Photo by John McColgan, Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Fire Service
This article was submitted by former National Park Service park ranger and current Main Library Associate Steve Oakes.
Thousands ordered to evacuate! Lately, every summer such a headline may be splashed across a newspaper or as an introduction to a breaking televised news story of a wildland wildfire threatening homes and or businesses. Typically, these fires occur in western states or Florida, but the truth is, wildland fires occur in all 50 states. Between 1998 and 2001, I had the opportunity of being on interagency fire crews that were called out, in response to a request for firefighting resources. In this article, I will provide my insights and experiences regarding wildland firefighting and focus pictorially on my participation on the Mitsue Lake fire in Alberta Province, Canada in 1998 and the Ryan Gulch fire in Montana in 2000.
As a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns and Cuyahoga Valley National Parks I discovered they were very supportive of staff contributing to the firefighting efforts. Park ranger duties can cover a multitude of disciplines and functions, including resource management, fee collection, law enforcement and interpretation, to name just a few. Often, in smaller park units, a ranger “wears” many hats and has several cross-over responsibilities. Fighting wildland wildfires is one such function that typically requires the ranger (and/or other staff) to have successfully completed a 40 hour training course, passed the physical ability test (completing a three mile hike, carrying a forty five pound backpack, in forty five minutes or less) and the emergency shelter deployment test. When finished, a “Red Card” is issued to the qualifier allowing them to participate in the appropriate level of firefighting activities.
Markers on the map indicate the locations I’ve seen wildland firefighting duties
Fighting fires is an optional duty. Working at Carlsbad Caverns National Park provided me the opportunity to receive the training and get certified to become a Type 2 wildland firefighter. Type 2 firefighters typically serve on interagency crews performing “mop up” duties or assisting on prescribed burns. They are not the smokejumpers or “Hot Shot” crews that are the first ones on a fire and do “initial attack” activities. Such personnel are classified as Type 1 and their goal is to suppress or put out the fire if reasonable, or establish a containment perimeter. Type 2 crews often come in behind the hot shots and mop up, which is, to guard the fire line (perimeter) and put out “smokes”, that is, smoldering embers, tree stumps, brush etc. Mopping up is not a glorious endeavor, but it needs to be done, and is a lot safer than initial attack.
My squad on Ryan Gulch fire, Montana 2001. I’m second from right.
Wildland firefighting organization is very similar to military ground force units, as I understand. A crew consists of 20 persons with a crew chief and assistant crew chief, then, three squad leaders. Each squad leader commands a group of five others. To become a chief or leader, a qualified person must sign off on the trainee’s task booklet of skills that were successfully demonstrated to the signee. One of those skills for example would be the proper use of a field radio. In addition, training courses must be undertaken and a proficient knowledge of the content must be documented.
Significant fires that involve the federal government are assigned an Incident Command Team. The type 1 & 2 crews are frontline workers of an Incident and personnel/resources involved (called out) can be numerous and costly. For instance, when I was on the Ryan Gulch Fire in Montana in 2001, staffing on the fire was about 700 persons for a fire that eventually grew to over 17,000 acres.
My first “callout” was not too long after I had completed the training to be a firefighter. The coursework covered in part, case studies of incidents where firefighters lost their lives. Safety was a major topic of discussion and if the goal of the instructor was to instill the fear of god and acts of god, in the students, he succeeded. A lot of the safety measures were common sense notions, however in stressful situations, things can go awry and judgment clouded. So, it came as no surprise that I was anxious when I received notice I would be part of a resource order callout.
I remember how things unfolded fairly well when I got the call. I was in the interpretive office at Carlsbad Caverns National Park and my supervisor called and told me the park had received a resource order and to standby the phone. It was around noon and he informed me that I was in the group to be released for firefighting duty, if I wanted (typically you have the option to pass). I said I was interested and wanted to know how quickly before the “order” would be confirmed. He stated within the hour and that the rest of my duties for the day would be covered by other staff. Soon, I was joined by another ranger, Dave Elkowitz, and he was excited. He assured me that the order was solid and that the crews would be going to Canada. “Canada! You’re kidding me” was my response.
