Vance R. Andrus
4:30 came early to the mountains that Monday — its arrival announced by a shrill squeal from the fire department radio beeper located inches from his head. Robert struggled up from a fitful slumber, fighting to regain consciousness enough to understand the words pouring forth from the small black box.
“Forest fire . . . all hands . . . Pre stage at Elk Creek at 0 five thirty.” It was this last phrase that jolted him into reality: “O five thirty” – military time. It was real; he wasn't dreaming.
Slowly he rolled over to his left, trying to get out of bed without waking his wife. “Funny,” he thought, he'd been a volunteer fireman with the Elk Creek Fire Department for six months, and already she'd perfected the art of sleeping through the fire alarms and other emergency tones that seemed much louder after dark.
As he swung his feet over the side, his left shoulder reminded him not only that he was 54 years old, but also why his sleep had been so restless. Six weeks earlier he tore the rotator cuff in that shoulder, skiing down “Mach I,” a double black diamond bump run at Breckenridge. He was doing fine on the run until, blasting off a mogul, he'd crossed his tips and upon landing, tore the left ski off. From that point on, it was all a blur. He was good, but not that good. The resulting crash was termed “An Intergalactic Gargle‑Blaster” by the only witness, a ski instructor. Since then, his nights had been a succession of sweaty, turgid attempts to stay asleep, punctuated by alternating waves of throbbing and stabbing pain.
The accident happened four days before the final Fire Academy practical exam, and, although under strict doctor's orders not to do so, he nonetheless took the test. He'd come too far, worked too hard, to crap out. With the help of his fellow rookies, he'd faked his way through and was now the oldest member of his class to become a nationally certified Firefighter I.
Not one given to introspection, Robert was only vaguely aware that he was driven, goaded on by some demon of the spirit. Restless and passionate, he had spent most of his life resigned to the lack of peace which permeated his being. He wasn't particularly unhappy about this condition. In fact, he assumed that others felt the same way and was dubious of those, such as his wife, who professed to be content with their lives.
Why he'd volunteered to fight fire was a bit of a mystery to him, if not to those who knew and loved him. They knew why, even if he didn't, for they had been witness to his need for challenge from the earliest days. Back before law school, before college, or even high school, they knew him. Retired? They knew better. First, it was golf, then snow skiing, now fire fighting. It all made sense to them. And so what if his damn old left shoulder hurt.
Quickly he showered and shaved, lowering his salt and pepper bearded face down to his left hand for shaving cream. Then, grabbing a glass of “OJ,” he headed out for his pick‑up truck.
As he drove to the station, a quiet apprehension overtook him. This was his first forest fire; at least first in this new life, for he had fought fire once before, as a 17-year‑old on a summer job in Montana. But that had been, what, 37 years ago, and he retained only the vaguest bits and pieces, flashes of memory. Today he was a grandfather of two, a recent graduate of Wildland Fire Training, and a member of the rookie class that averaged probably half his age.
To occupy time, he mentally reviewed some of the essentials of fighting fire in the forest. Lookout. Communications. Escape routes. Safety zones. It had been drilled into their heads, all the more so since 14 men and women died on Storm King Mountain eighteen months earlier. Fire in the forest is a strange and dangerous creature. Fickle powerful and destructive, it can lay down like a lamb one minute and then rise up with a mighty lion‑roar the next. Once into the tree crowns, it can work itself into a firestorm, moving faster than a horse and vaporizing everything in its path with flames, poisonous gases and heat over 2500°F.
Against this force of nature, determined men and women throw their bodies. Armed with nothing more than shovels, pick axes and chain saws, they don't so much “fight” the fire as “confront” it. Working long hours, feet away from the creeping monster, they try to nudge it first this way and then that, all the while giving ground and praying that it doesn't suddenly explode in their faces. If they're lucky, they'll complete digging a fire line around it before it takes off. Then they “go into the black” or burned area, and strangle it, stump by stump and tree by tree.
If luck is against them, and the temperature rises while the relative humidity drops, they all know what will come. Wind. Fire's ally, the afternoon winds can swoop in from below, driving the firestorm first up and then out, obliterating the fire line, and worse cutting off escape routes. Facing a wall of flame, the firefighters will be forced into an agonizing decision: “Shelter in Place” or flee.
To say that “Sheltering in Place” is a “viable” choice is a bit of an overstatement. Since 1977 all Wildland Firefighters have been issued personal fire shelters. Shaped like a small silver pup tent, when unfolded they offered some protection. While the foil outer lining reflected 90 percent of the radiant heat, it was not designed to withstand direct flame, nor temperatures over 1000°. The graphic training video, with its first person accounts from survivors, was replete with ghastly tales of those unfortunate enough to have hunkered down while the firestorm raged over them. “Doing the baked potato”, they called it.
