Thumbs up and still breathing
Ahead of the Flaming Front: A Life on Fire
Jerry D. Mathes II
221 pages, softcover:
Caxton Press, 2013.
Jerry D. Mathes' second nonfiction book, Ahead of the Flaming Front, portrays the day-to-day life of a wildland firefighter. With a poet's sense of language, Mathes describes his experiences as a rookie, gaining knowledge as he rises through the ranks.
Mathes works mostly for Krassel Heli-Rappellers, a fire crew that works out of the Payette National Forest in Idaho. He performs a variety of jobs – not just sliding down ropes into remote fires, but also pitching in on hand crews to build fire lines, working as a sawyer, and traveling to fill in on other crews throughout the West and even down to the Mexican border. Although the landscape and environment change, the physical routine and the danger of the work do not.
Mathes introduces us to a range of characters, perhaps too many to keep track of, but he gives us vivid portraits of the women and men who pursue this hazardous and sometimes tedious job. What emerges, in the end, is one hugely important thing: the importance of camaraderie in the work of firefighting.
The tragedies of past firefighters are woven throughout the book, both as cautionary tales and as a rationale for all the rules, regulations and paperwork, but Mathes rages against the bureaucracy that he believes sometimes prevents firefighters from acting efficiently. The book was already in publication before the Yarnell disaster of last summer, in which 19 firefighters died, but Mathes was always aware of the potential for that kind of tragedy. When he became an instructor, the most important thing he instilled in his rookies was their right to refuse an assignment where the risks are too great.
Occasionally, the language verges on sentimental, and proofreading errors distract from what is otherwise a fascinating read. One conversation gets at the heart of the book: Mathes and a fellow firefighter, Flegal, are fishing while waiting by a river to be picked up. As the helicopter approaches, Flegal says, "It's still good times, bro." Mathes responds, "I gave him a thumbs up. 'As long as we're still breathing.' "