Wednesday, December 26, 2012

the sister (and brother) hood of the traveling firefighters

It's the off season, so chances are that the person next to you on that tropical beach, climbing that mountain, or hiking that trail is a firefighter. Many of us disperse like ashes on the wind after the last fire goes out. I usually know at least two firefighters who are lounging in Indonesia, a couple in Thailand, and a few in South America.

I don't know if we travel more than anyone else, but a lot of us have restless feet, unable to stay in one place too long. During the summer we are always moving from one fire to the next, from state to state, following the smoke. Our bags are always packed and ready. We lock our cars at work because we might not come back that night, or for 21 days. You'd think we would want to stay home after all that, to hibernate. But a lot of us don't.

The people I meet when I travel plan their trips 6 months to a year in advance. They pore over the gear lists and, on their office computers, google their destinations. Not me.  I usually make my decision about a month in advance, probably paying way too much for airline tickets and out of time to brush up on my Spanish. I stuff things in a bag and wonder if I spent too much time sitting at a helibase to haul myself up a mountain. I throw myself into the void and hope for the best.

And it all works out, except when it doesn't, but even then it kind of does. Whether it's a whiny travel companion ("can't we just go to a beach?" he complained, halfway up a glacier in Ecuador), gale force wind in Patagonia, or Cheyne-Stokes breathing in my tent at 19,000' in Nepal, it all seems to end up okay (ditched the travel partner, braced myself against the wind, stayed awake till morning and climbed the peak in fine style).  I'll see you on the fireline, fellow travelers. We'll share stories of where we all were and where we're going.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

cold fires

The wind in Patagonia is legendary. If you're not careful, it can actually pick you up off your feet. You can see it rushing across the lakes, pushing a sheet of water in front of it. When you can see this, it is at least a 50 knot wind coming. You have to wait in the partial shelter of twisted trees before you can make a break for it, digging your trekking poles into the thin soil, moving as fast as possible. A fire in this kind of wind is almost unstoppable.

A wall of wind and water (and wood-fired hot tub) in Patagonia
There is almost no lightning in southern Patagonia. Unlike many places, these forests are not fire-dependent. People start the fires here. Careless campers, unwilling to pay the $7 per night fee, burrow into the trees and have illegal campfires. Hikers unwisely burn toilet paper. One spark released into the face of this kind of wind causes a storm of fire that can run for miles.

Fire danger sign
The rangers try to enforce the rules, but there are few of them, and their salaries are only about $100 a month. There are no helicopters, no vast armies of professional firefighters standing by, waiting to be deployed. They do what they can.

Don't do fire! I look a little crazed due to the wind.
Rodrigo stops in the burned forest. "At least this was a cold fire," he says. He means that the wind pushed the fire through the trees fast; it didn't sterilize the soil, didn't kill everything.  This forest was never supposed to burn. The trees lean over from the weight of the constant wind; they are used to fighting, but not against fire. Still, here and there patches of green are springing up in the black soil. The forest will come back, but it will take a long time.

Monument to a careless trekker
We keep walking. The wind blows through the burned forest. How strange it is to think that the very wind that burned this forest also helped save some of it.

There are cold fires in all of our lives. We are all damaged in our own and unique ways by the firestorms that others start, unintentionally or on purpose. The scars are there, but not everything is destroyed. We can recover from the fire and we can stand against the wind. As strong as it can be, we are stronger.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

distant fires

Fire is everywhere. In the past few days, I walked through the scars left by one, in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. There is no lightning in this place. This one was caused by an illegal camper, unwilling to pay the $7 per night fee.

Soy bombera, it is hard to forget sometimes, but I am trying, in the rocks and the glaciers. More to follow.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


June in Wyoming is hit or miss. It could be cold and rainy, or it could be on fire. This summer it was burning.

I followed another firefighter down the ridge. "Do you know the way?" the crew boss asked him as we left. "Yes," he said confidently. We dropped down through dry sagebrush and into a quiet aspen stand. My companion looked around. "This doesn't look familiar," he said to himself.

"Do you want me to turn on my GPS?" I asked, knowing we were going the wrong way.

"No, not yet," he said, and we kept walking, until it was patently obvious that we had taken the wrong route. "Maybe we should look at it," he said.

Finally, after contouring around a wet meadow and crossing a creek, our feet were on gravel. The crew boss pulled up in his truck. "Thought you knew the way," he said.

Almost anyone who has spent time fighting fire has been lost sometime, although we don't like to call it that. One of my crewmembers preferred "temporarily misplaced." After all, you can usually find your way out, given a sun angle, a compass or a map. Some areas are more challenging than others, though. In interior Alaska, where almost everything was flat, I once misplaced my entire crew in a maze of similar tussock fields and black spruce stands. They had scattered into the trees after being told to stay put in a meadow. Luckily I spied them before they realized anything was amiss.

On other fires, field observers and safety officers have gone astray. "Give me a hoot," is often heard on the radio from firefighters trying to navigate to each others' positions. On a fire this summer we realized that Turbo, our division supervisor trainee, had no idea how to use a compass, as he peered confusedly at the red arrow. Helicopters even get lost, heading for fires 20 miles away instead of the one right in front of them. It happens.

Sometimes people get lost not in the woods but inside their own lives. First B. and then the other B., both firefighters who couldn't find their way out of the dark forests of their minds and took their own lives, both in the same month. There were no maps that could help them retrace their steps and figure out how they got to that place where nothing looked right. Before them there were others I knew, who drank themselves to death or were found alone with the drugs that killed them. For them there were no waypoints, no compasses, no voice they would listen to that could direct them to a place that was safe.

I sometimes daydream when I walk in the woods alone, and because of this, I often find myself in a place that seems unfamiliar. When this happens, at first I feel anxious. Then I stop and look around. I find my tracks in the mud or snow. I see where the sun is moving or where the early evening stars are scattered across the dark sky. I start to recognize where I have been. I know that eventually I can always find my true north, and from there, find my way home.

Monday, November 19, 2012

what I learned from the boys

When I started fighting fire in the late '80s, very few women were choosing this profession. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by men. While this might sound pretty great (I've been known to sing, "It's raining men, hallelujah" when some smokejumpers parachute into my fire), sometimes this was pretty difficult in the early days. I had to prove myself, show that I could run just as fast, hike with the same amount of weight, could keep up. Occasionally I had to ignore crude comments; when I once tried to report someone, my crew boss said, "Take it as a compliment". But for the most part, it's been like having a lot of brothers. They look out for me, joke around with me, and (really important) share their chocolate with me.

