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.