these camps. They start with a briefing right at 7:00 AM. This is where everyone gets their orders. At the Creek Fire, this happens by the ski lift.

Supervisor

Quick roll call. Little T.

Firefighter 1

Here.

Supervisor

Groveland.

Firefighter 2

Here.

Supervisor

Grayback 17.

Firefighter 3

Here.

Lizzie Johnson

Over 100 firefighters are here. They looked cold, tired, wearing thick stocking caps and heavy jackets. Hundreds more are listening on the radio. This was day 48 of their fight against the Creek Fire.

Supervisor

Plan on your same work assignments today. We're just really controlling that perimeter and making sure nothing moves on us.

Lizzie Johnson

There's no way to put out a fire this big, so the best they can do is stop it from growing. The actual mechanics of that feels surprisingly primitive. Hundreds of crews spread out all along the fire's edge, working on their own little speck of land, scraping the ground down to mineral dirt with chainsaws and shovels and bulldozers, so there's nothing left to burn when the wildfire gets there.

Supervisor

So be flexible is kind of a key to it. If something changes where we need to move equipment around, that's kind of some of our reasoning for not getting rid of a ton of stuff yet. Because I know you guys are kind of getting Groundhog Day out there.

Lizzie Johnson

A lot of the top brass, the incident command team, spoke to the firefighters through two flat screen TVs set up on a platform. They were at a command post more than an hour away. To me, it sounded like a county fair.

Man

All right, thanks, John. Next up, fire behavior. Patty Johnson.

Patty Johnson

Morning. The most growth yesterday was out in this Edison Lake area, mainly closer to the South Fork out here than any place else. Just for the folks in the field, lots of heavy fuels burning out there, lots of smoke coming out of it. So make sure you take breaks with your being in the smoke every day. Probably for some folks, it's 24 hours of smoke that they are experiencing out there. Have a good day.

Man

All right, thanks, Patty. For safety--

Lizzie Johnson

A thick shroud of gray smoke hung over the base camp. The people at the center of the operation are the hotshot crews. They're the most elite of the wildland firefighters, dispatched to the hottest and the farthest corners of the blaze. In the social hierarchy of fire camps, the hotshot crews are at the top.

After the morning briefing, I talked to Pete Rosas in the parking lot. He is a squad boss for a hot crew out of LA County. His wife's also a wildland firefighter on a different crew. She drives a water truck called the tender. He told me that in the last month, they'd only overlapped at home one day, which was challenging with a two-year-old daughter.

Pete Rosas

We bounce back and forth between my family, her family, and daycare.

Crew

Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete.

Lizzie Johnson

That's a bunch of young guys from his crew, sticking their heads out the windows of their sherbet green bus-- it's called a buggy-- chirping, "Pete, Pete, Pete." The phoenix is their crew logo.

Crew Member

He's the head phoenix, and we're just little birds.

Lizzie Johnson

How many times a day do you hear that?

Pete Rosas

Oh, man. It's pretty constant.

Lizzie Johnson

Do you like when they do that?

Pete Rosas

I mean, not that I like it or look forward to it, but I think, for me, it tells me, OK, the guys are good. They're happy right now. So maybe sometimes when I don't hear it, OK, yeah, what's going on? You guys are up to something.

Lizzie Johnson

Pete's crew is called Little Tujunga or Little T for short. At 42, Pete's been on the crew the longest. Some of the younger guys joke that he hatched from an egg at the fire station and keeps them all safe under his wing. Pete's not just their boss, he's a life coach, a mentor, and a therapist all rolled into one, giving them advice on everything from how to clean their chainsaws to buying their first house. He even reminds them to pay their bills back at home.

Pete Rosas

I feel sometimes like I am their dad. The reason it's like that because I'm with them so much more than I am with my own family. It's like I know what makes them go off, what doesn't, how to calm them down, how to rile them up when we need them to be.

Lizzie Johnson

Pete's on the shorter side. He's got skull tattoos on his arms to remind himself that death's part of life. The crew knows him for his cool head. He keeps a book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck in the side compartment of his truck. He grew up on the east side of LA, still lives there.

As a kid, Pete says he never went camping or hiking, never even visited the mountains. He ended up in this job on a total fluke. Back in the early 2000s, the Forest Service was trying to hire more people of color.

Pete Rosas

I remember it came out in The LA Times and it said, "Hiring 500 firefighters." It was, like, front page. And so, all my buddies came to me. I was the guy with the car. Like, hey, can you take us to this? Drop us off. You know we want to go. I ended up taking them. I ended up staying with them a couple hours in line. I put in an application. So I think a month and a half later, I get a call from the Stanislaus National Forrest offering me an apprenticeship. And the rest is history, I guess.

Lizzie Johnson

Little T is now majority Latino with a lot of first generation firefighters like Pete, kids of immigrants. Here's a typical day for the hotshots at camp. After that morning briefing, they load onto their buggies with backpacks crammed with chainsaw fuel, tools, and water. Their packs can weigh up to 50 pounds. They even carry their own stretcher because if one of them gets hurt, they're on their own. They then drive out on a narrow backcountry road, pull up alongside a mountain, and start hiking in the wilderness. It's a brutal 2.8 mile trek to their job site. No trail, no switchbacks, no signposts. They had to keep going back there for two weeks. Here's one of the rookies on Little T, Zach Hanson.

[(SUBJECT) ZACH HANSON: Every day, you're like, we're doing it again? Again, we got to go up there? And there is about a foot of ash the whole time on the ground and your foot sinking into the ground. And then, there's rocks under the ash. So your boots are getting torn up on these big boulders. But the ash is probably the biggest part because you're just constantly breathing in ash.

They're not issued protective breathing gear. And smoke exposure may be why cancer rates are higher among firefighters.

Zach Hanson

I mean, for me, when I got to the top, I was spitting black. And when you're pushing at a pace hard like that, I was breathing out of my mouth most of the time, which you try not to do, but I was doing it. And so, my teeth were black. Everything was black. The whole crew was coughing like they had smoked cigarettes their whole life. I think we accepted it at some point. This is our life now, so we'll just keep going up there.

