Want to get an email when I write a new post? Type your address here:

Contact Me

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)


Your Message

Finally, FIRE

Cliffs FireThe heat was oppressive. The sun shone down unimpeded, hit the black, ashy ridge top, and bounced back up through our feet and into our faces. Ninety degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, but my crew was walking through the part of the forest where the fire had burned the hottest, nuking the trees into crisp, black skeletons, and incinerating any grass or ground cover into a fine powder. “Moon dust,” Kim from Pleasant Grove called it, referencing the way it exploded around our feet as we walked, only to settle heavily within seconds. No shade for us: only dust, ash, smoke, and heat. My nostrils burned. Sweat poured down my legs and my face and soaked through my yellow Nomex® shirt into the straps on my line pack. The Cliffs Fire, in the Kolob Canyons wilderness area, twenty-five miles east of Cedar City, UT, had all but put itself out on the same day that my crew arrived. We were the Northern Utah Regulars – the NUTREGs – and we were fresh and excited and busting at the seams to fight fire, any fire. We were a 20-person hand crew assembled from eight distinct regions: a few engine slugs, two squads from the Salt Lake area, three BLM employees, one guy from the State fire organization, and a couple of Forest Service employees whose full time jobs were not fire-related, but were trained and qualified to work on fire incidents when required. For many of us, this was our first fire of the season (July 29), if not of our careers. And now it looked like we might not even get to fight it.

It was an exciting beginning: I was walking into the Salt Lake district office at 1700 hours, after another long day of little to do, when my supervisor pushed through the door into the parking lot and shouted to me, Grahame, and Maren, “NUTREGs got called up! Meeting at dispatch at 1830. Get your stuff – you’re going to Cedar City.” There was no room for nervousness. The excitement was all. Finally, we were going to fight fire! This was the start of overtime hours, of travel benefits and per diems, hazard pay, and the hope of the elusive, mythical fourteen-day tour. Fourteen days is the maximum time an individual is allowed to work without any time off. In a busy summer, a person might get several two-week assignments, back to back to back if they’re lucky. This is where the money starts to add up. This summer, however, nobody’s working that long. Nationwide, the fires have been small and quickly controlled. Being called out on the NUTREGs crew means that we are available for fourteen days, but if we’re not needed beyond two, three, four days, we’ll be sent back home and disbanded, and then it will be someone else’s turn to answer the next call. Everyone’s been hurting for work this summer. Everyone on the NUTREGs was crossing their fingers for a fourteener, knowing the high probability against a full ride.

With potty breaks and refueling stops, dinner, breakfast, and a ten p.m. curfew, it took us until 1100 the next morning to arrive on scene at the Cliffs Fire incident command post. Then there was paperwork, then plenty of time to get our gear in order, and then we were directed to the helibase. The helibase. My ears perked up when I heard that. The fire was behind the green cliffs we could see from the highway. A hike would have taken hours. Instead, two helicopters, a maroon A-star and a smaller, yellow ship, were shuttling crews to the top of the cliffs, to the center of the fire. I went in the first load. I sat up front, Sarah, my supervisor, and Kelly, from the Mt. Green helicopter crew, sat in the back, and then we were off, juddering over the other crews waiting to be transported, then over the highway, then lifting over the cliffs, higher and higher until the red rock buttes behind the cliffs rose into sight, like a forbidden red city behind green walls. The helicopter landed in the burned area, the black, on top of the cliffs, and we were ushered out through the rotor wash that whipped ashes into my face and tugged at my pant legs. Smoke made the day seem dark and hazy, and ominous purple thunderheads to the west pushed erratic winds across the devastated terrain. The scene was electric with adrenalin. When the whole NUTREGs crew was present on the cliff-top, we set off hiking, our two chainsaws in front setting a fast pace, despite the tricky footing over unburned tree stems and rough, round, pock-marked lava rocks. I stepped over the occasional cactus, cooked to a crisp on the outside, still wet and green on the inside.

Bound for the eastern flank of the fire, our job was to patrol the edge of the black and the start of the green, unburned area, to scout out any burning material that might spread the fire, and to extinguishKelly and DRL it. The eastern flank was a forty-degree slope that ended at rocky cliffs. The soil was sandy, dotted with loose rocks. Simply standing in place became a challenge, as the ground would give way under our feet and leave us scrambling for purchase. My ankles ached from the constant exertion of keeping my feet perpendicular to the slope. We found trees burning at the roots, stump holes with live embers, and smoking logs. The sawyers cut down the trees as we found them, and we dealt with the stumps and logs by scooping the sandy earth into and over them, rubbing them out with our gloved hands, or scraping the embers off with our tools. I found a stump still flaming, and tried to scrape it out, but my feet kept slipping out from under me. I clung to a burned tree branch with my right hand while my feet did the moon walk in the sand, and with my left hand tried to direct my tool into the stump. I knocked smoke and embers into my face, but did little to staunch the flames, until Maren appeared above me and shoveled a load of dirt over the whole mess. The threatening purple clouds eventually delivered a brief downpour, and we took cover beneath the unburned pinyon pine branches. A thin ribbon of water poured off the red walls across the canyon as I sat and shivered. “Well, so much for this fire,” Bob from the BLM commented. That first night, and the second, we slept on top of the cliffs; “spiked out”, in fire lingo. I ate my first MRE (Meal Ready to Eat), for dinner at 2130, and rolled up in my sleeping bag between the rocks on the edge of the black, exhausted, filthy, sore, and happy.

