We reach the black: Moon-scaped ash and juniper tree skeletons. Buggies parked, we unload, jumping out the back doors with our packs, grabbing tools and saws, the only moving things under the already hot blue open sky. Bob stands next to his supe rig, leaning on his shovel watching us. —Today people.
We line out in marching order: Saw teams up front behind him and Paul and Nando, then us scrapers. When all twenty of us are lined out, Bob turns and heads up the hill, and for an old guy he can hike. The jokes and small talk end quick. Just breathing, creaking pack-straps, banging fuel bottles, whispered cursing. Up through the dry ash, kicking up a black cloud behind us, dusting out the guys in back. After twenty minutes we hit the fire-line where the crew from yesterday stopped, at a patch of green junipers.
Bob sends Nando up the hill to scout while we pound water, all of us sweating already. Joseph, an Indian from the Hoopa Valley Rez back in California, turns and grins and punches me in the arm, gorilla-like, almost knocking me over. —Singer! Ready to dig line, rookie?
An air tanker roars over, low and loud, an old orange and white two-prop plane. Also, a helicopter somewhere, rotors echoing through the canyons.
Nando radios all clear. The sawyers choke their chainsaws, starting them, letting them warm, putting in earplugs, wiping sunglasses, tightening leather gloves. CK goes first, gunning his, making it scream, starting fifteen feet off the fire edge, cutting brush and small trees at their bases, with Lucky Charms swamping, both smiling and laughing, deranged forest gnomes. Schmitt and Buckner go next. Schmitt wearing his weird alien sunglasses looking like a tall skinny Communion Visitor, Buckner leaving most of his brush for Roo and George to get through, though neither of them complains. Once they’ve moved enough ahead, Yoli tells Joseph to start digging.
He lifts his pulaski and swings, gouging a chunk of oak brush at the root, moving two steps and taking another. I raise my pulaski and let it come down, taking a chunk of my own, hitting and moving, hitting and moving. Cat behind me with her chingadera, sometimes digging like us, sometimes just scraping off the dead oak leaves. She and I have both cut line before, on Type II crews, but this, a Type I hotshot crew, is faster, more efficient. Yoli, my squad boss, walks with us, keeping everyone working and not talking too much. Ace, the other squadie and the only black man on the fire, if not New Mexico, walks by on his way a good lookout spot. —Asses and elbows people! That’s all I want to see!
The fire at first just smolders in juniper needles, but the warming sun increases the wind, both of which feed fire, forming dark columns of smoke. Hot-wood crackle, flames in gamble oak. A ten-mile-square mountain bonfire. The helicopter passes over with its huge orange bucket hanging from a cable, stray drops of water on the dirt and my shoulders. It hovers over a hotspot up ahead by Nando and Bob, releasing 300 gallons on a torching tree.
Hard to pace myself, shoulders aching, pack not fitting well but no time to adjust. Sweat dripping off my nose. Joseph just a digging machine—grub, step, grub, step—but the rest of the crew looking how I feel: Faces red, sweat-soaked hair.
The tanker flies over again, this time with belly doors opening. Yoli yells, —Heads up!
A heavy wet red cloud pours down. I duck, closing my eyes. Cool slimy liquid sprinkles on my shoulders and neck, rattling on my hardhat. When I open my eyes, the ground glistens red. My yellow nomex shirt now covered in red. Cat looks the same way. She laughs. Joseph punches me in the arm again. —Woo-hoo Singer! First tanker drop! Thanks for the beer!
Yoli yelling again from the back of the line. —Come on! Back to work!
Most of the smoke from the main fire actually rising to the north, though we pass hotspots, and stay along the edge of the black. By noon, we work up to a high rocky ridge, Ace’s lookout spot, and stop for lunch. Paul wants us to stay put, to see what the fire will do during the hotter part of the day. I eat some veggie soy jerky, offering some to Cat. She wrinkles her nose, but tries it, and nods. —It’s actually not bad. Thanks, Singer.
Bob calls Ace on the radio, needing what he calls a gazelle squad: saw team and a couple scrapers, in shape enough to get out quick if needed, for putting in a check line. Ace points at Schmitt and Buckner, telling them to get going, and looks at me. —Singer? You’re a good runner.
I stand and grab my pulaski. —Sure.
He looks at Cat and jerks his head. —Go ahead, marathon runner.
We follow the saw team down off the ridge. Bob waiting at the side of a steep open bowl. —Alright, just check line. If we stop the fire from burning through here we won’t have to cut line uphill and around it later. Don’t worry, I’m your eyes. Let’s git’er done quick!