Lizzie Johnson

Every single day, they had to return to the same area, a little patch of the Creek Fire about six miles long. The flames were threatening to blow out into a new part of the forest. The air was so smoky that planes couldn't get in to do regular water drops. So for most of their 16-hour workday, Little T revved up their chainsaws and sliced down burning trees.

Firefighter

No! Woo! Woo! Woo. Woop woop.

Lizzie Johnson

They cleared huge piles of brush and branches with their hands and scraped out a dirt path with what are essentially common gardening tools-- rakes, hoes, axes. This path can be up to 30 feet wide. The goal is to give the fire no place to go. Sometimes they literally fight fire with fire, torching trees and brush before the wildfire can get there. They have one of those jobs that's both monotonous and super dangerous.

All the while, they have to be on the lookout for falling trees, called snags. They're one of the ways that hotshots get killed in the fields. Little T ran into a lot of snags their first few days on the Creek Fire. Here's one of the guys on the crew, Frank Plasencia Jr.

Frank Plasencia

Your heart's pumping. Your adrenaline's pumping. You're scared, you're worried, you're nervous. We yell, "snag," or "tree," and we all have to bail out. And you can't control it. You could be just walking by a tree and just boop, and it falls. Big or small, they'll go.

Lizzie Johnson

When trees are falling, what does that sound like?

Frank Plasencia

It's a loud crack. It feels suspenseful because you don't know where it's coming because you're surrounded by trees. If it's a big tree, it's a big boom.

Pete Rosas

It shakes the ground. It'll shake the ground. And so, you feel that. Yeah, it's not a good feeling. It's definitely not a good feeling.

Lizzie Johnson

Again, here's Pete, who's been hotshotting for more than a decade.

Pete Rosas

There's been trees that have fallen right where I was standing, literally within seconds of me taking three steps. Like, fuck, that literally could have been it. OK, I got to clear my mind of this because I got the rest of the assignment or the rest of my career to think about, so I can't dwell on that. But fuck, man, that was close. That could have been it.

Lizzie Johnson

There's so many ways you can get hurt or die on a wildfire. Firefighters get cut by chainsaws, crushed by boulders, and into car wrecks on dirt roads. Little T was once in a fire where a plane accidentally dumped thousands of gallons of flame retardant on a firefighter from another crew, killing him.

And then, earlier this season, a squad boss like Pete died while fighting the El Dorado fire in Southern California. The flames burned over him. Afterward, another member of the crew who'd been upset about his death went missing. Suicide and PTSD have risen among wildland firefighters.

It feels like dumb luck that Pete hasn't seen a death on his own crew. He's in charge of a bunch of guys in their 20s. A lot of them are pretty new to this job. Pete can't stop worrying even when they're off the fire and get to go home. He says they've gotten injured and even died in car accidents, tired and in a rush to get home after a fire. I've heard a lot of firefighters talk about this is a problem. Pete says his wife Jen sometimes busts him for not being able to leave the guys back at work.

Pete Rosas

Sometimes I get this blank stare. And then we're sitting on the couch, right? I don't watch TV, but Jen was watching TV. And she'll look at me. And right away, her question always is, are you thinking about work? Are you thinking about the guys?

Lizzie Johnson

[INAUDIBLE] what are you thinking, wanting a romantic answer, and you're like, I'm thinking about Frank. [LAUGHS]

Pete Rosas

Yeah, honestly, that does happen, you know? What are they doing right now? Like, oh, I wonder if do they need help. I don't want them to get hurt. I want to get back really.

Lizzie Johnson

I'm curious. Because you spend so much time with these guys, does it ever feel easier to be more like a dad to them than to your own children, who you don't get to see very often?

Pete Rosas

Yeah, definitely. I mean, I don't know how to answer that other than, yeah, it is like that, unfortunately, I guess. Because I do see sometimes a difference in how I treat everybody in my family and how I treat these guys sometimes. More understanding and more patient. We're literally stuck with each other for seven, eight months out of the year. If the guys get in an argument or are not seeing eye to eye, you can't just walk away. You have to deal with it at the moment, or it could potentially cost us our lives.

With the family, you walk away. And you'll come back a day later or whatever it be. With us, you can't. So I'm aware that it might be unfair. I'm 100% aware of that.

Lizzie Johnson

Long fire seasons are now so consistent that there's a whole army of private contractors that chases these fires across California, too. It's a multimillion dollar industry. Their jobs are to make life a little easier for the people out on the fire line.

At the Creek Fire, most of these contractors are set up in the main parking lot of the ski resort, which is the equivalent of downtown here. There's hot showers, the sleep trailers-- they're highly sought after-- and an industrial kitchen that packs up these brown paper bag lunches called the 5,000 calorie meal. The mobile laundromat is in a white trailer in the back of the parking lot, hooked up to a water tank. It has 16 washers and dryers going all the time.

Jenn Wolf

Is this one dirty, too?

Firefighter

Oh, yeah, right.

Lizzie Johnson

Jenn Wolf is the person in charge of washing everyone's filthy laundry. She says Little T always texts her the second they get off the mountain, just so they can jump to the front of the line as soon as they roll back into camp.

Jenn Wolf

Put a little detergent in there. There we go.

Lizzie Johnson

How many loads of laundry do you do in a day?

Jenn Wolf

About 460. Yeah, could be more. We're either working or sleeping, basically. There's no real downtime.

Lizzie Johnson

Jenn wears blue latex gloves so she doesn't pick up poison oak.

Lizzie Johnson

Does it smell really bad when it comes in?

Jenn Wolf

It can. Some of these teams, what's called a spike out--

Lizzie Johnson

Spiking out means camping out in a remote spot near the fire line.

Jenn Wolf

And they spike out there for sometimes two weeks. And there's no laundry service, no shower. And yeah, their socks can stand on their own sometimes. [LAUGHS]

Lizzie Johnson

One of the guys who works for her was a lot less diplomatic.

Man

So if you go to this grocery store, you buy 12 eggs, you boil them, and now you leave them out for a month, that's what some of these clothes smell like.

Lizzie Johnson

The only snafu Jenn had here at camp was a sock mix-up. She accidentally put one firefighter's expensive wool socks in another guy's bags.

Jenn Wolf

And [LAUGHS] we were able to unite the socks first. Sorry.

Lizzie Johnson

Why is that so funny?