Elkowitz was often in the loop and he was a veteran of fire callouts. He had more details as well. The host agency (Alberta Land and Forest Service) requested that firefighters bring tents, mosquito repellent and rain gear in addition to the normal outfitting and equipment crew members would bring (routinely a duffel bag with all your clothes, toiletries and personal items, weighing no more than 50 lbs., and your line pack). Based on the information he received, he speculated we would be in a spike camp, with limited amenities, eating a lot of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and no showers. He thought our assignment might include a helicopter ride or two, but not to count on it.
Within thirty minutes, we received confirmation. We were told to expect to be gone for two to three weeks, to get our affairs in order and report to the Carlsbad airport by five o’clock. My head was spinning.
Three of us from Carlsbad National Park, and three staff from the neighboring Guadalupe Mountains National Park, boarded the twin-engine plane. Our destination was the Albuquerque International Airport. Once there, we would meet up with the other 14 members of our crew. All together, five crews would board a jet the next day, headed to Edmonton, Canada. Throughout the evening, crewmembers from throughout the southwest, lumbered into the staging facility. One of the crews, was from a Navajo Indian reservation in the area. We were told not to mingle with them.
The whirlwind of events settled down as night approached. Transportation was arranged so that our crew could go out to dinner at a local restaurant. We settled on a Mexican restaurant. The next morning, we were provided a continental breakfast of sorts, before we headed to the tarmac to get on our chartered jet.
My crew was diverse with half the crew Hispanic, and two women as well. We were all federal employees from three different land management agencies. The National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Being the beginning of May, when we arrived in Edmonton, it was before tourist season. As such, several tour bus type motor-coaches were lined up awaiting our arrival. We were traveling in style and for most of our rough and tumble group, apparent luxury. Fresh fruit, pastries and drinks greeted us as we stepped on the buses. I later learned that this spread was a notch above the norm, but generally speaking, in my later experiences I learned it was one of the perks that firefighters receive (that is, well fed and well hydrated). It does come at a cost, as it was no doubt not a gratuitous gesture on part of the bus company, but instead an expense of the fire account. This was one of the many ways, management of wildland firefighting, provides for staff. Staff that, potentially, could be risking their lives.
Two hundred miles north of Edmonton, we came to a stop, right in the middle of the road. A law enforcement officer had his vehicle blocking the roadway. A representative of our crews got off the bus to tell him we were headed to the fire. After a few minutes, we were told we could get off the bus and stretch our legs, as the proper authorization for our passage might take a little time. I suspect the officer found it a little odd that this rag-tag bunch of Americans (fire garb is not that fashionable and when traveling to a fire, crewmembers are required to wear their Nomex “fire retardant” yellow shirts and dark green pants) were so far north of the border.
As we waited off the bus, it began to snow. Not the frozen flakes of precipitation, instead it was ash from the fire, and yet fire could not be seen or heard from our vantage point. Elkowitz informed me that ash raining down was not a good sign. Falling ash so far from the fire (it can travel several miles) is indicative of extreme fire behavior, such as torching trees and fires that race across the canopy of trees (known as crown fires). At about that time I was wondering what I had gotten myself into.
Relief soon came to our predicament as a helicopter soared up the roadway. It landed in the center of the road by the officer’s car and a Nomex wearing woman got out and approached the officer. Soon afterward, the chopper took off and the trooper waved us through. A few miles up the road, we came upon the scene in the picture above. A tree torching along the roadway. And it wasn’t just the one tree, there were several others on both sides of the road.
