Only in Idaho, in the times of fire, are such colors seen. Dawning sun, dull ochre orb filtering through the smoke-bound inversion; faint red light illuminates the granite boulders painted with lurid pink slurry from a day ago. Vertigo seizes me as we trudge through the blackened trees thrusting up among the tinted granite; only in Idaho in the times of fire, are such colors seen!
Life becomes but two simple states of being. The first state is functional fatigue, plodding toward or through some task; sinuses burning, eyes heavy with grit and fatigue, senses fogged yet forced to function. You look up constantly, for time here is marked by the crack and thump of snags falling as they burn through. Automatically you catalog the safety zones, hopeful havens within a geography defined by boulder fields and a patchwork of burnt black with scattered green meadows and somewhere too near, the flaming front. Each potential haven is marked and remembered and as you move down the line, the next is eagerly sought.
The second state is defined and fueled by adrenaline; sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, but it is always the defining reality. As the inversion breaks each day and the burning period begins you slip into readiness. Radio rattles on endlessly, scanning fragments of conversation which coalesce into the inevitable: humidity’s dropping, winds rising, temperatures up. Continuously, obsessively, you assimilate the information–watching and working, evaluating and guessing what the fire will do next. Even when we flop down for a few minutes rest our minds are relentlessly worrying at the information; despite the aching weariness, the adrenaline flows.
Then it pops; torching runs, flareups, ground fire dodging through the forest. Lead plane leaps down the next canyon like a plummeting hawk. On its tail a lumbering C130 hurtles along the ridgeline, fluorescent orange tail number flickers through the trees; a cacophony of engines at full power as it fights the updrafts, seeking dynamic balance between flying down the ridge and flying into the ridge. The slurry spews out, drifting into the trees; the ‘130 flares out and the droning bellow deepens as he seeks mountain-free skies.
The fixed wings are not alone in the air. Whales are collectively “pods”; lions form a “pride”; more than one helo should be deemed a “clatter.” Yet somehow each helo takes on a unique personality as the days pass. Faceless voices respond to flashing mirrors and static laden radios; the alphanumeric designators become names of old friends. 92 Charlie Hotel is the best loved, for he has saved our bacon a dozen times over. Charlie is a Vertol, 1100 gallons of water on call; he has a corner on heat-seeking water, an artist of the bucket trapeze. He waddles, he waltzes, he cavorts with inertia and momentum as he sidles up and sluices hotspots away. 4 Echo Hotel is a worker bee–everywhere, all the time, slinging loads and hopping folks from spot to spot. Well-mannered to boot, as he always winds down to a gentle whisper as he settles on the helispot.
8 Delta Echo is the fire boss—Bell Long Ranger which is unerringly professional and concise; ever helpful, ever present. 58 Hotel Juliet is rather nondescript–a medium who appears now and then along with the Blackhawks.
A few days in I hop on another Long Ranger for a lift up to a line assignment. Flying into a fire is always another altered state of mind; a madly observant, data-sucking short season as you try to grasp every subtlety of fuel, topography, line locations, safety zones, crew locations, division demarcations, natural fuel breaks or anchor points to hang a line on: what you see in those moments may be life-or-death for you and others in the days to come.
Then there are the Blackhawks–wondrous–lean and fierce on the outside, cobby and utilitarian on the inside. Peek in the cockpit and there, ensconced among the dozens of digital, computerized gages lies a switch simply labeled “on” and “off” and you wonder why they couldn’t have jazzed up the ignition switch a bit.
And there’s big 44, the new heavy. It’s a Skycrane that must have a hummingbird in its lineage; it handles like a Hughes 500, flitting over ridges but plunging downslope like a flying earthquake.
Home for now is a helispot serving a remote chunk of line. Glance around and it looks like an old photo out of Life Magazine; the helispot periphery is littered with the battle’s debris. Fragments of MRE’s, hooches of black visqueen, cubies in dilapidated piles, hand tools stashed here and there, chainsaws, fuel, lunches and the latrine. The earth is scarred, ravaged trees lie in heaps, raw soil and perpetual dust; this is home for now, for days, for as long as need be. I’ve got an odd job this fire–early and late in the day I hang close to the helispot as ship after ship rotates in and out, gearing the crews up for the day and later hauling what must be hauled back down to the main fire camp. When things slow on the helispot, I grab my EMT kit and join a handcrew for the day as a line medic–clink and dink digging line until my medical skills are needed. It’s a great job; really about the best of all worlds for me.
