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.