Coconino National Forest

The Fire Rises

My father was an Eagle Scout when being an Eagle Scout meant something. When I was young, he taught me the proper way to build a campfire, and also about Houdini, and the way Houdini died. My father told me that if I fell asleep near running water dragonflies would come and sew my eyelids shut. For nightmares, he once offered ibuprofen.

I am sitting on the floor of my room in Stockmore Guard Station in Utah, and though I’m not thinking about any of this directly, these bits are always there. I palm a pair of wool socks, a raincoat. I’ve surrounded myself with plastic baggies, and they look like the shiny skins of organs under the lamplight, each waiting for my hands to pack it full and seal it tight. I am slow and methodical, touching everything. Fourteen pairs of seamless underwear, two sports bras, a puffy jacket with four duct-tape patches. One baggie is medicinal: Desitin, hydrocortisone, and Benadryl, for sleeping. I put all objects into piles: BIC lighters and ballpoint pens and extra leather shoelaces. Other firefighters have told me that I will always be forgetting something, that over the years I will get worse, not better, at packing my personal gear bag.

Because it is the beginning of fire season, nothing smells yet. The sleeping bag and liner—both assigned to Bill last year—are neutral, newly laundered. My spare crew t-shirts are un-routed by sweat lines and only one of them, so far, is holed: five tears on the right shoulder, the nipping of my chainsaw’s metal dogs. All the gear issued to me this season is marked, in sharpie, with a number one: the sleeping bag; sleeping pad and liner; personal gear bag like a large, rough-skinned duffel; radio; GPS; and camera. I was number eight last season, but this year I am the crew’s “number one girl.”

I say, “I am the only girl this year.”

They’ve built a fire in the pit outside my window, and I listen to their voices—all nine of them—as I take my time, do the gear bag up right. It is a new situation still to me, to live in a guard station with only men, to look forward at the months and to see that these are the people who will fill them. I do not know then how this will work, that I will be close to my crew in a way women are not usually close to men, in a way that is familiar and easy and everyday.

And it is every day. Because in wildland firefighting, crews like to go out on “full rolls,” or fourteen-day shifts on a wildfire. These fourteen days will usually start at 0600 and end at 2200, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., unless a high-ranking supervisor can justify more than sixteen hours of work in a day. On either side of these fourteen operational days, crews are allotted four days for travel and a single, final day for rehab; for sharpening tools, cleaning trucks, mending the broken. After a full roll, crews will reset with two mandatory, paid days off, which is the only chance we’ll have to be away from each other, and only then if you’ve got the luxury of a home that isn’t the shared guard station. Then we become available again.

My first fire season, which was last year, saw me work five full rolls with a jumbled sixth—a week here, four days there—on smaller, initial attack fires. I tallied up numbers when the end came in October: fifteen fires, four helicopter rides, eighty-seven nights on the ground. In August and September, I’d showered just eight times. In less than five months, my crew had banked nine-hundred and sixty-four hours of overtime. All of it we worked together.

I lay the baggies out next to my gear bag. After tonight, my bag will be stowed in one of our three fire trucks where it will remain, untouched, until we pop our first fire. And then I’ll be living out of it for up to two weeks at a time, rationing my toothpaste and my contact lens solution. This is how I begin to think in essentials; this is how I learn what is enough.

 

It feels as though it’s been raining for days, and not a typical Utah rain—quick and done—but a real, honest rain. The sort of rain that wakes you up at night, that sleeps with you and falls, over and over again, until every ditch runs full. Mason, our only native, shows a video to whoever he can find to watch it: the flash flood that nearly took his pickup a few years ago during a time when the rain fell like the rain is now falling.

In the mornings when I wake up—first at five-thirty, then five-forty-five, then five minutes until six—I am confused by the sound of water on eaves. And before I hear the fire boots and the sound of my men’s voices, I think that I am home again. Back to the heartland where the air breathes easier and the storms take the summer as their own.