Through the years I've learned a lot from the fire guys I've worked alongside.  This is not to say that there aren't awesome fire gals out there or men who shouldn't be anywhere near a forest. But for the most part my passport to guy world has expanded my horizons. Here are some of the things I've learned from them:

Make a decision.  When asked if they are available for a fire assignment, most guys say yes. They don't say that they could maybe go, if nobody else wants to. They don't have to check with their girlfriends. They don't agonize over the fact that they haven't really done that job in years and they might suck at it. Sometimes their decisions might be a little suspect (such as ordering four blivets in the face of an oncoming rainstorm), but at least they make them. As a lifelong waffler, I appreciate this about guys.

Say what you mean. When a guy says something, he generally means it. (There are exceptions: when an ex-boyfriend said "I love you forever and want to marry you" that really meant, "I like you, until I meet someone else," but I digress). Being around men all the time forced me to become more direct. Now I sometimes act as a translator: "OK, when she said 'it's fine', what she really meant was..."

Don't take things so personally.  Guys make fun of each other. They call each other unflattering nicknames. They get mad and talk about it and get over it. Working with a bunch of fire dudes, I had to grow a tougher skin. This wasn't a bad thing. Underneath it all, they really do care about each other.

You are the bomb and everyone thinks so too. Fire guys are usually not short on ego. They walk around like they own the place, and assume that everyone else recognizes their greatness, because why wouldn't they? While occasionally this self-assurance is misplaced, what I learned from these guys was that if I acted as if I was confident even if I wasn't, people believed it, and sooner or later, I did too.

Find solutions.  At my old base, we had a washer and dryer, but we knew that once it broke, we would not be getting another. I had to restrict the crew to only washing their nomex and workout clothes. Seeing T. toting a large basket of laundry containing several shirts that looked like the ones he wore to work, I reminded him of the rules. He looked puzzled. "These ARE my workout clothes!" he said. I quizzed him further. "So, you're saying you wear a T-shirt to work out, and then you wash it and wear the same shirt to work in?" "Yep," he said, "And then wear it to go out to the bar later!" As a female with separate outfits to run in, go to the gym in, to work in, and to go out in, I realized that T. (and many guys like him) had not only tripled his wardrobe options, but also had found a loophole in which he could do ALL his laundry at work! Smart!

Laugh more. When you see a group of guys hanging out on the fireline, sooner or later there will be some laughing involved. Granted, they are probably talking about something dumb like poop, but they are having fun. I've never giggled as much as I have around my goofy, sweet guy friends. They torture me with Crossfit moves and get excited about some silly space jump. They bring me brownies from the Glacier Grill and are happy to see me when I show up on fires. They call me "dude" but compliment me when I wear a skirt. I'm happy to know them.

Thanks guys.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

dear gym

Dear Gym,

As you can see, I'm back. I have to say I didn't really miss you. In fact, I cheated on you a few times with the hotshot weight room at work. I doubt you missed me, as you still extracted money from me all summer long. Your managers did, though; I received several form emails that began condescendingly, "We know there are lots of reasons not to work out. Let us help you get back in the gym." So let me fill you in on what I was doing while I wasn't visiting you:

I burned stuff.

I hiked up to 10 miles a day on this fire.
I helped save this cabin.
I hauled these propane tanks around

I hiked a long way out of this fire.

Now it's winter and I'm back to see you. Surprisingly (or maybe not), the people who were here before I left are still here and look exactly the same. There's Knee Socks, who really gets after it, attacking the elliptical like it's going to get away, and Weight Room Dominator, who monopolizes multiple pieces of equipment at a time. Yoga Girl, whose physique I envy, is here, along with Six Pack, who must never eat a potato chip, ever. There's the herd running to nowhere on the treadmills, and the Talky McTalkersons who socialize more than they work out. I wonder how they stay motivated. I suspect that if I didn't have to carry heavy stuff up hills for work I might slack off more. Who knows: after 25 years of fighting fire it just may be a habit.

So now the gyms will be full of us, firefighters without fires, doing Crossfit and lifting weights and hiking up the stepmill. Given a nice day, though, don't look for me. I'll be on the ski hill or on some snowshoes somewhere. Tell them to send me all the e-mails they want. You'll be around when I come back.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A cow's tale

We gazed uneasily at our helibase medevac pad. This was intended to be the landing spot if a helicopter needed to drop off an injured person from the fire to be picked up by a waiting ambulance. It had stayed peacefully empty since we established the helibase at the Kraft Springs Fire. However, it was now occupied.

A cow lay on the pad marker, about where the skids would come to rest. A large cow. And, well, a dead cow.

Setting up a helibase in an active cow pasture has its hazards. Every day we would pile in vehicles and gently herd the cattle away from the helicopters. They were especially fond of the K-Max and liked to graze in its vicinity. People were assigned to camp next to each aircraft in case a wayward cow decided to lean on them. However, we hadn't planned on this latest development.

Moving the helibase was not an option. The overhead team wanted it where it was. How hard could it be, we wondered, as the temperature climbed into the 90s and an interesting odor began to float our way. We would just contact the rancher, and he would come move the carcass.

We soon learned that in eastern Montana, ranchers don't tend to rush over when cows died on the range. The cow stayed. We held an emergency meeting (upwind).

"Just go into camp and have breakfast," John, my deck coordinator, said. "I will have it taken care of by the time you get back." Gratefully, I fled the scene. Driving back, you always had to make sure not to miss the turnoff into the helibase as it was not marked. This time, there was no issue. This was the sight that greeted me (and everyone else driving by on the main road):

John approached, pleased with himself. "I took two of the lead lines and attached them to two hooves," he said. "Then I attached the other ends to the truck, and dragged it out to the road." He brightened up. "And then, I found the orange paint in the helibase kit that we never use, and decided to make a sign for the helibase. Now everyone can find us!"

The cow was gone in two hours. And yet, its memory remains. Many people who see the picture on my wall in the office recognize it. "I was there!" they say. And this photo has somehow even made it into a national powerpoint presentation on signs in the Forest Service.

