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Wildfire season and looming budget cuts

Yarnell Hill

It’s not fire season yet but it’s as busy as fire season. Preparation for seasonal firefighters coming on, for training, and for fire readiness reviews fill the days, but nothing looms larger than the budget. The fire management staff meets weekly if not more often to look at the budget and try to squeeze more proverbial drops of blood from this turnip. Can we bring someone on a pay period early? Can we afford another seasonal? Can we staff our engines with the required number of people or do we put one engine out of service?

Questions like these fill my mind. I think about budget more than I’d like and I’m always the bad news bear. Nine times out of 10 if the answer is no, it’s because of budget.

Last week I spent five days in Washington D.C. for training. I didn’t get a lot of time to sight-see but I did visit the Iwo Jima memorial at night. It was stunning. While riding the Metro to and from my training I listened to the audio book The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Coincidentally, the following week I was in Phoenix for training and left town early enough to stop at the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park. My mind jumped back and forth between the crisp and chiseled magnificence of the monument I stood before in D.C. and the wild mountain side I found myself on a week later. They are both memorials commemorating American heroism but Yarnell Hill lies within our borders, it happened here, not on a foreign shore and marks a decidedly western tragedy.

The mountain was covered in wildflowers so prolific it looked like they were trying to erase the remnants of the fire, but the charred trees, cactus carcasses, and black stumps are still there. The thick, hazardous fuels that burned in the fire left room for new vegetation to regenerate; the by-product fuels crews produce when there is money to do this kind of work before a fire ignites and wreaks havoc because it hasn’t been done.

A sweet honey suckle scent lilted on the air and I kept my nose up, sniffing like a dog following the scent of something fantastic. I bent to smell half a dozen flowers but never discovered the origin of the fragrance. There were so many flowers leaning into the trail and whipping my legs that I looked like a bee after it’s been in a flower, the powdery pollen making light lashes across my legs before exploding into fine particles stuck to and glowing on my black pants.

It was overcast and a cold wind blew hard from the south making the lonely landscape more subdued than it already was. It wasn’t hard to imagine that fateful day when the wind shifted and turned the fire on 19 men with nowhere to go. As I walked, my mind was like a teakettle blowing its whistle in alarm each time images of this event bubbled up and mixed with my anxiety over our anorexic land management budgets. With already strangled and anemic budgets handed down by Congress and hampered by conflicting policy within the BLM, the prospect of bigger budget cuts next fiscal year from the new Administration sends a chill through my blood; not just because there will be less money, but because we will have to do more with less and many things will fall off the table. This means that saving money will take precedence over having an adequate staff to do the job, to do it well, and to do it safely.

For people not aware of the business side of wildland fire – or public lands management, the few brief mentions of budget woes in the book about the Granite Mountain Hotshots probably wouldn’t register on the radar – but they did for me. I could relate and shared the frustration with those angry and frustrated by budget constraints when I listened to how cuts to wildland fire budgets had been off-set with prison crews because they were cheaper, and how State Forester Scott Hunt warned that the cuts would have a significant impact on public safety, namely through the devastating drop in the number and availability of personnel and resources to manage the lands and fight wildfires.

So often when tragedies occur we look to the decision makers on the ground for answers: Which policies did they break? What did they miss or ignore? Could they have made better decisions? We do this not only to assess blame or to understand, but to help ourselves believe that if something different had been decided, the tragedy would not have occurred. But rarely do we look at the pernicious root cause of so many of the decisions: budget cuts made in the chambers of Congress.

This is not to say that if we had adequate budgets no one would ever die, but to suggest that budgets do play a part in how decisions are made and how safe people are. In both the Yarnell Hill Fire and the South Canyon Fire, resources were scarce when they needed them most. Fires do not get in line to ignite, they pop off like popcorn in a popper; dozens of fires can be going at once and the resources go fast. Most Incident Commanders know to order every resource they think they might need to fight a fire because if they don’t get those resources first, they might not get them at all.

