Wildfire Stories: First Day on the Job

Here is a question. Why are the best stories, the important stories, always about something else?

You want to tell a story about going to the store, nothing important really, just news of the day to share with someone you know, but you wind up talking about the deer you saw in the distance toward the river. A buck, too, with the kind of antlers you have only seen on glossy calendar pages at the mall. So you start to tell the story about seeing the deer, yet there was also something about the way the car radio was playing a cut from Eric Clapton's concert in Yohohama, Japan. You've never been to Japan. But there was this girl in your past, middle school or high school, and you were friends. She was from Japan and the two of you talked about kissing but never did. She moved away and you have not thought about her for years, decades, the whole of your life since then, but now after the earthquake there are the problems with the reactor at Fukushima. You don't know where she lives. There isn't a soul in the room who can make the connections you make.

"Want to hear about my first day at work?" he asks.

There are fires today in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Sitting in an office at the Billings Interagency Dispatch Center, on the back side of the airport in Billings, Mont., Leroy Evans and I watch the aftermath of the morning's briefing. Leroy is an Engine Module Leader. Men and women who are ready, ready in a moment to rush toward a landscape set afire by lightning, carelessness, acts of God or human evil, busy themselves with small tasks. An engine crew leaves on patrol. Containers are stocked and checked. The day begins clear and bright and warm. It will be hot later on.

"Absolutely," I say.

"I went to the job fair when I was in high school and I got called. I was pretty excited," he says, a deep smile on his face. "Not more than six hours after I graduated I was doing my first class. I was getting the first forty hours of written training in. I didn't know what I was getting into. I was eighteen years old. I'd just seen pictures. I didn't know anything. So I showed up and everybody else was older, taller, skinnier, meaner and filthier looking than me. I had this impression just from pictures and it wasn't quite, um, accurate? We sat there for eight hours and then we did two-a-days. It was run ten miles, basically hell week for two weeks."

"I almost wanted to quit, but I was like, no, I've gotta do this. I want to see what these pictures are all about, actually see it for myself. Not just pictures. As soon as we got done with hell week and the forty hours of training we got a dispatch to go to Alaska. It really was that soon and that fast. That's when Alaska was really burning up. We went there not knowing anything. I was just out of high school! We got off the airplane and stood there on the tarmac. There were crews upon crews upon crews upon crews. There had to be thirty crews. Everybody was standing in line, like militaristic. And I was like wow, this is pretty impressive. Everybody's standing in line, nobody's moving."

"Then they gave us an assignment and they loaded us up on helicopters. We were flying out to a fire! Then they said oh, it's going to be a four hour helicopter ride. We're going to have to land somewhere and pick up fuel. We flew and flew and flew and then we landed at this drop point that had fifty-five gallon barrels of fuel. They unloaded everybody then hot-loaded the helicopters with fuel by hand pumps."

"This day was also my first experience with chewing tobacco. So I put in a chew like okay, I'm going to be cool. They put us back in the helicopters and we took off. About fifteen minutes into the flight I'm getting woozy. I remember looking out past the pilot and I see this giant, enormous column of smoke. It was like, oh no. I'm still getting woozy so I opened the helicopter window. I needed some fresh air. I took the chew out and put it in my yellow shirt and I was feeling like, oh man. I leaned forward, and my stomach was turning, and well, there're no barf bags in helicopters, so I vomit in my shirt. Just looked down and went right down inside the front. I sat there for an hour and a half in that flight. When we landed we got out and I walked over to this little creek. I pulled my shirt off and rinsed it out as best I could and washed myself off, put my shirt back on soaking wet."

"Then we hiked," he says. "We hiked for close to an hour and then we were at the black, the burned area. I swear it was just completely nuked out. We continued going for probably another fifteen or twenty minutes more and there was a hot spot. It flared up and started running right when we got there. I'm shivering in my boots, not knowing what's going on. You know, my job is to dig line. But I didn't know any better. We had six sawyers and they were all taking their saws apart and putting the chain on backwards and started cutting muskeg. They started rolling it up like rolls of carpet and throwing it off. That was the tactic."

"And then, when we got to this one big safety area, there was a gigantic dozer. We get there and we stop to have lunch. It's all pretty good now. But suddenly someone says, oh there's a bull moose over there. A bull moose! It's probably no more than sixty, seventy yards away. Everybody's looking at it. It's coming closer, coming closer. Then there was another moose, a cow moose with a calf. We're thinking, ah this is cool. You know, everybody's taking pictures and whatever. Well, the bull moose starts stomping. Stomping and then coming closer. Suddenly it was like this is not good. So everybody jumps, all twenty people jump up on this huge dozer. They had to have a helicopter come in and drop buckets of water on it to get it away. Twenty people trapped on this dozer by a moose!"