On the Ground Fighting a New American Wildfire
"Then the fire came, sweeping over us by inches, sucking the oxygen right out of our lungs."
I studied Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German existential philosopher who once described human evolution as a solitary climb up a bitter ridge, where Zarathustra inevitably encountered a terrible serpent whom he must defeat to go on. The snake was wholly other, the dark side of humankind that caused the strongest to quail. With no tools or weapons, Zarathustra’s only way to defeat the snake was to do the unthinkable: to bite its head off. To do so meant to take it into his mouth. To expose himself to the taste, feel, and smell of it.
Lying on the fire camp’s disposable paper sleeping bags in the direct sun made my two hours of sleep less than worthless. Two hours of sleep after two straight days. The ground was hard, and the camp was noisy with the day’s work going on around hundreds of sleeping forms. A single star hotel was luxurious in comparison. Still, it was hard to return to consciousness. I didn’t know if I could go back out on the line, or what would happen if I did.
The jumble of mixed sounds coalesced into the droning “thump-thump” of helicopters coming and going, and the wails of sirens. Not more engine sirens, though, these were different. Ambulances, that was it. Helicopters and ambulances. Shit. I walked down to the edge of the bluff to look over the landing field, and there they were, the Dalton Hot Shots—one of the toughest crews in the country—bunched together like sheep in the shade thrown by the few eucalyptus trees separating the fire camp from the lower field.
They were quiet and staring, which was unsettling to me, because it was not their normal, rowdy ebullience. In fact, while some were standing and some sitting or kneeling, they were close enough together to actually be touching shoulders. I walked up to see what was going on, and a couple of them looked up and nodded to me.
One of the squad bosses gestured toward the bottom field; “Check it out, man.” The helicopters were landing in turns, each carrying two stretchers fixed to the sides of the skids. Each stretcher contained a strapped-in body wrapped in army blankets. As the choppers landed, medical crewmen ran under the blades, detached the stretchers, and carried them back to the ambulances where the stretchers were shoved in the back.
The ambulances pulled out, obviously heading for the hospitals, and new stretchers were attached to the helicopters. The copters took off again, heading back toward the fire.
We pulled the night shift, and the captain was getting our assignment from Operations. Nobody was happy about it because of this morning’s burn-over. We all fear the moment we are overtaken by fire and it felt like there was a jinx on this fire. Talk around camp was that there was something spooky about it. Vicious. It was as if there was some score to be settled, and the fire wasn’t finished with us yet. The closer it came to sunset, the quieter we got.
Day 8, Sunday, Afternoon
Another double duty; night shift was extended into the next day. By mid-afternoon on the eighth day the fire had not only over-run our stand at the saddle, jumped our line, and dropped burning embers in the tall brush and scrub oak all down the slope behind us; those resulting spots had coalesced into a formidable run back up at us from our lee.
We had previously moved our engines into a safe zone a quarter mile down the truck trail to engage the fire with hand tools. This came back to haunt us. We were cut off from our engines by the new erratic and unpredictable behavior of the fire. It seemed to be out-thinking us. There was only one way we could flee the encroaching circle of flame—up the hill.
We ran back up our laboriously-constructed but now worthless fire-line, then back along the truck trail. And when that got too hot, up the ridge itself. We climbed and coughed, no longer able to see where we were going. Each firefighter scrambled up the rocky slope—his tool prodding the next to move faster away from the heat.
As the smoke became thicker, we simply moved uphill, despite the fact that we could no longer see where we had been or where we were going. Our eyes burned and teared up, snot ran down our faces and mixed with sweat, dust, and soot. Our goggles filled up and fogged over. Our bodies screamed for more oxygen. It wasn’t clear whether the real enemy was now the fire or the panic.
And then we ran out of hillside. Multiple columns of smoke were joining, obscuring both sun and sky, and there was nowhere else to go. We stood together heaving and confused. The captains and more experienced crew bosses called for us to trench in, and we dug furiously into the rocks and soil to create a horizontal furrow just below the ridge in which to lay when the fire came.
The ground did not cooperate. By the time the fire caught us, our trench was less than a foot deep with the dirt piled on the downhill edge to shield us from the heat. At the crew bosses’ urging, we threw ourselves down, lying with our heads in the next person’s feet, our tools covering our shoulders as we shoved our bandana-covered faces into the dirt.
Then the fire came, sweeping over us by inches, sucking the oxygen right out of our lungs. Our clothing spontaneously erupted, and we slapped out the fire on the legs of the next person while feeling our own legs being pummeled from behind.