Part of the problem for the BLM in particular is the policy determining which fund pays for what. There are two main pots of money: preparedness and suppression. Policy clearly defines what both are for. In the Interagency Standards for Fire and Aviation book (Red Book) preparedness is defined as the state of being “ready” to provide an appropriate response to the wildland fires based on identified objectives and is the result of activities that are planned and implemented prior to fire ignitions. It states that preparedness activities should focus on developing interagency response capabilities that will result in safe, effective, and efficient fire operations aligned with risk-based fire management decisions.

Suppression is putting preparedness into action to fight the fire in a safe, effective, and efficient manner. Preparedness dollars are given to the district as part of their budget on an annual basis. Suppression dollars come from a national emergency fund.

The NWCG Interagency Incident Business Management Handbook (Yellow Book) states that any time worked in support of the incident will be charged to the incident. Hours worked performing regular home unit duties will be charged to the employee’s home unit funds. In other words, when you are on a fire, your time should be charged to the fire – or suppression.

Most labor costs go to preparedness, but strangely firefighters have to charge their base eight hours to preparedness even when they are suppressing fires per policy in the BLM Standards for Fire Business Management (Orange Book). Aside from the fact that this conflicts with policy outlined in the Red and Yellow books, it basically means that preparedness dollars, those set aside to get prepared for a fire, are being used for suppression, or for fighting the fire. This is detrimental for several reasons.

First, it fixes money given to the district and locks it up, giving very little wiggle room for decision-makers to make sound decisions based on the best tactics to fight the fire or be prepared for the fire season. Second, it means that regardless of where the firefighters are working, be it out of state or in a different region, that district is paying to have the labor used elsewhere. This means they not only lose the labor, but those dollars are not going to their own district – perhaps for hazardous fuels reduction. And third, this means less hiring and thus less people to manage very chaotic and complex situations, less equipment and tools for getting the job done, and less stewardship of the land being managed for the citizens of this country.

Policy states that budget should not determine how a fire is fought and yet it was on Yarnell Hill.

As I walked on that hallowed ground, an entire hill set aside in remembrance of the firefighters who died there, I thought about the American landscape and what it holds, how our Republic was literally built upon it and that people across the centuries have put sweat, labor, toil, fought for and even burned and died on it. Our lands tell these stories, they are living memorials from coast to coast, but particularly in the West where the land is the defining factor of the people, the communities, and the culture. If land management agencies lose funding, public lands will be no more.

Walking down the deserted and lonely hill, I thought of something said in the book, “We’re the front line,” Danny said to Wade. “On September eleventh, 2001, they didn’t call the navy. They didn’t call the Marine Corps. They called the policemen and the firemen. We are the soldiers of our community.”

Our public lands are the Homeland; they tell the story of our Nation and the people who built it. If we do not adequately fund land management agencies, who will manage and be stewards of our public lands, and further, will there even be any lands left to manage?

Escaping the election: Reflections from Mt. Dellenbaugh

trail-of-flames

We ducked out of town the day before the election. Our votes had already been cast and it was just a matter of waiting for the results to come in. It was the perfect time to do some field work and get a break from the rancor of politics. Autumn in the desert means cool, brisk mornings and warm afternoons. We got to Kelly Dam in the afternoon when everything was coated in buttery sunlight and found quickly that our sweatshirts were unnecessary and only made us hot walking the 100 acre burn site to check ponderosa mortality, canopy spread, and to redo photo plots.

The lonely sound of an airplane overhead accentuated our solitude and isolation and made the crunching twigs and pine needs under our feet sound thunderous in the otherwise silent forest. We talked very little.

The forest was adorned in hints of reds and oranges that cast the world around us in soft hues of amber and gold in one last hurrah before being extinguished under winter’s embrace. The heads of blue grama grass make an airy blanket of curled feathers suspended in air a foot off the ground held aloft by their long stems. They and other native grasses are luminescent in the patches of sunlight cast against the patterns of shade in the forest. The curly-q tufts of grass at their base shimmer in the light like flames – streaks of red, orange, and yellow imitate a running ground fire in a trail of light that disappears into the shadows. I am mesmerized by the play of light and vegetation in their game of charade, mimicking other seasons and events.