Jenn Wolf

It just is. [LAUGHS] Well, he was upset about his socks. But we got them back to him, so all is good.

Lizzie Johnson

How long did the sock saga last?

Jenn Wolf

Um, I think a couple of days. So yeah, it was very high stress. It's socks, but you know what? I'm telling you, that is the comforts. They were his socks. He wanted them back.

Lizzie Johnson

The Creek is the fourth fire camp Jenn has worked at this year. She says the smoke in each of them smells really different. Here, it's like a campfire from all the smoldering pine trees. But in more populated areas where buildings and houses burn, the smoke smells synthetic and greasy. It stings your lungs. That reminded me of the fires I saw in wine country in 2017. More than 5,000 houses and buildings burned down. The smoke smelled awful because you were breathing in people's lives.

Kaylee Ralls has one of the most important jobs in the camp. She works in a trailer, printing the maps and action plans for all the teams. The printers run 24 hours a day, and Kaylee is the only person on her 12-hour shift, so she can't leave the trailer. People are constantly running in and out. They never have time to chat, which means that this person who everyone relies on is the loneliest person I met at camp.

The most exciting drama that had happened the week I was there was a black bear busting into a giant grease spot from the kitchen. The cook told me the bear had chugged about 100 gallons of grease. But as usual, that news hadn't reached Kaylee yet.

Lizzie Johnson

Have you seen the bear?

Kaylee Ralls

The bear?

Lizzie Johnson

It's been eating the bacon grease.

Kaylee Ralls

No way! I never even heard of this! I'm like in the dark over here. I'm not even kidding. No one tells me anything. Any time I get any juicy info, I'm like, no way. No one talks to me. I'm all alone over here.

Lizzie Johnson

Kaylee says the only time she leaves her trailer, called Firedog, is to go out to the porta potty. She's so isolated that she hasn't even figured out how to read the map she's printing. They're typographic and color-coded to show where the fire's the hottest, with symbols for all the different teams. At this point, the outline of the fire perimeter kind of looks like a Sasquatch with its front leg kicked out.

Kaylee's 20. She wears a hoodie and has perfect makeup. She recently broke up with her long time boyfriends. But she explained to one of my producers, Lilly Sullivan, that there's a rule at camp.

Kaylee Ralls

So basically, you can't be macking on these boys and doing that. That's our policy.

Lilly Sullivan

It's an actual policy.

Kaylee Ralls

It's an actual policy. We sign it. We have to keep it professional.

Lilly Sullivan

Yeah, you have a job to do.

Kaylee Ralls

Yep, exactly. We have a job to do. But yeah, the view is great, you know? Not necessarily here, but. [LAUGHS] Every fire is different.

Lilly Sullivan

You don't think there are other cute people here?

Kaylee Ralls

Mm, I'm trying to think. No. Fed fires usually don't have cute people. Tend to be older and yeah.

Lizzie Johnson

Fed fires-- meaning fire camps run by the US Forest Service. But camps run by the state's agency, CAL FIRE?

Kaylee Ralls

CAL FIRES-- that's where it's at. That's where it's at. CAL FIRES have cute boys. Say I get a call, and he says, I'm sending you here, it's going to be a CAL FIRE. I'm like sweet. Every girl on our team would be like, awesome.

Lilly Sullivan

Because what's the difference?

Kaylee Ralls

The CAL FIRE, I don't know what it is, but there's always younger-- and even when they're not. I don't know if it's because they have nice uniforms, and they have to be really clean-like. It's nicer all around. Not only because there's cute boys, but because you get better food. It's like, if you're going to stay at this five star hotel compared to this three star type thing. So CAL FIRE is the five star hotel. Fed fire's like three.

Lizzie Johnson

Kaylee doesn't actually sleep at the camp. Her company rented her a cabin about 30 minutes away. But it's the worst part of the job. It's creepy, she says. The curtains on her bedroom windows are see-through.

Lilly Sullivan

Did you get some sleep last night? [INAUDIBLE]

Kaylee Ralls

Yeah, I was on FaceTime with my mom all night.

Lilly Sullivan

All night?

Kaylee Ralls

We set it up, and then we go to bed. [LAUGHS]

Lilly Sullivan

Wait, so you put your mom on FaceTime, and you guys go to bed. You sleep like that?

Kaylee Ralls

Yeah. We're usually not in creepy places, but this just happened to be creepy. When I get back to the cabin, I FaceTime her, and we'll talk all night. And then I'm like, OK, let's set up our phones. And she's like, OK. So we literally fall asleep. If I open my eyes, I can look at my phone and see her. And I just wake up all throughout the night and look to see if she's still there.

Lilly Sullivan

Does she sleep with the light on so that you can see her?

Kaylee Ralls

No, I sleep with the light on. And [LAUGHS] so she can see me because I feel like there's something there. And then my alarm goes off in the morning. She's like, Kaylee, wake up. Yeah.

Lilly Sullivan

Kaylee is thinking about moving out of her cabin and into a tent at the camp, just so she doesn't have to feel so alone.

It can be weirdly easy to work on these wildfires and not think about the big picture at all. This year was a turning point. The combination of climate change, drought, dead and diseased trees and more housing built in high risk places. California saw six of the state's biggest fires in modern history. For the first time, firefighters began using the term giga fire to describe a million acres burning.

We still approach wildfires with a very manifest destiny type of attitude, believing that with enough people and grit, there's no fire we can't conquer. But we've spent four months and almost $200 million on the Creek Fire, and it's still not out. The Creek Fire destroyed 850 homes and businesses. Most of them were in little mountain towns, where nothing will be ever totally normal again, not even the ground. After a big fire, the dirt is toxic from melted insulation and all the other synthetic stuff inside a home when it burns down. And with the forest gutted, you can suddenly see for miles.

I talked to a bulldozer operator named Dean Mullis, who goes by Woody. He got a glimpse of this and was still thinking about it a few weeks after he'd gone home. On his very first shift on the Creek Fire, he was sent out to protect a neighborhood the fire hadn't reached yet. It was on Cressman Road. He'd never been here before.

Woody

All of a sudden, there's just fire. You don't exactly know where to go.

Lizzie Johnson

So he started pushing away anything that might cause the houses to catch fire.