Afterward, John only had one regret. "The smell and the bloating didn't bother me," he claimed. "I'm just sorry I spelled the helibase name wrong."

Friday, November 2, 2012

the good crew: a recipe

In my 25 seasons of firefighting I have worked with many crews, some memorable and some best forgotten. During this time I have had plenty of time to ponder what makes a good crew and what makes another turn into a Survivor-like divided tribe ready to vote each other off the island. I have concluded that there are certain essential components of a successful crew. They are:

The Scrounger: This person can build elaborate fire camp furniture from a chunk of inch and a half hose and some pole size trees. They will happily wander off and return with all kinds of swag to make life easier. Sniffling crew members? This person will find all the vitamin C and Airborne within a 5 mile radius. Like a ninja they move through camp, procuring cool stuff. The supply unit will never know what hit them.

The Charmer: Cranky finance lady? No chocolate milk left at the caterer? This person can make it all better with their natural charisma. Nobody can resist their smoldering gaze and friendly phone voice. Send this one in when you really need something. Sometimes the Charmer is also a Scrounger which is an unbeatable combination.

The Fixer: Need motel rooms at short notice on a holiday weekend in a resort town? Incident management team being vague on details of a mission? This crew member is all about solutions.They can handle any logistical nightmare thrown at them and look good doing it. This is your wingman or wingwoman. Do whatever you can to keep them.

The Computer Nerd: Unless you really enjoy spending hours on the phone with the Help Desk and dealing with the 404 not found error, this person is essential. Whether it's adding a printer or getting you permanent admin rights, they are worth their weight in ink toner and G2 pens.

The Comic Relief: Need I say more? Every crew needs one of these (J we are happy you got your dream job but we miss you).

Take these ingredients and stir well. It will be hiring season before you know it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

snow and silence

The weather has taken a hard turn. Summer started late but lingered in the valleys for awhile, stirring up the late season fires. But the helicopter left yesterday, just ahead of a storm. The seasonals are done for the year. Some of them cleaned out their lockers like they don't intend to return, but in February it may be a different story.

There are three of us left. We make lists and handle the last tasks before winter. I haul the crash rescue equipment into the hangar, while B. works on some chainsaws.  We have vehicles to winterize and buildings to clean. We get caught up on paperwork, trying to remember what we did on each fire.
There were so many this summer.  Inevitably there is a problem with one employee's paperwork, and he won't get paid unless I take care of it. Left on hold, I multitask, compiling helicopter statistics for the season (673 passengers! 146,000 gallons of water!)

Soon the others will be gone too, and I will be the only one here. Unless I have a meeting in town at the main office, I will come here in the dark mornings and shovel the sidewalks. I might not talk to anyone all day.

I go for a run on the trails behind the office. In the summer, these old roads are hot and dusty and I hug the shade. Often I encounter another firefighter descending Hamburger Hill, or locals racing around the sand hills on dirt bikes. Now, the forest is taking over. Yellow leaves lie drowning in mud puddles as I splash past. A recent windstorm has toppled trees across some of the paths; I crawl over and under them. A bear has walked here recently; warily I follow its tracks.

It's time for a transition, time to let the season go and embrace the slow slide of autumn into winter. Paperwork instead of flying. Meetings and training instead of sizing up fires and wilderness packouts. Silence.

I pass the ineffective jersey barrier and start on the last half mile. It starts to snow, first lightly and then big flakes. Nobody else is out here.  I keep running through the cold forest, and it slowly turns to white. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

season's end

In the wilderness in mid-October we are on the edge of winter. New snow sifts through the rocks at 7000 feet. The fire lookouts sit lonely in the cold wind and clouds. Season-ending rain is expected the next morning. And yet we fly toward a fire that runs up a ridge, cutting off two people and their dog above it. A few days from now, we will wait for the call to assist in the search for two lost hikers in the park, missing on trails covered in knee-deep snow. Today though, we fly low over a burning forest.

The two men have made it to an open area. It is the only semi-flat spot for miles. They are lucky: we will be able to land there and pick them up. The helicopter settles into a meadow below. I get out and drag out the 60 pound bucket, my pack; anything else non-essential. A line of fire a hundred yards away chews steadily through the dry grass. The helicopter lifts; Brian and Shawn head back up to pick up the men. Back at the meadow, they spill out of the helicopter in relief. Not normally smokers, they ask Shawn for some of his tobacco. We watch the fire spiral through the trees.

It is the last fire of the season. Our small group stands, talking and laughing like people do who have experienced something important, something we will remember into the winter snow and darkness. It's a good way to end it.

Friday, October 5, 2012

zen and the art of type 1 helicopter management

I'm on the road with the type 1 helicopter. While this may sound exciting (Big helicopter! Travel to new and exciting places!), in reality there can be a downside (Big = noisy = relegated to an airport, lots of travel = lots of driving for the manager).  For someone who is used to jumping in an initial attack helicopter at a moment's notice, it can be a little disconcerting to go on an assignment where most of the time you, well, sit around. The first few days were difficult. I paced around. I bothered the mechanics. I started my paperwork early for something to do.

Then I realized I was going about it all wrong. Instead of fighting against it, I needed to embrace the madness. You can learn a lot in the helicopter manager class about administering contracts and filling out paperwork. But here, for any new managers headed out to the type 1 life, are a few other, essential things I've learned:

1. Get to your area and look around. What would make it better? Being men, the previous managers had not thought to order a porta potty. Noting the lack of cover and proximity to an active runway, I immediately procured one. A nice chair is also a must.

Note the lack of cover. Behind the hangars was a rodeo arena.

2. Make friends. The mechanics were sometimes bored (this is a good thing). They liked to talk. As a general rule, mechanics also love cookies. As a result of some chatting and cookie procurement, I would arrive at the airport to find my chair set up and my extension cord for my computer already in place. Thanks, guys!

The entourage

3. Kindle books. Buy some. I'm on day 9 of my assignment and I've read four already. Or, People or Toyota Owner magazines. No judgement here.

My mobile office. I also have a printer.

4. Beware the sport eating! This can lead to the dreaded "heli-butt", or worse! Bring your workout clothes. At times I roamed the neighborhoods around the airport, possibly scaring dogs and small children because of my all-black attire (One of the mechanics called me "Johnny Cash.") I also attempted to eat healthy foods to counteract the cookies I had to try to make sure they were fit for the mechanics to eat.