Some patches of the burn site show no sign of fire and are thick and unruly while other sites reveal intense fire behavior with burn marks 30 feet off the ground and are more open and clear. The fire jumped around and missed spots. The kill rate is higher in some places than in others, noticeable by the fallen trees on the ground. It bothers me, my mind wanting uniformity. It’s a mess in need of more fire.

ponderosa-pinesMany of the dead trees are still standing. I knew the trees were dead if they had no needles, but I had no idea you could tell by the presence of woodpecker holes. Trees decompose much like bodies, leaving clues by what is decomposing them. When a ponderosa pine dies, wood borers are able to move in and feast on the carcass and in turn provide a delicious bounty for opportunistic woodpeckers; predator and prey. The tree thus bored and drilled into is like a standing stack of wafers that crunches and crackles like pressed potato chips when leaned upon. Those are the ones to watch out for; the widow-makers.

We pull off a large piece of the outer bark on one tree that looks like Swiss cheese and see trails etched in the wood by the beetles that had been there. I lean in to smell the dead tree but the life that left with all the needles took the butterscotch scent with it. I am disappointed. I walk to another tree black from fire but still alive and lean in and inhale. The sweet scent lingers in the pockets between the outer bark and inner softwood. I feel like a dog sniffing something it can’t quite get to, sticking my nose in as far as I can. My olfactory senses salivate. I want to take an ax to the tree and cut a slice of pie out of it and breathe it in – take it with me. What is the tree trying to attract anyway? I wonder if this is what it’s like to be a honeybee, intoxicated and distracted by fragrances.

We head to the next plot, a meadow of sage surrounded by ponderosa. Sage is not a particularly beautiful plant especially when it makes up a meadow. Without contrast to bring the features of the plant out the eye scans over the patches of dirt and muted blue grey as if staring out to sea; the eye sees everything and nothing. Like most desert plants its allure is in its scent which rises to our nostrils as we walk through it. The fire didn’t like the sage, clearly struggling to burn through it. We pushed the fire to do its job but it was an unwilling worker. Large circles of blackened stumps stood out in the otherwise monotonous carpet of blue. Strangely, the grasses did not creep into the open spaces but stayed bunched up close to the unburned sage. I was told it might be due to drought. I wonder.

We move to the next photo plot in the ponderosa stands. The fire did its job here. Several fires did their job. The area is how one pictures a forest when they don’t know better. There is not a lot of understory plants or dead trees lying on the ground. It is clear and open, the trees majestically swaying in the breeze overhead, the ground covered in rust colored needles so thick it’s squishy and soft to walk on. The sun is getting low on the horizon and so the light casts through the trees to the ground in sunflecks that set the forest aglow. It’s enchanting.

I have a hard time focusing on my work; my mind is camping in this clearing and relaxes into a day dream-like state. I think this, this is how it should all look; the man-made forest garden. I catch myself, the irony, but I can’t help it. It’s captivating. I am in awe. Fire and people did this. How many other places, small pockets of beauty in remote places just like this, were created by people?

I understand now why fire is man’s best friend – I see it – man has always been in awe of the raw power and grace of fire. And why shouldn’t she be? It enabled people to see what is otherwise hidden, to see what might be sneaking up in the shadows; it enabled people to move quietly when hunting, it brought game, and it enabled cooking the game and staying warm after being satiated. Fire meant survival. I had to drag myself away from East Fork, the pull to stay was so strong, but nightfall was coming and it was getting cold.

