Pride and Glory of firefighting is hard to resist

  • Illustration of firefighters at work/Mark Coyle


The southwest winds brought waves of red smoke streaming into the valley from the fires near Boise and McCall every day last summer. A helicopter would come in overhead, and I'd hear the almost subsonic whump-whump-whump that meant a big craft.

The smoke and the morning air and the noise took me back to a mountainside, to a morning years removed, when that most reassuring of sounds hit my ears: large helicopters, flying again, after our long night of cutting fireline into the dark.

The firepack is on my back and the pulaski in my gloved hands. With a scoop of chew tucked into my lower lip, I see the river, 2,000 feet below, and the faint wisps of September fog trailing up the canyon. And cutting through it all, rising like a dragonfly off the helibase pad, Helitack 1, or 2, or 3. Whump-whump-whump. It sounds very, very good.

That's the part of firefighting that makes you just a bit cocky, just a bit proud. You feel stronger and smarter than you really are. Firefighting is a skill, a craft, a yearly dance in which roles are clearly defined and where certainties abound to compensate for the uncertainties of the enemy. It requires specialized, even arcane knowledge, and those who master some particular part of it are professionals.

Line boss, sector boss, buying unit, camp leader: Titles that often have nothing to do with our usual jobs are ours on a fire. Actual GS-ratings mean very little: GS-4s order GS-13s around.

I started "going out on a fire" because I needed the money. Bit by bit, my firepack acquired the little comforts that make 48-hour shifts more bearable. I kept a few cans of baked beans, fruit cocktail and juice stashed away in case of inadequate sack lunches. Headlamps furnished by the Forest Service were awkward and unreliable; most of us bought better ones from an industrial catalog with our own money. My pockets were full of hard candy, gum, tobacco, paperbacks (as in any military operation, much of firefighting consists of waiting) and toilet paper.

Firefighting changes your ideas about outdoor recreation. Standing on an 80 percent slope at midnight, listening warily for the ominous creaking noises that mean a giant vegetable is about to kill you, then curling up just before dawn to catch a few winks in a ditch filled with ashes and the odd scorpion, erodes the desire to go camping just for the fun of it.

Once, while mopping up in deep ash in a grove of giant, conk-ridden Douglas firs, we heard the fearful groaning of a dying tree.

Whirling 360 degrees in panic, we tried to see the assailant. Impossible. The sound was everywhere. With a final seismic thump, the tree fell. It missed everyone, but the concussion raised a blinding ash cloud that reduced visibility to zero. The crew boss shouted, and we groped our way uphill, out of the grove, and into an open area. Shaken, we all sat down.

"Lunch!" said the crew boss. We made it last until our shift was over.

In my experience, it is the common sense of crew bosses that saves lives on a fire, but it takes a strong one to refuse a hazardous order. It was a brave crew boss, for example, who refused to continue night mop-up on a nearly vertical slope with rocks the size of clothes dryers hurtling by in the dark. In the face of Al's assertion that this was dangerous and unnecessary on a 12-acre fire already plastered with retardant, the honchos down at fire camp insisted that we continue.

Al stopped arguing, but led us out of the burned area to the firelines, where we spent the night improving the trenches, out of range of rocks, while Al lied his head off on the radio.

It took a tough crew boss to categorically refuse to have our crew flown to the top of a 100-acre fire burning in heavy fuels so we could dig line downhill toward the fire.

"No," said Rick to the line boss. "We're not going to do that. We're going to start digging here, at the bottom, and you will have two crews coming up behind us, and you will have a spotter across the canyon to keep us informed, and you will get some engines down here and start pumping out of the river and putting a hose lay up behind us."

Through a long night of chain-saw work in dense, jackstrawed trees, while squirrelly winds fanned the flames and 80-foot firs crowned out above us, ours was the only line that held. If we had been up on top cutting line downhill, would we have died for the line boss's error in judgment?

Working downhill toward a fire has been a factor in many fire fatalities over the years, yet it continues to be done on uncontained fires, as happened on the fatal fire in Colorado this summer.

I stopped going on fires after the Great California Cookout of '87. I saw the plantations that we had thinned so carefully only a couple of years before go up like A-bombs as the slash ignited, torching so thoroughly that not even stumps remained.

I saw fire fronts come to a dead halt as they hit an area of old growth that had experienced an underburn a few years before. I came off the fires in October with a raging ear infection, bronchitis that swiftly became pneumonia, and the realization that firefighting, like combat, is for 20-year-olds who still believe they're immortal.

Yet, when the chopper came in that morning last summer, just for that moment, I missed the dirt and the smoke and the camaraderie of the fireline. I suddenly mourned the fact that the fire stories I have to tell are the only ones I will ever have.

When I work on fires now, it's in an air-conditioned building, and although I know I've done my bit and don't need to suck any more smoke to prove myself, the smoky winds can still send adrenaline into my blood.

Danger is the drug

As the Forest Service struggles - perhaps more than any other wildland agency - to change its attitude toward fire and reject the put-'em-all-out-now shibboleth that has landed us in this fix, Chief Jack Ward Thomas may find an unexpected barrier to true fire management: It's this love of the rush that belongs to firefighting, all the more powerful because no one talks about it.

Any threat to the status accruing to blackened, sleep-deprived, hard-hatted, snoose-dipping smoke warriors will be resisted; any suggestion that those who make a career of firefighting do so because they enjoy it will be rejected as somehow immoral.

Ending the war games will be unpalatable to many. But the games will end.

The beginning of the end came last summer when the Payette National Forest in Idaho announced that an all-out effort to extinguish the Blackwell and Corral Complexes would cost $42 million and stand only a 15 percent chance of succeeding before winter did it for free. With that, the government admitted it can no longer afford to indulge career fire managers in their hobby of battling an element which should never have been allowed to become an enemy in the first place.

It is time for the fire gods to admit that they love battle for its own sake, and for what it has brought them in the way of pride, and power, and glory. It is time for them to recognize this, and get over it, and get another life.

Those who have died deserve that from us, at least.

Louise Wagenknecht lives in Leadore, Idaho, on a small sheep ranch.

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