5. Two words: Flip flops. Essential for those long drives to catch up with the helicopter. Staring down the barrel of a 16 hour drive in a well-used Forest Service truck with only an AM/FM radio? Well, I am, and at least my FEET will be comfy.

6. Relax already! Slap on some sunscreen and a boonie hat and just hang out. It's been a long fire season. You deserve it!

Friday, September 28, 2012

playing with fire

We are flying low and slow, just over the treetops. My door is off and I lean out of the helicopter, looking for the trail where I am supposed to start lighting. The main fire chews its way down the slope; we are here to cut it off at a road and slow its progress.

I feed the machine, filling it with spheres containing potassium permanganate, and watch them roll into the gates where they will be injected with glycol and then spit out through a chute. I see them dropping almost lazily, spiralling through the trees. Once on the ground they turn into orange blossoms of fire. The forest is dry, the kind of dry where you walk through it and everything crackles under your feet. Our little fires are hungry and they grow together, running up the hill and climbing into the trees.

 Johnny Cash sings "Ring of Fire" on the pilot's iPod. The firing boss next to him smiles back at me; we like these moments when the fire churns through the forest like an angry living thing.  We light each line, then back off to watch it catch. It only takes seconds. We fly so close that the heat from the fire feels like a sunburn.

Our control of fire is always tenuous. It only takes one spark, lifted by an errant gust of wind, to undo days of work. But now the burn is going just like we wanted it to, and we watch the smoke climb into the sky. A sphere jams the machine and causes a fire in it. "I have a fire," I say, activating the emergency water, but we are done anyway. We drop down to the helibase, and put our feet back on the ground.

Our fire

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

second home

We have been coming to this helibase for over a month, and we know it well. Getting in the helicopter every morning, I know it will be a 30 minute flight, and unless it's too smoky, we will pass over Jewel Basin and Swan Lake on the way. We know the components of every sandwich at Woody's, where our drivers will stop and pick up food, and no longer need to debate: tuna vs. turkey? The odd but appealing pizza sandwich? Heather and I reminisce about one perfect tuna sandwich, once received but never again recreated. We know where the best shade will be at 3 pm, and where the most stinkbugs seem to gather. It's become a routine.

Sometimes we are busy, hooking up the bucket or loading people on the helicopter. Two crewmembers set out on a mission to establish a heliwell. One sits at the radio table, scanning several frequencies and talking to the aircraft. Other helicopters come and go. But this is mostly a helicopter bucket fire, and there are long stretches of inactivity.

We find ways to fill the days. MB, a student part of the week, does her homework. The rest of us are mildly interested in this. Joe takes her table of elements and tries to figure them out. "Sodium," he is heard muttering. "Potassium, helium." People read books of various genres; when we run out we go see the fuel truck driver, who always has reading material, if you don't mind detective novels and war books. We scrutinize each other's food, which ranges from cheesy puffs to hummus, and try to figure out how old the type II pilot's girlfriend is. A bike and money change hands. We lament the lack of a cell tower. Nobody takes on the pickled quail egg eating challenge. If a mission appears, we swarm the helicopter, taking off doors and rolling out the longline. And the hours pass.

Around sunset, we get back in the helicopter for the return flight. Our drivers leave; it will be nearly two hours before we see them again. We are silent except for the pilot's music as we float across the mountains. We will be back tomorrow to retrace these imaginary lines in the sky. The fire, and our helibase, will still be there, waiting for the next day and the next after that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

late season

We circle a fire in the wilderness. It's getting to be late season. A single larch glows golden in a sea of green lodgepole pines. The fire is trying, though: it chews its way steadily down towards a creek, about two acres strong.

I open the helicopter doors and get out on a seven thousand foot peak. I wonder briefly about the fire lookout that once stood here and the lonely life of the people who staffed it. I drag out food boxes and water for the two people who will stay here for a few days and watch the fire. They will report on its proximity to the closest trail, and whether the area needs to be closed to hikers and hunters.

I feel jealous of their assignment, despite the predicted night time temperatures in the 20s and the 18 mile hike out. If I were stationed here, I would wander the ridge and look for traces of the former lookout building. I would hike down to Christopher Lake, glinting invitingly turquoise below. And I would watch the fire, moving around through the forest like it was meant to do, without our interference.

But this isn't my job today, and I close up the cargo compartments and get back in the helicopter for the flight home. In a few days the observers will hike out. The fire will burn for awhile, until a few hard frosts or fall rains put it out. It will become yet another fire scar like so many in this wilderness. We probably won't be back here. Before we go, I mark the peak in my GPS just to say I was here once, that I saw it, before this fire fades into memory like all the rest.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

packing out

I am following C. along a river. We are loaded down with gear. A sleeping bag and hard hat hang off her pack and swing with every step. We carry fire tools, switching them every so often from one hand to the other. The trail unfolds in front of us, mile after mile, seemingly endless.

We left late yesterday, leaving the scorched whitebark pines of our fire at eight thousand feet and dropping off the lonely, trailless ridge through beargrass and scree to an unnamed lake. There we found a trail that wasn't on the map, winding its way along the creek. "Hey, bear," we called out at likely spots, but we didn't see any, just trees and rocks and water and the trail. We passed an outfitter camp, the hunters eyeing us curiously, shadows already pooling in the canyon. At dark we stopped at an old cabin crouched next to Burnt Creek and slept on the porch. The moon, and a little mouse jumping on my head, kept me awake most of the night staring at the sky.

We woke up in the crisp darkness and now the trail stretches before us, silent and knowing. This trail, this forest, this river, they will be here long after the ache in our backs and feet fade away and our footprints melt into the dirt. We are just passing through on our way to the rest of our lives.

C. carefully crosses the creeks on rocks; I give up and splash through. We run into a trail crew rebuilding a bridge: they have just dropped a chainsaw in the river and are staring fixedly at the beams that remain. We inch across on one of the logs. Only a mile and a half to go. It seems to take forever. Finally we see the holy grail of the trailhead sign and collapse in the grass. Some bicyclists pedal by from the campground and look faintly alarmed at the sight of us. C. reads her kindle, having carried it 16 miles. Our ride out will be here soon. We are in the last days of August. Autumn is waiting, just around the next bend in the trail.