He and the saw team bump ahead to the thicker brush and Cat and I dig, taking more with only two of us, me the first half foot and Cat taking the other. I yell back, —You good with this pace?!
She nods, not looking up. —Hell yeah!
We catch up to Schmidt standing knee-deep in cut piñon branches, yelling at Buckner. —Swamp that shit!
Bob standing watching. Paul radioes about winds picking up, that we might want to come back. Smoke blowing up below us, getting darker. I look at Cat and raise my eyebrows. She shrugs.
Bob turns to us. —You heard him. Head on back. I’ll stay down here.
Everyone else is still kicking back at the ridge. A type II crew has come in, bunched up behind us in our safety zone. The wind stronger, Paul having to cup a hand over his radio. —Bobby, you’d better come up, the winds are getting squirrely!
—Doesn’t seem so bad down here.
—Well, it is up here!
A huge gust comes in and trees below the ridge torch, flames fifty feet high. The type IIs nervous, looking at us crazy hotshots sitting around joking. Ace glances at them, then me, smiling, slowly pulling out a cigar from his front pocket and lighting it, puffing softly, letting the smoke drift over. Joseph gets out a can of chew, taking a huge gob and putting it behind his lower lip. —Don’t know nothing, do they Ace of Spades?
—Hell no, Injun Joe. Fucking deucers.
Joseph punches me in the arm again. Basically every time he talks to me he punches me in the arm. —Used to be you, huh Singer?
I nod and shrug. —Yeah, I guess.
—Not no more though, huh? This ain’t no trail crew. I wasn’t so sure about you with that long hair and shit, but you work hard.
I smile. —Gee, thanks.
—For a hippie.
—I’m not a hippie! I hate the Grateful Dead. I’m a metalhead.
He punches me again and laughs. —Fucking Metallica and all that shit, huh?
Smoke now pouring over us. And heat. Trees torching twenty feet away, but the flames can’t cross our rocky clearing. Thin smoky fire-whirls in the sky. The type II’s retreat back down the line, saying nothing, and then, just like that, the fire surge ends, the smoke vanishing and flames dying down. Paul tells us to get ready to get back to work.
Cat and I lean on our tools, waiting, looking out on the valley to Taos way way down below, talking about how people there probably couldn’t even imagine what we were doing. I couldn’t have before last year when I’d started fighting fires. She takes a drink of water, her face covered in dirt and ash. —It is cool being on a hotshot crew instead of a deucer crew. I like being in the action.
Paul looks down off the ridge for Bob, worried, but Bob’s voice comes over the radios. —Where are you guys? Let’s get moving!
We line out. Ace hikes by Cat and me, smiling. —Goddamn my rookies, you’re starting to look like hotshots!
Our check-line held. The saws start back up and we keep cutting and digging for hours. My arms and shoulders and back almost numb, but I don’t complain. No one does, and we tie into a rock cliff by the end of the day.
Then the long hike back out, but with the setting sun turning the valley pink and orange and purple below. Being tired and covered in sweat and dirt making the view that much better.
Back to our buggies, 13-1 and 13-2, SNAKE MOUNTAIN HOTSHOTS in big black letters on the sides. We hang out and sharpen tools and saws, milking another hour of overtime. I doze on the drive back down, even with all the bumps. Back at fire camp, exhausted, we pile off the buggies and line up for dinner along with all the other hotshot crews, Type IIs, and engine crews. Because we’re hotshots, we ignore everyone else but other hotshots, checking out who looks the filthiest, meaning who worked the hardest, though of course the guys check out the women, which seems to amuse Cat.
Bird and potatoes for dinner, which I pass on, opting for the meager “salad bar,” lettuce and some cherry tomatoes, though there are rolls. As hotshots, we eat quick—even though we are now off the clock, there are still chores to do: Cases of water and Gatorade to get. Saw parts, medical supplies (sunscreen, lipbalm, bandaids). Cat and I are in charge of filling the five-gallon water jugs for each of our buggies.
After, I wander, checking everything out: Pickup trucks and green Forest Service engines everywhere. Hotshot buggies. Even two horses tied to a trailer. Diesel fumes. Showers on the back of a semi. Clustered single-person pop-up tents, big khaki-brown canvas caterer tents. Old green army tents for medics, human resources, Incident Command personnel, with light shining out of open flaps and light-green glow-sticks hanging outside entrances. Laughter, shouting, joking. A carnival. The Forest Circus.