Flight is worse. Rocks, underbrush, uneven terrain, everything conspires to delay and detain the victim. His only protection is a long sleeve yellow “Nomex” shirt and green pants. Although flame resistant, neither offers thermal protection. With no source of clean, compressed air, the toxic super‑heated wave of gas preceding the flame front will cut him down, searing his lungs and airways, leaving him only moments of consciousness to feel the heat before it consumes him.
“Grim,” he thought, and “exactly what the hell am I doing here?” There it was, that question again. What was it? Fear of aging? No it couldn't be that. He enjoyed growing older, witness to his children's successes and proud to be of comfort and support in their struggles. No, it wasn't age, exactly, that bothered him. Something else through, something close and related.
Before an answer, any answer, came to him, he arrived at the Staging Area. “No more bad thoughts,” he said aloud to the empty truck, and gathering his gear walked up to the small knot of men and women standing together as the first rays of dawn broke through the scattered cirrus clouds floating a few hundred feet above the surrounding mountains.
After a short briefing, they embarked in various fire vehicles for the half hour trip up to the fire site. Robert rode shotgun in a command truck accompanied by three veterans. Seated directly behind him was Russ, a/k/a “Soc,” or “Stream of Consciousness,” for that's exactly what he was, a hilarious motor mouth whose lips were in constant motion. To Russ, not a moment of silence was permissible. Random neural firings went straight from his brain to his lips. Like a crab walking sideways on a beach, his convoluted logic came at you from odd angles. Combined with his penchant for speaking in riddles and uttering half‑formed phrases, he was a frustrating delight of a companion, and Robert, for one, was glad he was along. Even Russ, though, fell silent as they approached the disembarkment point. There was to be nothing funny about the rest of their day, and everyone knew it.
The small dirt roads had long disappeared, replaced first by trails, and then open woodland. Bright red surveyor's tape, put in by a prior crew, marked the way up, up until not even the four wheel drive vehicles could proceed. Here they dismounted and, gathering their tools, noted that they had parked on a broad saddle, a concave ridge between two hilltops. It was a terrible place to stop because, if the fire flared, it would race up the small valley pushed towards the trucks by the chimney effect created by the topography. There would be no escape here, Robert thought, and no trucks to take them away. If this went bad, they'd have to find another way out or another safety zone.
Still, he was thankful that the trucks had made it that far, sparing them hours of hiking. Single file, they started up the Southern ridge, headed up and over to the fire which lay beyond. Because a hill separated them and the fire, they couldn't see, smell, hear, or sense its presence until after they crested the ridge and dropped down into a small depression lying at the base of the fire zone. As they descended a slight breeze swirled about, and he first saw it, and then smelled it.
The smell hit him like a runaway truck. “That smell,” he thought, “that's it.” Low and tight, words spit from his lips: “I know you, you son of a bitch.” For with the smell came a flood of memories. Suddenly he was seventeen years old, back in Montana. Young and brave and foolish and wise, standing in harm's way.
Every fire is different, but this one seemed particularly mean. Started by multiple lightning strikes, spread out over, around, and on top of a hill, it was not evenly distributed but in ragged clumps. Within its 5‑acre perimeter were 20 or so smaller fires, each in a different state of conflagration. Vast quantities of tender dry fuel lay within the black, presenting a real danger for uncontrolled ignition, as well as a serious threat for re‑burn, igniting long after the firefighters thought they had won. There it lay; fat, sluggish, smoldering and black, like a water moccasin, just waiting.
An earlier crew had been on the fire throughout the night and, by force of will, had scratched a small fire line around the entire hilltop. The Northeast and Southeast faces of the hill were steep and rocky, and Robert tried to imagine them fighting to put in that line in the dead of night. Exhausted, that crew was pulled out, and in the two hour lapse before his crew arrived, the fire had re-ignited in several places.
Three things had to be done simultaneously. First, one squad had to go into the black and fight the small fires directly, and soon, because the winds might return as early as mid morning. At the same time, another squad had to scratch, claw, and widen the fire line.
A fire line is a curious thing. Two feet wide, winding around the perimeter, it can, with a little luck, stop a fire. It is a little known fact that the majority of the action in a forest fire occurs on the floor of the forest. The very ground burns. It is composed of pine needles, bark, sticks, and decomposing vegetable matter called “duff.” Dig it away, down to rock or mineral soil, you can stop a fire in its tracks, provided it doesn't go up top into the tree crowns and jump over you.
The final task was to “cold trail” within the black. Two teams were dispatched to start at opposite points on the perimeter of the previously burnt area and work their way inward and upward towards the top of the hill, finding and eliminating “hot spots” which, left alone, might later flare up and re‑ignite the whole mess.
