‘Will my tears cool the ash?’

A firefighter contemplates the coming fire season.

 

Come fall, there is more time to linger over the morning coffee. Your boots, with dirt still clinging between their treads like forgotten food in un-brushed teeth, are tossed into the familiar corner. The grind of the rock and the hills still vaguely echo through your bones. Shorter days now, but the sun, drifting lower in the southern horizon, still squeezes water from the corner of your eyes. Waking up in the morning brings the phantom tendrils of sulfur-sweet diesel exhaust, existing in memory for a few long moments before your head clears.  

 Come winter, the old vulnerabilities that plague the summer are forgotten. Perhaps a few too many beers have dulled the aches, and you recover the weight that was shed on some line scratched across some hill in some place for some reason that seemed important at the time, existing out there still like a star you saw once but can’t point to again.

The author keeps lookout while other firefighters work the Brown’s Canyon Fire in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest in 2006.
Courtesy of S.D. Fillmore

During the holidays, your uncles want to hear a story about it. When you make up your missed appointments, your dentist asks if it was a bad fire season. At some point, someone saw a story on the news — were you there, on that one? Maybe you were, maybe you weren’t, but you were somewhere doing the same thing anyway, so it doesn’t really matter, and it’s better to humor them, to make them feel a part of it in some small way.

They are the taxpayers, after all, so why not share a thrill or two? Vicarious living is all some people can manage.

Come spring, the trepidation hidden during the dark months resurfaces. Grim uncertainty arrives in your mind alongside the rising creeks outside, and it rushes you down in a tumult of doubt. Thoughts previously deflected return: Maybe this will be the year that your words out the door will turn into falsehood, and you will become an unwitting liar. Not that there is really a choice, if you can understand that.

And so I’m made to wonder how it will happen, if I will hear the crack of the rock as it spins from above, or feel the soft push of wind on my back as the branch approaches. Would I alert to the helicopter’s master caution warning, and bravely resign myself for the ride to the ground? Or hear the leaves rustle with a falling chunk of wood and realize the danger? Would I notice the smoke that forewarns of oncoming fire, or know the screech of truck’s tires before the crash? Would I feel my heart careen violently as I fell to my knees, feeling the tightness grip at my insides as the breath vanishes? Will there be time for “Shambhala” to tumble from my lips, or mere curses, or mute disbelief?

Will my family have to endure reluctant memories of me, clichés, and an honor guard of my friends? The drums that beat with puissant bitterness, and the pipes that always made me well up in sadness and pride?

Will the accompaniment have the poignancy of other fires, like Montana’s Mann Gulch, or hold the decadal remembrance of the Loop Fire, or offer a stern lesson like Colorado’s South Canyon? Would the blaze prove as pointless as Arizona’s Yarnell, become fable like the old Blowup, or have the seamless anonymity of Klone? Maybe the despair of the Dutch Creek Fire, the blame of the 30-Mile, or the hopelessness of the Esperanza?

During the long drives, I wonder if I will linger for days, or slip right through the gap? Will the grains of my flesh be burned into the earth, or be cast up into a towering column of smoke? Will my blood soak the roots and be transpired, will my tears cool the ash? Will my eyes see silver, blue or black? Maybe dirt, maybe water, maybe smoke or sky? Ears filled with silence or ringing, head gripped by panic or calm? Will there be air in my lungs, or will the heat burn from within? Last stand: flat on my back or my belly or my side, in pieces or in whole, in pain or in a trance?

I hope that my patience did not falter, that I was not insolent. That I was not hasty, nor ignorant, nor dramatic, nor vain. Just that I missed the signs, the directions, and the path to be followed. Most of all: I hope I fall for a reason that can stand the test of time. Will my widow be told it was for the accepted greater good, and will this be the truth of it — something that my son will believe in and be proud of for his days? Or will the end be pointless, as a man felled in battle against a firestorm whose sovereignty can never be challenged?

Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Mann Gulch Fire was in Idaho. It occured in Montana.

S.D. Fillmore works as a professional wildland fire manager for a federal land management agency in the Western U.S., and has been a firefighter for almost 20 years. He is the editor of the recently published book: Fire on the Land.