Fire on the Ground
“Alright. My name is Jeffers, and I’m the type two burn boss trainee. Today is Monday, June 10, and we’re here to put some fire on the ground.”
Sarah dug an elbow into my side. In a circle in the knee-high sagebrush, our crew and two BLM engine crews listened to Jeffers with pens scratching on our copies of the stapled-together burn plans. Everybody wore their yellows, their sunglasses, and their masks of casual professionalism. Some had dirty bandannas tied around their foreheads; from others, long beards bristled and swung. Anyone without a burn plan or a notebook stood with their arms crossed across their chests and their boots planted firmly on the sandy soil.
“We’re gonna light off units seven and thirteen today.” The tips of Jeffers’ massive mustache twitched as he spoke. Dutifully, everyone flipped to the map in their burn plans and studied these locations. I looked over Sarah’s at hers and found the two little blobs of forest, islands in the sagebrush ocean. “Seven’s about a half an acre, and thirteen takes up about four acres. Our prescription calls for 100% conifer mortality, and so we’re gonna try to kill ‘em all.”
I had just turned on the engine’s pump and squirted some water on the concrete bay floor, shivering in my gym shorts, when Jimenez showed up in full nomex and said: “No PT today. Get your gear on the rigs then get changed into your nomex and soon as you’re done here. I’ll pull the engine out and meet you outside the bunkhouse.”
Billy had lifted his head from the engine and said: “What’s going on?”
Jeffers glanced down at the briefing checklist in his IRPG and said: “The fuel moisture in this sagebrush is way above its ignition point, so we’ll have easy safety zones all around us.” He rattled off the spot weather forecast for the day and gave us a quick run-down of the topography of the units. “I’m running this show today, under the supervision of Madoc, type two burn boss, qualified.”
Madoc raised his arm and waved, then spat some chew on the ground. Jeffers’s skin was stretched tight over a wire-frame; Madoc’s hung heavy and folded from his massiveness. He could have eaten Jeffers, and could have ripped a full-grown tree out of the ground.
“Jimenez, I’m gonna have you and your Forest Service crew running the torches. Our boys’ll be the holding. Seven’s totally surrounded, but thirteen’ll be a little trickier. It runs right up against some private property. So we put a saw line through it right on the property boundary. We’ve got a three thousand gallon pumpkin staged on the west side of the line, with a mark III pump, and there’s a road runs by the east end, so we’ll position our engines there. Two heavies, type fours–and Jimmy, you’re a type six, right?”
“Alright. We’ll have you as back-up if we need. We’ve got it plumbed from the pumpkin, and this section of line’s at a narrow point, about twenty chains, right around 1,300 feet. We’ll burn seven first, then come around and light off thirteen with the crews manning nozzles along the line to keep it from hopping over. It’ll get a little hot, but we’ve got a handle on it.”
We scurried to grab our packs and throw them onto the trucks.
“Put two chainsaws on the six-pack,” Jimenez called. I rushed from the engine bay up a small set of stairs into the larger forest service warehouse. I twisted the numbers on the combination lock that led to the fire cache, a smaller room secured inside the larger warehouse, and opened up the door. Billy came in after me and we each grabbed a chainsaw and hauled them to the loading dock, opened up the big bay door, and placed them on the bed of the six pack. Sarah came out of the cache behind us, carrying chainsaw chaps and falling axes. Kyle grabbed three overnight packs and brought them to the trucks, and I grabbed the other three, belonging to Jimenez, Leary, and Sarah.
“To the engine,” Kyle said. “We ride with our gear.”
I bustled back through the warehouse and climbed up the back of the engine, over the pump and the water tank, to stuff the packs into a bin on top. By the time I got back down and hurried back to the cache, Kyle, in his nomex already, was locking it back up. “Get changed,” he said. “I’ll bring the truck around.”
I hustled across the gravel yard and swung inside the bunkhouse, racing to catch up with Billy and Sarah, already halfway into their nomex.
“Got your yellow?” Sarah asked me as I laced my boots up.
