In the Line of Fire
Thomas Klein '90 leaves the classroom behind to fulfill his fantasy of fighting wildfires
Sometimes fighting fires in southwest Wyoming involves more than training, smarts, and courage. It requires a bit of wishful thinking. Although the land is dry, the fuel a fire craves is often lacking. And because seasonal firefighters get hazard pay for actual fires-not to mention overtime and incentives for working Sundays and holidays-they spend a fair amount of time scanning weather maps and hoping for lightning strikes. "Black acres make green wallets," the saying goes, and firefighters need a blaze to make it come true.
I learned this last summer fighting fires for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) around Rock Springs, situated among some of the brown hills of Wyoming. The name of the place is accurate, if you ignore any suggestion of coolness or moisture implied by the word "springs." Most people traveling I-80 experience it as a slowing and a dip, where the semis roar jake-brakes to negotiate the curves around Little Mountain.
I am an assistant professor of English at Idaho State University in Pocatello, where I have taught for the past two years. I like to spend my summers outside of the academy and thought firefighting might be a good way to get to know some of the backcountry. But there were other reasons. Again and again in dreams, I find myself part of an army preparing for an approaching enemy. Glancing at one another, my companions and I shift our weapons in our hands, as the enemy rounds the hill ... In some way, I thought I might be able to live out this fantasy by fighting fires.
Our area of responsibility was huge, comprising some five thousand square miles, although the roads covering this zone are few and far between. We quickly learned that few fires occur here, although we were often called out on false alarms. Once, one of the rangers at Seedskadee Wildlife Refuge--who should have known better--reported a fire that was in fact smoke from a nearby processing plant.
But in early July, the false alarms came to an end when several of my crewmates and I were called up to join the southern Wyoming handcrew, an ad-hoc interagency group formed to help fight a series of fires near Craig in northwestern Colorado.
We packed until 1:00 a.m., slept two hours, then headed south. While the others slept, the dim landscape of rock and sage spun past. I felt that my old life was passing away, and I was being carried towards something new. Heroism? Danger? I wasn't certain.
Our supervisor, Steve, drove us through the night. A middle-aged misanthrope with a shock of white hair, he's a man accustomed to being absolute boss of his small domain. Riding shotgun is Jay, the woman in our group, who is athletic and alternately talkative and reserved. To my left is Wade, a dark-complected and very serious nineteen-year-old who recently served six months for vandalism. One night in Pinedale, he and his friends smashed through the glass door of a convenience store, where they were greeted by the owner and her shotgun. And to my right is Blake, a sandy-haired kid with a light beard and a loud mouth who became a friend. A smoker, he gets out of breath after even a short hike.
There were some twenty others in the trucks that followed. Of them, I will mention only Jared, a squad boss with a round face and circular glasses. Although he resembles Radar O'Reilly, he's far more adventuresome than the M.A.S.H. character, which he once demonstrated by eating deer scat.
We arrived at what was labeled the Broken Track Fire on Tuesday, July 3, 2001. The road ran along a ridge, and smoke rose just over the lip of the hill. Our seven rigs pulled off onto the left side of the road. "Gear up," came the call from down the line.
We tied bandanas to our heads, put on our helmets, hoisted our line packs, and took shovels and axes. The sawyers wrapped their chainsaws in chaps, and the swampers filled canisters with gas and bar oil.
The incident commander came to talk to us. He was tall and goateed like Frank Zappa and wore an impressive two-way radio slung across his chest. "I'm your I.C.," he said, "and Steve, here, is your crew boss. There's only one crew on the fire, and that's you. I understand many of you are new--this is a good fire for you. It's not active now, so all you need to do is dig a line around it. We're going to contain it today. Any questions?"
There weren't, so we set off in single file across the charred and broken ground. We wore long pants made of Nomex, a fire-resistant material, heavy boots, and long-sleeve Nomex shirts. The day was warm and would only get worse. I was already winded. As I looked down, I saw the rocks on the track were pink, the color of fire retardant.
When we came over the lip of the hill, we could see what the fire had done. We were on the east side of a large bowl, perhaps eight hundred acres in all. The west side opened, through a canyon, into a larger valley. The fire had burned only on our side, beginning mid-slope, probably with a lightning strike, and going uphill. It was two hundred ghastly acres of ash and charred stumps.