Remembering that first day of work back in California when she pulled into the parking lot in her old blue Toyota pickup, getting out with her black hair pulled back in a pony tail. Faded jeans, black t-shirt, catwoman sunglasses and a barbed wire tattoo around her left bicep. Most of us were already gathered up outside the office. Ace smiled and said, —You look like you’re from Chicago!
And she raised her right hand in a fist. —That’s right! Got a problem with that?!
I find her at the information board, showered and reading a local newspaper article about the fire. She smiles. —Hey Singer, I was hoping I’d see you.
I somehow summon the courage to ask if she’d like to take a walk. She hesitates, but then says sure.
Off the main dirt road leading into fire camp we find a two-track going south into piñons and a field of sage, and lose the camp lights and noise, except the humming generators. Sky clear, millions of stars, the Milky Way actually milky-looking. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. —It’s beautiful here. I love the smell of sage.
—I almost can’t believe they pay us for this job.
She laughs. —Really?
—I said almost.
I ask about being one of two women on a hotshot crew. She tilts her head, grimacing. —It’s like being a girl on a boyscout camping trip. I don’t think Bob likes women though, on his crew or otherwise.
—He doesn’t seem to like anybody.
She laughs again and breaks off a piece of sage, holding it to her face. —I don’t know why you’d want to be on a hotshot crew. But I’m glad you are.
—Thanks, I guess. What’s that supposed to mean?
—I don’t know. A vegetarian philosophy major?
—This coming from the Spanish major.
She looks at the sky and I look at her looking at the sky. I step toward her. She turns. I put my hands on her hips and kiss her. She wraps her arms around my neck and kisses back. —Wow, you move fast.
—Is that ok?
—I’m just stating a fact.
I slip my hands under her t-shirt, touching her skin. Her stomach, her back. No bra.
She steps back and puts her hands on my chest. —We should go back.
We sneak back into camp, splitting up before we get to the crew sleeping area so, she says, people won’t say anything, though she gives a quick wave before heading for our tents, where later I lie wondering about how there now is something that could be said.
Growing up in Michigan, I didn’t even know wildland firefighting even existed. A firefighter was one of those guys in the big red engines in town. I was only vaguely aware of things like National Parks, like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, though couldn’t have even told you that Michigan had some. Nor did I know the difference between a National Park and a National Forest, though Michigan has both. I couldn’t have even told you the difference between a National Forest and a State Forest, or a county park even. To a city mouse like me, parks were parks, woods were woods, forests were forests. In lower mid-Michigan, down in the Rust Belt, the most outdoorsy thing I ever did was take walks out in what even then I didn’t know was state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) woods outside of Ann Arbor, and camping was what you did in one of those crowded campgrounds by a lake somewhere for the Fourth of July.
Not that I never got out of a fifty mile square area like most Americans: my mother’s parents lived down in Phoenix, so we’d visit them for holidays, and once we even did go to the Grand Canyon. And it’s not that I was a shut-in, watching tv in my house all the time. I was on the Pioneer High School varsity soccer team, and in college at Eastern Michigan University I discovered running, for fun. Some of my friends and I would take long walks on the trails around the Huron River. But I just never went camping or anything, and never even went up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When I got to college, I heard about people doing that, but that was for all the Forestry and Biology majors. I was just an phiosophy major, I just read books, mostly, though from high school on, my main focus was music, playing in various and sundry bands, so that my weekends were more about playing at The Blind Pig or the Heidelburg. Or, if I wasn’t playing, I was probably there checking out other bands until, finally, the last band broke up in my senior year, and I, gasp, found myself approaching graduation. Suddenly I had to think, what exactly does one do with an philosophy degree? Stay in Ann Arbor and continue playing to indifferent crowds of fifteen to twenty drunk college students? And become one of those older guys I’d see still in the music scene, trying to ‘make it’ while making sandwiches at Zingermann’s? No, I was tired of Ann Arbor anyways, perhaps related to my breakup with my last girlfriend, who had ended up sleeping with not one, but two, members of a rival band.
Meanwhile, since I had taken so long to get through college, the friends I’d had were already gone, scattered across the country. This came both from Michigan’s economic outlook—there were, and are, simply no jobs in Michigan for college grads— but also, from all of us looking for something different, somewhere where we could fit in, culturally, creatively. One writer friend decided to try getting into publishing in New York. Another wanted to try acting in Los Angeles. Another went to San Francisco because that’s where the Beats hung out and because he was gay.
And I certainly wasn’t going to stay with my parents. My dad was re-married with a whole other family by then. My mom had sold our old house and moved into a condo. And, well, we were never the most affectionate family anyways.