Our destination was an inactive gravel pit operation. Fire camp was set up and waiting for us. The quarry was expansive and ideal for our accommodations and about as safe as you could be (rock doesn’t burn!). The background of the photo reveals the double-wide trailers that we would call home for the next 20 days. We were told they were used seasonally for oil exploration camps. Our camp housed 700 personnel and included a mess hall. The tents we were told to bring would not be needed. Each double wide contained 40 – two person bedrooms with restrooms and showers down the hall. Elkowitz and I bunked together and he told me what we were experiencing was some of the best amenities he had ever encountered on a fire. Luxurious, is how my fellow firefighters described our situation. We were happy.
All around us was oil country, with lots of trees, and lots of muskeg. Muskeg is usually to be avoided once winter has passed. I was familiar with muskeg when I lived in Alaska. The best way to describe it, is to imagine water logged peat moss, a foot or more thick, on top of the soil. Or a bog on top of land. It is gentle on the feet and feels like you are walking on a wet sponge. When temperatures sink below zero, it is solid, and the right time to drive heavy vehicles, oil exploration equipment and double-wide trailers onto it. During the warmer months, this organic mass will soak up water and harbor the infamous north-country mosquitos. But the previous winter and spring were different. Neither snow, or soaking rains, came. Spring was hot and dry. The muskeg dried up and the winds came. A spark at a lumber mill ignited the woods and the 40 mph wind gusts caused a major blow-up, as the story went. Our fire was not the only one in the province. At least ten others were raging across the countryside.
The back of my fire t-shirt from the Mitsue fire in Alberta, Canada. Obtaining these T’s was something a lot of firefighters looked forward to buying. As pictured, the Mitsue was one of the larger fires occurring and it grew to over 110,000 acres during the 1998 fire campaign.
Vietnam vets may recognize the chopper on the right. The Bell 212 is the civilian version of the UH-1 “Huey” used extensively in the Vietnam War
We were on the fire line nineteen straight days. About 80 percent of the time, we got a helicopter ride to a drop-off/pick-up landing spot that changed throughout our assignment (Elkowitz was wrong about helicopter rides too). From the drop-off, we generally had to hike one to three miles to reach our work site. We woke up each day around 5 am and had about an hour to throw on the Nomex, eat breakfast, grab our brown bag lunch and pack our gear. Our twelve-hour shift started at 6 am and hopefully, our ride would pick us up at the end of our shift. It didn’t always work out that way and on a few occasions arrangements were made with the mess hall to keep the chow line open until we got back to camp and ate.
Being in the north country in May and June, it did not get dark until around 11 pm and light by 5 am. One evening around midnight, there was a commotion in the hallway. The excited voices were proclaiming the Northern Lights were visible. Elkowitz and I went outside and it was quite a display. I was happy for Elkowitz because he had never seen the aurora before. From my nearly ten years of living in Alaska, it was a welcome sight to see again. One that I never got tired of looking at.
Few fires scour the landscape of all burnable material. In the air you could see the how the fire skipped around, forming a mosiac pattern. We were told the lines through the forest were called siesmic lines. Cleared of trees, these pathways were used during the oil exploration process. Some of the clearings contained buried, natural gas lines.
The Bell 212 was quite the workhorse. There was enough seating in the aircraft to transport our entire crew, our line packs and equipment/supplies for the day. The pilot was a friendly guy and would sometimes do banks and turns that were out of the ordinary, just for the fun of it (crewmembers loved it but apparently his flying style was against protocol!). After dropping off the crews, he would get a water bucket and then start making water drops specified by fire management staff (overhead). The 212 was not the only helicopter on the 100,000 plus acre fire. In camp, we counted 18 heli-spots on the perimeter and got rides on several different makes and models of whirlybirds.
The landscape reminded me a lot of the Alaskan interior. Beaver ponds are everywhere. In the middle of the photo, a dam can be spotted running from left to right. Unlike the terrain for many western fires, the numerous ponds we encountered provided a nearby source of water, both for the helicopters, as well as the line crews. We often would hike in a gas powered water pump, fuel and a couple hundred feet of hose, to where we were doing mop up work. On many fires, nearby water is not an option.
Often we were miles from the active fire, but a change in wind direction could bring the action a lot closer in a short amount of time.