In the kitchen with three refrigerators and a soda pop dispenser that now keeps beer cold, I make my lunch in a plastic bag. There is very little speaking. We do not turn on many lights. We are familiar. And the smell of gasoline is strong. I walk from the guard station to the yard with my hood up. At this hour, with this rain, I can hardly see the split of the canyon; the right turn up North Fork, the bend of Wolf Creek Pass. The chain-link gate to the yard is open, our trucks white figures before the garage that is also cache and workshop. I’ll ride with Tom, and from the passenger seat of our truck, I watch the rest of the crew come in. It is easy to tell them apart from each other: the particular slope of a head, the one set of swaggered shoulders, all dead giveaways. I know how they hike and how they run and how they walk when they’re shitfaced. In fire camps, all those men gathered in yellow shirts and green pants, this is the surest way to find the one I’m looking for.

Tom likes Daft Punk, the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge and “country western” music. He drinks coconut water, Monster Ultra and mushed apple smoothies, which come in squeeze packets for babies. He has worked eleven seasons, seen fire on both coasts, and when he walks, he swings, little bursts like firecrackers. When we drive—and for many, many hours, we drive—Tom will sing and talk to me and sit in silence.

We get on well together even during the long days, which these are, when we drive and burn and drive, in the rain, from six until as late as nine, then do it all over again. We are setting fire to piles of aspen on the east side of the Ashely National Forest. We are getting wet, eating our mayonnaise sandwiches and trying to light damp wood that was improperly piled more than five years ago. We are trying not to smoke each other out, fall down the mountain or lose ourselves in the aspen.

I begin to feel a kinship with my drip torches—metal canisters with curlicue spouts which we use to set the land on fire. They are filled with a gas-diesel mix and at the end of each spout, which we call a pigtail, there is a small wick which I light. When I tip the torch down, slash mix runs out the pigtail, is lighted by the wick and lays the ground with fire. Paul likes to ring my feet with flame. I light the backs of his calves. And Tom, unsuspecting, singes his curls when he empties his drip torch on a pile hiding small flames in its belly. This is what we do, day in and day out, while the rains run.

The unit we are burning now is called Alma Taylor. To maintain tree health, improve wildlife habitat, and open areas for range, national forests designate a number of target acres for treatment every year. Fuels crews and fire crews, when home, labor for this end. Trees are loped, piles are lit and plots are prepped for grand-scale prescribed burns, administered in the snow of winter or the showers of spring. Before Alma Taylor, my crew cut down pinyon and juniper trees on a unit called Anthro, which came to nearly a thousand acres of saw work. After weeks, we are near to done with our allotment and these days, “completed target acres” is on everybody’s lips.

But not mine. For now, for a few scant hours, I do not need to think about slash mix or wet wood or smoke. We’ve got the heat on full against the dampness in our skins and the morning sun is laying itself out on the flats in the frame of our windshield. I’ve let my hair out of its braid and I’m singing, though I’m tired, because Tom is tired too, and he likes this song—and it is really his, when I think about it, because I never will think about it again without his being a part of it, just like I won’t think of Alma Taylor without seeing aspens planted like a garden of white tulips hung with rain.

 

They are called “flappers,” these things that have happened to my hands. I bite the skin off, little fleshy flags, beneath the bouldering wall that has torn them from me. I tape my fingers. This is how it is at the beginning. The fire season has been over for a month by now, and I am living in Salt Lake City which still feels new to me. On my worst days at the bouldering gym, I bandage twelve spots, six per hand. And for the first bit, they hold, blood blushing through only at the end of the hour when I find my hands, at last, will not hold me. It is hard then, biking the back streets, to grip my breaks, to close a fist.

At the bouldering gym, I hang from an easy-grip jug while Patrick—open-faced, a friend and a sponsored climber—tells me exactly what I will do with my body. He keeps saying, “You got this,” and I think he truly means it. I try to thrust my hip into the wall, to shorten the distance for my right hand, but I keep peeling off, my feet loud as I pull myself back into position. He makes me angry: the sure way he says things, as if his lips have made them fact, in stone. And I like him for it, for the look he has, as though he’s seeing it all for the first time, every motion made new.

I wake up with crusts on my hands and fingers, with dry scabs, the dreams—skin hanging off me in sheets—like a strong taste on my tongue. The woman I live with, a firefighter of seven seasons, laughs when she looks at them. I’ve been told I should give myself time to heal properly. But then there is Patrick, his words, and the routes I start to see in my mind like a map, constellations. There are things, sometimes, that draw me as sure as if my palms were filament-lined like a moth’s wing, as sure as if the light and heat called out to me.

