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A different voice on the phone


The television and photos he posts online show a wall of flames, smoke plumes billowing in the air like ominous storm clouds. It's hot as hell outside, with record high heat, and the wind is blowing. And my young son is out there on a fire line somewhere, because much of the state of Colorado is on fire.

My only offspring has talked about being a firefighter since he was in high school. He once told me his goal in life was to save another life. His high school senior project was all about firefighting. Now, after finishing his training last month, he is a 21-year-old firefighter on his first real job in the field, and where does he end up? Right in the eye of the storm -- the firestorm.

Taylor was on the Weber Fire near Mancos, in southern Colorado, not far from the resort and college town of Durango. He works for the Idaho Department of Lands, but since there is no firefighting action in Idaho right now, all hands are needed on deck in Colorado. Taylor and the crew he is with headed down there June 16, driving with all of their gear. It took a few days for them to get there, and my anxiety level shot up as soon as I realized how bad the situation in Colorado was getting.

My son and I usually have short telephone conversations. He doesn't chitchat with me as much as I'd like him to. But for a couple of nights, I received phone calls at 10 p.m. Those phone calls are not from a boy anymore. This experience has changed him, and I believe it’s for the better. He’s definitely talking not about sports or anything trivial; he is dealing with issues of life and death.

I listen, sometimes, to stories about the little victories they achieve. This is like nothing he's seen before, he says. He's on a line crew, and they work hard, long hours. When planes fly overhead dumping fire retardant, chunks of it sometimes hit the firefighters below and knock them over.

But what's really disturbing to him -- and I think to a lot of people who’ve heard the story -- is that this latest fire was started most likely by some idiots who insisted on target practice in drought-stricken country. When their bullets passed through the targets, they ricocheted off rocks and landed in dry grass, starting the fire. Everything is so dry, he said. He was really irritated that anyone could be that careless.

He's not complaining about the work he’s doing, though; I think he's awed by the scale of the firefighting effort. He was living in a huge camp, with fire crews from all over the country. Organizers brought in portable showers on trucks, and fed everybody nice steak dinners one night. The firefighters seem to be eating well -- always a mother's concern. But his back hurts, he says, after wearing a 40-pound pack for a week while cutting a fire line and mopping up brush fires. And his feet hurt from wearing the tough boots the firefighters wear, and, of course, it's so hot and windy that everyone’s uncomfortable.

Although the firefighters are having a hard time corralling all of the fires, they are saving some structures. One night, he said he and some of his coworkers saved several homes, and I could tell he was stoked about it. I asked him if he was OK, and he said, yes, he was, and that he loved the job and felt like a real firefighter. Which, in fact, is what he is. It now sounds as though his crew will be moving on to the next fire soon.

When I was 21, I married his dad and we bought a house and did all of the responsible things baby boomers did.  His generation is said to be different; some critics say it’s taking them longer to grow up. Now my son is growing up at warp speed, and I am very proud of him. He has become a good man.

Linda Ball is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a freelance writer originally from Alaska, now living in Seattle.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].