The sound of a forest fire rivals that of a jet aircraft. It is a deep moan, a train too close, the collective groaning cry of thousands of plants in an unwilling, transfigurative dance. When the fire is upon you, you can barely make out your friend’s screams, or discern them from your own.
The fire wasn’t the final enemy. A more pervasive threat began to weave itself around and through the crew, an insidious black threat from ourselves that came up from within. It was fear. Not the frightful scares of sudden surprise, nor the over-concern of one who realizes inevitable pain or loss. This began as sickening dread of ending and pain and escalated wildly toward self-compromising panic.
The air was gone, replaced by a burning gas that scorched the throat and refused to reach the lungs. Fighting to breathe, we watched the speckled lights flicker and the darkness began. Despite our determination to stay put, despite our terrible need to show that we could manage, chaos writhed within and we each began a countdown until we had to bolt. The black serpent of chaos and cowardice writhed within and our claims of dignity evaporated in the face of it.
Our leaders knew this. “Stay in the trench!” came the word down the line. “Stay there! Don’t run!” I tried to focus instead on the ground inches in front of my face. Small rootlets lay bare, grasses that would now never be. A tiny ant ran in circles, trying to find safety, not comprehending the enormity of his predicament. I covered it with a handful of dirt. How odd, I thought, that it would likely live longer than me.
The boots ahead of me were jerking spasmodically, and I realized his pants had again started to burn. I beat his legs with my gloved hands, wondering if it really mattered, wondering if his legs hurt as much as mine, wondering if I could stay here longer.
The urge to run swept over me like an obsession, and I realized I was kicking now, although it wasn’t clear whether it was in response to the burn or the urge to run. I felt as if I were covered with blankets and being strangled. The feet ahead were moving again, and I held them down. Something was battering my helmet, and someone else was yelling.
“Move, goddamn it, move out now!” I looked up to find a crew boss I did not recognize crouching over me. The air thudded with another sound: helicopter blades. “Go! Go!” he screamed. Where did his knowledge come from, his certainty? I ran.
The crew moved upward quickly, crouching low as they ran over the top of the ridge in groups. Somehow, the helicopters had broken through to pick us up. The wind had shifted, allowing windows of sky to appear through the acrid, ochre smoke. I was led through the haze to an army green Huey helicopter that had somehow nudged up parallel to the ridge and precariously balanced its left skid against a rock outcropping. Its blades were too close to the mountain.
“Drop your tool and go!” the boss shouted. Never leave your tool, I remembered being hammered into us in fire school.
Despite the cacophony of the fire and the helicopters, sounds seemed muffled and time slowed down. Great brown columns of smoke rose in helical plumes entwining one another. The captain appeared before us with a detached look, staring. A thin smile broke through his blackened face as if he were laughing at a private joke, and tears had coursed down the sides, washing white streaks on either side of his cheeks. He waved us forward, an actor in a slowing silent movie.
As we loped by him, he took each of us by the arm and pointed us toward the bird. It was strangely quiet as I came up to him. His eyes moved behind me, probably to gauge how close the fire was, yet they seemed to fix on something further off, beyond the pursuing wall of flame. His gaze slowly traveled back to fix on mine.
We stared at one another as I glided by, a knowledge passing between us. It wasn’t clear to me what was transpiring in that moment, but it was something about centuries and lifetimes and lives gone beyond. I had never thought of him as a particularly deep man before, but in that brief moment of recognition, I realized he had been on this very spot before, and that he had danced with this same snake. I had just been received into this etheric dimension.
Heat again grew intense. I scrambled behind the others, ducking below and around the barely-visible copter’s blade. I dove into the open door and was pulled in by strong hands.
We jammed into the seatless chopper, pulling yet another person in, and grabbing for support. The pilot immediately broke away from the mountain, and we were airborne. Making way for the next ship. The pilot swung us into the huge convection column. Immediately the visibility closed again. The helicopter attempted to push through toward light.
We were slammed sharply upward, and almost immediately slammed more brutally back down again. Rocks and brush appeared dead ahead through the haze, the horizon disappearing crazily into the sky hard to the right. We dove and were sharply swept up again. It wasn’t clear who was screaming and who was throwing up, but we clung together trying not to pitch out the door.
Suddenly everything went blue. We burst out of the smoke and into sunlight. As we continued the circle to the right, we saw two more helicopters darting through windows of smoke to pull the remainder of our crew off the ridge.
The fire had taken the entire mountain.
From Chaos & Ash by Kendall Johnson (Pelekinesis, 2020). All rights reserved. Used by permission.