A once nomadic firefighter decides to stay put

  • Smoke billows from the Hurricane Creek fire near writer Mary Emerick's home town, Joseph, Oregon. The state battled more than a dozen wildfires in July.

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There's a wildfire burning three miles from my house. Sparked by lightning, the column of smoke went nuclear yesterday, pushing flame through deadfall on the rugged shoulder of Chief Joseph Mountain in northwestern Oregon. This is a mountain we climb and ski and hike, the place where, with a glance, we can see the elevation of the snowline and the larch turning the color of sunlight in fall. We know it well. Some of us would say we love it.

I was a firefighter for years, and the sight of smoke still stirs some ancient response in my bones. All firefighters love the chase; don't let anyone tell you differently. We wouldn't be out there otherwise, busting our butts, sweat running like rivers down our backs, the tickle of pain in our bad knees telling us maybe it's time to quit. In the days when I was young, I longed for the heart-punch of fires that created their own weather, raindrops from the column sprinkling our hardhats in an otherwise cloudless sky. I wanted fires to grow big. It was a way to feel alive, watching fire dance through the canopy of beetle-killed trees, terrifying and exhilarating all at once. Who could go back to an ordinary life, sitting hunch-shouldered over a computer? Not us, we declared. Never us.

Now that I have given up my nomadic following of the fire season east to west, north to south, cashed it all in for a husband and a house and a steady paycheck, I look at the fire near our house differently. "Go get the hose and wet down everything on the west side," my husband says. An icicle of fear pierces my heart. I think of the things we would need to save, distilling it down to the dogs and the cat, the pictures of friends no longer with us, things precious and rare that we could never get back again. For the first time in my life, I want rain instead of fire. I track the column not for excitement and a prayer that I will be called to help, but for signs that the fire is going out.

I have not noticed this shift in myself until now. Forever on the move, I resisted setting down roots anywhere. The West was full of possibility and it was hard to limit myself to one place, one person, one identity. Even though I've lived in a tiny town in eastern Oregon for five years, almost the longest I've lived anywhere, I still secretly thought of myself as the long-haired girl in a beat-up Chevette, moving from river to river, mountain to mountain, a tattered road atlas on the passenger seat. Unlike some of my firefighter friends, I did not want to travel overseas. I wanted instead to flirt with each state and move on before I could be trapped. My friends hosted going-away parties and we made elaborate plans to visit that never came to fruition. I was always the one leaving people behind.

Last week, one of my friends announced she was moving away, and I felt an unfamiliar sting of betrayal. I wasn't supposed to be the one left behind. But I am, for better or worse, married to this town and this place. I wrestle with this, staring up at the smudge of early morning smoke. I know that as the temperature rises and the relative humidity drops, the fire will pick up again. It will spread like a glittering robe over Chief Joseph Mountain. The air tankers will swoop low, painting the trees red with retardant, and the firefighters will dig and saw and get the fire out, or they won't, and it will come down the canyon to our house. It's an ancient cycle, fire and trees, and which side of the line I stand on won't make much of a difference.

The way we change is imperceptible, like the slight wisp of smoke in pine needles. I've become a person I never intended to be, almost without noticing. In the West there is a restless push and pull like the sea, people constantly on the move, only the old ranch families anchored down by land and history. Even in my town, a tiny thumbprint on a big map of open space, it's hard to find someone born here unless you go deep into the canyons or out onto the prairie.

I'll never be a local, but I think like one now. I listen for the helicopters and I read the incident reports. I don't hang around the dispatch office begging to be sent to the line. I only think about that a little bit as I make lists in my head of what to take and what to leave, just in case we are evacuated. I think of the country that is burning and what it will look like next year, and the year after that. I know that I will be here.

Mary Emerick writes in Joseph, Oregon.

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