Nostalgia for the front lines

by Teresa Sundmark

This spring on a warm May afternoon, an electric line went down a few miles east of where I live in Homer, Alaska. Sparks from the live wire ignited dry grasses, and the flames, fanned by wind, traveled quickly to a forest of beetle-killed trees.

In two days, the Seventeen Mile Fire, named for its distance from town, had grown from 15 acres to nearly a thousand. Seemingly overnight, the local elementary school had become the firefighters' headquarters. As I watched the scene unfold, I realized that this summer marks an anniversary for me: It has been 20 years now since I fought fires. 

When I turned 18 and was trying to figure out how to pay for college, a high school counselor suggested I try my hand at firefighting as a way to make a decent amount of money in a few short months. This was way outside my comfort zone, because up to that point my résumé included working at a jewelry store and being a cheerleader. But the northwestern corner of Colorado, where I lived at the time, was known for its lightning-strike fires each summer. That made it likely that I could earn enough money to pay for a semester of college. I filled out the lengthy government application and was hired just before graduation. 

I was hooked after my first summer. I returned to my firefighting job four years in a row, and each time I got to know my home district more intimately. I haven't returned to most of the places in rural western Colorado that the fires allowed me to see, but I love knowing, as I drive past on the highway, that those hidden, beautiful places are still out there beyond the pavement. Each one harbors a memory -- stumbling across a perfect arrowhead, running for cover during a terrifying hailstorm, waking up with a bull elk standing 15 feet from my sleeping bag.

I thought I was just taking a summer job to help pay for college; instead, firefighting became an education in its own right. I don't remember much of what I was taught in the university lecture halls from those four years, but the experiences I had as a firefighter have stayed with me. The job enabled me to travel farther from home than I'd ever been. In Idaho, I swam in the Snake River; from a fire camp in Wyoming, I saw the aurora borealis for the first time, and I swapped T-shirts with a Navajo crew in New Mexico. With each adventure I grew to appreciate the diversity of the Western landscape and its people. My identity and values began to take shape.

Up until that point in my life, I had never been given much in the way of responsibility. But suddenly I was accountable, along with my two crew mates, for a fire engine worth thousands of dollars. Because we were often the first ones to respond to a fire, we were forced to figure out how to react to it. Should we attack the fire head-on? Should we call for reinforcements? A wrong decision could cost lots of money, and even lives.

I learned to pay attention to everything around me, from the humidity in the air to the wind direction and the types of vegetation. Each summer we heard stories of fatalities. In Yellowstone, a man on the same fire as me died when a tree fell on him -- fire had burned through the duff into its roots, leaving the tree without an anchor. In a neighboring district, a helicopter flew into some power lines, killing three firefighters and the pilot. Fortunately, my crew never suffered a loss, though maybe we were just lucky. What I really learned during those tense days was to trust my instincts.

As the Seventeen Mile Fire burned, I watched the activity around the transformed elementary school with interest. Fire trucks arrived from neighboring communities, tents popped up on the back lawn and busloads of green-and yellow-clad firefighters milled around between their shifts.

When I drove past it all, on the way to my safe and predictable job at the library, I wished the firefighters the kind of good luck I'd been granted when I was out there. I also have to admit -- even though my days of carrying a chainsaw up a burning hillside are long gone, and I haven't cut a fire line in sweltering heat for 20 years -- that I yearned to be one of them.

Teresa Sundmark is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Homer, Alaska.

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