Thursday, September 14, 2017

What I'll miss

As I near the end of my career as a wildland firefighter, my thoughts are scattered like smoke drifting through the forest. Sometimes I just want to be done, to put my boots and my constant state of readiness up on a shelf for good.  I want to have summer, and spring and fall, without having to go away or have a bag packed to go away.  I want to see fire for what it is: a force of nature like a hurricane or a flood, not something to be fought or managed.

But this life isn't going to let go of me so easily.  I get out of the helicopter at sunset and think, how can I leave this?

I'll miss seeing fire run across the landscape like it's alive, like it was meant to.
A fire last week in the wilderness
I'll miss seeing wild, lonely places where almost nobody goes.
I'll miss the small fires with one or two people, nothing needed but your pulaski and chainsaw to contain it, and then wrapping up in a sleeping bag under the stars on a high unnamed ridge.
I'll miss my tribe.  I've spent so many days and nights with them, flying in the mountains, hiking over hills, dragging tools through the dirt, chasing fire.  I'll miss them most of all.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

smoke and sorrow

I don't want to see your house burn.  I've seen it before, and it is a beautiful and terrible thing, the flames almost seeming alive as they climb the walls and curl around the windows.  Don't be mistaken: even if we call your home a "structure" or even fuel for a fire, it hurts our hearts if we can't save it.

Two weeks ago I flew to a historic chalet in the park to evacuate guests and take out belongings and gear for the staff.  The building stood in this wild and lonely spot since 1913, providing a rustic place to sleep for anyone lucky enough to reserve a space.  This year it sold out in about five minutes.  The pilot and I wandered through the chalet, picking out which rooms we would want to stay in.  The fire was a long ways off,  creeping around in the next drainage.  Maybe it would never get there.

But it didn't rain.  The weather stayed hot and dry for the next two weeks, and the winds increased, pushing the fire up the mountain.  The firefighters made their stand one night against an ember shower, running hoses and sprinklers in a desperate fight.  Four helicopters dropped water, but in the end the chalet caught fire and lit up the night like a giant candle.  It was gone in an hour.

There is a deep sadness here;  so many of us remember hiking to this spot and seeing the chalet finally appear after several miles of steep trail.  It was a place loved by people throughout the world.  It was only a building, but it was full of over a hundred years of memories.

Still, everyone is safe.  The firefighters were able to save the other buildings and they were uninjured in the firefight.  Perhaps the chalet will be rebuilt someday.  Until then, I'm grateful I got to visit it, both on foot and by air.  Now we continue the fight.  There are houses and people still in harm's way.  We will do everything we can to keep the fires from their doors.

My last view of the chalet

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Ops normal

...well, as normal as they can be when you're working over 50 extra hours a week and the air is full of smoke.

The minions are hanging in there, although Dirty August is about to turn into Snaptember.  A building boom ensues, with a saw bench and crash rescue box being constructed. T. builds a contemplation bench for the arboretum.  With so many of us here due to the extreme fire danger, our garden gets unprecedented attention, and I wander around eating cherry tomatoes off the plants.  The clerks at the local store look bemused as we buy ice cream, chips, and chocolate.  We eat these things until someone declares that they want a salad, kicking off a round of healthy eating.

At fire camp, C. is bitten by a skunk as he compassionately takes a beer can off its head; he begins a series of rabies shots.  A new t-shirt design is conceptualized, puzzlingly involving a pterodactyl.  T. gets in some saw practice, learning the keyhole cut.  J. attempts to plan winter travel, but gets stymied by how many countries there are in Central and South America: he wants to see them all.  We are able to exercise a little; there is bear scat on the running trails.

It stays hot and dry.  New fires start.  Old ones roar back to life, causing evacuations and residents to grumble about air quality.  We do the best we can, but we have had almost no rain since June and resources are limited. Still, it always ends.  Flying along the lake, I see a single yellow larch tree.  It's an outlier: its neighbors' needles won't turn for weeks yet.  But they will.

So we work, while other people hike and float around in boats.  We don't complain, because it's what we signed up for.  For some of us, it's just what we know, while the new people are still trying to figure out if it's what they want.  Fall is around the corner, but for now we are here, flying and hiking these hills, following the smoke.

Monday, August 21, 2017


I walked into the funeral home without a plan.  Although I  hadn't ever met Brent, a firefighter killed by a falling tree, I've been a firefighter so long that in a way I did know him.  He was every fire brother I've ever known.  It could so easily have been someone I loved. 

The room was full of hotshots.  Most of them didn't know Brent either, but they had stayed with him all night and all day since he had arrived here so he wouldn't be alone.

I didn't know what to say.  It was a sterile place that reminded me of a hotel lobby.  I didn't feel anything here.  Rest in peace?  It's a comforting statement for some, but most firefighters I know aren't ready for that.  They would want to be here still, stirring things up.

The next day there would be a procession.  The white hearse would turn onto the street, flanked by hotshot superintendents' trucks.  At the airport there would be an honor guard and bagpipes.  The bagpipes would make most of us cry.  The coffin, covered with an American flag, would be loaded onto the Sherpa airplane, and Brent would take his final journey home to California.

Watching all this, I would wish not that we weren't so good at this, because it's important to the family and friends that we are, but that we weren't so used to this.  We know how to line up and file into a stadium or onto the tarmac. We know what the honor guard's commands mean.  The hotshots already have black armbands, sewn not for the last service but for the one before that.  We know what to expect when the bagpipes start, and we are ready for it.

I left the funeral home feeling empty.  There were no answers or peace there for me.  On an impulse,  I pulled off the highway.  There was no sign for where I was going, but I found it anyway.  I parked my truck and walked up a dirt driveway into the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas.

