I had to run from my first fire.
It was twenty-one years ago, deep in the brush-choked Blue Mountains, a blip on the radar screen in a year when huge fires burned in southern Oregon and northern California. I had a boyfriend I wanted to impress, a motorcycling black-eyed boy named Jim. I thought he would love me better if I were a firefighter, a brave,tough woman so far from the way I saw myself. I thought I would love myself better by turning myself into stone, fearless and strong.
We were a motley crew, the picked-over dregs, the more experienced having already been sent out weeks ago. We eyed each other nervously in the parking lot, ill-fitting boots on our feet, the unfamiliar caress of our leather gloves covering our soft hands. Our crew boss just sighed. He was saddled with a green crew.
We marched six miles, sidehilling across slopes and climbing over deadfall higher than the tallest guy on the crew. The crew boss set a wicked pace, showing no quarter. Smoke filtered through the trees, turning the forest into a shadowy place. We got lost and had to backtrack, but finally arrived along a ridgeline. The fire was below us, down in the valley. We could hear it sighing deep in the trees, a low moan that should have scared us if we had known better.
The big secret about fighting fire is that it is the same thing, over and over. It is not glamorous. It is instead black snot running from your nose, the swing of a pulaski meeting hard ground. It is sixteen hours or more of shuffle-step, moving logs and brush and pine cones and dirt to make a clean line that fire won't cross. At night, the muffled roar of the generators and the overhead lights of fire camp keep you up, and if you can sleep through those, the hacking coughs of your crew might. It is night shift, struggling to stay awake in a field of glowing embers in the bottom of the darkest sky. It can also be fear, a lightning bolt through the heart as you run down a dry slope, pursued.
So why do I dream about fire? Why does the sight of a column of smoke make my heart pound, when I know what it is all about? Why do I find it so hard to wean myself from fire season, to turn my back?
Maybe it is because it is a tribe of people who speak my language. We hunker on our heels, talking about sling loads and anchor points and the big one back in 2004. We are a loose family, a knot of kinship that never really comes untied. We come together for a brief moment for a cause. When we look at each other, there is recognition. There is trust. There is love.
Or maybe it is because fire is so elemental, so raw. It is something that regardless of how hard we try, we can't tame. It does what it wants, jumping from tree to tree, skipping over one patch of ground but covering another with its tongue. We watch, enchanted. We lean on our shovels. We want to possess something of its power, its indifference. We watch it gobble up the forest. Secretly, we cheer.