Woody

I was basically in the bulldozer pushing cars that were on fire, playground sets, decks, like wooden decks, off the back of a house, brush, trees, kicking that fuel away from those houses.

Lizzie Johnson

He worked through the night. But most of the homes didn't survive.

Woody

And we'd drive through there, and we'd go, man, why did that one survive and the other one didn't? I don't know.

Lizzie Johnson

Woody is a dozer operator for the state's CAL FIRE agency. Unlike hotshot crews, he spends most of his time alone, moving huge piles of dirt in his dozer, scraping fuel breaks to get ahead of the flames. He jokes that the stereotype of a bulldozer operator is someone who's kind of salty and will push back against orders they don't agree with.

Woody's bald with piercing blue eyes. He says he hates what the big fire camps like the one at the Creek have become. Once upon a time, when Woody first started, the fire camp was just a few boots in a lot where you went to pick up your paycheck or radio.

Lizzie Johnson

You know, it's been a really long fire season. How are you feeling at this point?

Woody

I'm not going to-- I don't like it. I don't like it. I mean, it's too much. It's just devastation. You see all the comments on social media, the new norm in California. It sucks. I don't want to be running the bulldozer in December in Southern California, protecting structures. I mean, I will. It's my job. Of course, I will.

But I care for people a lot. And I don't enjoy seeing houses burn. Nobody wants to do that. People want to go to their-- it's the holidays. You're supposed to be staring at Ralphie from A Christmas Story, not staring at a wildfire.

Lizzie Johnson

I first met Woody in 2018 at another California fire, the Ferguson. It happened north of here. That year, at least six firefighters died. Two of them were dozer operators and included Woody's best friend from childhood. His name is Braden Varney, and he is the one who got Woody into firefighting.

Woody

It was dark. It was extremely steep. And his bulldozer slid off the side of a road, and he perished when it slid. It tumbled down the mountain.

Lizzie Johnson

It took two days for firefighters to retrieve Braden's body. They draped an American flag over his remains and carried him out of the canyon. Now Woody has Braden's job at their local fire station in Mariposa. He sees himself as part of the lineage of dozer operators, one that started with Braden's dad, who held the spot until he died of cancer from the job.

Woody

Braden and I always wanted to be partners on the bulldozers. Braden will always be on my mind. Braden will always be with me on the fire lines in the morning, drinking coffee out of a plastic water bottle that's been cut in half out of a homemade coffee pot.

Lizzie Johnson

Do you ever think about how much longer you can or want to do this job for? Are you counting down the days until retirement?

Woody

Haha, I'm not one of those guys yet. I still have 19 years left.

Lizzie Johnson

You have 19 years left?

Woody

Yeah, so I started late, so. No, no, no, no. I have 18 years left.

Lizzie Johnson

Eight? That's still a lot of years.

Woody

Well, the retirement formula changed. You used to retire at 50. Now they retire us at 57.

Lizzie Johnson

Do you think you can make it until you're 57?

Woody

I mean, if you look at a billboard, statistic billboard, if I don't catch cancer, I'm doing pretty good.

Lizzie Johnson

Woody, 18 years. Can you imagine what the fire season will be like in 18 years?

Woody

I don't think anything will be left. [LAUGHS]

Lizzie Johnson

It very well might be that way.

Woody

I don't know. I mean, that brush grows back.

Lizzie Johnson

Yeah.

Woody

So I don't know. It's a crazy job sometimes.

Lizzie Johnson

Hey, guys.

Firefighter

Hey, what's going on?

Lizzie Johnson

I met up with the Little T hotshots again on their very last night at camp. They were about to get to go home for two days. They stood out from the rest of the scraggly and bearded dirty men in the parking lot. Everyone on Little T was showered, clean shaven. It's a crew tradition. In one of the buggies, the guys were watching a Dodgers game on a little TV.

They looked relaxed and happy, even though they just heard the fire season might get extended another two months into January. That's something that would have been hard to imagine a few years ago. Again, here's Zach and Frank. Like a lot of the crew, they're contractors who get laid off at the end of the season.

Lizzie Johnson

What do you think about the season possibly going all the way until January?

Zach Hanson

It's so exciting. We were all excited.

Firefighter 1

We were all happy.

Zach Hanson

Yeah. It was funny. When they asked, everybody on this crew's hand shot up.

Lizzie Johnson

How do you just keep going, on and on and on?

Frank Plasencia

Each other. Honestly, each other. Like, the synergy, the family dynamics.

Lizzie Johnson

You guys are all positive attitudes.

Firefighter 2

That's mandatory.

Zach Hanson

That's mandatory. You cannot have a negative attitude and get away with it here.

Firefighter 3

I would say this job's probably impossible if you don't have a good attitude.

Lizzie Johnson

But when you're having a really bad day, what do you tell yourself?

Zach Hanson

No bad days. It sounds so weird. And I totally get why it sounds weird, but that's a big thing that we have, is like, no bad days. On the worst day, it's not that bad.

Firefighter 4

It can always be worse.

Firefighter 5

We always say, is like, it can always be worse. It could be hotter. It could be a lot--

Zach Hanson

Steeper.

Firefighter 5

--colder. It could be way steeper.

Lizzie Johnson

The truth is, a lot of people don't last more than a few years at this job. The adrenaline high eventually wears off, and they move on to other jobs, jobs that are easier on their families. One of the hardest parts of hotshotting is just how much they're on the road. More of their life is spent out at fires than at home.

This season, Little T has been on back-to-back assignments since June. Nevada, Utah, Arizona, all up and down California. The way their assignments work is they go out for 14 or 21 days at a time, then only get two days off before shipping out again. With all the overtime, it's good money. One of the chainsaw guys on the crew said he'd make 70,000 after taxes. So some of them don't really work during the off season.

While they're out fighting fires, life goes on without them. They're reminded of this in a very literal way. They often go without cell service for days. And then the second they get back in range, they're bombarded by everything they've missed. Joel Gonzales is one of the captains on Little T.

Joel Gonzales

Some guys, over 100 messages a day.

Lizzie Johnson

You're thinking of something. You're thinking about an example.

Joel Gonzales

I'm thinking of someone who's in the truck right now.

[LAUGHTER]

Lizzie Johnson

What's the situation?