We read from a briefing report that 59 bulldozers had been dispatched to the fire. The dozers can make a fire-break in a hurry. Our crew took a break in this clearing as a group of three bulldozers cleared a path in the tall timber in the background. With the height of those trees, you didn’t want to be close to the action. They did a great job of creating a path, but the downed timber got pushed up into a jumble on both sides of the clearing. If the fire gets into a compilation of tree trunks, branches and brush, it can pose a challenge to the integrity of the fire line. On a couple of occasions, we had to disassemble a smoldering slash pile of tree trunks to put out the smoke and embers. Left unattended, a heap of smoking trees could ignite days later and create more problems.
The red fire hydrant looking hardware is part of an underground natural gas pipeline. Although my crew and the pipe appear to be in a forest opening, it is actually a large corridor. The width of the pathway might suggest it would make a good firebreak, but not when dried, brown grass is present. In earlier photos, you can see where the fire easily passed right over such pathways and seismic lines.
The Canadian callout was a gift. Great accommodations, good food, ample overtime, five minutes of telephone service every other day, fantastic scenery, helicopter rides and no night shifts. My fire duty would not get any better than that.
Our beautiful gathering place!
The Northern Rockies saw a significant number of wildfires in the year 2000. At that time, I was working at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio when I had another chance to go out on fire duty. The make-up of our crew in Ohio was much different than in New Mexico. In Ohio, the resource order was filled by the State of Ohio – Division of Forestry. The crew I was on in 2000 consisted of a couple of federal employees, a city firefighter, a deputy sheriff, a guy who was unemployed at the time and the remainder, which was the majority, were staff from the Ohio Division of Forestry.
My crew was one of eight crews that were being assembled to be sent to fill resource orders for the Northern Rockies region. We were being staged at an old airport terminal in western Pennsylvania. The facility had little to no air conditioning, and very few windows. Unlike the staging area in Albuquerque, we did not have transportation to go out for food. All our meals were brought in, and they were not that exciting.
Rumors can run rampant when a bunch of anxious firefighters are cooped up in a barely standard, non-inspiring, cinderblock building. We had been together for one night and all the next morning, and crewmember speculation suggested perhaps the order had been canceled. Resource orders can be very fluid with the changing fire conditions that inevitably take place across the country.
Elkowitz told me about a callout he was on when he got sent to Hawaii. His crew stayed in a hotel for days before they were sent back home without ever setting foot on the fire line. Hurry up and wait, is a common theme and occurrence. If one cannot be patient, being a wildland firefighter may not be the best choice for a duty assignment. A strong crew leader can help some people with their attitudes, but for others, it just isn’t possible. Group dynamics can be fractured if everyone is not on the same page, which can jeopardize a crew’s safety if out on the line, or affect morale.
We spent a second night at the terminal. It was dismal but at least they had not canceled the resource order, yet. Rumor was, there was a delay in getting a chartered aircraft. On this occasion, the information that filtered down was correct. A Boeing 737 was requisitioned from Planet Airways (I had never heard of them) to fly us to Montana. We strode out in formation across the tarmac to the belly of the plane, with our gear in tow. Being pre 911 or because it was a chartered flight, there was no security check in and no loading staff. I volunteered to hop into the cargo bay of the jet and helped load our gear (a great experience to add to my resume!). It must have been quite the sight for the plane’s crew with a cabin full of yellow clad dudes (and a few women too!). The flight was staffed by uniformed flight attendants and once in the air they came by with steamed wash clothes! I thought it was very odd but it sure did feel good to tilt your head back and feel the moist warmth on your face. We learned that they did that with all their passengers and the airline was strictly a charter company providing air travel for sports teams and/or dignitaries. We felt special knowing that we were occupying the seats of former passengers such as the Kansas City Chiefs, perhaps?
I remember each day temperatures were in the 90’s, and lots of sun.
