Fighting fire and memories

by Mary Emerick

It's been almost 16 years since a firestorm ignited on Storm King Mountain in western Colorado, killing 14 firefighters, including my friend, Roger Roth. A lot can happen in 16 years. I've married and divorced. I've moved three times. My knees have turned cranky, my hair gone grayer.

Now I swing a pulaski beside men and women who were just shedding their diapers for big-kid pants back in July of 1994. They know about the South Canyon fire only from fire school, where it's told as a cautionary tale. They chew Red Man and roll their eyes at me, the fire grandma, when I urge them to slow down. They're enthusiastic and reckless in a way I can never be again. I'm sure they think I've lost my edge. I wonder that too, sometimes.

Before South Canyon, I loved everything about firefighting. I loved fire camp, that sprawling, noisy, instant city with its rows of tents and undercurrent of barely contained excitement. I loved marching into a summer-dry forest on some nameless mountain, digging line in an endless rhythm. I loved being part of a crew. After South Canyon, it was a love tempered with distrust and a lingering grief.

There's a memorial on Storm King, the place where the fire blew up. I've hiked the quad-burning trail that marks the old fire line. White crosses mark where 14 people fell. I usually sit up there for a while, waiting for something profound and meaningful to well up, but there are only the facts. A lightning burst, a subdivision at risk, bone-dry Gambel oak. A safety zone too far to reach. Death.

On Storm King Mountain, I lie on my back next to my friend's cross, watching clouds float by overhead. I think about the fires before and since. The day that South Canyon blew up, I was on another fire about 50 miles away. It was the kind I liked, just our crew and a couple of engines. We had gone 48 hours without sleep, but it looked like things were finally turning in our favor. The weather front came in, and we were pulled off the line. It was just another day, even though we'd dropped into a canyon, our safety zone far above us. We were lucky. The 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain were not.

These days, I have an ambivalent relationship with fire. I wonder if we are doing more damage by putting fires out; perhaps the weather and topography can do a better job. It takes millions of dollars to douse a single fire; I think about the many ways that money could be better spent. I go out on fires less and less.

Someday, I'll give it up. I'll give my scuffed fire boots to the next girl, the one with bright eyes and a long ponytail. I'll unpack my red bag and hang it up in the fire cache. I'll forget the feel of a pulaski in my hand.

But I won't forget South Canyon. Since that tragedy, things have changed on the fire line.  In the old days, the crew bosses imparted what knowledge they thought appropriate. Still, it was their way or the highway.

"All I want to see are asses and elbows!" they shouted as we dug line, most of us unclear on tactics, blindly following directions. In those days, crews that turned down risky assignments faced repercussions that extended beyond that one fire. After South Canyon, it became the responsibility of every firefighter to pay attention, to ask questions, to be responsible. Anyone could speak up, and we were encouraged to do so. In my 20-some years of fighting fire, this is a good change.

That's the legacy of South Canyon. But sometimes it's not enough for me. I want people to remember who died there; to know who Roger was -- that he baked a mean tiramisu and could fix anything wrong with a car. His nickname, depending on who you asked, was either Pedro or Rummy, with interesting stories behind the choices. He had a cackling laugh that was infectious. He was vibrant and alive.

That's why I carry his memory with me on every fire, and why I tell stories about him to the rookies at night. I tell them the way it used to be before South Canyon, and how much easier our lives are today. Still, they roll their eyes, and after a while I give up and huddle back into my space blanket, waiting out the night. They never knew Roger, and they cannot fully understand the touchstone that was the deadly fire on July 6. But I see the same excitement in their eyes that shone in his. Maybe that's enough of a legacy for me.

Mary Emerick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Enterprise, Oregon.

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