Thirty Years, Part Four

Work-influenced watercolor from the late 80s

Forestry technicians who have been around a long time sometimes tell stories. Everybody has the story of their first fire.

Mine was in 1982, in Idaho. Picture this: Saturday evening. It’s hot. Just about everybody in the tiny town of Avery is in the pub. Forest Service seasonals from all over the country are rubbing shoulders with the loggers. The jukebox is thumping, people are playing pool, drinking beer, laughing and talking. The phone rings. It’s a fire call–an arsonist started a fire behind the high school in St. Maries, and maybe was heading up the St. Joe River. Everybody should be ready to go. Some of us drifted back up the hill to the bunkhouse. Filled some canteens, made sure the boots were ready to step into and lace up.

Later, the word got around. Twenty of us would head down to St. Maries early in the morning to relieve the initial attack crew that was staying out all night. OK, time for some sleep…except for the people in the room above who continued to party and played a Jimi Hendrix album over and over the rest of the night.

It was a bleary crew that assembled before dawn, piled into trucks, and went downriver. I didn’t know what to expect. I had pulled on my green Nomex pants and yellow Nomex shirt, having learned at firefighter training that these fabrics were fire-resistant. I had my hard hat and gloves, and a couple of plastic canteens that fit into canvas covers I could carry on my belt. We stumbled out into the early morning, and smelled the smoke. The excitement was over. We would be mopping up.

Mop-up is done in pairs. One firefighter sprays water with a hose while the other stirs and digs with a hand tool. Unlike structure firefighters who have unlimited water at hand, wildland firefighters need to make the water work hard. Spraying a mist or fog from the nozzle conserves water better than a steady stream. The person with the hand tool can mix the wet ash and soil into the still-smoldering ground fire. Obvious hot spots are under burning logs, where stumps and roots have burned out, at the bases of trees. Our job was to find these and extinguish them. Somehow I found myself mopping up with the perpetrator of the all-night Jimi Hendrix. He was still drunk, I was sleep-deprived, and we barely spoke. I had the hose and was focused on spraying, then discovered that my partner had disappeared. Oh well, probably for the best.

By the end of the day our boots were caked with soggy ash, faces were streaked with black, and we all reeked of smoke. So that was firefighting.

In September and October, we did prescribed burning. The main reason was to reduce the amount of logging slash so that the clearcuts could be planted with trees the following spring. In those days, I didn’t know much about fire except to follow instructions. That was how I found myself scampering through brush and limbs as fast as I could, laying down a stream of fire fifteen feet below and a little behind the person lighting above me. We all had drip torches, a cylinder with a handle and a spout that dribbled a mixture of gasoline and diesel. A wick kept the fuel mix lit, so that when the liquid dripped, so did the fire.

It was fun. I liked the sound of the flames, the smell of the smoke (even though it was so horrible sometimes that our eyes streamed and we gagged), the camaraderie. Everybody helped. The hard work and long days were a physical challenge. I liked the overtime pay that showed up on my paycheck. I was hooked.

During the years that followed, I had all sorts of fire adventures. After lightning storms, we would go out smokechasing–looking for fire starts. I got to travel with twenty person crews to big fires. I worked as a lookout, and because I could talk on the radio and keep track of details, I did some dispatching. In 1986 and 1987, I was the fuels technician at Avery. I learned the basics from the previous tech, then got to figure out the rest myself. I kept track of about 80 areas that were scheduled for burning. I drew maps, did the fieldwork and calculations to estimate the size and distribution of wood to be burned. I checked weather and fuel moisture prior to ignition. And I got to watch a lot of fire. It started to make sense–how fuels, weather, and topography interact; how smoke behaves; what happens when the decision is made to light when it’s too dry or windy (more overtime). I saw what happened when the fire stayed on the ground, and when it got up into the trees. I saw the effects of low-intensity fires compared to high-intensity fires. I saw how quickly animals came back, or never left during burning.

Fire is endlessly fascinating, endlessly complex. I have come to see fire as a force unto itself, not as the enemy or the tool. It is what it is, a natural process and agent of change.

Oh, I have fire stories…some of my biggest adventures. Some of the times when I have been coldest, most miserable, most bored, most scared, most grateful to be alive. I’ve slept on the ground, huddled into a warm spot in the ashes with my head on a rock curled up like a coyote. Fire is etched into my memory, flickering orange all night. The smell of faraway smoke in the summer makes me restless. I still want to go.

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