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And it burns, burns, burns

“Engine 742, get out of there!!” Brandon shouted into the radio even as he stretched his long legs in a sprint towards the thirty-foot flames. An old growth ponderosa pine was torching out next to the engine; fire roared through its upper branches, orange tongues licking the sky. Our favorable westerly winds had shifted on us at the worst possible second, pushing our fire out of the box we’d created for it, throwing embers across the road into a jackpot of dry, unburned fuels. 742 was caught in the middle of the unimproved forest road, with twenty acres burning on one side, and a growing spot fire on the other. As Brandon shouted, still running, the wind picked up. The flames around the ponderosa wavered. An invisible force began sucking at the flames, pulling them inwards and upwards into a massive, swirling fire-tornado.

*

Nine days before, the Northern Utah Regular Crew had been released from the Cliffs Fire and was on the road again, pushing south to Arizona. We pulled over for a potty break at the Glen Canyon Dam visitor’s center, and Maren took my picture at the overlook. Orange and white rocks and bright blue water fill the frame behind me. I’m making the money sign with my hands, rubbing my fingers against my thumbs. This is me getting paid to take my picture at Glen Canyon on my government-sponsored road trip! Past the dam, the road wound through narrow, red slits in the rocks, then descended into the dry, flat prairie below. The entire horizon had disappeared behind a curtain of thick, blue smoke, and we were still 100 miles away from the fire.Look!  Fire!

There are countless theories of fire management. Where the fire is burning – near a large town or city, in a designated wilderness area, in a large tourist area – and what the forest management plan of the landowners is will determine the strategies and tactics. We, the NUTREGs, had been sent to the Kaibab National Forest, near the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the local policy is to allow fires to burn instead of suppressing them completely. This approach promotes a healthy forest by cleaning out underbrush and allowing larger trees to grow to maturity. When lightning strikes, as it did a few days before our crew arrived, the forest managers let it burn unhindered but supervised within a pre-determined boundary. The fire we were assigned to monitor, the Anderson, had flared up and begun to burn outside its allowable perimeter. We arrived after dark, and were sent directly to the front to dig hot line around the slop-over. Our crew spread out across the edge of fire where it was burning in the duff. Pulaskis and shovels went first to churn up the soil and cut through any roots. The scraping tools followed, exposing the mineral soil, and I came last, armed with a rake. It was my job to be quality control, and to scrape burning material into the fire, and any unburned out into the green. Black to black and green to green, we say. The flames were small, but the smoke was thick in my throat and the fire cast an orange light that was gorgeous and dramatic against the otherwise featureless dark. Finally, I felt like a real firefighter.

The first night’s excitement quickly gave way to tediousness. With the fire safely contained once more, our job became fire-sitting: keeping our eyes on the fire and making sure it didn’t escape its boundaries again. Even though we saw little dramatic fire activity, there was plenty of smoke in the air from stump holes, smoldering downed logs and the occasional torching tree. My legs were black from walking through ash, and the inside of my nose became crusted with hard, black fire-boogers. Piney smoke scent clung to my clothes and stayed in my throat and sinuses: vaguely comforting, like a hot, smoky Christmas. High winds kept us busy for a few days as we hiked over the unburned terrain in a grid pattern, our eyes scanning the ground for embers blown out of the fire perimeter. Gridding makes for long, frustrating days, as communication is passed from person to person down the line, like a game of Telephone, and doesn’t always arrive at its intended recipient in coherent form. Feet begin to ache in the boots; backs begin to ache under the weight of the issued backpacks. Everyone carries thirty pounds of standard gear, plus a fire shelter. The shelter weighs five pounds, is shaped like an oversized brick, and is stored in a separate compartment under the pack, where its square corners rub large raw patches on the buttocks as we walk. “Shelter Ass” is a common complaint among firefighters.

The crew settled into a comfortable routine. We drove fifteen miles into town every evening. Herds of elk, twenty, sometimes thirty strong would bound across the road in front of our headlights. We found their shed antlers in the woods while we gridded. Our vehicles began to look like hillbilly hunting rigs, with antlers tied to the roof and to the front grilles. There were signs on the main road that announced “SMOKE: CONTROLLED BURN” and “Do Not Report Smoke”. I’d smile as we passed them – they’re talking about our fire! Dinner and breakfast was in Tusyan (the last town before Grand Canyon Village, it’s not a town so much as a tourist trap) at the Best Western hotel buffet. We’d line out and march into the clean, pink bathrooms to wash our hands, then line up again to go through the buffet. Filthy, stinking, black-faced and ravenous, we wolfed our food down alongside the white, summery tourists speaking French, German or Japanese and politely nibbling at their meals. The line between town and the neighboring wilderness was often blurred. Coyote, deer and fox were often spotted trotting down the sidewalk in Tusyan, or grazing in the landscaped storefronts. I came out of the hotel one night to see a small bull snake clinging to the faux stonework front, twisted between the square “bricks”, his tongue flickering like the laser on an automatic door. Nights were spent in the Tusyan campground. I slept without a tent every night, watching the moon grow larger and the stars dimmer, feeling at peace in the outdoors.

