Lessons from the fire line

Reminiscing on a half-century in the forest.


An old logger and firefighter I got to know pretty well passed away recently. You might be wondering why this should matter to you. Well, his advice might just come in useful today. He was in the forestry business for nearly 70 years, and I think his perspective is needed. After all, he worked on fire crews all over the West. I used to walk with him and our two dogs along the railroad bed, and I loved listening to him reminisce.

“Sawdust,” as he called himself, contended that the weather we’re experiencing these days has changed, and we need to go back to an older way of firefighting to cope with it. We know that throughout the West, the monsoon rains aren't as dependable as they used to be. The same is true for those traditional summer-afternoon rain sprinkles. He said that it had become hotter and drier too, and felt a lot more like the 1930s. 

A fire crew works on the Jack Fire in Arizona in May 2016.

He was convinced that the Forest Service made the right decision when the agency abandoned its long-held “suppress at all costs” policy. Not that he thought every blaze should be left alone, but for a few decades there, many fires were just left burning till the snow fell. Sawdust had little pity for folks living “up in the woods,” either. He thought those people just needed to accept the risk of living where they’d chosen to live, and shouldn’t expect firefighters bail them out. If homeowners cleared the trees and brush around their places, all the better. That used to be the understanding, he said.

Sawdust also talked about fire lines in the old days. Those were built well back from the fire, and everything up to the line was left to burn. Now there are airplanes to do tanker drops and lots of other elaborate tactics that are risky for firefighters. He's not sure any of that makes sense when it comes to stopping a galloping, crown-type fire. Even if it does, he questions the kind of money it costs.

In his day, firefighting was a kind of local industry. Young men could lie about their age and go to work cutting firebreaks when they were 13 or 14. He never quite admitted that he'd done that, but I have my suspicions. 

As he got to reminiscing about fire seasons from long ago, he suddenly started talking about the food. There would be whole fire camps where men would be fed big breakfasts and dinners. How big was breakfast? Well, there were stacks of flapjacks as big as a 20-gallon can, he said, and heaps of pork sausage as big as a half-barrel. There would be coffee in 20-gallon pots. That's how he remembered it anyway, and for a hungry kid, this was heaven. The pay wasn't much, but then nobody had any money back then.

In those days, there were camps to thin the forest, too. Armies of young men, and a few women too, would be needed. A whole camp would attack a forest and thin it out, selecting the best trees to get down to the railhead for lumber. There was Forest Service money for the operation, and way back when the Denver, Rio Grande and Western Railroad, which Sawdust called “dangerous and rapidly growing worse” didn't want to switch the railhead, the Interstate Commerce Commission just told them to do it.

He had some reservations about smokejumpers. While he sort of liked the idea of catching the first flames, he also thought it made more sense to wait till a crew got there to contain it. He also thought jumping out of a plane into a dangerous area just about guaranteed injuries and maybe loss of life.  

Sawdust remembered the Mann Gulch fire of 1949. A radio transmission from that day was later posted in the Rocky Mountain News: “Say, Earl. The air's sucking us into the gulch. I'm going to climb and drop the men from above the ridge at 1,200 feet. I can't get them any lower. And we'll drop the cargo, too.” That was the last radio transmission made by the pilot who dropped 16 men into Mann Gulch to fight a fire. Only three came out alive, and just maybe proved Sawdust’s point. 

The reminiscences of my old friend may not apply to questions of public policy today. But sometimes we ignore the advice of the old-timers when we should pay attention.

Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He hangs out in Salida, Colorado.

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