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 aspirin.
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 are the pieces that are always there. Growing up, I heard many stories: stories about my father and about my father’s father. Grandfather was a carpenter, a draftsmen, an inventor. At sixteen, he lost a fingertip in the celery fields; he painted pipe for the pipeline company, built yachts for the rich, made his money, finally, at Fleetwood Furniture. He knew how to work with his hands, his back. When I was young, these were the important things to know. These facts were given weight, worth.
I pick up 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 the small things 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 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; the personal gear bag, a large, rough-skinned duffel; the radio, GPS and camera. I was number eight last season, but this year I’m told that I’m 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 still a new thing to me, to live in a guard station with only men, to look at the approaching months and recognize that these people will fill them. I did not know it then exactly, how this would work, that I would be close to my crew in a way that women are not usually close to men, in a way that is familiar and easy and every day.
And it is every day. Because in wildland firefighting, crews go out on “full rolls,” or fourteen-day shifts on a wildfire. These fourteen days will usually start at 0600 and end at 2200, six a.m. to ten 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 for those who have 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 two-week rolls. 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, and 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, 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 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 whomever he can find to watch it: the flash flood that nearly took his pickup three years ago 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, 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, in the dark, in my room, 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 like white figures before the garage that is also cache and workshop. I ride with Tom and, from the passenger seat, I watch the rest of the crew come in. It is easy to tell them apart—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, when they gather in yellow and green uniforms, 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 his legs out in little bursts like firecrackers. When we drive, which we do for many, many hours, Tom will sing and talk to me and sit in silence.
We get on well together even during the long days, 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 west side of the 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 endless aspen.
I begin to feel a kinship with my drip torches—metal canisters with curlicue spouts that 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 blazes 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 light 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 stand 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 towards this end. Trees are lopped, 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 a few 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 his really, 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.
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 Rouge River, burns the Dad’s Creek Fire. Smoke hangs on us, grays every view. The raft guides who brought us in on their 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 a series of hoses around the grounds, improved the sprinkler system and had a third 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 sausages from flare guns, watched the rounds 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 stops, calls me over, 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 out 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 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 and for eight hours a day we sit with our flesh itching. It’s unusual but not unheard of, to babysit as 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 I do not see but imagine every night as I lie near the rocks, my tarp on the ground and the sky as my ceiling.
My crew takes the meat out of coolers with watery ice. I am 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.
I am perched on a prominent rock in a vein of scree on the side of a mountain. 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. 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 obsidian ash, the size of them startling, incomprehensible, all seen from here, above.
I key the mic on my radio to alert my division to the increase in winds. Over the ridge top, great plumes ascend like a deep bruise to the bright, brilliant sky. And it is this that I will miss in the months after our season ends: the steadiness, the trust and the heat are hard to let go.
Into my radio, to my crew, I say, “The winds are rising.”