We load the truck with everything we will need. Boxes of plastic spheres filled with potassium permanganate. Antifreeze. Fire shelters for the pilot and passengers. Finally, the machine, all 110 pounds of it. We roll down the road, four men and me. Today we will burn.
The helicopter settles lightly into the grass near the airstrip. When it takes off again, one of my crewmembers will sit in the back. His door has been removed, so he will feel the wind on his face and the heat from the fire that he creates. He will feed the machine with the plastic spheres and watch as they get injected with antifreeze, and then drop like snowflakes to the ground below, finally igniting in little blossoms of fire.
I know this because I have been where he is, many times over. I know what it's like to do this flight, low and slow just over the treetops, trailing fire. I have leaned out the open door over forests in Arizona, Oregon, Montana and so many other places I can't remember, watching the spheres fall toward their inevitable chemical reaction. Everything in me wants to do it again.
But this would be selfish. I have two trainees, and they work for me. There will be just enough time to get them both certified. I will stay on the ground while they fly, although I want to go too. I crave all of it like you sometimes crave another person beyond reason. But this is how it happens: one day you look around and realize that you have been doing this for years, although it seems like only hours, and it's someone else's turn. This is hard for awhile and then it isn't, when they come back and you can tell they feel the same way you did when you climbed in the helicopter for the first time to do this job. Because even though it's been a decade since you first helped start fire from the air, you still remember the person who stepped aside and let you do it, even though they probably weren't ready to let go either. It's not the easy way, but it's the right way.
On the ground I close my eyes and I can almost feel the translational lift as the helicopter pulls away from the earth. I can hear the sound of the spheres as they are injected, and see what happens when two substances that need to be kept apart finally meet: first a breath of smoke, then a sudden rush of fire. Although I know there will be a last time someday, I can't imagine it. I see myself up there always, looking toward the future, raining fire.