View from our fire

Saturday, August 25, 2012

looking for a place to land

"I think I can land there," Brian says. He is looking at an old road a few hundred yards below the fire. It looks unused, brushed in, but there might be just enough space in between the trees for us to drop the rotors into. I watch the left side: there is a little tree too close, but there is room to scoot the helicopter a little to the right and uphill. I scan for rocks and logs where the left skid will come to rest. Everything looks good, so A. and I unroll the 100 foot longline and attach the bucket while B. takes off the two right doors. As the helicopter rattles away to start dropping water on the fire, B. and A. gather their gear: line packs, tools, chainsaw, gas and oil. They hike away uphill, leaving me in the helispot.

It's impossible to count the times I have done this in a helicopter: scanning the ground, looking for somewhere to land. Usually, implausibly, the forest opens up just enough to slide the helicopter into. Old roads, small meadows, gravel pits; once even straddling the railroad tracks. We perch on pinnacles and rest on gravel bars in rivers. There's almost always a way. We don't trust the recon planes' assessments; they mean well but it's hard to locate a good helispot when you are flying that fast and that high. "There's no LZs," they will report, but we find them. Or they say, "There's a helispot right next to the fire," but when we get there it's too slopey, too marshy, or the brush is too tall.

Some helispots provide a sense of adventure. There was the one that was so close to a cliff that I had to employ some rock climbing moves to get from one side of the helicopter to another. In one place in  the wilderness, the passengers had to take off their boots and wade to the lakeshore from the gravel bar we used as a landing area. A family of bears was enjoying the only open area near a fire as some of my crewmembers peered down from the helicopter, preparing to rappel. In Alaska, we would get out in what looked like a pleasant green meadow, only to sink in a bog up to our knees.

At the fire, I wait at the helispot. The pilot returns with a bucket problem which I quickly fix. Two engines barrel through on the supposedly unusable road. The shadows lengthen and the pilot needs fuel. We gather up the gear and fly away. They will be able to get a hoselay up to the fire from the engines, so we won't be needed here tomorrow. We lift off, and I look back one last time. Someday we may fly over, on our way to another fire, and say "I think we landed there once," but we won't really be that curious about it. The grass that was flattened by the skids is already springing back up. The forest is reclaiming it, just another small opening in the woods, found and then lost again. We are gone, as suddenly as we arrived.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

notes from summer camp

There are a lot of places that firefighters don't mind leaving. Helibases that turn into windy dust bowls. Miserable fire camps overrun by the "camp crud". Sections of firelines covered with poison ivy. Mosquito-ridden helispots. But every so often, you encounter a seemingly magical place. This is a spot where people are friendly and the pace is slower. Cabins are scattered throughout the forest. There are hiking trails. There is no cell service. There might even be a cook there.

The only way to get to this one is by flying or hiking. I wish I could work there.

I recently spend four days at such a place. I was there ostensibly to be the incident commander on a fire; however, my fire, deep in the wilderness, was happily going about the business of putting itself out with no human intervention. So, between helicopter flights every couple of days and the occasional conference call and minor flurries of paperwork, I had time to enjoy the place. I took a loaner dog for walks down to the river. I helped make breakfast for the crew that unloaded a hay delivery. I rode my bike and ran at dusk from my campsite above the river. I took time to notice the silence.

I saw a big elk crossing this river.

There is a similar place in Alaska, a fly-in station that firefighters talk about wistfully. It took leaving Alaska for me to get an assignment there. The helibase was busy with helicopters coming and going, yet in the morning there was time to run 5 miles to the dump and back. In the evening, everyone gathered in the mess hall where there were actual cooks and wireless internet. Later, a few of us adjourned to the sauna the smokejumpers had built. We walked to town and poked around in strange stores. We watched the river go by.

The sauna

To the people who live and work in these remote stations, it's probably just another place to stay. Maybe they wish they were closer to a town, that they actually had time to go somewhere else on their days off. But for those of us who are just visiting, these places make up for the rattlesnake-infested fire camps and the nights in tent farms. I'm already plotting ways to get back.

Monday, August 13, 2012

things we lose when we aren't looking

When you're a firefighter, as with any job that keeps you on the move and on the road, there are things you lose. Usually this happens when you aren't paying attention, gradually piece by piece until one day you wake up and realize that something precious is gone or has changed so much you don't recognize it. Things like relationships, if they aren't strong enough. Plans you once had, to travel, have kids, to climb Mt. Everest one day. Your young, resilient body: just ask someone who's been a hotshot or smokejumper for years. Something always hurts. They learn to live with it.

When I look back across the years I've fought fire, I see a trail of lost friends. It's mostly my doing; my incessant, restless urge to move on after a few years. If they are also firefighters, eventually we run across each other in a fire camp or on the line somewhere. We reminisce a little before walking on. Remember when we had to run through the fire, and the helicopter came just in time, we say, or, Whatever happened to G? She was so funny. But the ones who didn't fight fire, or who quit after a few seasons, were harder to hold on to. They went back to school, got real jobs, got married. Their lives seemed so different after awhile.

I haven't seen my friends J, D and M since May. It's now August and it's been a busy summer of fire and flight. It would have been easy to just go home; after all, I have to leave early for another fire in the morning. But they had been there for me during a difficult winter. So I put on a dress and drive over. My sweet friends give me cookies and wine and tell me stories about their summer adventures. "I'm happy now," I say. And I am. I've let too many things go, but not this: sitting with good friends in the soft summer twilight, laughing and talking. This, I need to keep.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

dirty august

George was 60, and he had been around for awhile, since the days when you got hired on a helitack crew because you didn't weigh much and wouldn't overload the helicopter. Around this time of year he would look around and and tell people to watch out. It was Dirty August.

Dirty August happens when you've been working long hours on fires and there's no end in sight. It's when tempers flare and people's feelings get hurt easily. It's when the whining begins, when people start to want days off, when the true fire season in the northwest usually begins.

My crew still rolls in to work early looking somewhat eager. They realize that the lack of sleep and rushing around combined with long periods of inactivity while waiting for smoke to appear will translate into money that will help carry them through the winter. "We only have seven paychecks left," one says, flipping through her Smokey Bear calendar.