 

I begin to play a game with myself when we get pinched in by fire. I look at the crew and I think: If this went bad, who would I put money on to make it out?

I am down by the riverbank with Dale where he is having me light the madrone and manzanita. This is the final day of his back burn. We have been bringing fire down the mountain for the better part of a week. To the north and west is the Jenny Creek Fire; to the south and west, the Big Windy Fire; to the east, across the Rogue River, burns the Dad’s Creek Fire. Smoke hangs on us, grays every view. The raft guides who brought us in on their brightly colored boats kept whetting their mouths with the same series of words: eerie, unnatural, ghost-like. It is hard—in the twilight, the sun red like clay—for them to recognize the river they know so well.

There are twenty-two structures, and we are here for them. The largest is a lodge where Cary Grant once slept, the smallest is an outhouse for hikers to use. We’ve extended hoses around the grounds, improved the sprinkler system and had a second Mark III pump rafted down to us. We keep five-gallon containers of fuel—jerries of gas and diesel for the chainsaws, drip torches and pumps—in the middle of the horseshoe court. And, instead of waiting for the fires to converge wildly on the lodge, we have brought them here in slow, measured strips. I have dragged drip torches through poison oak, the heat felt like sunburn, the smell in my face as fine, soft ash. I have shot rounds from flare pistols, watched them explode into flame as they land, the sound like sucking wind, like fire rising. This lighting that we do, putting fire on the ground, brings about a quickening—the stir of breath and blood—as great sugar pines and Douglas fir torch like matchsticks, as the air blackens and fills with embers.

Dale brings me up in the heart of it. He’s got a military manner, this once Iowa boy of a long time ago, and I think, perhaps, that here is where I’d lay my bets. He begins to explain his patterns and his reasoning, the control he keeps by running a newly set fire into the smoldering of an old burn. I think he expects—the flames I lit beating towards us—to find me nervy, unsettled. But I am not, and this is the key: I need a cue for discomfort. I am as calm, always, as the man beside me. We stay like this—the two of us hung in the center—until the warmth stings and the tan oaks take the fire up into their hair, and then we walk through the lowest flames.

It is on these fires that I sing at night, in the dark, with the bats above me. In the pauses, my words are offset by the booming of trees as they fall, consumed. In the light hours, we watch the brown bears as they move, driven by fire, like all things, down to the water.

 

On my birthday—or rather, a few days before, because otherwise the meat would spoil—they make me rib-eye and sirloin and pork loin wrapped in bacon. The days have been hard on me, this roll has been hard. We have been set down on a dead fire to watch it shoot wisps like kisses to the clouds. For eight hours a day we sit with our flesh itching. It’s unusual but not unheard of, to babysit like we are. When this forest last burned eleven years ago, the spread was unimaginably vast, which makes men cautious.

There are snakes on the beach where we have made camp. The first came to me out of sleep: a small, brown serpent with a curious eye. I could have touched him with a finger. He had, undoubtedly, scented me on the air with his tongue. I sat up, shook my hair back on my shoulders, thought about how easily he could have slid himself in with the strands.

The first rattlesnake I almost stepped on in the dark with my flip flops. The second rattlesnake came out of the firewood pile. The third rattlesnake I do not see but imagine every night as I lay near the rocks, my tarp on the ground and the sky as my ceiling.

They take the meat out of coolers with watery ice. I cut and eat with my jackknife, saw and eat with my jackknife. I am a near twenty-two and swallowing sorrow with fat from the bacon. I cannot say these things, but this is the truth that I feel, the truth with the tenderness that I have for them, these men that are mine for a season. And it is that one of them drinks like a lush—pissing himself, passing out in public—and that one of them will never see my good as good enough—for the loads I cannot lift—and that one of them will never know me—not really, not me—because he has made someone else up in his mind, tied my name to her like a luggage tag.

And I understand what they are doing—they find it funny, the way I take to meat—but their fondness feels like a bone in my throat. And these are the things that I think without words or breath to give them, and I do not know if I will ever be able to come back to this, or them.

 

My grandfather took himself out of school at age sixteen and went to work in the celery fields. This is where he lost his fingertip. He handled cement at the cement factory, painted pipe for the pipeline company and built boats at Roamer Yachts for the rich. He worked as a carpenter and he worked as a draftsmen and he made his money at Fleetwood, in furniture. When I look, I find a number of his patents online. Under “inventor” they list him as Milton E. Boerigter of Hamilton, Michigan. The E. here stands for Edwin. Growing up, these were important facts to know about my grandfather—these facts were given weight, given worth.

