Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Ops normal

...well, as normal as they can be when you're working over 50 extra hours a week and the air is full of smoke.

The minions are hanging in there, although Dirty August is about to turn into Snaptember.  A building boom ensues, with a saw bench and crash rescue box being constructed. T. builds a contemplation bench for the arboretum.  With so many of us here due to the extreme fire danger, our garden gets unprecedented attention, and I wander around eating cherry tomatoes off the plants.  The clerks at the local store look bemused as we buy ice cream, chips, and chocolate.  We eat these things until someone declares that they want a salad, kicking off a round of healthy eating.

At fire camp, C. is bitten by a skunk as he compassionately takes a beer can off its head; he begins a series of rabies shots.  A new t-shirt design is conceptualized, puzzlingly involving a pterodactyl.  T. gets in some saw practice, learning the keyhole cut.  J. attempts to plan winter travel, but gets stymied by how many countries there are in Central and South America: he wants to see them all.  We are able to exercise a little; there is bear scat on the running trails.

It stays hot and dry.  New fires start.  Old ones roar back to life, causing evacuations and residents to grumble about air quality.  We do the best we can, but we have had almost no rain since June and resources are limited. Still, it always ends.  Flying along the lake, I see a single yellow larch tree.  It's an outlier: its neighbors' needles won't turn for weeks yet.  But they will.

So we work, while other people hike and float around in boats.  We don't complain, because it's what we signed up for.  For some of us, it's just what we know, while the new people are still trying to figure out if it's what they want.  Fall is around the corner, but for now we are here, flying and hiking these hills, following the smoke.

Monday, August 21, 2017


I walked into the funeral home without a plan.  Although I  hadn't ever met Brent, a firefighter killed by a falling tree, I've been a firefighter so long that in a way I did know him.  He was every fire brother I've ever known.  It could so easily have been someone I loved. 

The room was full of hotshots.  Most of them didn't know Brent either, but they had stayed with him all night and all day since he had arrived here so he wouldn't be alone.

I didn't know what to say.  It was a sterile place that reminded me of a hotel lobby.  I didn't feel anything here.  Rest in peace?  It's a comforting statement for some, but most firefighters I know aren't ready for that.  They would want to be here still, stirring things up.

The next day there would be a procession.  The white hearse would turn onto the street, flanked by hotshot superintendents' trucks.  At the airport there would be an honor guard and bagpipes.  The bagpipes would make most of us cry.  The coffin, covered with an American flag, would be loaded onto the Sherpa airplane, and Brent would take his final journey home to California.

Watching all this, I would wish not that we weren't so good at this, because it's important to the family and friends that we are, but that we weren't so used to this.  We know how to line up and file into a stadium or onto the tarmac. We know what the honor guard's commands mean.  The hotshots already have black armbands, sewn not for the last service but for the one before that.  We know what to expect when the bagpipes start, and we are ready for it.

I left the funeral home feeling empty.  There were no answers or peace there for me.  On an impulse,  I pulled off the highway.  There was no sign for where I was going, but I found it anyway.  I parked my truck and walked up a dirt driveway into the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas.

It was quiet except for the wind and my footsteps as I walked in a circle around the grounds.  Buddhas were everywhere, on walls, as statues, and tucked in nooks throughout the garden.  I touched a prayer wheel, looking for a place to stop.  I found it on a bench overlooking a pond.

All my ghosts were here; the pilots, firefighters and friends I've known who died too soon.  I looked at the water.  The Buddhas in the garden didn't ask anyone to believe in anything.  They were just there, serene.  Anyone was welcome to come here and stay awhile.

"I'm sorry, Brent. Take care," I said.  And I walked out of the garden back into my life.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Too busy to write, so here are a few pictures of what I've been doing:

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

In the shade of a Ford Escape: Hot times at a fire called Sunrise

It was hot, one hundred degrees hot.  The sun beat down on the treeless airstrip.  The pilots had retreated hours ago to their air-conditioned trailer and were watching the Tour de France on their satellite TV.  They deserved the perks though; after all they had been flying 7 or 8 hours a day on the fire that was up in the hills ten miles away.

The Sunrise Fire was angry, like the other fires around it in western Montana.  Every day around four o'clock when the temperature was at its warmest, it would throw a tantrum, crossing roads meant to be containment lines, threatening houses, and spewing embers up to a mile in front of it. 

I wasn't on the front lines.  All I could do was watch it and send the aircraft to it, where they dropped nine hundred gallons of water at a time over and over again.  While the pilots were out flying, I did the daily paperwork.  I moved my chair around following the meager shade of a small hybrid car.  When I couldn't stand it anymore, I walked down the ramp to visit J. and B., two other helicopter managers who were usually up for a distraction.

J., looking tired, asked me where I was camping.  The helibase, stuck between the interstate and a busy frontage road, was far too noisy.  I hesitated, but he seemed cool, so I divulged my spot, a fishing access site. 

You can ease into a river like that, still cold in late July, but it's better to just jump in, even though it takes your breath away.  Even though it would be ten at night before I got to camp, I would lie down in the water, just for a minute or two.  At noon when the sun was at its highest and there was no shade, I thought about that river.  It was the best part of every day. When you're living outdoors, it doesn't take much to make you happy.

After two weeks, the fire was still angry, but it was time for me to go. I briefed my replacement on what he needed to know.  There were pilot duty logs that needed to be carefully monitored because they were flying so many hours.  There were relief crew costs that needed to be entered, and upcoming maintenance to be aware of, as well as helibase quirks.  It was all important, but so was the river.  I gave him directions to the campsite.  If all goes well, he should be jumping into the water right about now.