It was quiet except for the wind and my footsteps as I walked in a circle around the grounds.  Buddhas were everywhere, on walls, as statues, and tucked in nooks throughout the garden.  I touched a prayer wheel, looking for a place to stop.  I found it on a bench overlooking a pond.

All my ghosts were here; the pilots, firefighters and friends I've known who died too soon.  I looked at the water.  The Buddhas in the garden didn't ask anyone to believe in anything.  They were just there, serene.  Anyone was welcome to come here and stay awhile.

"I'm sorry, Brent. Take care," I said.  And I walked out of the garden back into my life.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Too busy to write, so here are a few pictures of what I've been doing:

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

In the shade of a Ford Escape: Hot times at a fire called Sunrise

It was hot, one hundred degrees hot.  The sun beat down on the treeless airstrip.  The pilots had retreated hours ago to their air-conditioned trailer and were watching the Tour de France on their satellite TV.  They deserved the perks though; after all they had been flying 7 or 8 hours a day on the fire that was up in the hills ten miles away.

The Sunrise Fire was angry, like the other fires around it in western Montana.  Every day around four o'clock when the temperature was at its warmest, it would throw a tantrum, crossing roads meant to be containment lines, threatening houses, and spewing embers up to a mile in front of it. 

I wasn't on the front lines.  All I could do was watch it and send the aircraft to it, where they dropped nine hundred gallons of water at a time over and over again.  While the pilots were out flying, I did the daily paperwork.  I moved my chair around following the meager shade of a small hybrid car.  When I couldn't stand it anymore, I walked down the ramp to visit J. and B., two other helicopter managers who were usually up for a distraction.

J., looking tired, asked me where I was camping.  The helibase, stuck between the interstate and a busy frontage road, was far too noisy.  I hesitated, but he seemed cool, so I divulged my spot, a fishing access site. 

You can ease into a river like that, still cold in late July, but it's better to just jump in, even though it takes your breath away.  Even though it would be ten at night before I got to camp, I would lie down in the water, just for a minute or two.  At noon when the sun was at its highest and there was no shade, I thought about that river.  It was the best part of every day. When you're living outdoors, it doesn't take much to make you happy.

After two weeks, the fire was still angry, but it was time for me to go. I briefed my replacement on what he needed to know.  There were pilot duty logs that needed to be carefully monitored because they were flying so many hours.  There were relief crew costs that needed to be entered, and upcoming maintenance to be aware of, as well as helibase quirks.  It was all important, but so was the river.  I gave him directions to the campsite.  If all goes well, he should be jumping into the water right about now.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

View from the front seat

This is why I stopped moving up, even though many of my former coworkers and even those I trained when they were rookies have gone past me as they climbed the ladder.

This is why I still come to work.

 I could have a nice office.  I could have a higher base salary.  I could have the respect accorded those who have achieved a higher pay grade.  But then I wouldn't have days like today, flying through the mountains in a helicopter to look for fires, looking at lakes still frozen in high alpine cirques and lonely green valleys.

It was the right choice.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Thoughts from a sky house

Whenever I arrive at a fire lookout, I'm momentarily seized by the thought that I need to be doing something.  I rush around, unpacking my backpack, sweeping the floor, checking the firefinder to make sure I still know how to use it.  This usually lasts for awhile, until I realize that I have plenty of time.  That the job of a fire lookout is just to be there.

Current and former lookouts will know this is somewhat of a misleading statement.  There's plenty of work to do at a lookout, if you are the regular occupant.  Many of the buildings are historic, so require a lot of upkeep: painting, roof work, stove maintenance.  There's always trail work, and then daily life chores: hauling water, cleaning, cooking.
Everything you need.
 But if you're a transient lookout like me,  especially if only up for one night like I was recently, starting a project isn't necessary.  And eventually I stop trying to keep busy.  I drag a chair out onto the catwalk, bringing binoculars and a book.

I watch the sun move across the peaks.  It won't set until almost 10.  I can see the trailhead seven miles and nearly 3000 vertical feet below.  Boats crisscross the lake, carrying people out camping for the extended Fourth of July weekend.  Mountain goats cling to the rocks above.  I look for bears in Silver Basin, but don't see any.
There were mountain goats up there
I go to sleep when it's dark.  I can't see any lights, not even a campfire.  In the morning as I pack up, I hear a noise under the tower.  I think bear, but when I go to look, it is an industrious marmot, chewing on something, fat and content.

Lookout time is different than city time.  Up here, time seems to move more slowly, but the hours aren't filled with busy, often meaningless activity.  Standing on the catwalk and looking out at the mountains is a kind of meditation. As I descend toward civilization, I carry the quiet and serenity with me.
The beargrass this year! It's amazing.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

hanging around

"Why aren't you on a fire?" someone asks.  It might be simple curiosity, but coming from a person who is always trying to get out on assignment, it sounds a bit judgey.  After all, I could be on one. 

There are a lot of firefighters who make themselves available as soon as the first wisp of smoke appears anywhere in the country.  Some will put themselves ahead of their seasonal, broke employees and flee first, leaving others to pick up their responsibilities.  They get away with this, because after all, firefighting is our primary job, although most of us realize that the administrative and teaching part of our positions have mushroomed almost out of control.

After 30 years of doing this, I'm not in a hurry to rush out the door.  It's a slow season, after all: despite a few large fires making the news, there's not much going on, and a lot of resources are available.  And then there's this:

  On Friday I met up with some new hiking friends and drove to the east side of the national park.  We hiked along a lake and to a series of waterfalls.
A fire from two years ago had burned through part of the area.  While there were lots of burned trees, the fire had also opened up the forest, and its floor was covered with wildflowers.
I'm not in a hurry to get out on the road.  The fires will come, but if they don't, I know how to live within my means without the additional income.  For now, I'm content to just be here.  I'm not missing out on anything.