Joel Gonzales

This is a busy year for us. And she doesn't understand that one of my guys, he just can't be on his phone all the time, you know? And then, when he does get service, he finds out how many times she's been messaging him, so.

Lizzie Johnson

But it's like how many?

Joel Gonzales

On the low end, maybe in the 20s. In the high end, maybe over 100.

Lizzie Johnson

She's just like, call me. Call me. Where are you? What the fuck? What's going on? You think he'll talk to me about it?

Joel Gonzales

No. [LAUGHS] He won't. I won't throw him under the bus.

Pete Rosas

I get a lot, Pete, how come women don't understand what we do? Why doesn't she get it?

Lizzie Johnson

Again, here's Pete, the squad boss who gets tripped out by the crew. He says they're constantly asking him for relationship advice. He keeps it pretty simple. Sit down and talk. Put yourself in her shoes. But the problem is, they never actually have time to use it.

Pete Rosas

I could be telling them that today, this morning. But then he never makes it home to be able to do that. And now, it just turns into worse and worse and worse. And unfortunately, it doesn't work. It's really hard to understand or even sometimes believe that you're gone so long or believe that you're on a fire. Or why didn't you have service? Why didn't you have service? I just talked to you a minute ago. Well, yeah, I know, I was hiking, and I had service for one second, and now it's gone. And now they don't hear from you again for three, four days. You can't explain that.

Lizzie Johnson

There have already been a couple break ups this season. Pete says his first marriage ended in divorce because he was gone so much. Unlike the seasonal guys, he's year round. He was on a fire when his son was born and this season, missed his daughter's birthday. Pete often scrolls through photos of them on his cell phone.

Pete Rosas

Get a picture of my boy.

Lizzie Johnson

He showed me one of his son, now 11, competing at a swim meet.

Lizzie Johnson

Was that cool getting to be at his meet?

Pete Rosas

Oh, yeah. Well, I didn't make it to this one. This is a picture they sent me, but I've been to some of his meets. Not too many, but yeah, it's fun. It's definitely fun watching him.

Lizzie Johnson

Are they always very forgiving of you being gone, not being there for the big things in their life?

Pete Rosas

I like to say yeah, because I think they don't know any different. They think it's the norm. It's like, oh, Dad's always gone working. I think--

Man

Good morning, Peter.

Pete Rosas

Thank you.

Lizzie Johnson

One of the guys from his crew stopped by his truck. This happened all the time while I was talking to him.

Pete Rosas

OK, I'm sorry. So they brought me my breakfast. They brought me my lunch. It's like the first thing on their plate. OK, we got to take care of Pete, and then we'll do our thing. It becomes to where you become very catered to. Well, this is not normal. In real life, it's not like that. I mean, your kids are going to talk back. Your wife is going to want different things. It's going to be a different type of reaction. And somebody has been doing this so long, somebody like myself and a lot of these other guys. You don't want to deal with that because it's a lot easier here. It's a lot easier.

Lizzie Johnson

Pete's the perfect worker for these long fire seasons. He loves his job. And when I asked him if the relentlessness ever gets to him, he told me no. The more fire, the better. The more I work, the more I don't have to think about real life.

Ira Glass

Lizzie Johnson at The San Francisco Chronicle. She's got a book about the Paradise Fire that's coming out that you can preorder online. The Creek Fire, after burning for nearly four months, is right now about 96% contained. Crews expect to get it to 100% at the end of this month or the start of the year. One of the hotshots from Little T, Matthew Jacquez, just came out with an album this month, under the name Unholy Smokes. This song is about constantly being on the road.

Matthew Hakis

(SINGING) The great, big, galloping road grows between us now [INAUDIBLE]. We meet again some other day. Here I go again, wondering, my friend.

Ira Glass

Coming up, a scientist who's out snowboarding gets a call to come save the world. We move from hotshots to cold shots in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: The Other Extinguishers

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Boulder v Hill-- stories of people trying to save the world by teaming up together and getting in there every day, doing the same things over and over, like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the slope again and again until the job gets done. We have arrived at Act Two of our program. In this act, we move from people who are saving us from something very large to people saving us from something tiny.

Act Two, The Other Extinguishers. So, the people in this act have been working at a task, some of them for years, and this has been in the news in just the last few weeks. They have actually succeeded. It looks like they got their boulder up to the top of the hill. David Kestenbaum spoke with four scientists who have been working on a coronavirus vaccine, one of the ones that was just shown to be effective. David was a scientist in his early career. He worked at Fermilab. And from the coverage, he could not understand what exactly they had done in any detail. And he wanted to know that and who these people were and, especially, how does it feel to have helped make a thing that could save so many lives, fix the global economy, get life back to normal again for everybody. Here's David.

David Kestenbaum

I'm going to tell you of the story of some of the people who made this one tiny thing. It's a key thing that's in at least five of the vaccines that are being tested. If you get the vaccine shot in the coming months, this thing will probably be injected into your body, and it could save your life. And the story of all this, you could start at all sorts of places. I'm going to begin here, in China.

Nianshuang Wang

I'm from a very small village around the east coast. It's Shandong province. And both my parents are farmers.

David Kestenbaum

This is Nianshuang Wang. His way into science was playing outside and noticing bugs and locusts, scorpions, just got him curious about stuff.

Nianshuang Wang

Yeah, why we can think, why we need to eat food. Yeah, I'm curious about all those.

David Kestenbaum

It's funny. For me, it was when I was in 10th grade, I think. I learned about Newton's equation for gravity, and I learned that that explained both the orbits of the planets and also what happened when you dropped a ball. And I was like, I'm in. That's amazing. There's an equation that describes both of those perfectly. It was the rules behind the thing. It was the same thing.

Nianshuang Wang

Yeah, those are really beautiful stuff. Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

When I first emailed Nianshuang, he was super excited to talk. He said no one had really interviewed him about all that he had done. Nianshuang got himself a scholarship to one of the top universities. And the thing he found himself gravitating toward is this field called structural biology, which I think favors a particular kind of person. You're basically trying to figure out what molecules look like, where all the atoms are, so you can tell how something works, or if it's a virus, how to fight it.

