Wildfire Stories: Mortal Work

In the fire world, the work is hard and dangerous. The scenery is stunning. It's easy to die. People and equipment move around the country, prepositioned or responding to threats, and the result is a community where openness is as natural as breathing. You might think firefighters have tremendous and selfish egos. Nothing is farther from the truth. There is loss in firefighting, and humility is the effect.

Mark Verlanic manages the Single Engine Air Tankers at the Billings, Montana, fire base: "In 2000, when Fort Howes got burned over, I was the IC3."

He continued:

"That means I was in charge of it. We got there about 11 o'clock at night and went out to the fire, and the next morning they pulled my crew off that fire because I was taking over this other one. That fire ended up being a mile or less to the west of Fort Howes. When they flew the fire we got a good size-up of it, and there was no way we were going to be able to hold it with what we had. So we sent some people back in the helicopter to do structure protection on Fort Howes itself, and told Fort Howes to get the evacuation plan ready to go, to start thinking about evacuating. Then about six o'clock at night we had a storm system come over and we had a microburst which sent the downdrafts and so the fire in four different directions. It burned through the Fort Howes Complex, burned all the vegetation through it. It burned down a barn and some corrals, but we didn't lose any of the houses. One of the crew member's vehicles did burn up -- everything he owned was in that vehicle and burned up. That fire went all the way, almost to the town of Ashland. It stopped just before town. It ended up being about 75,000 acres."

"Have you ever wondered," I ask, "I mean, really wondered if you were going to get out of a situation?"

"No. Never. I don't know, I just always leave myself an escape route, somewhere to go. I've always done that so I've never even thought about deploying my shelter ever."

"Because you're smart enough or just because situations have not pushed that way?"

"I think I'm smart enough that I always have that escape route, that safety zone, I know where it is."

"There are plenty of stories where the dead people thought they were pretty smart, too," I say.

"I have just always left myself a way. I've known where to go, what to do. I've never even pulled it out of my pack, ever, for twenty-seven years."

A few days later I am walking with Don Smurthwaite, a Bureau of Land Management Communications Director at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. We head onto a pathway, a narrow sidewalk that seems to cut through some grassy park, lined with small monuments, flat pieces of granite. There are names and dates. Small stones shaped like hearts rest on nearly every one. Some have flags, caps, pictures, toy helicopters. Most of the markers are for individuals. Some are for entire teams.

This is clearly sacred ground.

"This is the Wildland Firefighters' Monument," Don says. "Most of them died in the line of duty. Some of them just made significant contributions to the fire effort through the years and so they're also honored here." He slows his walking pace. "I'll walk you through here."

I take a photograph of a marker: Gerald Martinez. U.S. Forest Service. July 18, 2005. There are stones on his marker, heart-shaped rocks, a small toy bear holding a sign that says "thinking of you."

"You can see that the walkway here is designed in the shape of a purple ribbon," Don says.

Another marker: Chris Johnson. Fresno County. Cal Fire. Sept. 20, 2007. Stones and an American flag.

We walk by a cross made out of chainsaw blades, a cap and a hardhat hanging on the outstretched arms. A cross made of a shovel and pickaxe.

Another marker: Curtis Sr. Hillman. Karuk Tribe. Siskiyou & Blue 2 Complex. Sisiyou NF CA. August 28, 2008.

"This is all voluntary," Don says. "About ten or twelve years ago a group of employees felt like we needed to do something to honor the contributions of those who died in the line of duty. And there was this patch of land. Everything that was done here, with the exception of a few donations by local companies, was constructed by people in the fire community. It was a labor of love."

"How many markers?" I ask.

"My guess is we're probably pushing 300 by now."

There are three full size sculptures of firefighters -- one with a chainsaw, one with a shovel, one with an axe. These are not idealized posings. These are men at work.

"It's all natural vegetation from the Great Basin and inner mountain area. We wanted to keep it so that it looked as though it were a wild setting. We didn't want manicured grass. We didn't want a lot of landscaping and ornamentals."

A group of men, an engine crew from Cal Fire, moves through the scene.

"You see a friend, maybe a former co-worker, or a family member and they're on one knee and they're just staring or placing rocks or something," Don says. "Maybe a half dozen years ago we started noticing the stones that were shaped in hearts and it just seems to have grown since then. It's nothing that's organized. It's nothing where somebody said we need to commemorate these with heart shaped stones. I think it's just an expression of the care and love that others have for these people."

Many of hearts, I see, are broken.

Don and I walk slowly along a bit more of the path while I read names and look at the things left behind. Caps. Pictures of children. Untranslatable bits of a life at home. Heart-shaped rocks.

"What are you going to do when you run out of space?" I ask.

Don pauses, looks around at the markers, the pathway, the grass. It's not a pleasant thought.

"Well," he says, "we have quite a bit more space."