Monday, September 21, 2020

A wolf that's coming for us all

 The above quote is from a friend. He is describing Covid-19. While I really hope it isn't true, it's hard to keep the faith. 

There are more and more cases in my town and state every day. The main office is partially closed due to some positive employee cases. People I have interacted with have come into contact with Covid positive individuals. There is also a large number of anti-mask, conspiracy theory believing, pandemic deniers who live in this valley. One of them cruised by my employee in the grocery store, maskless, coughing derisively as he passed people wearing face coverings.

Friends ask me to hike, and I make up excuses (usually "I have to work," which is true). The real reason I avoid them is because I see their pictures on social media, hiking with groups, hugging people, and going to bars and restaurants. There are basically two people I trust to hike with these days; still, we are careful in our interactions.

If I get sick, my whole fire crew is quarantined. This includes the pilot, who won't be able to fly, go home, or basically do anything for 14 days. We can't respond to fires; there is nobody to fill in behind us. But there is only so much we can do. We have to trust each other: our lives are in each other's hands. We do our best.

I take solace in just a few people. I stay home more, or in the woods. I haven't had a haircut since January or set foot in a restaurant. I don't miss these things, but I do miss my friends. I miss travel; maybe I even miss the possibility of travel more.

Stay strong, friends. Be safe.

Simpler days, hiking in Patagonia

Tuesday, September 15, 2020


 The blanket of smoke rolled eerily into town Saturday afternoon.  Because for us it is drift smoke, it doesn't burn our eyes or smell strongly. It just sits there, keeping the helicopter from flying and obscuring the mountains.

I hear people complain about the smoke. These tourists probably planned their vacations for months and they still came, despite covid. They want to see the glaciers and the lakes.  I understand, but I'm not very sympathetic.

My town is not on fire. We enjoyed a mostly fire free summer for once. We had lots of days of clear skies and warm temperatures. The smoke that blankets our valley now is a nightmare for someone farther west. People have lost homes and loved ones. They are struggling.

Firefighters are working desperately to save communities and are devastated when they can't. Many of them are making $14-16 an hour to risk their lives for someone else's land.  Many are seasonal employees; they don't get retirement or health insurance and are laid off after summer ends. They breathe smoke like this for months. They have to listen to politicians who don't care about science saying they should be "raking the forest."

Here in my town we are fortunate this year. Soon fall rains will come. But our hearts are with those who are still in the fight. 

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Dog Days

Work days are dragging here. There are fires other places we hear, but not here, not really. Oh, there are a few in the wilderness, but they are not being actively suppressed, because they are only doing good out there. The lightning season is pretty much over. The careless people leaving campfires unattended are doing it along roads, where an engine can drive up and take care of it swiftly. Although it is slow, it is too hot and dry to send most of us away to where help is actually needed. We have become a sad thing: a fire crew without fires.

To my hiking friends, this is good. They can't fathom actually wanting fires. But this is what we train for, what we get paid to do. Doctors don't want people to be sick, but they want to have patients; otherwise they are useless. None of us want large fires, the kind that burn homes and cause a large army of overhead people to be imported, but a few small ones, high up on the mountain: we would take those.

The crew attempts to stay busy. They split endless rounds of wood for the rental cabins. They rejoice in being almost done, until an engine rolls up, drops off more wood, and flees. They do online training and run the weedeater around the buildings. A bird finds its way into the hangar; surely the dumbest bird ever, it can't find its way out. Several creative solutions are floated involving nets, recorded bird songs, and improvised poles. This takes up several hours until finally the errant bird has had enough and exits.

We have time for resource projects that might normally go by the wayside. I take a couple crewmembers and hike over six miles into an abandoned mine site above a turquoise lake in the currently closed area of the national park. We jump a blonde grizzly on the trail: it stands up, looks at us, takes one step in our direction and decides to run off. When we get to the mine, it is too windy for the helicopter to bring in the supplies needed to complete the project. The mine experts who hiked in with us are disappointed. "I hiked 6 miles for nothing," one grumbles. "Twelve, " I say helpfully, since we have to hike out. But I am happy: who gets to do this and get paid? Normally this lake is swarmed with people.

I write a plan for flying into an abandoned lookout cabin with archaeologists. They have heard it is a steep hike and want to fly there. I hiked there this summer and it wasn't that bad, but I don't discourage them, anticipating a beautiful flight. I tell the park radio techs that they probably need to go back to a scenic ridge that we landed on last summer. "Hmmm, we probably do," one says, taking the bait.

I'm sure some of my employees expected more this summer: more fires, more money, more activity. But you take what you get in a weather dependent profession. After over thirty years of doing this, I know it all evens out.  For them, there will be other summers, ones where they will be tired of constantly moving from one fire to another, when they will just want it to rain. Then they might look back on this season, and remember a hike they were able to do, or a leap into an alpine lake. 

Fires will be back, but we might not. Today we are here. Not everyone gets to stay in this life as long as they want. We need to embrace these days.