On the Black Hill

Steep terrain, secondhand smoke, and grasshoppers, oh my!


Our convoy of four white trucks crossed the canyon bridge and left Twin Falls behind. We all yellowed up in our trucks, a difficult task given everyone’s lack of elbow room.

About a half an hour into our drive we could see the great plume of smoke that would be keeping us busy for the next week. The driver had the passenger hand him a dip. Everyone else needed their nicotine fix as well, perhaps to mitigate whatever apprehension they had about driving straight towards an active wildfire. Since I was the only non-smoker in the truck, the guys asked if I mind if they smoked. I said no. I honestly didn’t mind the secondhand. It was a free little buzz, after all. So I was flanked by two smokers, ashing into empty plastic water bottles, with more smoke coming at me from the sawyer in the passenger seat. He asked me if I’m wearing contacts and shared some story about contacts melting in the eyes of firefighters. I dug into my backpack for my glasses and did a swap.

The closest town to the fire was Bellevue, ID, just at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains. We drove through the small town and onto hunting roads that pointed us towards the fire. We reached a gate where a cop stood guard. Our truck was the first in the convoy and our driver lowered his window. The cop said, “you guys gonna go play?”

Helicopters were flitting back and forth, dragging buckets through the air behind them. With an impressive display of aviation, the pilots would dip their buckets in a nearby lake, then fly over the fire and release the water. The fire was sunset orange against the blackened valley and was traveling down the ridge. For atmospheric reasons I didn’t (and still don’t) understand, the white smoke it was releasing wasn’t rising very high.  Eventually the fire’s progress was halted by a dozer line, which weaved its way up the hillside. With no more fuel to burn, it petered out. However, another fire picked up, moving down the adjacent hillside.  Many firefighters were perched on their engines for a better view of the action.

This new fire charged down the hill, offering plenty of visual texture complete with fire swirls. From where I was standing with all the trucks I could feel its radiant heat. The 7pm sun was still hot as well. Guys posed for selfies in front of the fire, no doubt to impress the ladies with their courage. It was a little pathetic watching them fish for “wow you are so badass” responses.

We watched the fire for a couple of hours until it had burned through and out of our sight. “Easy money baby,” said Deon. We were getting hazard pay for just being out there. The crew boss gathered us together. “The hotel and restaurants and all that shit, it’s over. MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) for dinner tonight.” These are a military grade prepackaged food that we carry around when we know we are going to be on the hill for a long time. MRE’s are notorious for inducing constipation, and the people who make them know it. Each contains two white squares of  gum that some of the rookies (not me, thankfully) chew unknowingly; they are there as a laxative.

Finally our crew was given the green light by the incident commander. We were delegated into three groups and all start hiking up the dozer trail we saw put a stop to one of the fires. The grade was steep and the dirt was loose. For every one step we made we slid down a half step.

Though I was doing better than many. Some people were really struggling. It was brutal terrain, unbelievably steep at parts, with ankle breaking switchbacks. I was glad I had taken the time to oil my boots that day. We were all breathing in burning sage and dust from stomping boots. An ambitious rookie had taken charge of one of the domars (a five gallon gas can for refueling the chainsaws) and he was really falling behind so I took it off his hands.

I used my hoe to pull me up the hill like an ice axe. I had to count my steps, just like Jon Krakauer did when he was climbing Everest. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, repeat. All my errant thoughts melted away. My brain could only focus on two things: breathing and walking.

Finally our group reached our assigned section of the mountain. We began gridding down the hill, putting out glowing coals and small fires. Rain was predicted but I couldn’t see any clouds in the fading light. I ate an entire packet of peanut M&Ms and then we got a radio call to move back up the hill. We climbed, gridding as we went, but the recently blackened earth was mostly cold. It was sometime around midnight when we reached another crew high up on the hill. The orange glow of their cigarettes showed up clear on the ridge top. Everyone broke out their MREs and tried to rest. I choked down a vacuum-sealed chicken stew without bothering to heat it up.

Slight winds and colder temperatures made sleep difficult. Everyone was wishing they had brought their company issued hoodie. Desperate for warmth, I ended up following the instructions to heat up the evil smelling giant hot hand heating pad that came with my MRE. It gently crackled like static as it warmed. I put it on my neck, then under my shirt, on my chest, and on my belly. It was almost too hot for my skin but the rest of my body was so cold that I had to will my thermal sensors to absorb the heat and spread it to my limbs. One of the sawyers put on his chaps just for warmth.

We blinked awake with the 6am sun and wearily made our way down the mountain slightly to meet up with the third group. Tony was among them, and we shared a look of mutual misery and understanding. “I’m ready to get the fuck off this mountain,” he said. Still, we couldn’t help but chuckle at the absurdity of our situation. In the daylight now hundreds of grasshoppers were leaping underfoot, flying out like grass clippings under a weed eater.

The crew boss told us that another crew was coming to relieve us. Our crew was exhausted. Our shift began at 9am 24 hours ago and since then we’d only had snatches of sleep. We lay down in the dirt and dozed as best we could. There was no shade to be found and the sun was getting hotter. I awakened to a grasshopper on my pants, refusing to let go. I checked my watch. It was 9:40am and no one had yet relieved us. People took to throwing rocks at other rocks to pass the time.

I wandered down the hill to a good scouting point and saw the other crew far down the mountain. They were making slow progress. One of the crew leads, a tall, tatted-up dude from Southern California on his sixth season, was pissed. He was “Holocaust hungry”. I later found out he is Jewish, so I guess it made sense for him to say that. Technically we were supposed to wait for the new crew to meet us where we were high on the hill, but we had had enough waiting around.

At noon we passed the all-Mexican hand crew, who were spread out according to their level of physical conditioning. A few fatties lagged behind their crew, several hundred feet from the middle of the pack. Had we rigidly followed our instructions, we all would’ve died of thirst before they reached us at the top of the mountain. Nothing like bureaucracy in action.

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