The second and third days on the Cliffs Fire were less exhilarating. We rechecked the areas we had worked the day before, but high nighttime humidities had reduced all but the most tenacious spots to quietly smoking non-threats. During our sweep of the area, Kelly startled a diamondback rattlesnake, three feet long, three inches in diameter. Another girl spotted a tiny brown scorpion on her lunch bag. Vigilance was still necessary, although the fire had burned out. Shifting into “monitoring” mode, our crew split in two and spread ourselves along the edge of the fire, keeping eyes peeled for new smoke. I found a shaded spot below a rocky pink outcrop, and stared across the canyon at the red rock, and watched two helicopters dropping buckets of water on the remaining hot spots. I turned my radio on to “scan” and listened to the traffic between the firefighters on the ground and the smooth-voiced pilots trying to coordinate the bucket drops. The helos had found a good dip site on the other side of the canyon, and were traveling back and forth with their 800-gallon buckets. When full, the buckets leaked, streaming water across the horizon in a glittering swathe. By afternoon, even the helicopters had finished their job, and were sent back to their base. The sky and the radio became quiet, and I spent the rest of the day hunting shade, digging butt-trenches in the dirt, reading, napping, taking pictures, playing music and movie games with the crew, telling stories, and making occasional forays up the hill to survey the ashy waste and the majestic red and green panorama on the other side of it. Long, boring, and yet better than any day spent waiting and sitting around at the district. A second night at the same spike camp, a second day of eating MREs and stale Jimmy John’s sandwiches, a second day of 16 hours with hazard pay. On the morning of the third day, we knew we would be released from the fire. There had been no further activity on our line, or anywhere else on the fire, and we were told to continue monitoring, but to be ready to be helicoptered back to the base by early afternoon. It was a frustrating afternoon, despite the helicopter ride back down the cliffs. We were only three days into our tour, and we were being sent home. I’d gotten a taste of what it’s like to be a firefighter, finally, and now I was being sent back to the boredom of busy work at the Salt Lake district office.

This is when we got the call from Arizona. We were sleeping in a field next to the helibase, fed and showered but resigned to our returning home the next morning. I heard our crew boss’s phone ring, and wondered. Could this be another assignment? Brandon had been on the phone all afternoon, trying to find us another fire, another job, anything to keep us on the road and working. He’d had no luck, he told us before we went to bed. And then his phone rang, a half-hour later. I didn’t know for sure until the morning, when he and Sarah stood in front of us and told us there was good news and bad news. “The good news is there’s hot breakfast!” We cheered. MREs are effective calorie blocks, but they can’t beat a fresh breakfast burrito and hot coffee. “The bad news…” she paused dramatically. “We’ve been reassigned!” To the Kaibab National Forest, on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. We were going to Arizona!

Here ends Part One of the NUTREGs narrative. Stay close – Part Two to follow soon…

5 comments to Finally, FIRE

  • Brett

    Whoa! Sounds like you’re having a great time. Enjoy the Kaibab NF, it’s a beautiful part of Arizona. Love the pictures, I think it’s great that you’re lugging your camera with you into the fires.

  • Susan!
    Your site is coming along fine!
    I suspect we will be skiing together before too long now. FUN!
    Don’t get burned!

    ~ Travis

  • Candice Sandness

    Love your writing and the awesome pics!!

  • Roger Waters

    Okay first let me say I am not trying to troll the writer at all, but I was on the fire with this crew and remember her well. My largest critique of the whole article is how she underpins the stress involved. As a fulltime firefighter with the US Forest Service, a crewboss, and a supervisor, I get very agitated listening to the repetitive stress rookies consistently complain about. It’s a hard job. No doubt. But this woman came to the fire grossly underprepared for the work and had multiple issues while on the fire. I got the impression they were trying to wash her out. As she mentioned “engine slugs,” she was an engine slug in the most pejorative way. At one point she had taken off her PPE (protective equipment) and at another point she was lost. The stress it places on supervisors to have to manage these rookies is horrible, and unfair. I am offended that she felt qualified to report on firefighting with such little knowledge, and romanticising the job to make it more approachable for others who might not be prepared to handle it. If she was a an honest journalist she should have included that information as well.

  • Susan Munroe

    Hello Mr. Waters, thank you for reading and for commenting. How did you come across my site? I have to say you’ve caught me a bit off guard – it’s been over seven years since that fire and that NUTREGs tour and my own memories of those first few days are pretty faded. I don’t remember you, sorry, and I don’t remember being reprimanded for taking off my PPE or getting lost. There were several rookies on the crew, and while I’m certain that I made mistakes (you may recall this was a pretty slow fire year; this July 29 fire was the first action I saw since beginning work in mid-May), this doesn’t sound like me; I also know that I ended the season with strong references from my engine captain and other supervisors. I wonder if you have mistaken me for another young woman named Candice (https://candi229.wordpress.com/2009/08/15/yay-im-back/)? On re-reading my piece for the first time in years, what I read is a fairly straightforward description of the work I was involved in and the fact that it was challenging, but satisfying. It is a hard job, and I appreciate how frustrating it is to manage crew members who are unprepared; “washing people out” is a lamentable practice. If someone is truly unqualified for their job they should be removed from the crew, rather than treated in such a way as to make them quit. I’m sorry my piece offended you, but please do note that this is a personal blog, largely written to keep distant family and friends involved in my life. Although in recent years I have worked as a journalist, when I wrote about the Cliffs Fire I was just a rookie writing about her first fire. If you peruse the rest of my work I think you’ll see that I do try to be honest, self-critiquing, and provide full disclosure when appropriate. Thanks, and stay safe out there.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>