“Shit,” I said. “It’s in my locker in the cache”
I finished wrapping my laces and jumped out the door and ran back to the cache. What else had I forgotten? Inside, I couldn’t see anything in my cubby, so I just grabbed the bright yellow shirt they’d issued me and hurried out. I had put everything they had given me into my pack, but I didn’t know what half of it was for. If there was something that I needed that they hadn’t issued me, I didn’t know about it. I hoped I had everything.
Jeffers finished up his briefing. “You got torches, Jimmy?”
“We’ve got torches,” Jimenez said. “But if you’ve got extra, we’ll use yours.”
“We’ve got some extras you can use,” said Jeffers. “Let’s go get into our positions. Unit seven’s just a little down the road.”
We climbed back into our trucks and rumbled down the two-track road to a clump of conifers. I parked the six pack behind the engine and got out. “Pack up,” said Kyle, “And grab a tool.”
I opened the side bins on the truck and pulled my line gear down. I grabbed my helmet and stuck it on my head, then picked my pack up off the ground and swung it on. The weight threw to the side. I buckled the hip belt then grabbed a pulaski from the bin and headed over to where the rest of the crew had gathered.
Sitting on the ground at Leary’s feet were three metal cylinders, gleaming dully.
“Is this the first time you guys have done any burning?” he asked.
We all said yes.
“Well this’ll be a good one to get started on,” he said. “Kyle, show ’em how to get the torches ready. Jimmy and I were talking, and we’re gonna have you lead them through this unit, to give them a good taste.”
Kyle showed us how to unscrew the tops of the cylinders and flip them around to reveal a long, hollow rod with a wick on the end. “Take one each,” he said. “And carry your tools with you.”
“What’s in these things?” I asked.
“3:1, diesel and gasoline,” said Kyle. “The wick stays lit on the end, and when fuel runs past it it ignites. Didn’t they teach you anything?”
We put our gloves on and followed Kyle over to the edge of the unit, carrying the torches. We stood by the edge of the clearing with our packs dragging on us, heavy-laden with our tools and gear. Apprehension grew inside me. I shifted my weight from foot to foot and made a few nervous comments to Sarah and Billy. They both seemed distracted and tried to peer into the woods. Three times, Billy checked his torch. To give us something to think about, Kyle started giving us another briefing.
“It’s pretty easy,” he said. “We’ll just walk in a straight line through here, spread out a little bit, and we’ll drag fire with us. Go heavy on the fuel, there’s no need to conserve it.”
We nodded along. My stomach twisted and flipped and weird bits of skin started to itch. Couldn’t we just start already? Did we have to wait here forever? I tried to see beneath the trees, but couldn’t distinguish much. Would I be able to walk through? What if the fire moved faster than I did? What if I tripped?
I reached down and made sure my fire shelter hung from the bottom of my pack. I wouldn’t need it. But it made me think of the stories they had told us in class, about Storm King Mountain and the Thirty-Mile fire up in Oregon. I sweated. What must it be like? Did they think it would protect them? Did they ever realize that it wouldn’t?
Jeffers and Madoc hiked around the edge of the unit and came towards us, each holding some strange, long-handled fire tool I hadn’t seen before. “Holding team’s in place,” said Jeffers. “Let’s get a test fire going.”
Sarah picked up her torch and poured some fuel on the ground, then bent down and lit it with a pocket lighter. She stuck the wick of her torch into the flames and it caught. She kept the torch pointing downwards, spilling torch fuel onto the flames to soak the wick and keep it burning. Billy and I lit our torches off the fire she’d put on the ground. When the fuel burned out, the tiny flames on the sand weakened and died.
She lit up the test fire in a small out-thrust nearby, and Jeffers seemed to like the way it looked.
“Go on through,” he said to Kyle. “Light her up.”
Kyle nodded to us. “Line out,” he said. “Mike and I’ll take the middle, Sarah, top, Billy bottom. Stick on the same level, half a chain apart. Keep me in sight.”