Around the forest, though, some people are starting to falter. Gossiping is rampant. Mysterious new policies appear, yet cannot be substantiated in writing or even quoted. Firefighters' decisions are questioned by those who haven't set foot on the incident. It's Dirty August at its finest.

And yet. There is new snow on some of the mountaintops as we fly down the reservoir. People are starting to get ready to go back to school. Burn periods are starting to shorten.

Dirty August can't last forever. And when it's over, we'll look back and remember the fires and the flights we took over the wilderness, not the backstabbing and attacks of the crazies that occurred. Summer is slipping away faster than we can imagine. It's time to savor its sweetness before it's too late.

The reservoir through the helicopter window

Monday, July 30, 2012

the adventures of Norm the firefighting gnome

This year the helicopter showed up with a mascot. His name is Norm, and he is a firefighting gnome. He even carries a shovel. He is on loan, or kidnapped, from somewhere: the story isn't quite clear.

Norm on the tarmac, ready to go

Norm generally rides in the helicopter in the compartment where the pilot keeps some gear and the tie-downs. We try to keep an eye on him because sometimes he escapes to the fuel truck. "Where's Norm?" can be heard frequently among the crew. It is our mission to take pictures of Norm in as many places as possible this summer. He has yet to make it to an actual fire this summer, mostly because nobody really wants to carry him in their pack as he is made of metal. However, he has been to several helispots so far.

Norm at an airstrip. If you look closely, he is living dangerously, with a cigarette in hand.

Having Norm along makes things a little more fun, and we're not unique in feeling this way. A pilot I once worked with always had to have two matching stuffed animals sitting on the dashboard. One year he picked some plush vaguely insect-looking creatures, who when squeezed, yelled "Don't bug me!" The "Bug-Mes" rode along happily in the helicopter until the next year when they were replaced by some other toys. The tanker base in Billings has its own mascot, an electronic parrot that watches over the place and can copy what they say. The pilots and staff excitedly chipped in money to buy it.

Does this mean we are just kids at heart? I hope so. In the meantime, Norm lurks in the cargo compartment, ready for his next big adventure.

Monday, July 23, 2012

scenes from a fire camp

On Saturday night the crew spent the night on a 30 acre fire. We slept in a field under falling stars. Here is what it looked like:

Helitack, engines, and hotshots in perfect harmony

Early morning on the Dry Blood Fire

Saturday, July 21, 2012

all the world's a stage (sometimes)

Staging. The very word can strike fear and loathing into the hearts of most firefighters. Everyone has a bad staging story. In 1994, my 20 person hand crew sat for several days under a yellow tarp in the 100 degree heat in Fruita, Colorado, along with several other crews. Adding insult to injury, our hours were cut to 8 a day, giving the place the name "Straight Eight Staging." At first we whiled away our time by using the gym at the school where we were stationed, but were soon exiled, due to someone from another crew stealing some weights and ruining it for everyone. Every so often an official looking person would wander through the maze of tarps with a clipboard, and we would see crews, suddenly energized, tearing down their tent and heading out for an assignment. After seeing some contract crews leaving before us, we suspected we had become lost in the shuffle, and began assigning each crewmember to sit under the tarp for an hour a day, looking hopeful and hardworking, in case the clipboard-toting man came by. Any crewmembers who were absent when we made the assignments drew the hottest part of the day to be "Tent Mom."

Eventually we escaped Straight Eight Staging for a rehab assignment, which we embraced wholeheartedly, happy to be out of there. Through the years I have visited many other staging areas. They are an unfortunate necessity of firefighter life: a central place to gather resources from which they can be quickly dispersed as needed. Sometimes this never happens though, and you and your crew become residents, lurking around a field, school, or dispatch lawn like a strange group of homeless people who dress in nomex pants and fire boots.

"You guys are going to be really busy here!" the Forest Aviation Officer says. We look at the lightning map. Seven thousand strikes! We excitedly board the helicopter and embark on a three hour recon. At first we look diligently for smokes. After awhile though, seeing nothing but green vegetation, the trainee helicopter manager starts looking at places where he could take his snowmachine, and I look at frozen lakes and hiking trails and ask the pilot to drop me off. We drift through sunshine and rain, a red helicopter among twelve- thousand foot peaks.

Days pass. We go on a couple of wild fire chases, finding a culprit coal mine throwing up dust but no fires. It is 100 degrees. The crew finds innovative places to hunker and read Kindle books. A Canadian pilot is obsessed with Bigfoot, which we find mildly amusing. "There's sightings all over, eh," he exclaims. We go to a Halestorm concert. I run on a ridgetop trail in the mornings and one of my crewmembers finds some rocks to boulder on. Like territorial dogs, we growl when another helicopter shows up. "Why are they here," we mutter.

It's the staging life. But there are no complaints. It's raining at home. There will be plenty of time to sit at our helibase waiting for a fire call. Until then, we wait for the smoke to rise and an order to come through. We'll be ready.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

walking the line

Five am. Time to get up. After 10 days on this fire, I have a routine. I survey fire camp. It's smoky today, meaning that there will be an inversion over the fire for awhile this morning. I go to briefing, and hang around the division breakouts, but I'm not really assigned anywhere. I corral my supervisor, the Situation Unit Leader. He waves vaguely at the map. "We don't have this line GPSed yet," he says, indicating a large swath that covers two divisions. To the uninitiated, this might look like a trail I could skip happily along, but from being out here I can tell it will be two days of hard hiking, contouring around rock cliffs and slogging through a black forest.

I look at my gear. GPS, check. Map. Plenty of water; while I may pass through helispots, there's no guarantee there will be cubitainers there. The boring, inadequate lunch. A pulaski, although I have yet to use it on this fire. I drive as far as I can toward the fire, stopping where some crew buggies have parked. There is no one around. I scout for the line, marking some dozer line on my GPS that hasn't been mapped. Then I start walking.

My job on this fire, Field Observer, is the best assignment out there. On my first fire, on one of our endless trips into the already burned forest to mop up yet again, we encountered a field observer perched on a rocky outcrop. He was watching fire sweep through a tree-filled basin. He wasn't part of a crew, constantly within hearing distance of 19 other people at all times. He wasn't digging in the dirt. He got to go where the fire front was, and sketch a map of its progress. Someday, I thought, hurrying to catch up with my crew.