The rest of the journey was not as memorable as we flew into Bozeman, Montana. Typical of fire duty, crews are assigned a bus and driver that stays with the crew for the duration. We were taken to a campground area that was not set up as a fire camp. Food and drink (normally sports beverages and bottled water) was available, but not much more than that. The campground had lots of nice sized pine trees and the understory was dry. We spread out our sleeping bags where the terrain suited us and settled in for the night.
The next morning we had breakfast in the early hours as usual. However, we were told there was not a rush, as the crews had not yet been directed to any specific fire. It did not take long for the rumors to start flying as to our disposition. Around 10 am we got our orders. We would report to the Ryan Gulch fire, about 30 miles west of Missoula.
My crew received the task of guarding Interstate 90. Sounds strange, but management was using I-90 as a fire break. Not pictured to the left in the photo, sat I-90 about 10 yards away. We were to protect the highway from any burning logs that might cascade down the mountainside and catch the opposite side of I-90 on fire. In the five hours of watching parts of the hillside smolder, a few small tree trunks did tumble down in front of us. None of them crossed the dirt road at the base, but each received a flogging until the flames and embers were extinguished.
Later we learned that another section of I-90 had been breached, and traffic had to be stopped. To our amazement, it took a while to get it under control and what further astonished us was that I-90 in that area of Montana was traveled by an average of 800 vehicles an hour! Think of the traffic jam!
That afternoon we were told to load up onto the bus. Several of us were wondering, well what about protecting the interstate? If it was that important, who was going to guard it? I’m not sure if we got an answer but our crew boss wanted us all to be together before he gave us the news. We were told we were going back to fire camp. He suggested to maybe get some rest because at 5pm we were to eat and prepare to start the twelve-hour evening shift beginning at 6 pm. It was the beginning of eight straight nights working the graveyard (we didn’t know it at the time it would last that long, but you never do on a fire).
After dinner we were hanging around not knowing where we would be going, or what to expect. We loaded up our bus and had a seat. Often the drivers knew more of what was happening on the fire than our squad boss. Which made since because the drivers had to transport us to our work assignments. Our driver took us not far from camp, up a winding dirt road into the trees and grasses. He pulled off to the side where we got a bit of entertainment. The sky was hazy and downslope was a small lake. Soon a skycrane (a heavy lift chopper such as the one pictured above) passed overhead on its way to the lake. It hoovered down to the lake’s surface and let its snorkel hose submerge into the water. A crewmember ascertained the size of the attached water tank to be 2,500 gallons. We were amazed at the short length of time that passed before it flew off.
Someone shared a story about a scuba diver that had been sucked up during a previous firefighting effort and found dead on the fire line several miles from the source of water. Some crew members doubted how a grown human being could be sucked up through an eight inch hose. As the spirited debate progressed for several minutes, the helicopter returned for another load. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, came from the back of the bus as the others speculated how long it would take to fill the tank. We got our answer after 51 seconds. A team member exclaimed, “man that really sucks.” We couldn’t agree more.
*** To learn if the scuba diver story has merit, checkout from our collection the Discovery Channel’s Myth Busters Collection 1 DVD from your KCK Public Library.***
The sun began to set and our entertainment flew off with it. Use of the chopper meant that heavy action was not far away. We were experiencing another round of hurry up and wait. Our crew chief suggested we try and get some sleep if we could. Many of us had been up since 5am and we probably would not have the opportunity to sleep until after 7 or 8 am the next morning.
The crew chief’s radio came to life around 11pm. When the radio communication ended, he talked with our driver. We disembarked shortly thereafter and the crew chief filled us in on our assignment. He told us the fire had jumped the fire line and that we would work with a crew from New York to dig a fire line to try and contain the slop-over. This would be one of the few times during my short career where I would be on a crew performing what is known as “initial attack” (IA).