Time to go. Time to leave. Time to do something different. But what?
I remember going into Eastern’s Student Services office my last semester, the first time I’d actually even been there, and seeing all these people my age, my classmates I guess, dressed in suits, the guys with short hair and ties, interviewing with companies like 3M and General Electric. That was Hell. I walked out.
I wasn’t so sure I wanted the big city life. I wasn’t so sure about anything though, except that I should do what my literary heroes did: Melville, Hemingway, Kerouac, they all went off and had adventures, so as a fellow middle-class privileged white guy, I would too. When I graduated in December 1993, with money I got from selling my amps and most of my guitars, plus some graduation present money from relatives, the only thing I could think of was to go hike down into the Grand Canyon. I figured it was Arizona, the desert, it would at least be warm.
Well, when I finally got there, in February, with a new backpack and everything, there was a foot of snow at the South Rim. But, with the help of the backcountry rangers, I did eventually get down into that huge space, even bigger and more amazing than I remembered. This is all a whole story in itself, but my life changed by just happening to meet a guy, just on the trail, right by the Colorado River, who worked as a wildland firefighter for the Park in the Summer. He was actually hiking for fun at the time, but we got to talking and he told me about his job, going to fires in the woods and digging in dirt, and I was like, You get paid for that?
He helped me get a job first as a volunteer at the South Rim, which led to a summer job on a trail crew. And my supervisor there was cool enough to let me go to the basic fire training classes so I could get my ‘red card,’ qualifying me to go on fires as a supplementary firefighter for the Park, if needed. Well, 1996 was a big fire year, and that summer there were fires all over Arizona, and all over the country. Our trail crew helped out on one down in the Kaibab National Forest, just south of the Park. And, I’d never seen anything like it: probably about four or five acres (though back then I didn’t yet think in acres) in the ponderosa forest, with blackened earth and ash, and actual real fire, flames. Not big, nor moving fast, but at the time it seemed like the most dangerous thing I’d ever seen. This was late afternoon, and the fire was already dying down. A Park engine and Forest engine had already dug line around the fire. Again, not the big red city engines—these were four-wheel drive flatbed pickup trucks, Park white and Forest green, with pumps and 300 hundred gallon tanks of water. Us trail dogs helped mop-up—digging up any hot or smoking areas, putting dirt on them, or water if available, and sometimes just scraping around with our gloved hands. We stayed on into the night, digging in that orange glow in the trees, embers glowing like eyes, sparks drifting up into the sky. And again I was like, you get paid for this?
With such a busy fire season, resources were needed all over the country, and the Park and the Kaibab would put together joint twenty-person hand crews to travel to other parts of Arizona, or even out of state. One crew I was on went down to Sedona for a big fire on the Mogollon Rim, and then towards the end of the summer another crew went up to Yellowstone National Park, where I got my first of many helicopter rides.
These hand crews I was on were called, I learned, Type II crews. The Type I crews were the Hotshots, the elites—crews that worked together all summer long, and traveled all over the West. Wherever the big fires were, that’s where they went. They were way more in-shape, and more capable of handling rugged and dangerous situations, when fires were in steep terrain. Type IIs were used as backup—once the hotshots got a fire under control, they’d leave for the next fire and us Type IIs would come in for mop-up. And, in Fire Camps on bigger fires, you could just tell, the hotshots knew what they were doing, had their shit together, all wore the same t-shirt uniforms, and went to the parts of fires with the most activity and danger.
Plus, the women. Once I got out west, I’d been seeing women that were outdoorsy and in shape, which I’d discovered was really attractive. But the women on hotshot crews? Awesome. There weren’t a lot of them, one or two every crew, and some hotshot crews didn’t have any, but the ones that were there seemed just mostly badass. My childhood fantasy come true, women right out of comic books, like Wonder Woman, Elektra or Red Sonja, strong and confident, and wearing knee-high leather boots.
That was what I wanted to do. So, after that summer, I found a Wilderness ranger job down in the Superstition Mountains for the Winter, and applied to all the hotshot crews in the Southwest and California. Mostly hotshots hire from engine crews, but I didn’t even think about doing that first: I’d seen the hierarchy, and ‘engine slugs’ were way below hotshots. But, since I’d only been a lowly trail dog and Type II loser, I didn’t hear anything, and thought I’d end up going back to the Grand Canyon, until the Snake Mountain Hotshots called in mid-April. It was Nando. —Hey Dan. You still interested in being a hotshot?