Years ago, before I passed the bar and began a career of ‘putting out fires’, figuratively, I did so literally. For two seasons following my graduation from college, I worked on a wildland fire crew. I spent time on the line with men and women from all walks of life: Indians (who never referred to themselves as Native Americans), Mexican immigrants, Mormons just returned from missions in South America, former Army Rangers just returned from tours of duty, recently released felons, Hot Shots, Smokejumpers, adrenaline and other junkies, and recent college graduates, as green as the pine needles high on the old growth of the forests in which we worked. We traveled across the West, packed in a van or crew truck, to work fires in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, Nevada, Washington and Idaho, on Federal land and Indian reservations, in dense forests with towering old growth, and in sparse dry areas as open and isolated as a Nevada desert.
When we weren’t called out to a fire, we stayed in a campground just outside a tiny town in eastern Oregon, working in the nearby high arid forests of towering ponderosa pines. There we would pile six foot stacks of slash left behind after the trunks had been harvested by the logging companies. Those who worked year-round would come back in the winter to burn the stacks. It got to the point where I would spend days stacking sticks, and nights dreaming about stacking sticks.
On days off, we’d loaf around the campground, throwing horseshoes, playing music, reading, playing Euchre, or take the truck to Dairy Queen, one of the main attractions in town. Nights were sometimes spent trying to pick out the satellites from the stars in the wide and clear sky. Once we stood, watching awestruck, as meteors showered down to into bright green waves of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).
When we were called out to a fire, we usually worked 12 hour days. On a typical day, we’d hike in 5 miles, work the line, hike out five miles, drive back to camp, eat, sleep, and repeat. Days were long and boring. Sleep was at a premium, as was Gatorade, water, caffeine and chewing tobacco.
I should point out that this job was nowhere near as dangerous and demanding as structural firefighting, which requires the firefighters risk their lives to save others. No forest fire was worth even one firefighter. Casualties were almost always the result of error.
Yet danger was present. There, of course, was the fire itself. On my first fire in Idaho, while working the line, we received word that the foliage of trees not far from us had ignited. This situation, called a crown fire, is highly dangerous because the fire travelling overhead can jump the fire line, cut off the safety route and trap the workers in. We had to evacuate immediately. A crew further down the line did not get out in time, and were forced to deploy their fire shelters (a thin foil shield to wrap around oneself much like the aluminum foil around a baked potato.) Luckily, they were in a low wet area and the fire did not harm them.
Those of us who got out in time jumped into the truck and pushed 50 mph over gravel roads for several miles to set up in a safe zone. From there we could see the area we had left in a plume of smoke maybe a thousand feet high. At the top of the plume, out of nowhere, a storm cloud formed and lighting began shooting down into the forest that was already burning; another awesome sight to behold.
(Even more dangerous than working the fires, to some, was whiskey. Several firefighters who were the nicest most dedicated crew members while on the fire, were dangerous and violent when in town, and inevitably we would lose crew members as a result of leave.)
On one particular occasion, we were called to a crown fire consuming the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness in northern Idaho. There were no roads into the wilderness, so we were helicoptered into the area near a homestead 150 years old. We hiked into the area, a few miles from where we were dropped off, to discover a beautiful relic from the settler days and two smoke jumpers already at work. These two men were the most elite, efficient, and hard-working fire fighters with whom I would ever work. Immediately I knew I would have to prove my worth to them.
Our job, over the next several days, would be to do a control burn of the meadow in which the structures were located out to the wide wilderness as far as we could go, so as to meet the impending crown fire at its head and force it around the burned-out area. One spark had the potential to reduce the homestead to a pile of ash in a matter of minutes, so we had to be vigilant in executing the fire prescribed by the smoke jumpers.
Starting in a small swath of the meadow around the homestead, we would expand farther and farther out. Grass fires are extremely fast travelling, although easily snuffed out, so I spent most of the first day running with a water sack on my back, trying to direct the fire much like a Plains Indian may have directed a stampeding buffalo herd over a cliff centuries before. It was an exhilarating and exhausting experience.
Once we were miles away from the homestead, we let the fire loose, and watched it burn everything in its path. That night, we could look out, several miles away, and watch the crown fire, safely away, move past us like a red burning pack of wolves, devouring crown after crown.
Years later, as I sit comfortably in a desk looking out over the high-rise buildings and deciduous trees of Forest Park, considering obstinate opposing counsel, unreasonable insurance adjusters, defiant defense experts, and other challenges inherit in my present occupation, I think about the lesson learned in that wilderness thousands of miles away. Namely, the best way to fight fire.