I woke up and checked my watch: 5:00am sharp. It was still dark. All of the firefighters were in various stages of rolling up their bedding. I slumped over my Therm-a-rest and pushed the air out as quick as I could, feeling foolish as it hissed. Tony and I were the last ones to toss our red duffels in the trailer.
McDonald’s wasn’t open (I was glad) so we hit up a 24/7 casino diner. My carnitas omelette was the the last plate to arrive. People had already finished eating so I wolfed it down fast, inspired by a quote from a Louis L’amour novel: “It is better to eat when one can, for one never knows when he will eat again”. My stomach was bursting. I needed fuel for the physical labor to come.
We made it to BM’s Town Center in time for the 6am briefing. The crew boss and his shaved head sidekick went in the building, leaving the rest of us to do what we always do, hurry up and wait.
We were all ready to go. Boots laced. Greens on (cargos) and “yellowed up”, referring to our fire-resistant Nomax button down shirts in various shades of stained. The big front buttons indicate that the style hasn’t been updated since the 50’s.
The crew boss returned from the briefing and informed us that we were on standby. More staging. The minutes turned into hours. The trainee asked the hospital across the street if we could chill on their grass and they said yes. So I lie down in the shade and slept, face down, having gotten only 6 or so hours the night before. I was trying to build up my sleep reserves. A man should sleep when he can…
I regretted having left my Paul Theroux book in my red duffel, locked in the trailer back at the high school. Some unknown amount of hours later, we were informed we would be working the night shift. So we went back to the high-school, where the beginnings of a fire camp had formed; a catering truck, a mobile shower. The crew found a slice of shade under the school’s awning and we all slept.
Dinner was served by female inmates (someone makes an inevitable ‘Orange is the New Black’ reference) who placed a conservative amount of meatballs (two) on top of pasta with canned green beans and other Sysco cafeteria slop. I thought the lack of quality food would be inconsequential since it would be merely fuel to be burned. I recalled a quote from one of the class videos: “Firefighters are athletes. They burn up to 10,000 calories a day!” So far I hadn’t even swung a tool. I had been sitting, eating, and sleeping. I was effectively posing in my fireman outfit.
At last we were geared up and loaded up in the trucks, convoying toward the smoke as the sun set. The word spectacular is overused when describing sunsets, but that one really earned it. The heavens exploded with slow evolving orange, pink, purple, and yellow swaths. Golden rays shone through airbrushed clouds while the core of bright orange energy drew my eye.
The trucks transitioned from highway to gravel roads, built for the gold mines. I could see them in the distance, lit up like cruise ships with their blinking towers. This was what we were there to protect.
After about 40 minutes of driving on backroads, we were in a canyon. The stars were out. Tony got his line pack on but the crew boss told him to take it off. It turns out we were only staging there too; waiting, waiting.
The moon rose and the crew milled about, joking and lounging in trucks. I got cold. I thought we would be expending energy hiking or digging but no, we were just sitting. I pulled my buff over my face and put on my unblemished virgin white gloves.
Eventually Tony and I opened one of the truck canopies and found Casey sprawled out. He invited us to join him and we climbed in, grateful for the warmth. We talked in circles about girls, our lives, past jobs, future jobs, and girls. “You name it I’ve worked there,” said Casey. “All of the chains. Costco, Subway, Chipotle, Applebees…”. He’s blonde, tall, and wiry and I was surprised he’s already 30. “So am I,” he said. He has two cats including a Maine coon, the “man of the house”. He wasn’t sure who he missed more: his Labrador or his girl. I tried to find a comfortable place to sleep, but the plastic truck bed was hard on my tailbone and the line packs always poke something when they are used as pillows. We opened the canopy from time to time to air out farts. Our diet encouraged many, unfortunately.
When Tony and I left the canopy to check on our own truck we saw the tattoo artist lying across the back seat, asleep, so we had to track down some spare seats in Casey’s truck, scooting in next to a strange mustachioed fellow. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) met many 19-year-olds with mustaches. We were all delirious at this point in the night, but not so much so that we couldn’t bullshit. Mustache boy entertained us unintentionally with his stories and one-liners. When the driver mentioned he had to go to all the way Coos Bay for sex, mustache boy retorted, “that’s not a problem for me. I can get laid anytime I want.” He proceeded to show us intimate videos of him and his girl, who, after four months of dating, saw fit to have his initials tattooed on her wrist: a rather appropriate M.A.D. Later in the week I walked past him Facetiming his girl and overheard, “let’s wait until we have kids”. Finally we fell asleep sitting up, with Dante complaining about Tony and I taking up room in the back seat.
I woke up exhausted. I barely remembered getting back into the boss’s truck and stopping on the way out to take in the sunrise. I fell asleep in the truck and woke up back in good ol’ Battle Mountain. Breakfast was eggs, bacon, and milk, served by the same convict crew. Then it was off to the west side of the high school building, where we passed out until about 11am.
For a while I snoozed in the grass, dodging the sun as it crept up on my feet. I talked on the phone and then listened to a podcast review of the new Spiderman movie. Ultimately the thin trees were insufficient shade and the midday humidity became too much to nap in, despite me being dead tired.
I packed up my red duffle bag and dragged my Therm-a-rest, Linus style, to the Town Hall. There they’d designated an air conditioned room for sleeping. Firefighters assigned to the nightshift were scattered all about the pitch black room. I picked a place near the door, spied Tony on my left, and passed out while listening to the occasional fart and giggle from my neighbors.