And the thing is, people work for years trying to figure out the structure of one tiny molecule. The traditional way of doing it is that you get a bunch of those molecules and try to get them to lay out in a neat, repeating pattern. Then you hit them with these powerful X-rays, which give you just this pattern of dots. Then you have to apply these mathematical algorithms. And sometimes, it's just not solvable. It really is like pushing a boulder to the top of a hill. It rolls down over and over.

Nianshuang was good at it, though. For his thesis, he worked out the structure of part of a coronavirus. Not this coronavirus-- this was years ago. It was a coronavirus that was making the news back then, the MERS coronavirus, because it caused Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. After that, he needed a job, so he reached out to a guy who was also looking into MERS, Jason McClellan at Dartmouth.

David Kestenbaum

How would your friends describe you?

Jason Mclellan

Wow. I have no idea. Fun? Good to hang out with? Likes having a beer or two?

David Kestenbaum

Guy who's going to save the world?

Jason Mclellan

I don't think that was on anyone's radar.

David Kestenbaum

Nianshuang came over to the States to work with Jason and his team. This was 2014, six years before the pandemic. They wanted to make a vaccine for MERS. And one of the things they were trying to figure out back then that would end up being key for the vaccine we have today was, how to manufacture copies of the tiny spikes that were all over the surface of the MERS coronavirus.

The spikes are why they're called the coronaviruses. The viruses have a corona, a wreath of these little spikes sticking out all over it. The spike is the part that sticks to your cells when it gets in your body, lets the virus break into your cells and start replicating. It's the scary part of the thing in a way. If they could make just the spikes without a deadly virus attached to them, maybe they could train your immune system to recognize the virus and fight it. But it turned out to be damn hard to make the spikes in the lab. Basically, you stick the genetic code for the spike into some cells.

David Kestenbaum

What are the cells?

Jason Mclellan

We used two, either CHO cells, Chinese Hamster Ovary cells, or HEK293 cells.

David Kestenbaum

Which are what?

Jason Mclellan

The Human Embryonic Kidney cells.

David Kestenbaum

I see.

I don't know why I wanted to know all this, except that this is the kind of knowledge that is going to save our asses. The problem was when they got the genetic code for the spikes into those cells, they did start spitting out spikes. But the cells weren't making a lot of them. And the spikes on their own were unstable. They kept changing into the wrong shape. Nianshuang spent a long time trying to stabilize them. Add something, tweak the genetic code. Try again, again. There's a tedium to it. Each try takes a while.

Nianshuang Wang

Around two or three weeks.

David Kestenbaum

Two or three weeks. So you would start it, like, March 1st. By the third week in March, you'd be done with that test, and most of the time, it fails.

Nianshuang Wang

Yes.

David Kestenbaum

And then you start again, and then you don't know for another three weeks if that new thing works.

Nianshuang Wang

Yes, yes. But we can do 10 at the same time as even more, 20.

David Kestenbaum

Oh, so you do 20 of them at the same time.

Nianshuang Wang

Oh, yeah. We did a lot, actually.

David Kestenbaum

And every time you tried this, in your mind, are you like, oh, this time, it's going to work?

Nianshuang Wang

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

[LAUGHS]

Nianshuang Wang

I was very confident sometimes. I said, it's going to work. If it won't work, I will drop this project. Then, usually I got disappointed.

David Kestenbaum

It's funny that you're so optimistic because most of the time, it fails, right? It just keeps failing and failing.

Nianshuang Wang

Yeah. that's kind of the life as a beginning.

David Kestenbaum

This kind of lab work, it's kind of like cooking, but for the fussiest restaurant ever. Lots of little, precise steps. You mix the stuff up in a flask, set it on this little platform which gently swirls the stuff in it, keep the whole thing at 37 degrees Celsius, leave it overnight. So you're constantly having to be at the lab at a certain time to do the next step. His wife told him, "You always say it'll be five minutes, but it's hours."

They tried so many different things, scouring the scientific literature for different ideas, modifying them. The thing that finally worked was changing the genetic code for the spike so it would swap into prolene amino acids. They helped hold the spike in its spike form, kept it from changing shape. Also, the cells were spitting out way more spikes-- 50 times more.

Jason Mclellan

The day it worked was really exciting because Nianshuang, who'd been doing all of this work, it's a lot of trial and error. You're basically just failing until it works. And finally, he got one. We're like, wow, that looks fantastic. We knew we had something then.

David Kestenbaum

When they vaccinated mice, gave them a shot containing these MERS coronavirus spikes, the mice's little immune systems developed antibodies-- lots of them. It looked really promising, like you might be able to make a really good vaccine against the MERS coronavirus. This was basically the road map for the vaccine we were all going to need when the pandemic started. But the major scientific journals were not interested in publishing it.

Nianshuang Wang

We totally tried six different journals, and it was rejected five times.

David Kestenbaum

Wow, that's kind of amazing looking back now.

Nianshuang Wang

Yeah, if we look back, yeah. Yeah, I was getting sad after three rejections, four rejections, five rejections. Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

He told me he fell into a real depression. No one seemed to see the value of their work. He saw a therapist, who pointed out all he had accomplished and suggested that he might feel proud instead of sad. It didn't really help. This was 2017. The pandemic was three years away. The fact that they had trouble getting it published, to me, it doesn't mean the scientific journal editors are idiots. Back then, most people thought the next pandemic was going to be some new form of influenza, not a coronavirus, which, of course, is the argument for funding lots of basic research. Sometimes you don't know what thing is going to be important.

When the current pandemic began, Jason McLellan had moved his lab from Dartmouth to the University of Texas at Austin. Nianshuang had gone with him. Jason told me one day in January, January 6th, he was in Utah snowboarding, and he got a call from the deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health, Barney Graham. Graham had been working with him on all the MERS coronavirus stuff, and he was calling about some pneumonia-like illness in Wuhan, China. The local health authority was reporting 41 cases.

Jason Mclellan

He let me know he was talking with the US CDC, and they wanted to quickly make a vaccine candidate. And it looked like it was a beta coronavirus. And he wanted to know, are we game? Are we going to-- can we help out try to rapidly determine the structure of the spike and get the vaccine made? And--

David Kestenbaum

You said, I'm busy, I'm snowboarding.

