Today, there is a memorial being held for three wildland firefighters who were killed in the line of duty on August 19. For two decades, I participated in the wildland firefighting scene, so it always tugs at my heart when I hear of these kinds of events. I was never in a situation like these three firefighters found themselves in, and I thank God often for that. I also thank God for giving me the opportunity to get to know so many of these great men and women, and allowing me to learn from and work side-by-side with them. It is an amazing job done by some amazing people. I wrote this story about one of them, but it could also be a story about so many more of them. Please say a prayer for all those who are being affected by the wildfires that are still marching across the west, especially those who have lost their homes, friends, or loved ones. May our good Lord be with them, and may the rains come soon.
Being a wildland firefighter is in his blood. From the day he fought his first fire, when he was barely a teenager, he was hooked. Watching the flames lick at his bootheels had stirred his blood. Feeling the wind suddenly shift from his face to the back of his neck, knowing that such a shift could signal an impending “blowup”, sent adrenaline coursing through his veins. The smell of the smoke, the feel of the rake in his hands, even the gasping for breath as he carried forty pounds of water on his back to the top of a mountain, all of it made him feel like he had found the purpose for which he was created. As a young man, he quickly learned that wildland fire is both manageable and unmanageable, predictable and unpredictable, life-giving and life-destroying. Now, forty years later, he is still being drawn to this great paradox.
For some, the study of fire science is a life-long profession filled with charts and graphs and research into fuel types, meteorology, climate, and landscapes. For him, understanding fire behavior is a sixth-sense. His ability to “feel a fire” is uncanny and a God-given gift possessed by only a few. He has only to step outside to know if the air carries with it the promise of a “good burn” or the denial of yet another “fire day”. He has only to crush the leaves, grass, or pine needles in his palm to know if the fire will carry across the landscape unencumbered and unchecked, or if it will allow some level of control, or perhaps, not be enticed to burn at all. He was made for being around fire and he knows it.
The old wildland firefighter joke, “If they weren’t putting them out, they’d be setting them,” isn’t far from the truth. On a good burn day, he is restless, wanting either to be dispatched to a fire that needs to be brought under control, or to be asked to assist with a fire that needs to be started (a controlled burn). Either one will do.
In the beginning, when he was young, there were no control burns. During his childhood, he, along with millions of other schoolchildren, watched the Smokey Bear filmstrips and, like so many others, had been convinced that fire in the forest is an aberration. So, his early days of firefighting were spent doing only fire suppression. Believing the Smokey Bear message whole-heartedly, he and his comrades would attack any wildfire with a strong sense of mission and vigilantism. He proved his value on the fireline during those early days, and was soon considered one of the best. Years later, as forest ecologists began to understand that fire is an essential ingredient in maintaining the health and diversity of many ecosystems, the need for men and women with his fire skills and sixth sense became even greater.
And so, in order to help meet this need, he began to train others. He taught them in the classroom about the fire triangle, and he emphasized that fire is both friend and foe. He would lead his young crews to a fire on a mountainside, walk with them up the hills, wait to see who fell behind, who loved it, who hated it, who wanted to run, and who faced it with respect but not fear. He would guide his crews through the thick smoke, pointing out the standing dead trees along the fireline that proved more of a real threat to any of them than the flames ever would. Hazard trees, also known as widow-makers, he called these trees, and sadly, more than a few firefighters had become victims to them. He drilled them on the Ten Standard Firefighting Orders, and he watched for those in his crew who possessed the same sixth-sense about fire that he had been gifted. Those, he would pull aside, and encourage and in time, those would be the ones he would mentor and prepare for leading others, as he had been.
For decades, his life has revolved around fire. Each spring and fall has been filled with watching fires burn through the Appalachian forests, many of them controlled burns, many more arson. Once the humidity climbs in the east and fires will no longer burn late into the spring, he turns his focus to the west. He packs one half of his “red bag” with the essentials…toothbrush, comb, two sets of Nomex shirts and pants, a few changes of underclothes, toilet paper, beef jerky and chewing tobacco. The other half of the bag, he fills with his gear… tent, sleeping bag, helmet, radio, water bottles and the required fire shelter that is meant to be used only as a last resort to protect him from the flames should something go terribly wrong and his sixth sense fail him. Packed and ready to respond within hours, he waits for the request from dispatch that will send him into the frontlines of another western fire season.
When I last spoke with him, it was early springtime. He had heard I was back in Kentucky and did I want to go burn the woods, for old times’ sake? He was restless, it had been a long winter, a wet winter, and he was longing to get out and smell some smoke. I understood. It had been too long for me as well. We’ll take my boys, I said, and my father, and he loved that idea. If only your grandfather was here as well, he’d said. And I agreed. My grandfather, the one who’d started it all. He’d had the same sixth sense and decades earlier, he’d recognized it in this firefighter who later, had trained me.
So, one sunny day last April, we lit a match and my father and my sons and I watched as this firefighter’s sixth sense was awaken from a winter of dormancy. Gradually, the flames began to spread and the firefighter smiled. It’ll burn, he said. It’ll burn! We grabbed our drip torches and walked back and forth, spreading a thread of fire behind us. My sons stood back with their grandfather, watching with excitement and awe as I had done years ago with my grandfather. In a few minutes, the small one-acre plot we’d burned around my house was only smoldering. The fire was over, and for me, it was enough. I’d been transported back to my days on the fireline, and I’d enjoyed the visit to my past, but for me, it was just that, my past. Now, as we watched the smoke slowly diminish, I took off my gloves, and my thoughts turned towards what to make for supper.
But for him, it was only the beginning. I didn’t hear from him again after that. A few weeks after we’d burned my backyard, spring fire season in the Appalachians was again underway and he was off to do his part. And then spring became summer, and the west heated up, and another western fire season that they are calling “unprecedented” is underway. The last I heard, he was hoping for a call to go to Alaska. No doubt, he got his wish. No doubt, he is out there now, somewhere in the smoke, telling one of the hundreds of firefighting stories he always carries with him, and spitting tobacco juice into the flames.