With the shorter days of winter upon us, it was hard to know what time it was when I first woke. It could be 3am or 6am. It was too cold to get up and find out. I decided to wait for signs of the sun. Then I could be sure. I drifted in and out of sleep, cozy in my sleeping bag. My face is the only part of me exposed, the air is cold and invigorating, accentuating the warmth of my cocoon. Contentment oozes through me. It’s peaceful and serenely still. The sun creeps in like a cat and before I know it, the sky shifts from dark to light and the curtain opens on the next act.

breakfast-in-the-woodsI bundle up and make a cup of coffee. We get a fire going and create a pocket of warmth against the encroaching cold. The morning, like a cathedral, impresses us to silence. Our breathing comes out in steady white puffs. I breathe out just to see it, a kid again. I don’t have a mircrowave so I drink my coffee faster than normal and have to make another cup. As the air warms and light touches the earth, the forest awakens. We watch a flock of chatty birds dash in unison from trees to meadow and back again, down and up, over and up and down again. It’s a symphony of motion. I am motionless, a statue, the watcher. I hope for a deer or coyote but don’t see one. They know to stay clear.

Our destination on Election Day is Mt. Dellenbaugh. Our thoughts are far from politics. The trail is mellow and meanders first through a ponderosa stand, then up into the rockier ground inhabited by pinion and juniper. We watch our feet and make our way in silence, occasionally looking up for reference. Eventually the trail pitches up onto a rocky outcrop that gives glimpses of the view awaiting us from the top.  The last quarter mile up to the summit is the most strenuous part. We scramble up onto the rocky point and look around at the unobstructed 360 degree view before us. I see fingers of canyons stretching toward us from the Grand Canyon but the Colorado River is hidden from view. I struggle to imagine anyone hiking from the river to where I was standing, let alone to St. George, and yet that is exactly what three men on the Powell Expedition were desperate enough to attempt.

We drop our packs and sign the summit register. “Nov. 8, 2016 – Escaping the election,” I write, and then look around for some good rocks to sit and rest against. I find two shaped crudely like a chair and slide down on them and eat my lunch. I can hear the wind up above my head. The sun is warm and pleasant. And then suddenly the wind drops out of the sky and washes over me. The leaves on the oak next to me shiver and I do too. I look around and wonder what obstacle suddenly made the wind drop to ground level. The wispy clouds above are shaped in curvy, white waves against the sky and I realize the wind is flowing like a river and I am in the current. Of course I didn’t bring my sweatshirt.

mt-dellenbaugh

I look out across the landscape and notice ponderosa stands sandwiched into long strings by the sea of juniper and pinion trees crushing against them like ice floes against Shackleton’s ship in the Antarctic.  They don’t look as abundant from this vantage point and it surprises me. The bumpy carpet of green stretches as far as the eye can see, broken periodically by open clearings of what I guess are private or state lands. If I look closely I can tell the difference between the juniper and pinion, the juniper being an ever so slightly yellow green, the pinion more blue green. Juniper trees rule here.

After our short lunch we take our photo plots – north, south, east, and west. We finish and then hypothesize about the strange colony of lady bugs inhabiting this rocky spot. Hundreds are huddled together in cracks, but many coat the rock surfaces in what appears to be sun bathing. They fly around periodically and land on us and our gear. I wonder, do lady bugs fly south like birds? Do they hibernate like bears? Do they survive the winter here? It’s strange to see their cheerful little bodies far from a quaint garden up in such a hostile environment. But what do I know. We throw our gear back in our packs and sling them over our shoulders, sending the daring few lady bugs that ventured to check out the colorful new objects flying through the air.

The drive back to St. George is roughly three hours, three more precious hours of repose from the political sporting event in full swing back home. There was no rush to get back; the results would come in with or without us. The landscape was indifferent to our leaving but we weren’t. We brought the tranquility back with us to replay in the convening hours and days thereafter. What sweet bliss those two days of escape provided before the results were known and the knowledge washed our ignorance away.

Wildfire Management: A response to High Country News Op-ed

Mendonca1

Managing wildland firefighters

In the High Country News Op-ed, “Wildfire has become an uncontrollable force,” by former wildland fire dispatcher Allison Linville, she asserts, “Recent history tells us there’s a new trajectory for wildfire – toward fires that no one can understand, predict, or control.” It’s an interesting if not emotional assertion that deserves a response.