The bus parked in a designated safe zone and we would hike the remaining distance to get to our assignment. We traveled on the dirt road for about a mile until we got to a forested mountainside that was on fire. At the point of encounter, the fire was on our right and ripping pretty good. As we continued we would occasionally hear a tree, or even a rock explode. This would happen when extreme heat would rapidly cause what water was inside, to quickly turn to steam and gas and shatter the rock or tree as the vapor was trying to escape from within (just like popcorn). Up ahead was a pick-up truck staffed by the line boss. He was supervising his section and checking on containment of the fire. He showed our crew boss where the fire had crossed the road and how the New York crew was flanking the fire downhill and digging a containment line. He informed us that we were to continue hiking up the road about another mile to where the slop-over ended on our left. At that point, we were to establish an anchor point and dig a fire line below the existing fire and continue back towards the New York crew’s anchor point. The goal was to meet the New York crew about half way along the mile or so of the creeping fire. Using shovels and Pulaski’s we would dig down to mineral soil and make the path about six inches wide. Because the fire was moving downhill, it did not spread quickly. Once we hooked up with the New York crew, we would then double back and improve the line, in part by making it wider.
It took about an hour to hike to the anchor point and dig line, and meet up with the New Yorkers. As we hiked, the fire was on both sides of the road. Our progress was delayed a couple times due to high temperatures, thick smoke and swirling embers. We found the spot to set anchor and proceeded to dig line towards the other crew. When we met them, we gave them high fives and initiated some small talk. Nick was the name of one of their crew members and he was pretty excited. He was from the Bronx and this was his first callout. He appeared to be of Italian descent and he spoke with a New Yorker’s accent. He was showing us his new fire boots that he had just purchased before the assignment. Several of us cringed after hearing his story (we learned the next day that Nick had to stay in camp for several days because of blisters from his unbroken-in new boots).
After shooting the breeze, the next part of our assignment was pretty easy. Again, we were to shore up the line by widening it, and then patrol, making sure smoldering or ignited logs did not roll past us down the slope. We were also to be on the lookout for burning trees that may fall and cross our border, or if embers might get carried further downhill and start any spot fires.
We maintained a safe distance as the fire moved down towards us. We moved flammable material (leaves, brush, twigs and branches) away from the fire break so that the fire would not advance any further. We kept busy the rest of the night, and the warmth of the fire kept us comfortable. We didn’t realize until the day shift came and relieved us of our duties, that the temperature off the mountain and down in camp, had sunk into the low forties.
The next day the temperature climbed into the nineties. Our crew was still excited about doing initial attack just a few hours earlier. We lounged around looking for shade and a nice place to relax or to read, or whatever. The camp was a closed camp with just a rope barrier surrounding it but an armed law enforcement officer was providing security at the entrance gate. Our crew chief came around asking how we were doing and if we needed anything. Due to it being a closed camp, management would do what they could to obtain creature comforts (within reason) if you brought money with you. A courier would go into town with your money and list of items and bring it back to you if they could.
I found a quiet place to have my brown bag lunch. As usual in fire camps, ample sports drinks and bottled water were available in an iced down, metal water troughs (they frowned on supplying carbonated beverages, although that unwritten policy may have changed). It was challenging trying to sleep in our off hours, when our bodies were telling us we should be awake. All in all, the first day after pulling a night shift was pretty boring.
We boarded our bus after dinner. We did not have the luxury of resting by the side of the road before doing some actual work as we had the night before. We returned to the same area and parked in the safe zone. We would report to the same spot and perform mop up duties. As we hoofed it along the road, it was still light out and we could plainly see what we had traveled through the night before. Smokes were everywhere. The picture above represents what the scene looked like after the fire had moved through. The wisps of smoke were emanating from what remained of trees that once covered the slope. Notice that a number of trees appear unaffected.
Hut-two-three-four. Although we hiked in formation, I can’t recall us ever singing.
We traveled by crew and squads, being careful not to get separated. The following year while fighting at night, our crew was putting out some hot spots on a chaparral fire in the foothills near Winnemucca, Nevada. Around midnight our crew boss gathered us together and we discovered we picked up a straggler from an entirely different crew. He joined us in our huddle and was surprised when he realized that none of us looked familiar. It took a while to reunite him with his crew. His crew had not noticed he was missing yet. It was very smoky and dark and our headlamps back then housed small incandescent bulbs, so visibility was poor at best. That was just one of the reasons I did not like the night shift. But one good thing about fighting fire or mopping up at night, the flames or glowing embers are a lot easier to locate.
