Friday, November 11, 2011

the web of fire

It's 11/11/11, a dream of a day for those who see portents and signs in everything. People are asking: Should I buy a lottery ticket today? Get married today?

Not me. I'm going for a more sure thing, an early winter hike with two sweet friends.

Three firefighters and a dog hike up a trail. Snow sprinkles the ground. Being firefighters, we look around, judging the terrain.

"I bet we could hike up there and get to the ridge," one of us says. We look at each other and shrug. Why not? We start climbing cross country. It's slippery. We kick steps in the snow and climb over patches of blowdown. I use the mountaineering rest step, trying to stay close to the only one of us who has bear spray and is wearing safety orange.

The valley from Columbia Mountain Trail, 11/11/11

As we climb, we talk idly about winter plans, snowboarding, and travel, but our conversation always drifts back to fire. "How was Texas this year?" we ask. "Did you run into my friend there?"

Sometimes I imagine every wildland firefighter in the country attached to each other by invisible threads, a web that covers our entire restless seasonal tribe. There are less than six degrees of separation between all of us. If we don't know each other, we know someone in common, have been on the same fire, or worked at the same district.

Rappeller buddy check

 Everywhere I go, someone will come up to me at briefing or on the helibase, exuberantly saying something like this: "Hi! I was on your helitack module in 2000 in Taos!" or "My buddy Steve used to be on your crew!" It is like having a large extended family who you hardly ever see, but when you do, you slide right back into conversation like you were never gone.

Central Complex, Alaska

When a strand of this web breaks, when one of us is gone, however it happens, we feel it deep into our bones. We can hear the roar of the fire that took them, or feel the shudder of the aircraft as it descended. They were one of us, whether we knew them or not. They stood on the same ground, breathed the same smoke into their lungs, knew what it felt like to chase lightning through the hills. They won't be coming home, but we are. We carry their memory with us on every fire.

My friends and I stand on the ridge. A cold wind wraps around us. It's time to head down, to slide down the mountain through the brush and snow. We walk separately, but we are connected forever.

Happy hiking partners

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