Now, I walk the line, alone. There are places where the fireline ties into rocks, and I climb up and around them. Occasionally I run into crews, who seem surprised to see me. Usually the only people who wander the fire alone are crew bosses scouting out ahead of their sawyers, or division supervisors. "FOBS," I say in greeting. I imagine they look a little bit envious. I stop for awhile on top of a 9300' peak and chat with a couple of lookouts. We take weather together and compare notes: yes, the humidity really is down to 3%.

One day my friend Brenda, who is here as a fire behavior analyst, and I hike together. I haven't seen her in 12 years. We walk for hours, pausing to have lunch at a high subalpine helispot. We take a shortcut that doesn't turn out to be one. We get caught up.

On my last day as a FOBS I am assigned to GPS burned and cut fences. Really, there isn't much work left and I know enough to take my time. I listen to music as I walk. It is 95 degrees. I think I hear a rattlesnake, but as I look around I find a small elk antler lying in a group of aspen. I strap it to my pack and walk on.

Later, I will join a 20 person crew, some of whom are my friends. We will save some cabins. We will drive home together and talk and laugh. That will be good too. For now, I have solitude and the sound of my own breathing. I keep going, walking the line.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

fighting fire with fire

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.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

the solace of uncertainty

It's only two acres, the land I'm thinking of buying. It was once part of someone's pasture, level and grassy with a few tall trees at the back fence. Maybe they loved it, but fell on hard times and had to sell, carving up their ranch into small lots, or maybe they can't believe their good fortune to be able to ask so much for such small parcels. I probably won't ever know.

I think about this land and sometimes I drive by it. It's only about 3 miles from the house I rent. I think about the fire lookout style house I want to build on it. And yet I can't commit. Although I bought and sold two houses in the past, this seems like a big step. Although everyone told me to buy permanent license plates for my truck, that I'd save money if I stayed two years, I couldn't bring myself to do it.

As a firefighter, you live about half the year in a state of unpredictability. People learn not to count on you being there for holidays, weddings, birthdays. Even if you're not out there following the lightning as it moves from Arizona to Alaska to Oregon, you come home well after dark on those long, soft summer days. And yet, friends of mine seem to have no problem commiting to a settled kind of life. They get married, have kids, send roots deep into the community. They belong to a place instead of just to themselves.

I have never been able to do this. Since I left my childhood home, I haven't lived anywhere for more than five years. At first I could blame this on the seasonal lifestyle, the need to leave small timber communities every six months to find work. But I have had a permanent job for over 15 years now. I don't have any excuse for the desire to find out what might be around the next corner, to pack everything up and just go.

But maybe this isn't such a bad thing. I cringe at the classic job interview question: where do you see yourself in five, ten years? I make something up that they want to hear, but I don't know, nor do I want to. Strangely, having choices feels safe. Whenever I try to make a plan, something unexpected happens: a helicopter crash, a divorce, a chance meeting with someone who will change my life. I balance on the edge between home and the unknown. With each new place I ask: could this be it, the one that will keep me off the road? And the answer is always, maybe.

So I dream about lying down in the tall grass of the former pasture and calling it mine. Maybe I will, or maybe in a year or so I will be in a new place watching fire walk through a different forest. Either way, my mind and heart will be open to every possibility.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

as the rotor turns

Lately I've noticed a plethora of really bad reality shows on TV. Not that I watch them, of, of course not. But it makes me think. Why couldn't my crew be on one? After all, there are shows about people living in a house and partying (Jersey Shore), wives of basketball players, though inexplicably none of them seem to be currently married to basketball players (Basketball Wives), and groups of impossibly good-looking people who for some reason can't find anyone to date except on a TV show (The Bachelor). My crew must be AT LEAST as interesting, right?

I even have a name: As the Rotor Turns. It would star an attractive brunette; Catherine Zeta-Jones comes to mind. (Here's where I need to tell my friends reading this to stop laughing). It would be full of intrigue, death-defying stunts, and drama. All real, of course. But here's where my idea falters a bit. On my crew, we actually get along, most of the time. Even brush fits don't last long, usually triggered by several weeks of bad weather, messiness of others, or sickness instead of family secrets, betrayal, or mean gossip. Unlike some pilots and mechanics I have encountered, ours are relatively drama-free and can often be found sleeping or reading books. So, sadly, we probably won't be making $25,000 just to show up at a party anytime soon like the Jersey Shore kids. Here is what a typical episode would probably consist of:

Attractive Brunette (aka me): The crew is way too quiet! They must be up to something!

Cameraman (wakes up from a nap) : Finally!

A.B. (bursts into the hangar): All right, what are you guys doing?

Young, Enthusiastic Crewmember: I'm fixing this chainsaw.

Two Veteran Crewmembers : We're patching the leaks in the chase truck.

Third Crewmember (brandishes a mop): Um, cleaning?

A.B. (deflated): Well, is anyone mad? (Blank stares from Crewmembers). Sad? (More blank stares). Hungry?

Cameraman: I should never have quit that Kardashian show. These are the most boring people on earth!

Of course, camera crews are never around when the really interesting things are happening, like when I evacuated civilians from in front of a fire, or when the window cracked and fell out of the helicopter in flight. But for the most part, I'll take the relatively drama free life we live on the crew. I don't really want to vote anyone off the island anyway.

What the people on The Bachelor are really saying

Friday, June 8, 2012

some thoughts on rain.

It rains. And rains. And rains some more. Locals say this is typical for June, but even they are starting to look skeptical. The rivers are at flood stage. It snows in the mountains. The crew hikes into a proposed  tree planting unit to establish a sling site and finds a foot of snow. A fire crew without fires is a sad thing. It's only a matter of time before morale starts to plummet.

With all this precipitation, I've had a chance to reflect on the many types of rain that a fire crew might encounter. While it may all look similar, there are in fact subtle differences. Here are a few kinds I have identified:

Season-delaying rain: This typically starts in May and can continue into the summer months. If it lasts too long, it can turn into its soul-sucking cousin, no-season rain. At first, firefighters tend to be optimistic, forecasting that at least all this rain will cause lots of vegetation to grow, creating fuel for future fires. After awhile, they just tend to growl, get bitter and lose all hope.

