It was a two and a half hour drive to the fire. The crew boss, trainee, and tattoo artist cheersed their 5-Hour Energys and knocked them back in a synchronized motion. They asked me and Tony if we wanted one. We declined. I for one did not want flammable piss.
“Though it would be nice to get on your level,” I said, in good humor, thinking that the statement was pretty benign. But somehow they took offense to this. There was a general uproar as they repeated my statement to one another. The indignation in the truck was palpable. “Get on our level? we have the best fucking job in the fucking United States of America apart from shooting fucking Osama bin Laden!” I raise my eyebrows and nod noncommittally. I really shouldn’t be surprised at this point.
Our truck was a constant tirade of legal drugs: chew and ciggies (sometimes simultaneously), sugar, and caffeine. Full Throttles were a common sight. Thus burps became a familiar smell. More than once the trainee would burp (a drawn out note) and it would travel back to me as I sit captive in the middle seat. A sour blast from his nicotine-marinated mouth would hit me in the the face. I learned to hold my breath and turn my head at the sound of his burp.
By the time we arrived at the fire it was nearly dark. We drove up a hill to the end of a road and parked in the driveway of some rich person’s two million dollar property (it was for sale). The house was mostly white and had columns. I tried to remember moments from my urban walks with my cousin, when he would wax architectural about the buildings. I guessed the house was some form of “Southern Gothic”. It was a fancy place, complete with a tennis court, pool, and a gaping view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Someone informed me that Lake Tahoe lay just on the other side.
The grasslands, a quick burning fuel type, had allowed the fire to have already burned over and gone out. One large area of the burn was tinged red from a retardant drop.
The crew geared up. With the sun behind the mountains, we had to get our headlamps out of our line packs and attached to our helmets. We marched up onto the hill and were split into groups of five to “grid”. This means walking in a slow line about ten feet apart, starting at the edge of the black (part of fire where it’s been burned through). We felt for white ash with the back of our hands in search of hotspots. When someone found one, they would call out, “hotspot!” and they would hack at it with their tool (usually a Pulaski or a shovel) until the coals were separated and the heat was smothered. The idea was that we were quelling the possibility of the fire starting up again. If we could then hold the back of our hand to the hotspot for a sustained amount of time we would yell, “heat clear!” and “grid on!” The message would be passed, telephone style, all the way down the line until the last man said, “last man copy!” It’s all very redundant, but out on the hill, like with relationships, communication is key. Although I was rather put off by someone mentioning that we were sticking our hands in the habitat of snakes and scorpions; no doubt they were spooked from the fire.
After a few hours of gridding we came down the hill in a snaking line. The crew hiked at a quick pace. With our headlights activated I thought we resembled a scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone (probably the film version) with our lights gently bobbing in the dark like the lanterns of the first years crossing the lake to Hogwarts.
We awoke in our sleeping bags on the tennis court. In the early dawn wild horses were peeking at us over the burned hill. Everyone yellowed up while the crew boss retrieved and donuts and coffee for everyone. Each firefighter was handed two paper sacks.”Breakfast. Lunch.” Said the trainee.
Gridding that morning revealed even fewer hotspots than were there the night before. We break for breakfast after an hour. The fire is dead.
It was back to chilling out on the rich person’s property. Tony, Casey, Jackson (short muscly tree climber) and I found some shade in the grass near the pool. We shot the breeze, sharing our gripes with the job, which we’d kept to ourselves for the most part. I reckon everyone left the conversation a little unburdened.
At 6:30pm we loaded up and drove in search of dinner. The crew boss wanted steak so the trainee used his phone to find an Outback Steakhouse in neighboring Reno. He gave the restaurant’s number to the tattoo artist and a female voice answered. “Outback Steakhouse.”
“Hi, can you handle 20 firefighters?” There’s a smattering of laughter in the truck as we contemplate the entendre.
We entered the restaurant and there was a dash to the men’s room so everyone could wash their ash-blackened hands. Waiting in the sad little line and surveying the restaurant, I remarked to the tattoo artist, “back in civilization.”
“This isn’t civilization, this is Reno,” he retorts, displaying his trademark cynicism. Looking about the patrons and watching them eat I couldn’t help but think (admittedly, condescendingly) “animals.” Based on the sample size in the restaurant, Reno is apparently the Obesity Capital of the U.S.A., an assertion that could probably be be extended to Obesity Capital of the World.
After I’d quickly scrubbed most of the ash off of my hands and face, I slid into an empty booth in the corner of the restaurant. Tony and Casey joined me and we had the best time out of all of the firefighter tables. Somehow the subject of rapping came up and Casey was saying, “You rap? I rap,” with a big smile out of the side of his face. Tony revealed that he makes beats and the three of us began making grand plans for our artistic collaboration. All four firefighters in the adjacent booth sat in silence, absorbed in their phones. We had a cute waitress named Tanya, who kept looking at me. This prompted Tony to tell me that “you’re good looking, bro! You gotta use it dude”.