While I appreciate Ms. Linville’s opinion and even agree with some of her points, the statement that wildland fire has become a here-to-fore unseen and unprecedented phenomenon that no one can understand might be true of green firefighters and the public, but it’s not true of seasoned people within the wildland fire community. That being said, suggesting that people are able to control a wildfire to begin with is to state an idea loaded to mislead and confuse.

In order to understand this, one must have a wide historical perspective, some understanding of wildland fire management practices, and be cognizant of linguistic subtleties; taking care that the meanings of the words we choose to use convey the right mental picture within the context that they are being used. Educated opinions form from a composite of facts, voices, and history; if not, they amount to little more than breakroom conversation.

In her article, Linville asserts that decades ago a large fire was 500 acres. I’m not certain where she is getting this idea from. More than 100 years ago the Peshtigo Fire in 1871 burned 1.5 million acres and killed between 1200 and 2500 people, and the Big Burn in 1910, the largest wildfire in history, burned 3.5 million acres that spanned three states, including the pan handle of Idaho. It killed roughly 90 people, mostly untrained firefighters. While these fires are not the norm, they certainly provide a mental backdrop for what agencies could face in any fire season.

But the size of a fire only tells a small part of the story. What made the Peshtigo Fire and the Big Burn so terrible was the intensity and behavior of the fire. They were virtual wildfire tornadoes. According to Linville’s article, a homeowner in California described the fire there in 2015 as a tornado. She then goes on to say that what everyone needs to understand is that we have no model for this kind of fire – but we do, it’s in our history.

What made the fires 100 years ago so large and tragically memorable had more to do with the loss of life due to settlements in heavily forested or wilderness areas, irresponsible or ignorant industry practices, and climate. I suspect the danger of many of the fires today are a result of some of the same things – the most significant being homes in the wildland urban interface surrounded by trees and grass, compounded by drought.

In terms of wildfire management, a lot has changed in the last 100 years, but not  much has changed in terms of what we cannot control – climate, topography, and weather. Fire has not found a new way to burn or to kill. The only thing we can control is how we engage it – and that has changed significantly over the decades.

When Ms. Linville talks about controlling a fire, whether intentionally or not, she gives the illusion that we can control a fire. Saying we can control wildfire is like saying we can control the wind. We have found ways to make use of the wind, to “harness” it as they say, but if it doesn’t blow, we can’t go and turn it back on. The same is true of wildfire. We can try to use it, work with it, and attempt to coral it; we can try to cut it off, smother it, or protect people and structures from it, but we can’t control it.

In certain circumstances we can try to manage it by letting it burn and digging line and using the wind to try to determine where it burns – but the conditions for doing that must be right. The thing about wildlfire is that it has the manners of a wildlfire.

Therefore, how we choose to engage wildfire is determined by what we know about its behavior in given weather and terrain based on knowledge and experience. But how we engage it is also determined by politics, culture, and public sentiment – all of which are as dynamic and unpredictable as wildfire.

Because of those things, wildland fire “management” is ever evolving – changing with the ebb and flow of public sentiment, running effectively or hindered by policy and budget changes, and adapting with new perceptions, new science, more knowledge, and on-the-ground lessons learned. But management is a loaded word with many meanings and must be used with care, especially in the context of something so wily and uncontrollable as wildfire.

First, fire managers manage people not fires. They manage how people attack, monitor, and engage the fire. Fire management involves decisions about how to fight a fire, whether to suppress or to contain, what to let burn and where to let it burn, and how to do all of that while being safe and dealing with uncontrollable factors like weather. It’s a hard job no matter how you slice it.

Second, no matter how you try to “manage” a fire, it’s not a pet. There are a lot of moving parts that you have no control over and that can blow the best laid plans to pieces. Managers do the best they can with the knowledge and experience they have, the tools at their disposal, and all within a set budget. It’s an inherently hectic, busy to the point that most people can’t understand, and complicated machine. Given how complicated and dangerous it is, they do a phenomenal job.

