Here is a story I cannot tell you.
I know the story, as well as anyone can know a story they do not own, a story they have been told by someone else. But this story is about a person who nearly died. And the woman in the story is not sure she wants this one out there. Death is intimate and personal. Fear is even worse. There is something about way we behave when we are running, literally running, for our lives. And there is something about the way we return, about how we simply cannot turn, or stay, away.
I will tell you what I can. Her name is not Grace. But she does not want her real name used for this one, does not want this one story to be what people remember. We are riding in a government pickup truck, Forest Service logo on the side, over a dirt and low maintenance road somewhere in the western United States, both of us wearing fire-resistant clothes, yellow shirts and green pants, our hard hats by our sides. Both of us wear leather boots at least eight inches tall with lug soles. All of this is required.
We have been visiting a fire site, hotshot crews and Engine companies putting out the last smolders of a grassland wildfire. Grace has a burn on her left arm, the skin a different color and texture and shape. I only notice it because several hours earlier, at a fire camp, someone came up next to me and said, quietly, "Grace has a story, if she's willing to tell you."
The pickup bumps slowly over the ruts and wheel trenches in the road. I cannot help myself, so I ask.
"Your arm," I say. "Is that a story?"
Already this has been a difficult summer. Large fires in places with names like Baker Canyon, Foster Creek, Miller Homestead, West Crater, Chrandal Creek, Trout Creek, Sawmill Canyon, Clay Springs and Ashland have spread the western wildfire crews thin.
"Yes," she sighs. "It's a story."
I wait as the truck creeps through the shadow of tall trees. Grace and I have been working this day together, though we had not met before this morning when she walked up, toothbrush still in hand, and said hello. Late 20's, brown hair and pretty, her job is to shepherd me around, make sure I don't get myself in trouble, make sure I don't get in the way of the real work that needs to be done. She is friendly and confident, and we've been getting along.
"We were working a fire," she says. She tells me where, but that's one of the details I need to keep close. "And I was a hotshot then. I had been a wildland firefighter for seven years, five on district crews and this was my second year working as a hotshot. We were holding a burnout, working one chain, maybe a chain and a half, apart."
A chain, I know, is a surveyor's length. Sixty-six feet per chain.
"We were burning in sub-alpine fir," she said. "The line we were holding had been our chunk of land for three days. We made a buffer, a fuel-break to hold the indirect line. But sub-alpine fir burns hot and creates lots of embers when it torches out. In hindsight, we were probably too far apart. There had been one missed helicopter drop and the crew had tried multiple times to burn off this section of line that held against our holding line, but only to minimal success. Heat started to build in the belly of the ravine closer to where we had ended the burnout operations for the time."
"We had received a small amount of rain from unpredicted thunderstorms," she continues, "and this was voiced over the radio traffic. We received significant downdrafts from the thunder cell, and with the heat building in the interior this started to push the weakest section of our line, where the missed helicopter drop approximately was. The roar built up. Our holders, another 20-person crew, quickly hiked by at that point and said something I couldn't hear. I was trying to focus on my own crew's radio traffic. I learned later that the crew said, 'We are bumping out to the safety zone.' I was contemplating making that same decision, but had not yet."
"Thirty seconds," she says. "Maybe sixty. What burned with minimal success against our holding line earlier re-ignited and burned much more successfully in the canopies. The roar was intense. I radioed we were moving out, but radio traffic was difficult if not impossible with the roar of the fire."
We come to a turn in the road. One path leads back to the highway. The other leads further into the interior, down a dusty path to where two hotshot crews are mopping up an earlier burn. Small piles of smoldering ash, each with the potential to flare. We turn toward the crews.
"It was a hustle at first and quickly broke to a run, running with my arm up to shield from the intense radiant heat. I had looked up the road at our escape route, which was getting blown over with fire, and looked back down the escape route as the fire started to crest over the road in the canopies of the fir. I thought to myself 'I need to get the hell out of here, now!' As I was running, the two people in front of me ran into the small meadow and I felt relief that they had made it to a bit less intensity. When running I heard the radio traffic blare to pull everyone out. Then I fell. I was in a dead run and then I was flat on my face. Shocked and wondering how I just fell. I remember thinking I can't fall. I need to get out of here, now."
"I got up and ran again. I fell again. I looked up and could feel the intensity of the heat. At this point I could see my supervisor hurrying towards me. I got up and ran again. I fell again. On my third fall, I was confused, starting to get disoriented and wondering why the hell I was falling. I kept repeating. 'I need to move, I need to get the hell out of here.' I dropped my pack the third time, disoriented and kept moving ahead toward the meadow. My supervisor met up with me on my third fall, picked up my pack and we made it to a small meadow along the road with less fuel. I grabbed my pack again and met up with another squad boss. In a very confused state we bounced around another island burning out and came into the meadow and safety zone. Perhaps a distance of only 500-1000 yards down the road from where the incident started. Not far at all."
"I heard radio traffic about the paramedic coming. I smelt my skin burning. I felt a hot spot on my head. I threw my hard hat off and under my bandana was an ember burning my hair. My squad boss dumped a jug of water on my head immediately. I sat down and my knee immediately seized up. I couldn't move it. The paramedic arrived and ordered a life flight through the helibase."
"I don't remember much of the ride off the mountain. I was transported to a helispot, loaded on a helicopter, transported to the helibase for the fire and then transported to another helicopter with a flight medic and enroute to the ER. The ride was bumpy and 45 minutes long. I remember dozing in and out and landing."
"I fell three times on that road. In the hospital, they found singed hair in my nose. This is a sign of breathing superheated gasses."
Grace and I ride in quiet for a mile. I cannot shed the image of breathing the gasses. That's what happens to you just before you die. Not flames, I think. Worse.
"I stayed away," she says. "I stayed away for a long time, a couple years, but then tried a different career move, bounced around in the private sector for a short duration. But I came back and merged into the career I was ultimately seeking. Eventually, with time I came back to the fire line in a different capacity."