Friday, September 30, 2011

smoke on the water

It's burning season. The hint of rain is in the air, so the districts are scrambling to light fire on their burn units during this last breath of summer. Back in the day, this might have involved a few people and a couple of drip torches, but now we do nothing without a mountain of paper. Burn plans. Aerial Ignition Project Aviation Safety Plans. Job Hazard Analyses. Go-no go checklists. Several briefings. We suffer through them all, impatient to get to what we all want to do: burn stuff.

It is a poorly kept secret that firefighters don't really want to put fires out. No, we don't want your houses to burn, or the little forest critters, but being on the the steepest, nastiest fire is preferable to sitting in the office doing personnel paperwork and taking required computer security training. We look forward to these times, where we can light fire and watch it burn.

My crew hooks the helitorch up to the helicopter. Pilots like this type of ignition, because they get to fly by themselves and drip fire from a barrel of gas, diesel, and an additive called Flash 21, which is every bit as noxious as it sounds. For those of us at the helibase, this means periods of intense boredom interspersed with the flurry of activity required to switch barrels when the helicopter returns. We hang out, talking about pad thai and (the women) about why men are so difficult. The men mainly agree with this. We can't see the fire from where we are. We look forward to fuel stops, when we can quiz the pilot about the burn.

It's a bittersweet day. Many of the crewmembers are only working one more week. So we enjoy it, even if we aren't up in the helicopter dropping fire. As Brad and I drive back to the station, we start to see the smoke above the reservoir. The burn is going well, and we all had a part in it. A grizzly bear crosses the road in front of us. An enormous crescent moon hangs in the sky. This day is a gift.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


If you know how to look, you can read the stories fire has written across the landscape. Some of them are obvious: rows of dead trees turning a ridge to silver, or the blaze of fireweed in a new meadow. For others you have to walk the mountains to see: a blackened stump deep in beargrass, pieces of charcoal mixed into new rich soil.

We are all scarred by love and loss as surely as the hills are marked by a fast moving fire. A lightning strike to the heart, and we are changed forever. We carry our scars with us, some of us on the surface and some of us buried deep, like the ashes from an ancient fire hidden beneath the forest floor. We use them to protect ourselves against future storms in our lives, to prevent other people from seeing us too closely. The geography of our damage causes us to believe things like these: I will never marry again. I will never trust anyone. I won't find what I am looking for.

But eventually, after every fire, life returns even to the most sterilized soil. Seeds drift in on the wind. Flowers appear like small miracles. It may take years, but the trees come back. The forest may not look the same as it once did, but it is alive. It goes on. And so do we.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Best Fire

Two years ago, Aaron and I rappelled into a fire above Ross Creek. The fire was a short stroll downhill. We would be able to set up a gravity feed for water using blivets and garden hose. Aaron found an elk antler in the woods. At night, strange satellites that we were sure were UFOs raced across the sky. We wondered: was this it? The..Best...Fire..Ever?

Of course, we had some mishaps. The fire had burned deep into the earth, causing us to dig large, suspiciously grave-like holes. Elk threatened to step on me in my sleeping bag. There was the stubborn ember field that refused to die. We got our saw stuck in a tree. We just about ran out of food. Still, it was pretty great.

"The best fire is the one you're on," is an old fire saying, often used to placate rookies who, tired of endless gridding in a black wasteland, whine to move on to the glory of bigger flames. Those of us who have been around awhile know that it's better to stick with the guaranteed overtime then risk being sent home because there are no other assignments.

Still, there have been several Best Fire contenders. There was my first fire, where someone brought a band into camp (why?) and we danced with the Plumas Hotshots. There was the one I hiked seven miles into, alone, high in the Tetons, where I had to navigate snowfields to reach the site. There was the fire in Glacier Park that Paul and I monitored, taking a canoe across a wild lake to collect fuel samples, hearing wolves in the distance. There was the time I got dropped off by a helicopter on a ridge in Alaska, with 5 gallons of water, a case of MREs, and my overnight bag, to spend several days watching a fire far below.

Actually, though, I think the Best Fire Ever is still out there, in the future, a spark not yet created, a lightning strike not yet born. If I ever stop thinking that, it's time to hang up my fire boots and call it a day.

Monday, September 19, 2011

One Hour Callback

This dreaded phrase means only one thing. It is raining (or perhaps snowing) so much that there is little chance the helicopter will be needed for anything. It is marginally better than the two hour, or the (luckily) seldom seen four hour callback. Still, it means the pilot and fuel truck driver will bolt to a more interesting locale, and we will be deprived of their stories for the day.