Like the fire triangle, fire management can be summed in three objectives: 1. Life first (firefighters and the public), 2. Protect structures and infrastructure, and 3. Incorporate a whole landscape approach to managing wildfire by containing or manipulating the wildfire and using it like a tool to meet scientific standards that define a healthy ecosystem. Sound impossible? It pretty much is, but the wildland fire community comes pretty damn close.

We have to be careful with the words we use. Suggesting that no one knows how to manage wildlfires today is patently false. From ground pounders to seasoned fire managers, they know how to fight fire. What fire managers don’t know how to manage is public ignorance, overly simplified opinions, dwindling budgets, and whimsical politics. As for predicting or controlling wildfires, no, there’s no real way to do that. That’s why it’s called fire fighting.

I can’t speak to 2015 being the worst fire season on record, though it wouldn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is the assertion that somehow no one can manage it. Fire seasons getting longer and worse, if they really are, has more to do with climate change than knowledge or tools, which again is exacerbated not by firefighters, managers, or weather, but by those in Congress (backed by citizens) who dismiss science and cut or manipulate budgets to push agendas or to control politically expedient outcomes.

Perhaps it’s our perception of wildfire that needs to be managed, in conjunction with being cognizant of where and how we live, in order to understand not only what it takes to protect from it, but how to benefit from and use it. That requires humility, taking some time to learn, having the ability to listen, and keeping an open mind.

Our relationship to the land is constantly evolving; our relationship to wildfire should be no different. Fire is among man’s oldest tools. If we can learn to work with wildfire it could be one of the greatest tools at our disposal on a landscape scale, doing quickly and cheaply what would take agencies decades in man power and labor and millions of dollars to accomplish.

There is a need to protect life, a need to protect fragile landscapes that have not adapted to wildfire, and there is a need to fight fires born of human carelessness; but beyond that, wildfires are as natural as sunshine, rain, and wind. It wouldn’t hurt us in many instances to let it do what it does best because many landscapes are cleansed and rejuvenated by it. To interfere in that process beyond watching, learning, and taking precautionary measures is to meddle in something we’d be wiser to leave alone.

Prediction and control are fickle and illusory words typically shown for what they are with hindsight and history. They should be used with care and defined clearly within the setting or context in which they are being used in order to convey an accurate picture, as well as to teach, explain, and to elicit understanding. Otherwise they will make fools of us all.

 

A Wildfire Fairytale

Surrounded by storms

Surrounded by storms

I lit a sprig of incense and watched the smoke curl and tumble toward the ceiling. I took a sip of my coffee and my mind alighted on the smoke, drifting into daydreams – daydreams of wildfire. Wildland fire exists in that vibrant world of vintage Americana and floats in our collective conscience as legend and folklore, colored by stories of rough and rugged heroes, triumph and tragedy.

I sit at the tail end just beyond the stories. My practical experience has just begun. I am not a fire hardened smoke eater and I don’t have tales of daring feats or courage, but I do have a first fire and it was magical. It wasn’t a huge, scary fire; there wasn’t a long, arduous hike involved to get there; and it happened in the cool of an evening on an open desert expanse blanketed with thunderheads.

We had been patrolling a remote, rugged landscape and had just stopped on a high spot to scan the horizon. A cool, rainy breeze blew through the open windows. There were storm cells around us in every direction. The question was: which one will drop the lightning that will start a fire? We were storm watching, kind of like the crazy scientists in Twister except rather than tornadoes we were looking for smoke.

I lazily looked out the windows unconvinced we would see anything, but to my surprise it didn’t take long before brown puffs of smoke could be seen in the distance. Binoculars were passed around the engine as all of us took a look. The smoke stood out from the clouds by its coloration. As we were watching it someone came in over the radio asking about smoke on the horizon. He was driving up from the opposite direction and could also see the billowing brown column. We waited and watched.

By the time he came slipping and sliding up the muddy road the smoke was clearly visible. Everyone looked through the binos again and then dispatch came in over the radio asking our location and if we could respond. Though it was my first fire ever, it was everyone else’s first fire of the season and whoops and hollers, fist pumping and damn near jumping out of seats rocked the engine. The only thing missing was the Philip Seymour Hoffman character of our crew who was on another fire handling logistical support.