Jason Mclellan

Yeah, I was actually-- I was getting some boots heat molded, so I had 10 minutes to talk to him while they were heat molding to my feet. But I immediately WhatsApped my grad student, Daniel Rapp, and told him, we're going to race. We got to move quickly on this. Let's get prepared.

David Kestenbaum

It's worth pointing out, they were running full steam at this in January. This is before Wuhan went into lockdown, before that giant hospital got built. The whole thing was barely in the news. And life here, it was totally normal. So they were all going to the office to work frantically on this thing, while, all around them, people are going to restaurants and church. Kids are in school.

The thing they were going to try to help make is called an mRNA vaccine. Instead of giving people shots filled with coronavirus spikes, you inject people with the genetic code for making the spikes. The code is wrapped in this little package. And once it gets injected into your body, it goes into your cells. And then your cells start making the spikes-- loads of them, which, on their own, are harmless. But your immune system sees these foreign things and learns to fight it, which should hopefully protect you if the real virus comes along.

This is the genius of vaccines. We're not that good at making drugs against viruses. But you know what's really good at fighting them? Our immune system. If you can just show it the right piece of the virus, it often figures out how to fight it off. It's like the answer we all have inside us.

The big thing they had to work out for the vaccine was what part of the genetic sequence for the coronavirus were they going to stick in the vaccine to make the spikes. And how were they going to alter that code so that when the spike was created, it would be stable and not twist around? Five days after Jason got that phone call, Chinese researchers posted the genetic code for the new coronavirus online so teams around the world could look at it. Jason and the others started going through it right away.

David Kestenbaum

So how long did it take? So you get the sequence, and how long until you're like, this is the thing we want in the vaccine?

Jason Mclellan

Oh, an hour maybe.

David Kestenbaum

Really?

Jason Mclellan

It was probably within 10 minutes. I mean, as soon as you did the sequence alignment, you just put them in. Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

That's because the spike on this coronavirus that would cause the pandemic, it was very, very similar to the one on the MERS coronavirus, the one they had been studying.

David Kestenbaum

It's often noted that these vaccines came together really quickly.

But it seems like the reason they came together really quickly is because of all this work that went on for years before.

Jason Mclellan

Yeah, I think that's right. And yeah, it definitely is. Just--

David Kestenbaum

It's not like it just happened in 30 days. It happened in 10 years.

Jason Mclellan

Yeah, I saw a nice graphic online showing that if SARS-COV-2 had emerged 10 years ago, we'd be nowhere this far along to having a vaccine.

David Kestenbaum

They sent the genetic sequence off to a company that they've been communicating with for a while called Moderna. Moderna, like a bunch of other scientists and other companies, have been working for years on how to even make an mRNA vaccine, which is a whole other story. Anyway, a few weeks later, they had one ready for testing.

Kizzmekia Corbett

I mean, this is the first vaccine to potentially be tested in humans for what was then a burgeoning pandemic.

David Kestenbaum

This is Kizzmekia Corbett, a viral immunologist at the NIH, who'd been working with Jason and Nianshuang and everyone else. She was there when the package arrived from Moderna. And just a note about Kizzmekia, she told me that she was one of those kids who won all the science fairs, couldn't leave a math problem unsolved. And also, when the Nobel prizes were announced, she would write the speeches she would imagine they would deliver and read them out loud, pretending to deliver them in a very dramatic way with tears, as if they were the Oscars or something. Anyway, she was the one who went to get the box of the first vaccines when they arrived.

Kizzmekia Corbett

It came, and I-- this is the first time anything came from Moderna where I had to show my ID. And I remember the loading dock people couldn't even bring the box up to me. I had to meet the driver downstairs. I don't even think it came on a plane. I actually think that they had it driven from Boston to Bethesda.

David Kestenbaum

When you got that box, what did you think?

Kizzmekia Corbett

I remember asking the guy at the loading dock to take a picture. And he was like, I can't. [LAUGHS] Can you take a pic I was like, can you take a picture of me with this box? And he's like, oh, no, I can't do that.

David Kestenbaum

Because he was too busy?

Kizzmekia Corbett

No, I mean, that's because it's not his job. [LAUGHS] And I'm just this nerdy scientist about to vaccinate some 250 mice with a vaccine. I mean, and neither of us really understood the gravity.

David Kestenbaum

This was in February. Kizzmekia remembers at some point going to see her family, sitting down on her mom's bed, and kind of briefing everyone. "I think things might really change soon. I think the virus is about to be a big problem." I talked to all the researchers about what it was like in this period, making and testing a vaccine they hoped would work, but not knowing. Meanwhile, more and more of the world was shutting down, more people getting sick and dying. Kizzmekia told me she used to look at the daily numbers for the world and then had to stop. It wasn't healthy.

Barney Graham is Kizzmekia's boss. He is the deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the NIH and the guy who called Jason while he was snowboarding. He'd worked with them on all of this stuff, the most senior member of the group. It weighed on him, though he didn't always recognize it. He says he's not always in touch with his feelings. We talked in the evening, and he was at home where he had been for months. Sitting in front of a bookcase, a little bust of Benjamin Franklin on it, he seemed tired. Making the vaccine took so many steps, so many decisions.

Barney Graham

Most of the time, you just grind through the day and try to make the best decisions you can, and keep everybody moving. And there's also a sequence. Things have to happen in a certain order, or you get blocked. And so, just keeping things moving takes up most of my attention most of the time. Maybe my wife could say something.

David Kestenbaum

And then, his wife, who was in the room while we were talking-- her name is Cynthia-- jumped in.

Cynthia Graham

Well, I--

David Kestenbaum

She's a psychiatrist and, at a couple of points, had been chiming in a very sweet way to sort of explain her husband's calm exterior. She said, you're forgetting the story, which she started to tell.

Cynthia Graham

He came out of his office, and he was clearly distracted and upset. And of course, if you want to know what's going on with Barney, you have to ask him. And you have to not let him off the hook until he tells you. And so, I continue to just probe. And he said, what if I selected the wrong sequence?

Barney Graham

'Cause we had selected a sequence--

Cynthia Graham

Right.

Barney Graham

--initially, but the question was--

Cynthia Graham

Was it the right one?

Barney Graham

Usually, we spend months or even years experimenting to decide this is the best one to use.