At times, it was clear where the fires were….
other times you had to rely on the posted daily briefing reports and maps or other overhead (or your driver), of where the action was happening. Safety was often stressed, and on more than one occasion we were told, saving a tree is not worth a human life.
Crews know to take advantage of down time when it becomes available and to save energy. You never know when the itinerary for the day will change.
The folks at the first aid station got to know Nick from New York City quite well. Staff reapplied fresh bandages to his blistered feet for several days.
Our fire camp in Montana was well staffed. The Ryan Gulch fire demonstrated to me just how different the Canadians approached fire management. For instance, on the Mitsue Lake fire in 1998, fire camp personnel was around 700 persons for an 110,000 acre fire. The number of staff on the Ryan Gulch was about the same number of persons but for a fire about the tenth of the size.
Meals are provided. Traditionally a hot meal is available in the morning as well as early evening. This mess tent and trailer setup was great in my opinion. Nightly, there was a decent salad bar. One night, grilled steak was an option for the main course. Much of the food was all you can eat. The afternoon meal was always a brown bag lunch that you would pick-up in the morning, regardless of whether you worked the day shift or night shift. It was recommended that you carry an MRE in your line pack, in case you were unable to hit the mess tent during their open hours or you forgot to pick-up your lunch (this happened to me a couple of times). The goal of the meal service is to have available a 4,500 calorie daily diet. No wonder that on one sixteen day callout, (where my crew didn’t see much action), I gained 12 pounds.
On a fire callout, there are rules on how long staff can be gone from their home base or the number of consecutive days on the fire line. Typically, after 14 straight days on the line, you are to receive a day off (followed by another 14 day tour if needed). There is some wiggle room, and on the Canada callout, we opted to go 21 days straight without the possibility of an additional “tour.” Regardless, during that time you might want some clean clothes. Often, a vendor providing laundry service, (such as the pictured trailer set-up), will wash your personal, as well as your firefighting clothes.
Shower trailers are a nice addition to fire camps. Owners/operators are one of the many vendors supplying services to keep firefighters happy.
The Ohio interagency crews allowed personnel to bring their own tents if they wanted (which worked great for female members of the crew). I opted to sleep under the black plastic “crew” shelter which had limited protection from the rain. Under normal circumstances, the plastic tarp worked fine. But on this fire when we worked nights, we got to bed around 8 am and the temperatures were in the forties. By ten o’clock I’d be woken up. Temperatures would be in the high eighties and I’d be sweating in my sleeping bag. The black plastic absorbed the heat and made it unbearable to be underneath. I would try to find some shade elsewhere in camp and sleep on top of my sleeping pad. Invariably, ants and other insects would be crawling over me just when I was starting to fall asleep. Eventually, I would be so tired, the bugs didn’t bother me. I hated the graveyard shift.
We visited numerous places that provided wonderful backdrops for crew photos
as well as some scenic vistas.
Smoke from wildfires can produce some spectacular sunsets, locally as well as hundreds and thousands of miles away
Wildland fires scorch millions of acres every year in the United States (the average for the past ten years is just over four million acres a year). Scientists strongly suspect the acreage to increase due to global warming.
Wildland firefighting is a part of the culture for many places, particularly in dry western areas. My cousin Jan and her husband David, own a home near Colorado Springs, CO. Their insurance company provided instructions on how to lessen the chance their house would catch on fire, such as by clearing trees, brush and fallen pine needles a certain distance from their home (a couple years ago a wildfire did get within 2,000 feet). College students often take advantage of being on seasonal fire crews and earn significant pay towards school expenses, especially while employed with federal land management agencies.