Yet there are slack moments, and mid-day one day the helitack crew diverts themselves with a little hacky-sack. Tucked onto a nearby rocky point I watch, idly listening to the air-ground radio and shortly hear that 92 Charlie wound up with a bucket of water and no hotspot, so asks if we want some “dust control.” “Sure,” I respond, as the helitack folks are now deeply immersed in their game–one yelling “focus, focus” as the sack flips hither and yon. As it is, the approach to our helispot is up over a noise-blocking ridge–and I debate whether I should chase the players out of the way before the “dust control” arrives. Still debating, 92 Charlie pops up and happily showers us all. “So much for your focus,” I holler at my now-dripping colleagues….
The days roll on; night blends to day to night, all hung over by smoke and sky and clouds and noise and hustle and bustle and when the day is finally done, I flop my sleeping bag square in the helispot and fall asleep with ten billion stars in my eyes.
WIth each day, I jot some notes. Today’s IPhone is a sorry replacement for my trusty IDEA notebook in the left pocket of my fire shirt. Samples:
1300: Two spots over Roaring Creek pick up and run.
1335: Spots burn through retardant line north of Roaring Creek.
1348: Division G ordered to safety zones. Two retardant aircraft en route; ETA 1410. Observation from H4–“Only a miracle is going to hold this thing at mid-slope.” “This ain’t the day for miracles” I counter in my mind….
1349: H3 evacuated, personnel to safety zones.
1352: Trout Creek slopover picks up and moves to south.
1400: 8 Delta Echo assisted Division G supervisor in locating crews in safety zones and helped Div. sup locate zone on ground.
1403: Air tanker arrives, makes one ineffective drop.
1426: Major crowning run north of Roaring Creek.
1431: Cumulus cap on smoke column: “We have a cauliflower column.” Fire behavior advises fire is shifting from wind driven to column driven behavior.
1446: Air tankers diverted to initial attack on Boise NF.
1541: Basin northwest of Thunderbolt lookout burns out. Division S hunkered down by lakes; building rafts “just in case.”
1619: Crown fire overruns vacated H3. Blackhawks shuttle firefighters from safety zones up to the helispot; tomorrow they’ll shuttle off to where ever the fire decides to go.
8/17/94: Cold beanie-weenies for breakfast. I like the cold MRE spaghetti better.
At some point, the powers-that-be decree we are to do a massive airlift and get ahead of the fire, tying into some goat rocks to the north. So off we go; Apocalypse Now as a half-dozen light and medium helicopters thunder into a large meadow, settling into the thrashing grasses and disgorging our yellow-clad, hard-hatted souls. We scurry to the edge and await the ship carrying the hand tools–for this kind of operation, you don’t carry sharp things along with people, in case things don’t go well on landing. So we wait. And wait. And wait. Seems somebody kinda forgot…the tools. Meanwhile, the fire encircles us; a few spots start in our meadow but it’s green and foot-stomping effectively preserves our little park. But we wave goodbye to the fire, and await the next grand plan from the Incident Commander….
Thirteen more days of this, then comes perhaps the hardest thing: going back to a world where the world is not populated by a sea of folks wearing sickly yellow and forest green, where newspapers and television exist, where a signal mirror and fire shelter are incongruous rather than essential. Where you smell something besides the reek of fire and firefighters.
The best word I can use is “decompression”–all I want to do is stop thinking and worrying for 24 hours; to live in a world where every creak of a tree, every puff of wind, every slope, every step does not convey some chilling intimation of mortality; to walk through a day without the constant aura of fatigue; to sleep through a night and have it last more than four hours. To not think of dying one moment from now if I just guess wrong, once.
Hard thing to do, especially when you leave a fire mid-stream. Hard to act normal when you’re chronically edgy and thoroughly exhausted and all of a sudden the folks surrounding you are foreigners who haven’t been there. Maybe it’s a chemical thing–a firefighter’s blood must be about 90% lactic acid and 10% adrenaline–a serum cocktail not created in the average business traveler. Oh, well–what matters about philosophy? They let me through security, tho’ the wand never stopped beeping. Hijackers, I guess, don’t wear nomex and reek of woodsmoke. I’m going home.
I’ll miss it.