Cynthia Graham

He was worried about the time that would be wasted in the development of the vaccine itself and how many people would die, how many children would be left without parents, how many old people would not get to see their grandchildren grow up. I mean, he was just thinking about all of the terrible consequences if this had been the wrong choice.

Barney Graham

It's just, like I said, I tend to be a little obsessive. And you just can't get certain ideas or thought patterns out of your head until you find the resolution.

David Kestenbaum

Clinical trials began on March 16, which is pretty incredible. This is right around the time when businesses were just deciding it would be safer to work from home. Shots were eventually given to tens of thousands of people. And then the wait began to see if it worked.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus kept spreading in the US, or, as the president called it, the "kung-flu" and the "China virus." Here's Nianshuang.

Nianshuang Wang

I'm from China. I do have some feeling that yeah, the president should not say that to my home country. I'm pretty angry by that. I think that it makes no sense.

David Kestenbaum

It was offensive, but it also just struck him as dumb. There were so many things the president needed to be doing to tame the pandemic. Why was he wasting his time with this? And then-- maybe you remember this-- there was a story in the news back then about how the FBI was looking into whether Chinese spies working through the consulate in Houston had tried to steal vaccine research. The FBI was going to be questioning people at the University of Texas. One story included Nianshuang's name as someone who worked there from China. Friends told him to get a lawyer. He says he and his wife looked into whether they could leave the country if they needed to. In the end, no one came to question him, but it was unnerving.

The moment when all these researchers learned that their vaccine was going to work was a few weeks ago when Pfizer announced that its vaccine was more than 90% effective. Pfizer had started its phase three clinical trials on the same day as them, but Pfizer got its results first. Pfizer had used in its vaccine the thing this team had come up with, the coronavirus spike stabilized the way they had figured out. Pfizer had licensed it from them. So if the Pfizer vaccine worked, they figured theirs would, too. Barney Graham got a call before the results went public.

Barney Graham

I've been right here in my office for 10 months. So I was in my office. And it was in the evening, late evening. And apparently, their data and safety monitoring board had met earlier in the day. And they were going to put out a press release the next day on Monday. And I got off the phone. I went over and sheepishly told my wife and my son, who was visiting at the time, that it looks like it's going to work.

And that just kind of released a lot of emotion I think that I've been holding back for the last 10 months. And so, I retreated back into my office and just kind of let all that out for a few minutes. And they all came in and consoled me. But that moment kind of caught me by surprise that there was so much in there to come out.

David Kestenbaum

The whole family was in tears.

Barney Graham

It's just a relief to know that you've gotten to that point. Because in vaccine development, there is 1,000 choices to make, 1,000 decisions, and 1,000 ways to fail. And most of these kind of development projects don't turn out. And to get through all the way to get an answer that said it worked and even worked better than you expected, that was quite a moment.

Kizzmekia Corbett

Yeah, I wasn't expecting to be emotional at all. I for sure wasn't expecting to be crying happy tears for Pfizer, that's for sure. [LAUGHS]

David Kestenbaum

What kind of a cry was it? There are lots of different kinds of cries.

Kizzmekia Corbett

OK, so if my family or if my siblings or my friends are listening to this, first of all, they're like, OK, yeah, right, you haven't cried this entire year. You cry all the time. So I'm a huge cry baby, and my cries are ugly. It was the cry you might expect to have if you won the lottery.

I don't even know if my family even today understands what just happened with me over the last year. If I were to call them about 90% efficacy results, they'd be like, OK, what is that? I actually still haven't communicated with my family about the efficacy results at all. I talk to them all the time. I just talked to my dad this morning about fixing a dishwasher in my rental property, so I talk to them all the time. But I don't know.

Nianshuang Wang

Yeah, it feels, oh, God, it's actually working now. So it's really going to save a lot of people. So I think I'm proud of it. And it's great.

David Kestenbaum

That little thing you made might fix the global economy. It could save millions of lives. It could help everything get back to normal, that little thing.

Nianshuang Wang

Yeah, that's what I hope. Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

What do your parents say?

Nianshuang Wang

My parents, actually, they don't know what I was doing. They just know, oh, you developed a vaccine. That's great. [LAUGHS] That's their thinking. They don't know how much contribution I did. Yeah, actually, they-- yeah, my mom got stroke several years ago. She may never know what I'm doing now, so.

David Kestenbaum

I'm sorry about your mom.

Nianshuang Wang

Yeah, I'm a little sad about that. But they had encouraged a lot in the past, yeah. I will always remember those things, yeah.

David Kestenbaum

It can be hard, I think, when you're in deep with something complicated to explain that thing to someone on the outside, particularly with science. There's this version that often makes it out into the world of a single person having a clear, dramatic breakthrough-- Jonas Salk with the polio vaccine. The Nobel Prize is always given to one or a few people. But a lot of science isn't like that. I think most of it isn't.

When I asked Jason McClellan, the other scientist in this story, about his contribution to this, he started listing names, all the people whose work went before or whose ideas they adapted. Kizzmekia, when she gives talks, her last slides are just lists of names. It's never just one person pushing the rock up a hill.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum is senior editor of our show. The NIH Moderna vaccine protected 94% of the people who got it in clinical trial. It was just this week approved for emergency use. The government has arranged to purchase 200 million doses.

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Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Lilly Sullivan. The people who put our show together today include Dana Chivvis, Aviva DeKornfeld, Noor Gill, Hilary Elkins, Damien Graves, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor, Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Derek Lowe, Daniel Patterson, Pedro Marron, Adan Luna, Chuck Ramirez, Ryan Mendoza, Jenn Rosas, JB Bunton, Thea Phimmasy, Miguel Diaz, Gilbert Mendoza, Francisco Murillo, Forrest Lamp, John Clearwater, and Christina Crawford. Our website where we set up a special page to note our show's 25th year on the air with a list of favorite shows from over the years and have written little blurbs explaining why each of the shows made the list, plus award-winning shows and spinoff shows, that's thisamericanlife.org/25years. Again, thisamericanlife.org/25years.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's confounder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, we were arguing over the greatest daytime TV talk shows of all time. I personally have always been a fan of Oprah. Torey disagreed.

Kaylee Ralls

The View is great, you know?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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