Half the crew is sick. If they insist on dragging themselves into work, I demand they quarantine themselves where they hopefully will not infect others. The only crewmember who is allergic to bees gets stung by one while in a fit of zealous cleaning. I actually hope to see a bear during my morning run to break up the routine. Back at the base, I complete the helicopter payment paperwork for the day before noon, and, throwing caution to the wind, submit it.

One hour callback demands a slower pace. There will be no racing to the helicopter to see if everyone can be seated, buckled in, with communications established, before the pilot climbs aboard, a procedure that kept us mildly amused throughout the summer. Instead, if the call comes, we will have an hour to eat an extra granola bar, put a warm hat in our packs, and scan the map for likely landing spots.

One hour callback is the counterbalance to the 16 hour days of summer, the mornings we don't have time for a phone call before the helicopter lifts off, the day we went to a neighboring forest for one day and ending up staying for ten. It means the chance to stop and watch the clouds moving in from the park, to see the huckleberry bushes up on the ridge turning color.

More rain is coming. I open the window to let it in.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Fire season is ending. Although there are still heartbreakingly beautiful Indian summer days, it won't be long until the first snow dusts the high ridges. The wilderness fires still burn, but we aren't needed there. The crew drifts through the helibase, making plans for winter. People yawn apathetically at the weather report, at the situation report detailing fires we won't be going to. The helicopter contract has a little over two weeks left.

There is little left to do. I find crewmembers in unlikely places, almost locking one in the cache because I don't see him reading a book in the corner. They perk up at the thought of a garbage run and fight over who gets to drive Nick, a fill-in crewmember, back to the neighboring forest. There are long conversations about food and whether it's worth it to buy a ski pass.

We pile in the truck and drive to a ranger district. It takes two hours on a gravel road, but we are so anxious to do something that we are done early building the slingloads of propane to be taken to a radio repeater site. The local helicopter crewmembers show up and complain, "you guys are already done! There's nothing for us to do!"

The crew swarms the helicopter, removing doors, attaching the longline, and unloading gear in a flurry of activity. This is second nature to them now. The helicopter leaves noisily with its loads of propane. The project is done in record time and we return to the trucks and our own thoughts.

Soon everyone will scatter. Some will hang on as long as they can, working on the districts burning slash piles or marking trees. Some will spend their fire money fast and barely make it to next season. I hope some will travel. I will think of them from time to time when I'm the only one working, looking at the snow fall outside my office windows. Then I will remember these bright beautiful autumn days and how they seemed to last forever, and wonder why it was we ever wanted them to end.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The lost ones

Benny. Andres. Oz. Dennis. Jim. I miss you all, and the other pilots too. I didn't know you long or very well. I was only one in a long line of helicopter managers you worked with, someone to talk to during a reconnaissance flight, to share a story about your wife and kids, just a few moments in a life spent moving from fire to fire.

I didn't think it would end like this for you. I felt safe with you, even as you held my life in your hands. I hope you weren't too afraid when you heard the unexpected sound, felt the pull of gravity. My memories of you transcend the pictures of twisted metal, of flash fires, of the bright scar your broken aircraft made against a summer afternoon.

When I think of each of you, I see you in that last best moment, in that translation between the earth letting go and the sky beginning, when everything is still out in front of you, within reach, still possible.

Monday, September 12, 2011

fire lookout

I went to the fire lookout because there were things I wanted to forget. I was tired of the effort of trying to hold onto what I believed in while it slipped through my hands like water. I wanted to listen to the wind instead of my own voice.

Before bolting down the trail to civilization, the regular fire lookout spun the firefinder and showed me how to shoot an azimuth, how to fix the position of a wisp of smoke miles in the distance. There were no thunderstorms predicted anyway, he said.

 I looked at the mountains, wanting to touch their permanence. I ran my eyes over the curve of a cirque, the shadow of a lake. I walked an elegant ridgeline south of the cabin. I saw ravens cut black ellipses across the sky. I sat so still I felt like part of the earth.

A wayward storm splattered lightning to the north. After dark an orange glow lit up a far ridgeline. I stood on the catwalk, watching it burn.

My azimuth was straight and true. It led to a fire burning like a secret candle deep inside an embrace of trees.

Tomorrow there would be helicopters and spotter planes, firefighters and gear. Tonight it was mine. It belonged to me, high on a mountain in a fire lookout, surrounded on all sides by stars.