Project-stopping rain: This type of precipitation usually occurs when the weather forecast is for 80 degrees and clear skies, and elaborate plans have been set in motion, such as ordering a helicopter with a $400 cancellation fee, getting people over from the neighboring forest, and leaving expensive gear out in the open. Project-stopping rain often leads to desperate statements as, "It looks like it's clearing up! Let's try it!" while equipment is slowly floating away and your crew is succumbing to hypothermia.

Pack test rain: This always occurs when you have to take your annual pack test (3 miles in 45 minutes with a 45 pound pack). Generally you end up wearing several pounds extra in wet clothes while the pack test administrator giggles smugly at you from a warm, dry vehicle, telling you to pick up the pace.

Type 1 rain: This occurs when you fail to get out of the way of a large helicopter water drop. This is a true rookie move. Don't let your crew see this happen.

Day 4 rain: As the name implies, this occurs early in a fire assignment while you are still counting your blessings for having escaped your dreary home unit for a supposedly lucrative two weeks away. If it keeps up, you'll be dragging your soggy, not much richer butt home on day 6 to what? Yes, more rain.

Season-ending rain: Assuming there actually is a fire season, this is the deluge that ends it. The pilot will be found sleeping much more than usual. The mechanic may be cranky. The crew hunkers in their hiding places. You actually have to attend mandatory training. You buy your ski pass. It will snow soon.

For now, we joke about the rain. We run in it, cut trees in it, and fix the leaks in our chase truck. We're a fire crew with no fires, with snow in June, but we are making the best of it. So far.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

last flight

The news is sparse and slow to arrive, trickling like drops of water through cyberspace. A heavy air tanker has crashed this evening on a fire on the Utah/Nevada border. The pilot and co-pilot are dead, which is the way this story usually goes. The air tankers are grounded again; this isn't the first time. There will be an investigation. The fire will eventually go out whether we fight it or not. The black spot in the high desert will fade and disappear into memory.

I have heard this story so many times before: different names, different places, but it is still the same. I have known some of these lost pilots, sat next to them in helicopters, waved as they took off to yet another lightning strike in the hills. Would they think this end was worth it? There's no way of knowing. We always say we would like to go doing what we loved, but in that moment, when you hear the sound of tearing metal and see the ground rushing up to meet you, all you want to do is stay around a little longer.

Rest in peace, Tanker 11 crew.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

the waiting game

The seasonals have come back to work. Now there are ten of us. But fire season is getting off to a slow start. There are a few incidents elsewhere, but there are plenty of resources closer than we are. One of my crewmembers escapes to a fire in Colorado, but it is soon handled, and he returns glumly to our daily rain showers. It snows in the mountains. Another crewmember impresses the hotshots during their physical training day and is invited to go with them on an assignment to New Mexico. The rest of us wait.

There is plenty for a fire crew without fires to do. We line up thinning projects, trail clearing, and fireline construction around burn units. We burn piles with propane torches. The seasonals suffer through mind-numbing mandatory training and possibly more interesting fire classes. As usual, everyone's computer profile has been erased, necessitating numerous phone calls and paperwork. I plan helicopter training with the park. Anyone who calls about the possibility of a project is overwhelmed by our enthusiasm. Spontaneous barbecues are known to occur.

Still, we all know why we are really here. We hope for a summer of fire, one we will look back and remember for years. So while it rains and we keep ourselves busy, we keep our bags packed and our boots ready. Because you never really know. It could be tomorrow.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

let the sparks fly

Ready or not, fire season is coming. It has already made it to the southwest, not as dramatically as last year, but there are a few fires, with crews staged throughout the region. One of my crewmembers goes off to Colorado as a safety officer. There is talk of assembling a 20 person crew from the forest.

This is what it's like: you make plans, but prepare to break them. You line up people to take care of your pets in case you get the call. You pack your bag. You put relationships on hold, so hopefully you have chosen someone who can understand. You go to work, not knowing if you will be back that night or three weeks from now.

Or not. Some seasons, you just wait. It rains, seemingly everywhere in the country. Helicopters on contract sit, barely turning a blade. Crews spend the entire season in thinning units, cutting and piling slash. You get off work when it is still light out. You get your money's worth from the expensive gym you pay for year round but usually don't use for four months straight.  It doesn't feel quite right, but you can go on backpacking trips in July or put your kayak in the river. You get to savor the sweet deliciousness of borrowed time.

This is what I know about my 25th season: it could be a summer of fire or a summer of rain. It's a little too early to tell. Some people study the long term weather analyses like they can change things. They look at drought indexes and fuel moistures and make earnest predictions. They talk about the 6 year cycle: 1988, 1994, 2000, 2006: surely 2012 will follow the pattern. But despite all your wishing, you can't make lightning strike where or when you want it. Storms grow and then they die; forests are ready for the spark or they aren't. Sometimes the surprise is the best part: when you wake up to the sound of thunder and the night is lit up all around you.

So I'm going to wait and see. Either way, the days are long and full of promise. It's all starting.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

only the beginning

We rattle down the road in the chase truck toward Spotted Bear. It's so early in the year that the road is still closed, and the ranger station is deserted. It's only 55 miles, but the drive takes almost 2 hours. Our mission today is to transport a radio technician to a remote generator site and sling down empty propane bottles.

We do this project several times a year, but three of the four men with me have never been a part of it. We are happy to get out of the office. In only a week, the seasonal employees will start work again, but today it is just us. We watch as the helicopter circles the airstrip and lands softly in the grass. It has come with snow pads, but when we approach the high ridge we can see that we won't need them.

It takes a long time for the radio technician to fill the large propane tanks, so there isn't a lot to do. The inevitable snowball fights begin. We run around like little kids, ambushing each other. I lie on the snow in the sunshine, making a snow angel. At 7000 feet, it is warm enough to wear t-shirts. Up here, it smells like summer.

We roll empty propane bottles, 75 pounds each, into cargo nets, and one by one they are plucked off the mountain. We hate to leave, because leaving means this perfect day is over, and back in our offices things like personnel actions, aviation safety plans, and conference calls await. But the shadows are lengthening, and the helicopter has to get back to Missoula. We wave as Mike takes off in the L4, and talk and laugh on the long drive back. For me, this is the best part of my job: a helicopter flight, friends and sunshine. All the paperwork, computer problems, and bureaucracy doesn't really matter. What matters is this: these days, each one running into the next, but still separate, unique, each one perfect.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

burning for you

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.