Originally published in The Point Reyes Light, June 22, 2006.
Smoke and struggle: training a wildland firefighter
We watched fires burn across the canopies of forests and rumble like demons. “It’s Satan,” said our instructor, “Can you hear him?”
At the Marin Fire Department’s Wild Land Fire Academy, our instructors spoke of fire as if it were alive. It has a body and a head; It’s born and dies. Fire breaths and fire eats. They told us about fires they’d seen that jumped over freeways and then back again, gaining momentum for another try. We watched videos of fires so large they created their own weather, fires with enough rain to put themselves out. We saw fires with fire whirls – twisters of flame, eating everything in their path. We watched fires burn across the canopies of forests and rumble like demons. “It’s Satan,” said our instructor, “Can you hear him?”
In a room of orange carpets and globe-sized ceiling lights, I learned about fire with a class of mostly young men, the majority of whom were seasonal firefighters for Marin Fire. They wore navy blue uniforms and leather boots. Their counterparts from Marin Municipal Water District, Marin Open Space and a bevy of the county’s fire departments sat around them. In the past 18 years, 800 students have passed through this weeklong program. The academy is run by a department, headquartered in Woodacre, that covers 310 square miles of the county, most of it open space in West Marin.
The man who introduced us to fire was short, compact and powerful, with a shaved head and a graying handlebar mustache.
“Why are we here?” he asked.
“To learn about fire,” the class replied.
“Do we know fire?” he asked.
“Yes,” blurted someone.
“Pretty bald statement,” said our instructor. “I don’t know if I know fire. It can surprise me. Why do we want to know about fire?”
“So it doesn’t kill us,” another voice called out.
“All and all we really don’t want to die. That should be on your resume,” said our instructor. But fire education hasn’t always been what it is today, he told us.
The Mann Gulch tragedy
In America, one fire changed our view of how fires work, he said. Then he held the book “Young Men and Fire” above his head like it was scripture and said, “Mann Gulch. Now that was a significant emotional event.”
In 1949 Mann Gulch made the cover of Life magazine after it killed 12 elite smoke jumpers in Montana. They were unorganized, didn’t know local topography, had no escape routes and tried to outrun a fire uphill with the wind to their back. After this tragedy, firefighters were taught fire behavior.
For three days we dozed at our desks and learned about fire. We learned about fire so it wouldn’t kill us. On video we watched the story of the victim of a burn, one of the most painful kinds of injuries. His melted fingers and ears reminded us of what fire could do, even if it spared you.
They taught us to attune our senses to the world around us like hunters. They taught us to use the dryness of our boogers as an indicator for humidity. They asked us, was there dew on our cars that morning? How long had it been since it rained? What was the weather doing? The wind? The fog? What kind of topography surrounded us? How would it affect a fire’s behavior? They picked at the grass and broke dry twigs in their hands to test the fuel around them. They looked at the world as if its only purpose were to burn. And they taught us to see fire as something ultimately out of our control.
By Tuesday night the classroom portion of the academy was complete. The next morning we would be in the field. We spent the following two days preparing for real “fire on the ground.”
In the field in Marinwood
At 8 a.m. it was already hot in the parking lot of the St. Vincent school for boys in Marinwood. In the back of my car I suited up. I pulled on my yellow, fire resistant outfit over my jeans, stuck moleskin on my heels and donned my new fireproof boots. Finally, I slung on my pack, helmet, goggles and gloves.
All geared up, we were broken into squads. My crew of eight was the Retardants, but most just called us the Retards. Other crews had names equally juvenile, such as the Wet Hose.
From a couple yards away, everyone looked the same in their yellow outfits. Faces and names easily disappeared in the collective when we were sweating in the sun.
We spent the day practicing.
We screwed and unscrewed nozzles, rolled hose and ran it up the hill, and then carried it back down again. It was broiling. Our double layers made it even hotter, so we drank water and pissed and then drank more. “Keep it clear,” they told us.
They warned us of death and injury, but we knew deep down that it was the fire we had all come for. If firefighting were all rolling hose and digging firebreaks, no one would have been there.
So we practiced and drilled in the heat, weighed down with our packs, our boots gnawing into our feet. We stained our shirts with sweat, burdened by our gear. We did this all so we could get close to the fire.
Day two, cutting fire line
The next day was hotter. The radio called for triple digits and haze.
The day was spent cutting firebreak line: a snaking trail, stripped down to the mineral soil, meant to stop flames. It was like weeding on speed. We built our firebreak all day on that hot hill, clumps of grass and clouds of dust blowing off the line as our metal tools scraped the ground bare. Every ten minutes we took mandatory breaks so that we could suck down bottle after bottle of water.
For lunch I swallowed hot sushi, heated from sitting in my car.
Under a grove of eucalyptus, we rested at day’s end with our fire gear scattered across the ground. My head began to pound. My stomach rumbled. I said to my crew boss, “I feel nauseous.”
Five minutes later I walked behind a tree and puked. Every bottle of water I’d drunk blasted out of my nose and mouth as if I’d been punched.
I drove home faint, swerving on the hot freeway. I poured water over my hair and let the wind whip it around my head. By the time I got home, I was weak and afraid I wouldn’t make it another day.
Burn day begins
The next day was Friday. I felt better, and there was fire on the ground. Finally the burn had come. But I was too tired to think too much or be afraid.
From the freeway, grey smoke columns rose above the hills. Fire crews had burned the grass beside our line. Black earth ran along the hill and the smell of charred smoke came to the road.
At nine, we lined up under the hill, our shadows thrown on the dirt as the morning sun rose to our backs. “There is no shame if you are uncomfortable with the fire,” said one of our commanders, walking the line.
What, then, drew us to the danger of the mesmerizing flicker of fire? Was it the pure rush of the edge, the exhilaration that comes from testing our own limits? Or was it some animal urge to get as close as possible to the power of the world and come back to tell the tale?
The first flames rise
I watched the first fire burn from the road. It followed the lead of the man holding a torch that dipped a mixture of flaming diesel fuel and gasoline into the tall grass. Globules of flame reached up each blond stalk until the fire bore itself up the hill, leaving a blackened slope covered in dusty ash.
Behind us, the grey smoke from backfires puffed out slow thick clouds from the hill that was left mean and bald, as if something spiteful had passed over it. By late morning our turn had came to face the fire, and I finally got a chance at the nozzle.
I leaned up the hill shooting water onto the flames. Six-feet tall, they flapped before me and radiated heat through my gear and onto my face and body. Smoke blurred everything on the hillside and I could barley see the flames. I sucked down hot air, into my lungs, and my eyes watered and streaked tears across my face. I soaked the ground with fluid and shot a stream at the high flames above. We followed the fire as it meandered up the hill, the flames picking up speed with each gust of wind. A line of burnt and unburnt grass trailed behind us, green on one side and black on the other. In the midst of the fire, I felt as if it were anything but under control. When my length of hose ran out, a crewmember from behind me attached another length and moved ahead. I moved to the back of the line.
At day’s end, we patrolled the firebreak on the top of the hill as one last crew finished off the burn. Above the fire, smoke and ripples of heat mottled the view of Mount Diablo and San Pablo Bay. The fire crackled and then went out. There was nothing left to burn.