Personally, I did not get involved until I was 43 years old. I wish I had looked at wildland firefighting as an occupation earlier in life. However, for federal firefighters and law enforcement there is an age restriction due to a mandated retirement age of 55, therefore, you cannot be older than 35 to enter a fulltime, firefighting occupational series. For becoming a smokejumper, the restrictions are greater. The oldest a person can be for this elite group is 25. On the other hand, I don’t believe there is an upper limit on being a seasonal firefighter, as long as you can pass the physical exams and requirements. On the Ryan Gulch fire, a newspaper article was tacked to a bulletin board of a retired Phys. Ed. teacher on one of the crews. He was 72 years old, and to stay in shape he would run five miles in the morning before his shift started. Me and my colleges were flabbergasted.
As I reach retirement age, I wonder if I could be like him. I thoroughly enjoyed fighting wildland fires. If I were to do it again, it would not be for the supposed glory or the pay, but for the intrinsic values that come with the territory. The travel, meeting a variety of interesting people, being immersed in diverse landscapes and culture, and the opportunity of pushing yourself both mentally and physically, would be a few of the reasons.
My biggest fear that might prevent me, is that I wouldn’t be able to keep up, and that my ability might risk the lives of others. So, for now I will be satisfied and reminisce on the past and enjoy the good memories I have about one of my unordinary life adventures.
Final note: Another group we were told to avoid, were the inmate crews. During my training, I learned there was a good chance we might encounter them on a fire. The state of California has a contingent of such crews. These non-dangerous prisoners earn a dollar a day for the opportunity to be on a crew. Good behavior is a condition for placement. I didn’t have to worry about “intermingling” as they were purposely separated from the other crews. They went through the chow line when others were not present, the tables they sat for meals were so far from the others, they may well have been in quarantine. An armed guard was with them at all times, and they were never present in the common areas of camp during our off hours. I don’t think I remember hearing any of them ever talking or see them smiling. Their presence was much like an enigma.
Conversely, one of the unique things I witnessed on the Mitsue fire, was the interaction of the Navajo crew. We were told not to approach them (not sure why), but it was apparently okay when one of their crew members came and talked with us at various times. What was just as interesting was the interchange several of the Navajo had with the Crow. The supply tent on the Mitsue was staffed by members of the Crow Nation. If you needed a shovel or you lost your water bottle, you went to the supply tent. Apparently, the Crow staff were trained firefighters like us but they were assisting with camp operation because it was so early in the season, the full compliment of their teams was not available to be on the fire lines. Regardless, it was clear that both the Navajo guys and the Crow, were taking advantage of this rare opportunity to talk and share with one another the special bond they have as native North Americans. It appeared to me they were having fun discussing and sharing things about their lives, and their way of living.
I had some fun too learning about some of my Hispanic co-workers. One day we had passenger vans to take us to our work location for the day. One of the guys was joking about not being able to find a Spanish speaking station on the radio. I found they had a great sense of humor. It was interesting that they were able to interpret some of the signage written in French. They recognized enough French words that were similar enough to Spanish, that they were able to get a gist of the message. To me it was just another example of how the firefighting community can enrich a person’s life.
The Kansas City, Kansas Public Library has a multitude of resources covering the subject of fighting forest fires. Some of those include:
For Adults – “Firestorm: How wildfire will shape our future” by Edward Struzik and “The fire line : the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and one of the deadliest days in American firefighting” by Fernanda Santos.
For Kids – “Forest Firefighters” by William David Thomas
Since fictional books and movies often contain some truth on the subject you might checkout “The Smoke Jumper” by Nicholas Evans and the feature movies “Only the Brave” which is about the Granite Mountain Hotshots that lost their lives and “Always” starring John Goodman and Richard Dreyfus.
In addition there is an Hoopla Ebook that may be good for elementary students titled “Smoke Jumpers in Action” by Jon Westmark contains a Fast Facts spread, critical-thinking questions, a phonetic glossary, an index, a selected bibliography, an introduction to the author, and sources for further research.
My public program on the topic is currently planned for July 2021.