After twelve days of doing the boring work, we were finally given the chance to have some fun. We were two days away from being sent home, and the Kaibab forestry management wanted to tighten up the borders of the Anderson fire. It was ringed on four sides by a narrow dirt road, which should have been enough to hold the fire, but the management wanted to send our NUTREG crew home without having to replace us. The plan was to burn off the southwestern edge of the fire, to remove any fuel from between the fire and the road. I was given a drip torch (five gallon metal cylinders that drip a mix of gas and diesel over a flaming wick and then onto the ground as liquid fire), along with Kim and Monica from Pleasant Grove, and the rest of the crew teamed up with two local fire engines and spread out along the road where we’d be burning. Their job was to make sure none of our fire crossed the road.

It was hot and hard to breathe, and I fdrip-torchingelt sad at the destruction even while the adrenaline made my heart beat faster and a deep, primitive fascination made my eyes wide. I dripped the flaming mix on sage brush and in the deep pine needles at the base of the old ponderosa pines and then watched it creep outward in a black ring of fire. The rings met other rings and grew in strength, then climbed into the low juniper trees and immature pines. It didn’t take much fuel, only a few drips for a twenty-by-twenty square. The fire did the rest on its own. I was stationed on the edge of the road; Kim and Monica were working further interior. Brandon, our burn boss, moved back and forth between us, directing our torches, making sure our safety zones were still clear. When it got too hot we backed off and stood on the road, watching the smoke darken and thicken. The forest behind us had become a roiling apocalypse: I could hear the air being sucked in around burning trees, see the flames growing until they exploded into 100-foot plumes that whipped straight up the trees until they were engulfed. The smoke turned black each time a tree torched. It billowed violently in layers of blue, gray, black, and white thick enough to block out the sun. The light changed from bright sunshine to yellow sulphur and then, as the fire intensified, the only color was smoke. Branches ignited, flared, and curled up toward the trunk in sparkly orange curlicues. I watched a moth the size of my palm try to climb up the side of a tree to safety. It was sluggish and unbalanced in the super-heated air.

The speed of the destruction was incredible. One minute, crunchy green and brown leaf litter, thick sage and juniper, the next, black inferno. The scent of the sage rose as it burned. The heat, as I dragged fire along the edge of the road and dotted the trees closer to the flames, ranged from mildly uncomfortable to painful on my exposed ears and cheeks. I kept a bandana around my neck to pull over my face for protection, and pulled my shroud out of my hard hat and around the back of my neck. Engine 742 had pulled up into the middle of the firefighters holding the line, and was spraying water on a huge ponderosa on the edge of the road that was burning on one side. Brandon pulled Kim, Monica and I off of the fire, across the road, to allow the flames to die down a little before laying more fuel on the ground. At the same moment, the wind paused, as if drawing its breath, and everything was still for ten seconds. Then the wind exhaled, toward the east this time, and then all hell broke loose, and Brandon was running toward Engine 742 as the fire whirl roared, twenty feet high, spewing embers and live fire onto the ground on the wrong side of the road. Our crewmembers that were holding the line ran to help and the spot was quickly lined, the engine extricated, and the flames calmed. It was scary and exhilarating, thirty long seconds when anything could have happened. Fire fascinates us, and we love it when things start blowing up, love that it’s our job to be on the front line when it does.

We got helicopter rides, fourteen days of sixteen hour shifts and hazard pay, got to see a whole new part of the country, AND got to set it on fire. All the veterans voiced their satisfaction, but me, the first-timer, I was content to sit in the back of the truck on that last night as we drove back to town, tired, smoky, dirty, staring at the full moon as it rose over the horizon. It was wreathed in the smoke we’d made that day. A firefighter’s moon.

5 comments to And it burns, burns, burns

  • Sian

    Susan! You were so close to me! I’m living on (one of) the other side(s) of Kaibab National Forest (in Paulden, AZ). Much love, Mama.

  • Diana

    Did you see any Kaibab squirrels?

    Glad you are safe! As always, I love reading your stories.

    – Diana

  • Syreena

    Susan! Thanks for posting your wonderful stories- I can’t wait to read your book. And think of the fabulous book tour that could follow. Then you could write a book about the travels on the book tour. Just a thought. Love!

  • James

    I love the introduction, glad to see the new posts. Have you had any luck with magazines yet?

  • Brian

    Susan, you’re a badass. Hope to see you around next year.

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