Though his humor and entertainment value were missed, the fire excitement filled the air and drowned everything else out. Everyone kept turning to me and asking if I was excited. Not being the most excitable person I nodded, smiled, and took it all in rather quietly.

SEAT

SEAT

I looked out the window as we drove into a seemingly empty wilderness. We followed a winding dirt road past grazing cattle that looked up from their grass unamused and watched us go by. When we got to the fire, Air Attack was circling the fire and SEATs (Single Engine Air Tankers) were coming in to drop retardant around the fire’s edge. We watched them drop half a dozen loads, soaring in low right over our heads. It was like having our own private air show. After they were through we got the go-ahead to hit the fire. As we gingerly made our way down to the fire, the engine operator turned toward the boss and said, “I’m so excited I think I’ll have a chew.”

We drove down to the fire’s edge and started working the perimeter. It didn’t smell as bad as I thought it would and in fact, I was surprised how much it smelled like a large burning smudge, thanks in large part to the sage. It made me think that what we were doing was more like prayer than work, the four of us toiling in the thick, humid air seeking supplication as we walked through coals and bathed in smoke.

It didn’t take long for my clothes to become sweat-soaked from the heat, but the night was cool and the breeze offered a welcome reprieve when it hit my wet clothing. Occasionally I stopped and looked around at the blackened and smoldering vegetation and scanned the horizon  trying to commit the scene to memory. We only get one first after all.

I watched my boss up on the ridge holding his radio up into the air to catch a signal to give the fire size-up details to dispatch, at the engine operator pulling line, and at my partner working ahead of me. I scraped the burnt earth and vegetation, suffocating the ones that were burning or smoldering. It was hard work, but there’s a certain beauty in the simplicity of it all and a subtle catharsis overcame me as I worked.

The sky was as active as we were, moving and shifting in our periphery. Storm cells hovered all around us like giant jellyfish; virga and lightning stringing down from above. We were awash in a sea of storms and fire. Out toward the east a very active cell could be seen dropping lightning every few seconds. It was frightening and enchanting all at the same time. I wondered how long we would stay on the fire with that kind of cloud to ground lightning striking so close and so often and with such ferocity nearly on top of us.

My boss radioed dispatch to get the radar on the impending storm. Sure enough, it was heading due west and straight for us. I couldn’t stop watching it. The pink clouds lit up with golden light were shaped like a turbulent tidal wave building up to a breaking point, ready to crash down to earth; lightning frantically striking out of it every few seconds.

Between the fire smoldering on the ground and the fire falling out of the sky we were sandwiched in the shrinking space between heaven and earth. I bent low to snatch a photo of the last little flame flickering in the foreground of the looming storm before turning dirt over it. I looked back at the blackened, burnt ground behind me and when I turned back it came; a torrential rush of wind poured down out of the sky and hit me like a river. I wanted to let myself get swept away in the violent stream of cold air but something caught my eye.

Between heaven and earth

Between heaven and earth

I turned and looked behind me. What was dark just a moment before was suddenly aglow. Like a woman grazed by her lover’s touch, a hundred fires and embers lit up across the ground in response. All our work of putting the fire out was undone with the arrival of one dashing guest. It was as though the earth had awakened with his presence, glowing softly against the fading light of dusk, radiant and alive.

It was a wildland fairytale. As I stood there watching the earthen stars glittering across the ground, the wind mischievously whipping around me, I heard yelling. When I turned back toward the engine my boss was waving his arms and calling us in. We made our way toward the engine, put our tools away, and jumped in. And not a moment too soon as the storm descended on us in a blast of light, thunder, and rain. I looked back one last time at the wind dancing with the earth, and then it was gone, washed away in darkness.

As we crawled over the hills and headed back to camp my boss said, “It’s not often we get chased off a fire by lightning. In fact, in the 15 years I have been fighting fire I can only think of one time that has happened.” He stopped for a moment and glanced back at me, “And that was tonight.”

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