Before the Spring of 2003, I never realized a person could accidentally become a firefighter. I didn’t think that was how it worked. And—out of all the people in the world—I certainly didn’t think it would happen to me. But that just shows you how little I knew about my life’s path in my twenties. By that point, I’d been living in the American West for about two years, ever since I’d graduated from the University of New Hampshire. I was young, attachment-free, and excited to venture into the great unknown. I was also mostly ignorant of what I’d just gotten myself into. Firefighting? Nothing could have been further from my mind.
Apparently, when I signed up as a full-time volunteer with the trail crew, I became a government employee of sorts, even though I was just a volunteer. And it follows, whether I knew it or not, that in that moment I’d given up some control of my life. And I’d just taken one accidental step in the direction of becoming a wildland firefighter.
On my first day on the trail crew, when I seemed hesitant about the whole being-tricked-into-a-firefighter thing, Ron, supervisor of the Wasatch National Forest Trail Crew and owner of a super-awesome, thick, grey mustache that twitched when he talked, said, “Don’t worry, Matt. You’re the new guy. Probably won’t even get called up. And, good thing is, if you do go on a fire, you’ll get paid.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“And you’ll get paid to go to fire school ‘n that starts next week.”
Two months later, on a balmy July morning, I’m helping to gather tools at the shop. We’re getting ready for another day of improving the hiking trails of the Wasatch National Forest. Already my favorite part of trail crew is the variety of the work. One day we’re chainsawing down massive cottonwood trees that are threatening a parking lot, and another day we’re hiking high into the mountains to fix a piece of eroded, out-sloped trail. Sometimes we’re building with concrete and lumber, and sometimes we’re building with native rock and iron tools.
Ron answers his phone. He nods his head, looks in my direction, looks back down at the ground, looks back up at me, says OK four times, and hangs up the phone. “Matt, pack your bags. You’re going to Mesa Verde.”
And that’s how I became a wildland firefighter: Tricked into enlisting, coerced into sitting through a week of training, reassured I probably wouldn’t go, and then promptly shipped off to the hottest corner of the country (in July!) to “fight a fire,” whatever that meant. I was just trying to figure out how it had come to this.
That was the start of the 2003 fire season. I was the smallest peg in an enormous operation. On my first day in the yellow and green wildland fire uniform, wearing those heavy, leather, calf-high boots, everything took me by surprise. But when I look back on it, it’s funny I would think I knew anything about the world I’d just entered. Chalk it up to the ignorance of youth. I asked out loud why we’d driven ten hours (past other active wildfires, columns of smoke rising into the sky within view of the highway) all the way to Mesa Verde National Park, which wasn’t even on fire. Everyone just told me to keep my mouth shut, which wasn’t exactly my natural state.
By contrast, Doug Paul, Mesa Verde’s fire weather expert, had been working in wildland fire for decades. “The winter of ’02/’03,” he stated, “was an exceptionally low snow year. And this summer’s been really dry. The fuel moisture here is historically low: three percent. Any lightning strike out here right now, and we’ve got a wildfire.”
In the preceding three years, forest fires had burned tens of thousands of acres, more than one third of Mesa Verde National Park. The rest of those pygmy piñon pines and junipers were ready to burn, too.
Doug rattled off the weather measurements he used to evaluate the fire danger from day to day. “We’ve got extremely low relative humidities and record high temperatures.” He told us about high Lightning Activity Levels and high Haines Indexes (an indicator of instability in the atmosphere). The Energy Release Component (related to the potential severity of a wildfire) was also very high, obviously. Critically, Doug was expecting the first thunderstorms of the monsoon season to roll through in the coming week. “Worst-case scenario: those first storms could come in dry, bringing along little or no rain. We need you guys to be ready to go if something like that happens.”
Five days went by without action. The boredom threatened to lull us into complacency. That day, to give us a break from the monotony of preparing to fight a non-existent fire, the interpretive rangers of Mesa Verde led us on a tour of Long House Ruin, the area’s second-largest cliff dwelling, and one of the most complex in all of North America.
The buildings of Long House perfectly filled the protected space underneath an enormous alcove of sheer red sandstone. At the height of the civilization, up to 150 people lived here. I’d just finished reading a book titled The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, a nonfiction imagining of a future world where humans have gone extinct. I couldn’t have brought along a more appropriate book. Standing within an ancient culture’s spiritual center, a place that flourished for generations but now had sat silent for eight hundred years, it was easy for me to imagine a world without people.