He entered the forest and we followed. I pushed through a fence of close-grown firs and stepped beneath the eaves. “Lay some fire down,” he said. I flicked my torch backwards towards the field and a thin line of fire slipped from my torch and started spreading on the dry needles and dead branches that littered the ground.
Don’t stop,” said Kyle. “Keep walking forward, lay down fire behind you like you’re laying bread crumbs.” I hurried after him, dragging fire. Through the trees, I could see Billy and Sarah stomping through the brush on either side of me. The fuel caught quickly on the dry needles and rotting logs.
A crackling crescendoed behind me. A closeness squeezed me. I couldn’t see the other side. Quick, shallow pants shook my lungs. Jagged bursts of thought speared through my brain. Heat pushed the back of my neck. I didn’t look behind me.
I swung my torch at the base of a small fir and the flames swelled beneath it. They grabbed its lower branches and wrapped themselves around it. I reeled past it. I scrambled over a dead trunk then dragged a line of fire down it. Behind me, a massive wave was gathering. I could hear it. It loomed above my head.
I threw a line of fire into a jackpot of rotting limbs. My heart, full-throttled, pumped a froth of frantic dread. I jolted forward. A sharp crack and a heavy thud crashed through the roaring.
It would catch me. It would crush me. I couldn’t see through the trees ahead of me. I had nowhere to run It bellowed behind me like the fury of the holy sword that razed Gomorrah. I turned around and saw behind me flames the size of Hell’s own gates and froze, too scared to think or run, or panic, and I saw the devil beckon.
“Mike!” I lifted the torch and looked at Kyle. I could see the fury of the burning forest reflecting from his sunglasses. He pointed past him through the trees—
I stuttered for a step to throw a glob of fire on a patch of needles, and took three steps and flung another splash of flame beneath some jackstrawed logs. I turned and dripped some drops of fire on the carpet-branches of a fir. It caught and spread and started climbing, hissing up the layered needles.
“That’s enough!” called Kyle. I caught up with him and we plunged through the forest out into the meadow. Kyle looked left and right as Sarah and Billy both emerged.
He swung his arm above his head towards the field and started crunching through the sagebrush. We followed and caught up with him. I grabbed the burning wick of my torch with my glove and smothered it, then turned.
Two hundred feet away, I felt the heat. Black smoke churned and spun, rising and spreading. Flames wailed deep into the ruined sky.
“Holy shit,” said Billy.
“That was awesome,” Sarah said.
“I almost peed my pants,” said Billy. “I tripped and I was sure it was gonna get me before I got up.”
“What a hell of a thing,” I said. “I can’t believe we just did that. I thought I was gonna fry.”
Kyle laughed at us. “Look at it” He pointed. “Look where the flames are in the forest. There’s still a full third of the distance–we had plenty of time to get out of there. You guys just never saw a tree torch out before.”
“Whatever, dude,” said Billy. “Big, tough, fire fighter man, not scared of a couple of trees lighting on fire right next to you. No big deal, he says. The forest’s just on fire.”
“I remember my first rodeo,” Kyle said.
Overhead came around the unit from the downhill side. Around us on the hill, I could see the members of the BLM engines spread out, watching the fire with their packs on and their hands on their tools. Jeffers, Madoc, Jimenez, and Leary joined us.
“Good work,” said Jeffers. “That’s a gorgeous little fire you got there. It’s not every day you get to run a glory strip like that. Go ahead and grab a quick bite, but stay ready to move. Once this burns down we’ll get set up around thirteen.”
We dropped to our knees and swung our packs around to get at our food. And then I realized what I’d forgotten.
Peter Storey is a poet and a performer from Chelmsford, MA. After attending Umass Amherst, he’s read his work in Boston, New York City, Washington DC, and Antarctica at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. In his free times, he drives his truck and hopes it doesn’t break, and is currently spending another summer fighting wildfires in the west.
Allison Goldin is an artist living in Cambridge. Her work is a collection of spontaneous drawings from the imagination. The most common link throughout her art are the semi-recognizable creatures scattered amongst and bringing together the surrounding doodles. She is currently studying Illustration at The School of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.