These are the tasks I can do with my hands, and my back: roll a hose lay; patch a portable water tank; set-up and operate a Mark III pump; devise a sprinkler system, then assemble it. I can take apart, clean and run a chainsaw; work a crosscut saw with a partner. I can dig line, build a helicopter’s cargo load, and carry, for ten miles, a seventy-five pound pack. I can mix fuel, change truck fuses and hitch a trailer. I am taught—by an Alaskan smokejumper—to tie a trucker’s knot and a half hitch. I am taught—by a Georgian—to skin rattlesnakes, gut grouse and clean cutthroat trout. In the summer, behind the guard station, I learn to shoot skeets with a shotgun and glass bottles with a pistol.

These are the things I will do but do not like: sharpening tools and chain, driving a fire truck, splitting firewood. As with everything, I need more practice, and more time. I do not think familiarity is born in hands. I believe it has to be worked, worn.

 

I am sitting next to a man with a profile like clouds and thunder, my eyes descending the curls of his hair to the sharps of his brow, nose and chin. He is the son of Palestinians and the way he talks, the pause that leads off his laughter, his grin, reminds me of a boy from home who once liked me terribly. We are driving to American Fork Canyon on the Belt Route, and outside the warmth of Devon’s jeep, the temperature reads a harsh, unshakable seven degrees.

The hike to the wall is short. It begins with Patrick scooting the length of a downed tree, his body off-centered by a gear pack. I follow next, trying not to catch the seams of my pants; then Devon, his boots low over the slow-running stream; then Kelly, a tow-headed firefighter who has just finished his second season, like me. The way up is steep, snow hiding the ground, but we make it with none of us falling, and under the overhang of the wide-mouthed cave, the earth is open, brown and bare. Patrick walks to the slab, knocks off a chunk of what he calls “popcorn,” and tells me not to let myself be fooled. He is the first to climb the route, top-roping it for the rest of us, his movements long, like water melting upwards.

I am last, and I see what Devon means when I jam my bare feet into the cold, tight rubber of my climbing shoes. Within minutes every bit below my ankles is hard and numb. Kelly stands before me, teaching me the proper knot to tie, his slim hands deft and delicate as he loops the rope through my harness.

It is the rock that surprises me. My hands feel for patterns, for placement, and my feet, unfeeling, find their way, and it is as though all of me wants to stick, like burned rice at the bottom of a pot. I move along slivers, testing, as they talk to me from below. I haven’t felt this way, my hands scuffed and my breathing slow, since I left my crew two months back.

That trust, the steadiness of it, and the heat, is hard to let go.

 

I am perched on a prominent rock in a vein of scree on the side of a mountain. It is early in the season—this is our first real fire. The sun above is resolute as the winds switch around me. From here, I can see down into the folds of the mountain, out along the sagebrush flats and off into the dry distance. I am sitting lookout on the Lackey Fan Fire, my radio beside me, and my eyes keep going back to the dark band of black that has already burned. I can see, miles beyond it, smoke and clouds from the Dark Canyon Fire, and it’s handsome, all of these colors laid out like clothes.

In the black, the charred trees sway and tip and shoot embers that eventually torch a pine up canyon, but it’s the dust devils, not the crack of limbs, that I watch for. I begin to wait for them, to follow the winds across the desert, to see first the lifting of skirts at the border of the black before the fullness of it is borne out: dust devils in jet and obsidian ash, the size of them startling, incomprehensible, all seen from here, above.

I key the mic on my radio to alert my division of the fire to the increase in winds. Over the ridge top, great plumes ascend like a deep bruise to the bright, brilliant sky.

Into my radio, to my crew, I say, “The winds are rising.”

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2 Comments

  • Riva Duncan says:

    Really excellent writing (from a fellow female firefighter). Girl, you need to write damn book.

  • D. Gorham says:

    Very well written piece here, a great contribution to the community. As an avid reader of any book or short piece on wildfire experience, your writing was a pleasant change from the typical style. I am not a great writer, but as someone who appreciates the topic presented here this is ranked high in my favorite reads.

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