Shawn and I drive the ranch road. We pass the engine crews trying unsuccessfully to look busy, and our crew setting up sprinkler systems around cabins. We are deep in Wyoming, on a fire that is marching steadily through the mountains, eating through lodgepole pine, aspen, and sage. We park at the cabin that burned the day before, burned to the ground with a wild ferocity while we watched, unable to save it. The bunkhouse and shop still stand though, surrounded by black, and we feel good about that.
Today we want to get to the two cabins farther up the road, ones we couldn't reach the day before because the fire crossed the road in front of us and ran down the canyon. We are sure they are gone, but we have to see for ourselves. We don't have much time. The fire still lurks in the draw; we can see it, turning green trees into candles of flame. A tree has fallen across the road. We decide to walk the quarter mile fast, enough to see the heartbreaking burned foundations and crumbled chimneys.
We set off at a fast pace, traveling light. A sign, unburned, hangs in a tree: "The Elliotts, 1939." I wonder who they are, and what caused them to build their cabins out here in a pine forest. We turn a corner and there they are, two cabins nestled next to the creek, someone's dream, still intact and perfect.
"The fire's here," Shawn says, and it is. The older cabin, closer to the creek, will survive; the fire has already burned up to it and stopped, running out of fuel. The main fire is ten feet away from the other cabin and reaching for the bark-covered log walls. A thick carpet of pine needles surrounds it. We have about five minutes, only one chance to do something to save it.
Shawn bends and lights the forest floor with a bic lighter. I take a handful of pine needles and light them from the flames, and drag it down one side of the cabin. Together we create a ring of fire around the cabin. It grows and moves greedily through the needle cast, and I scuff a quick line for a fuel break. If this works, our burnout will chew through the needles and small trees next to the cabin and stop the main fire.
A helicopter flies over and we try to snag it for a bucket drop, but it has been promised to another crew in a different division, and it flies away. The fire we made climbs up into the trees and runs through the crowns, away from the cabins, just like we wanted. We look at each other. It worked, our quick, last chance plan. We walk back down the road and call an engine on the radio to come in and cool down the hot spots.
The Elliotts, whoever they are, will probably never know what happened here. They will return to their cabin sometime, maybe this summer, and see the blackened trees and burnt forest that leads up to their front door. They will see that their footbridge and the lean-to that held their solar shower didn't make it, but that their two cabins still sleep uncharred next to the creek. Maybe they will say how lucky they are, that for some reason the fire burned right up to their homestead and then stopped inexplicably. But it doesn't matter that they won't know that we saved their cabin with a lighter and a handful of pine needles, with minutes to spare. We know. We will always remember.