On that tour we learned about the people who’d lived in the dwellings. They wove baskets of willow and rabbitbrush, tight enough to hold water, and sandals of yucca so durable some examples survive to this day. They developed agriculture, somehow growing corn, beans and squash in a particularly harsh environment. They perfected the bow and arrow. They crafted high-quality ceramic bowls and traded with people as far away as what today is Central Mexico. In the 12th century, they survived a fifty-year period of drought. But just fifty years after that, a second, equally long and devastating mega-drought proved too much for even the hardiest of humans. The survivors migrated south into Northern Arizona and New Mexico.
Over the course of that afternoon tour, a thunderhead had started to take shape against the horizon, growing into what looked like a gigantic mushroom cloud. It billowed ever higher, drifting our way and starting to block out the sun. We shifted our attention from the deep past to the right now. Our guide, an ex-marine, finished his talk, and gave us some time to just be present.
Thunder interrupted the silence. Within a matter of minutes, dark clouds completely overtook the sky. Scratchy, adrenalized voices started to come through our radios, sounding focused.
“Winds: five to seven. Break.”
“Gusting to twenty.”
“Copy that,” Mike said. He turned to us. “Single file line, guys. Let’s go.”
We marched to our vehicles, thanking our guide as we passed him, and drove to an overlook. By the time we got there, just a few minutes later, the storm was already beyond us. The sun was starting to set. We sat on top of our pickup trucks and fire engines and watched new fires grow from single trees into whole acres. Mike, our leader, had a scruffy dark beard, a shaved head, and a silver tooth, only visible when he squinted into his binoculars or cracked a smile. He was training to be Crew Boss under Ches Carter, who seemed happy to step back and let Mike take the helm.
A bolt of lightning struck the ground. We let out oohs and aahs like we were watching fireworks.
Mike just hit the talk button. “That’s a ground strike. Break.” Still looking at that distant spot, he hit the button again. “Visual on a ground strike, somewhere near Balcony House.”
That powerful storm was drifting away from us, striking the ground as it went.
“I’ve got a visual on a solid plume of smoke now.”
In just five minutes, that powerful storm had started five separate wildfires. From a distance, they looked like huge tornadoes, glowing red along their bottoms, with braided clouds of grey and black smoke climbing into the sky.
In the twilight, we gathered at Balcony House Overlook. We attached our headlamps to our helmets as we listened to Clair, our Incident Commander, give the briefing. Each of the five new fires were assigned names related to the mesas, lookouts, and cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park: White, Moore, Moccasin, Park, and Balcony.
Clair was a short but imposing Incident Commander. He seemed like he’d come out of the military. “I want y’all to be extra careful. There’s a two hundred foot drop just a hundred yards to our left.”
“Maintain escape routes and safety zones at all times. Now, that’s a little harder to do at night. It requires more situational awareness. Keep an eye out for each other. Be safe.” He paused as if he had something else to say. “All right, let’s go.”
We marched in a single-file line to the edge of the fire. Mike told me to shadow Brandon, a nineteen-year-old first-year firefighter. He was the sawyer, assigned to cut tree branches with the chainsaw, and I was his “swamper,” dragging those branches out of his way in his wake, a miserable job if there ever was one.
Brandon had been running a chainsaw all summer, but he worked on a fuels reduction crew, cutting small trees out of thick forests, not on wildland fire. So he’d earned his chance to be the sawyer more than I had, but he wasn’t much more familiar with what we were doing than I was. So I was on guard, trying my best to stay out of his way. And also to stay out of the way of the fire.
In the dark, orange embers glowed in piles on the ground. Fire erupted into treetops in unpredictable surges. I keep my eyes watching for tripping hazards and overhanging branches while also trying to watch Brandon do unadvised things, like cut into a burning tree over his head. But I learned (and you didn’t hear this from me) that sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do to get the job done and get outta there.
When he’d finished cutting through one particular hollow tube of a branch, filled with spiraling flames, the still-burning log landed on the desert floor between us. I could feel the heat coming off of it. The log rolled once and came to a stop. We both watched it for a second, as if it was about to jump to life, before returning to cutting through those trees and dragging away the branches until one o’clock in the morning.
We were attempting what’s called an Initial Attack, cutting a direct line through a burning forest at night. At the time it was both disorienting and terrifying. Looking back, it feels like an out of body experience.
The next morning (really only five hours later), we learn that helicopters are going to fly us to that day’s worksite. Human beings were never meant to fly. The feeling of the pilot hitting the throttle must be something like what a bird feels, perched atop a tree, wings extended into the wind, ready to take flight at any second with the slightest twitch.
The blades are spinning fast, but the helicopter is still planted firmly on the ground. There is great kinetic energy in that moment. Then, with the pull of a lever, the blades begin to catch the air, and suddenly gravity has lost its effect on us. We’re soaring high above the ground.