A different waiter came and informed all of our firefighter tables individually that a neighboring table had offered to buy our dinner. We looked over at a party of a dozen or more. The men wore ten-gallon hats, bolo ties, blue jeans and moustaches. Seeing us look over at them, they waved and smiled. Apparently a woman at that table had lost her house in a fire a few years back. You’d think if anything she’d have a grudge against firefighters because they failed to save her house. But instead she inspired her table to pool together money to pick up our $600+ tab. I wondered who was paying for this meal. The mob or oil? The tattoo artist’s cynicism was rubbing off on me.
Right when our food arrived we had to get up to take a group picture with the gifting party outside the restaurant. As we filed through tables one cowboy started up clapping and the rest of the patrons were obligated to clap as well and we were subjected to an unwarranted round of applause. The one girl in our crew turned red. “I just don’t feel like we deserved it,” I hear her saying after the picture was taken.
We sleep at some sort of Forest Service headquarters. Different crews of firefighters were scattered across the grounds. They slept in groups about the dozers and assorted big machinery. Some squads even slept on top of long flatbed trailers.
I end up sleeping on a small hill rowed with trees at the edge of the property. I wanted to stay away from the machinery. I remembered a quote from one of our class instructors (in reference to fire camp layout and the importance of designated sleeping zones): “There are horror stories about trucks running over sleeping firefighters.”
In the morning it’s Denny’s for breakfast. Again I’m the last to finish eating. “Firefighters eat fast, huh?” I say, sharing another observation with the tattoo artist.
“With firefighters it’s tip your plate in your mouth and…” He mimes the action, shoveling invisible food into his mouth.
Back at the Forest Service headquarters there was a small line for both the women’s and men’s bathrooms. Everyone was speculating if we were going home. We all wanted a few days to reset. The crew boss especially, who had been quietly suffering through a bout of kidney stones. The poor bloke needed a doctor. Sure enough, the one girl on the crew interrupts Casey and my tete-a-tete to announce that we are going home.
I spend the long car ride staring straight ahead listening to the radio. The tattoo artist and I duet “Santeria”. I make a mental note to choose that as my next karaoke song (aside: I sang this at a bar last week). Interestingly, he sang soprano and I sang alto. I also spend time writing rap lyrics, consulting my rambling phone notes. I’m inspired by my recent discussion with Casey and Tony. I scribbled in a pocket-sized spiral notebook that I picked up at a gas station, writing two lines per line space so no one could peek and read my bizarre jottings, containing bars like:
Got work in the morning but can’t leave my bed,
convincing you to skip too and stay with me instead.
I’ll get you moaning like Myrtle.
If you alone in my room you better not read my journals… you get the idea.
After seven or eight hours, we pull into the dreaded Redmond base. I think about what a long week it’s been. We wash all four trucks. Some firefighters were dispatched out of Redmond, so there are a few rushed goodbyes.
With a smaller crew I was able to upgrade to shotgun in the truck driven by a fellow bike enthusiast. He’s done a full coast to coast tour of the United States. He’s also a former Jimmy John’s rider. I tell him about a summer I spent delivering food around Seattle on my bicycle for Postmates. We share our memorable courier moments. One time he had to juggle four drinks on his bike in addition to the subs. I relate my ill-advised one-armed carry of a taco order and subsequent accidental slam on the front brake while going down a hill. The tacos were delivered successfully, albeit badly jostled in their styrofoam box, which I handed to the purchaser with bloody elbows. If the customers only knew…
He’s familiar with the courier community in Eugene and he suggested I look into riding for “Ped-X” a long-standing bicycle delivery service. “I might have to look into that one after fire season,” I said. Or immediately when I get home…
I appointed myself DJ and started off my set with “Easy” by the Commodores. “Someone’s missing their girl,” said the bike enthusiast. To my surprise, Tony lit up when I played “Your Love” by The Outfield. “My dad loves this song,” he said. Josie’s on a vacation far away…
Back at the Springfield base, everyone was hustling to organize their things and return their issued gear. I got back into my civilian clothes, the same ones I was wearing when I arrived a week ago. I climbed into my Subaru. I felt numb at the wheel after such a long time as a passenger.
Finally I walked in my front door and I hugged my roommates and chatted with them. I was so beat that I fall asleep before showering.
I slept till 12. I was awake but still tired. A mirror inspection revealed creases on the underside of my eyes. I took a long shower to wake up and it was back to the old routine of an elaborate solo brunch. I fixed myself a plate heaping with four eggs, four slices of bacon, discs of cucumber drizzled in olive oil, and two pieces of Dave’s Killer toast heavily buttered with Kerrygold. The scent of bacon filled the house. I felt slightly guilty; two of my roommates are vegetarian. Now everyone knows: Brent is back.