The southwest winds brought waves of red smoke streaming into the valley from the fires near Boise and McCall every day last summer. A helicopter would come in overhead, and I'd hear the almost subsonic whump-whump-whump that meant a big craft.
The smoke and the morning air and the
noise took me back to a mountainside, to a morning years removed,
when that most reassuring of sounds hit my ears: large helicopters,
flying again, after our long night of cutting fireline into the
The firepack is on my back and the pulaski
in my gloved hands. With a scoop of chew tucked into my lower lip,
I see the river, 2,000 feet below, and the faint wisps of September
fog trailing up the canyon. And cutting through it all, rising like
a dragonfly off the helibase pad, Helitack 1, or 2, or 3.
Whump-whump-whump. It sounds very, very
That's the part of firefighting that makes
you just a bit cocky, just a bit proud. You feel stronger and
smarter than you really are. Firefighting is a skill, a craft, a
yearly dance in which roles are clearly defined and where
certainties abound to compensate for the uncertainties of the
enemy. It requires specialized, even arcane knowledge, and those
who master some particular part of it are
Line boss, sector boss, buying
unit, camp leader: Titles that often have nothing to do with our
usual jobs are ours on a fire. Actual GS-ratings mean very little:
GS-4s order GS-13s around.
I started "going out
on a fire" because I needed the money. Bit by bit, my firepack
acquired the little comforts that make 48-hour shifts more
bearable. I kept a few cans of baked beans, fruit cocktail and
juice stashed away in case of inadequate sack lunches. Headlamps
furnished by the Forest Service were awkward and unreliable; most
of us bought better ones from an industrial catalog with our own
money. My pockets were full of hard candy, gum, tobacco, paperbacks
(as in any military operation, much of firefighting consists of
waiting) and toilet paper.
your ideas about outdoor recreation. Standing on an 80 percent
slope at midnight, listening warily for the ominous creaking noises
that mean a giant vegetable is about to kill you, then curling up
just before dawn to catch a few winks in a ditch filled with ashes
and the odd scorpion, erodes the desire to go camping just for the
fun of it.
Once, while mopping up in deep ash in
a grove of giant, conk-ridden Douglas firs, we heard the fearful
groaning of a dying tree.
Whirling 360 degrees in
panic, we tried to see the assailant. Impossible. The sound was
everywhere. With a final seismic thump, the tree fell. It missed
everyone, but the concussion raised a blinding ash cloud that
reduced visibility to zero. The crew boss shouted, and we groped
our way uphill, out of the grove, and into an open area. Shaken, we
all sat down.
"Lunch!" said the crew boss. We
made it last until our shift was over.
experience, it is the common sense of crew bosses that saves lives
on a fire, but it takes a strong one to refuse a hazardous order.
It was a brave crew boss, for example, who refused to continue
night mop-up on a nearly vertical slope with rocks the size of
clothes dryers hurtling by in the dark. In the face of Al's
assertion that this was dangerous and unnecessary on a 12-acre fire
already plastered with retardant, the honchos down at fire camp
insisted that we continue.
Al stopped arguing,
but led us out of the burned area to the firelines, where we spent
the night improving the trenches, out of range of rocks, while Al
lied his head off on the radio.
It took a tough
crew boss to categorically refuse to have our crew flown to the top
of a 100-acre fire burning in heavy fuels so we could dig line
downhill toward the fire.
"No," said Rick to the
line boss. "We're not going to do that. We're going to start
digging here, at the bottom, and you will have two crews coming up
behind us, and you will have a spotter across the canyon to keep us
informed, and you will get some engines down here and start pumping
out of the river and putting a hose lay up behind us."
Through a long night of chain-saw work in dense,
jackstrawed trees, while squirrelly winds fanned the flames and
80-foot firs crowned out above us, ours was the only line that
held. If we had been up on top cutting line downhill, would we have
died for the line boss's error in
Working downhill toward a fire has been
a factor in many fire fatalities over the years, yet it continues
to be done on uncontained fires, as happened on the fatal fire in
Colorado this summer.
I stopped going on fires
after the Great California Cookout of "87. I saw the plantations
that we had thinned so carefully only a couple of years before go
up like A-bombs as the slash ignited, torching so thoroughly that
not even stumps remained.
I saw fire fronts come
to a dead halt as they hit an area of old growth that had
experienced an underburn a few years before. I came off the fires
in October with a raging ear infection, bronchitis that swiftly
became pneumonia, and the realization that firefighting, like
combat, is for 20-year-olds who still believe they're
Yet, when the chopper came in that
morning last summer, just for that moment, I missed the dirt and
the smoke and the camaraderie of the fireline. I suddenly mourned
the fact that the fire stories I have to tell are the only ones I
will ever have.
When I work on fires now, it's
in an air-conditioned building, and although I know I've done my
bit and don't need to suck any more smoke to prove myself, the
smoky winds can still send adrenaline into my
Danger is the
As the Forest Service struggles - perhaps
more than any other wildland agency - to change its attitude toward
fire and reject the put-'em-all-out-now shibboleth that has landed
us in this fix, Chief Jack Ward Thomas may find an unexpected
barrier to true fire management: It's this love of the rush that
belongs to firefighting, all the more powerful because no one talks
Any threat to the status accruing to
blackened, sleep-deprived, hard-hatted, snoose-dipping smoke
warriors will be resisted; any suggestion that those who make a
career of firefighting do so because they enjoy it will be rejected
as somehow immoral.
Ending the war games will be
unpalatable to many. But the games will end.
beginning of the end came last summer when the Payette National
Forest in Idaho announced that an all-out effort to extinguish the
Blackwell and Corral Complexes would cost $42 million and stand
only a 15 percent chance of succeeding before winter did it for
free. With that, the government admitted it can no longer afford to
indulge career fire managers in their hobby of battling an element
which should never have been allowed to become an enemy in the
It is time for the fire gods to
admit that they love battle for its own sake, and for what it has
brought them in the way of pride, and power, and glory. It is time
for them to recognize this, and get over it, and get another
Those who have died deserve that from us,
at least. n
Louise Wagenknecht lives in Leadore,
Idaho, on a small sheep ranch.