This burned-out area was still technically considered a fire. Without a line dug around it separating hot coals from the unburned grass and wood, it could still catch and, as they say, "get up and go." Firefighters speak of fires as if they were hard-to-train domestic animals or restless children. They like to "lay a fire to rest."
I quickly noticed that different fuels give off varied smells. Most remarkable was the sage. It may offer up a wonderful perfume after a rain, but it carries the aroma of scorched urine when burned.
Steve broke us into squads of five or six, and we began to dig our line on the lower side of the fire. We were "cold-trailing," searching for places where hot cinders lay near unburned fuel. Unaccustomed to working together, we lacked coordination. I was zealous but didn't always know what to do. Blake, who was out of shape and generally grew surly when work looked steady, was barely civil. My friend Wade immediately attached himself to the most active saw crew, and within five minutes his grinning face was black with soot.
"Bump up! Bump up!" was frequently the call, commanding us to skip ahead of the crew in front of us. It meant they were working slow. Using it is a bit of a coup. Like all fire jargon, it tends to get exported to other settings: "Why don't you go ahead and bump up and tie in with your friends at the Brew Pub?"
The temperature rose and humidity fell as the day progressed, and we eventually came to a corner where a ravine cut back into the slope. A stand of junipers, thickly grown, was still burning, and they lay over a drop into unburned woods below. Steve told us to "bone pile" the trees and to "cup trench" the line. Bone piling is putting the burning stuff together so that it consumes itself more quickly, and a cup trench is a ditch dug to catch burning bits of logs and prevent them from rolling downhill into unburned fuels.
It was difficult to dig the trench on the steep slope. As we worked, the weather conditions began to change. Dust devils traveled lazily across the burn, a sign of unstable air. Then it began to cloud up. The cumulus that earlier had decorated the horizon now moved more overhead. There was even a little rain and the wind increased.
The fire followed suit. First one, then another juniper "crowned out" as flames moved from the ground to the upper foliage of the trees. Although these junipers were only twenty feet tall, the behavior of such a fire is different--and more alarming-- than a ground fire: it may spread faster, give off greater heat, and throw sparks from burning branches in all directions.
We observed the fire "making a run" from the safety of the opposite bank. The wind blew the fire upslope, and it burned for about forty-five minutes back into the main burn, making a long black finger.
When it had died down, Steve ordered us to hotline it by creating a fire line around the recent burn. In any fire line, the object is to remove fuels from the fire. Sometimes it's difficult to tell what counts as a fuel and what doesn't. I think that many of us, not knowing better, were throwing fuel into the fire.
We worked at one corner of the recent burn, around some scorched but unburned pines. We then made our way down the finger. Suddenly, back at the corner, the scorched pines caught all at once, and the winds, which had shifted, pushed the fire back into the green.
"Goodbye line," somebody said.
Now the safe place to stand was on the opposite side of the finger, and we moved there. The heat of the fire, just fifty feet away, was intense. The sound roared in our ears. It was hard to believe this fire couldn't just come right at us across the burned area, perhaps reigniting the blackened stumps near us. We could be trapped. I remember seeing little flames in trees near us, and it seemed as though they too would refuse to be extinguished.
"Okay, we'll work this side of the finger," Steve said. "Jared, have your squad post lookouts. I'll see what's going on with the other squads."
Jared looked unhappy.
We looked uphill and I believe everyone saw what I did, which was not a cleanly burned-out area, but a patchy stretch of green and partly burned trees that could fuel a fire.
Jared said, "Okay, volunteers for lookout?" No one volunteered. In fact, we were pretty useless, on the whole. Our sawyer began to work some of the trees, but I think for most of us, it was a pretty miserable five minutes. We felt vulnerable. Fortunately, Steve changed his mind shortly and came back.
"No point on working on it now," he said, "Let's hike out."
From the top of the ridge, we could observe the extent of the damage. The fire had pushed out from its edges in all directions, thanks to the gusty winds of the afternoon. But it burned mainly below us, in a great column of gray smoke.
Some three hundred acres went to the fire that day, and on the next day, it made another run of a hundred acres. When three quarters of it had been turned to ash, the bowl of Broken Track was no longer green.
After that day, I almost handed in my Nomex, but I took pride in becoming a slightly seasoned firefighter instead of just a greenhorn. I'm glad I stuck with it, and I'm looking forward to fighting fires again this summer.
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