Monday, September 5, 2011

How it all started, part 2

Released from fire training, our motley bunch scattered to our regular jobs. On a day off, I lounged in the ranger boat as Scott piloted it toward the Desolation Lookout trailhead, where I was planning to hike up to Jack Kerouac's former perch and spend the night. The radio startled us with an invitation: did we want to join a 20 person fire crew for a 21 day assignment?

Scott and I looked at each other. What the heck, we thought. It would be something different, and we'd make some money. How bad could it be?

We joined a crew pulled together from another park and ours. Most of us were rookies. The real fire people had long been sucked into the political mess of Yellowstone. We tumbled out of school buses into a 3,000 person fire camp. Every day we hiked long distances. Helicopters rattled overhead, but we never flew in them. Without radios or maps we relied on our crew boss, who didn't look fit but whose boots chewed up the miles relentlessly. At camp, Teri and I used black plastic to create a hooch to sleep under. The work was hard, dirty, and exhausting. And I loved it.

I tied pink flagging in my hair as we patrolled a section of line that the hotshots were burning out. Tim broke ranks and snuck over the hill to look at the main fire. He returned wide-eyed. "The flame lengths are 200 feet!" he reported. Another day, we hiked to the top of a mountain to dig hotline against the advancing fire front. Suddenly the two professional sawyers assigned to work with us shut down their saws and started running."We're getting the hell out of here!" They yelled. The fire boiled over our line and reached out for us as we ran down the hill.

Returning to my park ranger job, I felt changed. I felt impatient with the visitors who just wanted to know where the bathroom was and where they could see animals without hiking. I wanted to carry a pulaski and watch fire on the distant hills.

I would apply for a seasonal firefighting job, I decided. I could always go back to nature walks and visitor centers if I didn't like it. How bad could it be?

That was 23 fire seasons ago. Scott is long gone, vanished without a trace in Glacier Bay. I never went back to the visitor center. How could I? I had dug fireline for 14 hours a day with strangers who were now my friends. I had seen mountainsides lit up at night like a thousand candles. I could never go back.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Jake's owl

It was cold at the search and rescue briefing Friday morning. People shuffled their feet, trying to stay warm, as different section leaders read the weather report and gave out assignments to search teams. Jake's family stood in the shadows.

His father stepped forward and told us that he was babysitting his two granddaughters when he got the call that his son was missing. The 3 year old told him not to worry. "Jake's owl will find him", she said, referring to Harry Potter's owl companion. "You are all Jake's owls," his father said to us. "Fly through the woods and find him."

His words will haunt me for a long time.

Later that day our helicopter located Jake. He had fallen 800 feet from Peak 8888. He came to rest on a ledge, in a beautiful, lonely spot impossible to see from the ground. Above him, snow still lingered in the couloir. It was a harshly beautiful place, forbidding but enticing at the same time.

What happened? Was he caught by darkness, attempting to retreat from his ambitious itinerary? Was he pressing on towards Mt. Despair? These dark cliffs were the only witnesses to his final moments. I like to think he was happy as he traversed the difficult terrain, having already come farther than anyone guessed he would.

It was an honor to be Jake's owl today, to find him and help bring him home.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Where are you, Jake?

We've been looking for you for four days now. I stare out the window of the helicopter at rock and snow and lakes, looking for your blue shirt, your curly brown hair. I look for your tracks on the lingering snowfields, for your backpack abandoned on a lonely ridge. Where are you? I need to know.

We are taking a break from our normal firefighting operations to help look for you deep in Glacier National Park. The water bucket and saw are set aside to make room for searchers' packs and bear spray. Instead of talking to Anthony in our dispatch center, we relay through Scalplock Lookout and call Search Team 7, or Upper Park Patrol Cabin. Brave Dog Mountain and Lost Basin have become as familiar to me as the landmarks I normally see on the way to Spotted Bear airstrip to pick up fire managers.

Here is what I know about you: you work in the park on the weeds crew. You're 27, and you love to hike off trail. You scouted this route and wanted to be the first to complete it. Your girlfriend, Katie, silent and lovely, attends the morning briefings. Searchers found your nickname in one of the peak registers, a few tracks, then nothing. Where are you?

Did you slip and fall on the treacherous traverse towards Peak 8888? Did you backtrack, reconsidering, and meet a bear in one of these wild, lonely cirques? Slide on snow into a cold stream? Are you waiting for us under a subalpine fir? It snowed last night up on the ridge. Did you feel the snowflakes on your face?

Do the mountains have you now?