We turn slightly to adjust our trajectory, and now we’re traveling at a hundred miles per hour, but the flight feels leisurely, exhilarating. We have both the condor’s perspective and efficiency of travel, casually looking down on that landscape, prepared to land anywhere we damn well please. I wonder what the Ancient Ones would think if they could see me now. I wonder what my mom would think, too.
It’s only about three minutes before the pilot lands without hesitation, touching down with the softest of muffled bumps.
I unbuckled and reconnected my seatbelt behind my back, as I’d been told to do. Then a helicopter crewmember opened the door. He was wearing his Stormtrooper-esque white helmet with internal communications. One by one we jumped out, jogged a safe distance away with our heads ducked, and crouched to the ground. That crewmember dropped off our backpacks, hand tools, and chainsaws, and stepped back inside the helicopter, which lifted off and sped away into the distance. Seconds later, even the sound of it was gone.
Compared to the speed and efficiency of traveling by helicopter, moving along the ground made us feel like sloths. Firebugs, little grey beetles with the scientific name Melanophila acuminata, buzzed around us. For those bugs, this fire was the party of a lifetime, a chance to breed and reproduce. They scuttled up and down the burnt, smoldering trees, using infrared radiation sensors to avoid hot embers. They crawled inside our helmets and between our layers of clothing. Somehow, they got inside my leather boots. And they could bite, with pincers designed to cut through wood. The bites felt like yellow jacket stings, except the pain left as quickly as it came. Good thing they weren’t actually attacking us, just testing to see if we were trees.
Brandon and our other sawyers started cutting through everything in their paths in an attempt to build a fire line around a recently burned forest. The stench of burning green wood was everywhere. I followed behind, wearing a heavy pack, bending over to pick up thin lengths of sage and tree branches, deciding what I should throw back into the fire and what I should throw into the green forest. Four men trailed behind us, swinging hand tools into the ground to widen the trail, the first with a Pulaski, and the rest with combination tools and McLeods.
In addition to my tool and my backpack and those heavy boots, I also had a five-gallon water pack on my back. So I was wearing two backpacks, one filled with 40 pounds of water. I used the small hand-pump to squirt water onto smoldering logs, generously. Any water I put on those logs was less water I had to carry around the desert on my back. That work—carrying all that gear, toiling in the July sun in an unbearably hot place— was easily the most physically difficult thing I will ever do in my life.
Everywhere our twenty-person crew went, an NPS archaeologist traveled with us. Some of those places we went via helicopter, probably no one had been to for hundreds of years. One day, my trail crew cohort Cole, marching at the head of the line, found a perfect chert arrowhead directly in his path. I wondered who had dropped it, and when.
That day, we stopped for lunch in a green section of forest. I took off my backpack, drank pineapple juice from a tiny can—my little government ration—and tried to take a nap, but the heat was annoying, the acrid smell of a burning green forest lingered in the air, and firebugs crawled all over me like a drug-addict’s daydream.
In the afternoon another thunderhead formed above us. It towered into the air.
“See that cloud?” Ches asked. He’d worked with the Hotshots for years, the elite fire crews that do most of the toughest work. A knee injury was currently keeping him out of such intense assignments. “See how tall it is? Tens of thousands of feet, right?”
“Well, it’s about to hit its limit. The moisture in it’ll freeze. Then it’ll be too heavy for itself and it’ll collapse. When it does, the wind is gonna howl. When that happens, I want everybody to crouch down and face the ground. It won’t last long.
And ten minutes later, just as he predicted, that’s exactly what happened. As the storm collapsed, a wind storm blasted straight down at us from above. We dropped to our knees and pressed our faces into the ground, just trying to breathe. A minute later, it suddenly stopped. The weather events in the desert can be equally short-lived and intense.
On the sixth day of fighting that fire, a pounding monsoon rain came through. The water didn’t have time to soak into the drought-toughened ground before it started to flow on top of the desert. As quickly as the fires had started, they were now completely out.
To get out of the rain, we hid under a rock overhang. The air was humid. Ches pulled a four-inch-long, giant desert centipede from his shoulder, holding it by its orange tail. He let it squirm back and forth for a few seconds, and then he tossed that venomous creature out into the rain.
So much water poured from the sky, it was hard to imagine that place ever catching fire again.
It would, though. More and more of it every year. But I wouldn’t be fighting it. I was sure I would never fight fire again. It was crazy that I’d even become entangled with it once.
Two months later, through an emergency action, the U.S. Forest Service called up all certified, able firefighters. So I signed up to go God-knows-where, and do God-knows-what. I prayed for mercy.