It was to this squad that Robert was assigned, together with seven other grunts and three officers. They started with shovels, walking through ankle deep soot and ashes, seeking hot coals. Once found, they'd turn the coals over, first scattering them and then covering them with dirt and ash. It was hot, dirty work, even more so for Robert, who's left shoulder was hurting bad. The temperature rose into the high 90's, and the elevation was over 9000 feet. The crew gulped water in quarts, trying desperately to stay hydrated.
His squad was spread out, no man or woman within 200 feet of the other. The rocky terrain, however, allowed only scattered trees and isolated thick clumps of mountain oak underbrush. As they slowly proceeded up Robert could easily see the two squad bosses and the overall crew boss located with him on the North side of the hill. Since the wind would come from the South, the fire, if re‑ignited, would race up the tender dry Southern face and crest the hill directly above them. This would not be a good thing, and it was obvious the officers knew it. Pacing back and forth, constantly on their radios, they fought to balance the demands of safety against the need to work hard and kill this snake now.
Since the fire perimeter was at the base of a circular shaped hilltop, no one man could provide enough lookout. Their radios provided sufficient communication, but the fact that their people were scattered around the hill complicated escape routes. Finally, because they were deep in the forest, there were no obvious safety zones. Should the wind pick up, firefighters upwind could simply retreat from the fire face, moving in the opposite direction. Those, like Robert, on the downwind side wouldn't be so lucky. Given this, the fire bosses jumped in, each handling a shovel, pick axe or combi tool, shoulder to shoulder with their subordinates.
There was no time for breaks, no rest or stopping as the sun rose higher in the sky. The die was cast and the race was on. Either they killed this beast as it lay slumbering, or bad things were in store for most, if not all, of them.
While Robert's people slowly struggled up the face of the hill, two “sawyer” crews, each composed of a chain saw operator and a “swamper” were working feverishly above. Their job was to cut down everything in the black that could operate as a ladder, leading the fire up to the treetops. This work included the necessity of cutting down burning trees, dropping them in a crash of sparks, heat and flame. Robert realized that sawyers were a breed apart. Generally loners, they kept to themselves, worked in pairs, and usually out of sight. Only the topography brought them into view today.
Noon came and went. The work progressed, and finally, around 2 p.m., Robert realized that they had gained the upper hand. The crew bosses relaxed and returned to supervising. The cold trail squad from the South face crested the hill above him. The incessant chain saw noise had stopped, the sawyers gone, and the line crew on his left was working its way through the last rock outcropping.
“Damn, we did it,” he thought, thankful at last to take a break. Seven hours of backbreaking work lay behind, only a few more in front. Besides, resources were now on their side. “Let the winds come,” he mused as they all began to congregate for a rest.
Thoughts of a cold beer and clean white sheets slowly filled his brain, lulling him towards sleep. That's when he felt it. A slight breeze, a fresh ozone laden breath, and suddenly overhead dark clouds lumbering in from beyond the next ridge line. He couldn't, wouldn't, believe it, but just as he felt the first small, cool drop of rain hit his cheek, the entire world exploded. With a blinding flash and an impossibly loud crack, lightening struck, not 200 feet from where they sat.
Stunned, every person on the hill realized their dilemma. They were sitting on a rocky outcrop which clearly was a lightening rod. Wasn't that what had started yesterday's fires? Further, they had no shelter and no way out, except across the even more exposed saddle between them and their vehicles.
Each one, alone, would have to wait it out. No place to go, no place to hide, and no place any better or worse than where you were. As the storm rolled in, the lightning, originating only 500 feet above their heads, blasted down around them. Every crack of thunder was replaced by another. All the while the sound of the previous bolts echoed off the far valley walls and blasted them again. Thunder and lightening merged, became one. The effect was staggering. It seemed the end of the world to Robert. Not even the very earth upon which he sat could withstand this siege.
As the noise came in great cracks and claps, each one deafening and concussive, the cold rain and violent wind assaulted him. He was afraid. Slowly the power of the storm stripped him of his courage and resolve. Shivering from the cold and paralyzed by fear he gradually withdrew from his body. Alone, he sat and waited out the storm. He was tired. Old and tired, and yet somehow at peace.
Within ten minutes, or maybe an eternity, the storm moved on. Scattered groups of wet, shaken people had survived, but none of them would ever again be exactly the same. The brute power of the storm, against which they were helpless, had challenged them and, for all Robert knew, forged within each a new, harder center.
In all, they counted about 20 lightning strikes which needed tending, but the rain had been a blessing, putting out the few remaining hot spots. Quickly, they finished and hiked out. The ride home was quiet, not even Soc had words for what they had been through. Although each knew that they were in some way changed, somehow different, each also chose not to discuss it.
Unpacking, cleaning up, and clearing out was a dreary affair, done in silence and a sense of loss. Something great and powerful had happened . They stood strong in the full fury of nature itself, and not one broke and ran. Still, it was a fleeting moment, one hard to grasp and even harder to explain.
That night he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.