I decided to give myself a little extra time one morning by setting my watch alarm to 4:55am rather than 5. This way I was the first to use the bathrooms and I had a few precious minutes to relax as dawn broke. I sat on a picnic bench under the covered area drinking cheap coffee with a splash of chocolate milk watching firefighters emerge from their tents and blink their bleary eyes at the dark grey morning.
After breakfast, we loaded up and drove to the Zeta section of the fire. It was quiet in our truck that morning; everyone except for driver and passenger used the half-hour drive to get a little more sleep.
We parked off the side of the dirt road and hopped out the trucks. Everyone grabbed a tool. I chose a Pulaski and again took it upon myself to lug around a fuel can. We were split into thirds by counting out numbers. I was assigned to a crew with Metalhead and a 44-year-old guy. He knocked up a girl at 17 and was doing what he wants to do now that his kids have grown.
The 44-year-old and our squaddie are both avid Frisbee golfers and embarked on an agonizingly dull conversation as we grid the steep ridgeline. They compared frolfing courses, throwing strategies, and bragged about tournaments. I focused my attention on my surroundings instead. The fire-scarred earth was bare and repetitive like the landscape of the moon. We cooled the hotspots by rubbing dirt into the wood and spreading the coals or by shoveling fresh dirt onto the heat. It was both meditative and tedious. Lost in our own thoughts, conversation evaporated until…
“Why are there no girls on this crew?” asked Metalhead.
The squaddie spoke up. “Myself and (crew boss) have… reputations.”
Basically they get “involved” with the girls and it causes unrest within the crew. That explains why the one girl who was on our crew in Nevada was unceremoniously reassigned to a new crew when we reached the Redmond base and assumed new leadership.
Someone spied smoke in an aspen grove about a half-mile up the mountain so we dropped what we were doing and hiked towards it. Crossing a creek, we heard a rattle. I didn’t see the snake but others went in for a closer look despite warnings from the squaddies to stay clear. I keep trading hands with the fuel can as my shoulders get tight, breathing heavy as we hike uphill.
We arrived at the source of the smoke. It was a huge, burned out tree releasing great plumes. It showed no signs of slowing down. Little spot fires resided in the ash surrounding the tree. The smoldering patch of hot earth was about the size of a living room. I was instructed by the squaddie to dig a line (a shallow ditch to separate the flames from the unburned vegetation) at the edge of the hotspot. I’m handy with pickaxe, having spent a summer conducting solo landscaping projects on a Lopez Island property. I treated the dig like a workout, doing sets of 15 or so at a time, matching the swings with my breath. By lunchtime, I’d gone through three of my four 32oz. canteens.
After I finished the line, I helped the crew stir up the ash to release the heat. I was getting familiar with the stink of burning dirt.
“We need to get some water on that guy,” said the squaddie, gesturing to the smoking, blackened tree. “Otherwise it’ll burn all winter”.
Suddenly, a spot fire jumped to a nearby tree branch. It immediately caught fire. I thought we were going to see the tree torch, but at the last possible second the 44-year-old raised his shovel above his head and smashed the branch. Sparks came raining down from the singed pine needles. The branch fell to the ground and the day was saved.
“What would we have done if the tree had gone up?” I asked the squaddie.
“We would’ve hiked away and watched it for spot fires.”
Before we could hike back down to our pickup trucks, we had to wait for a dozer to make its way past us; it was blocking our trail out of there. The big machine was loud and slow-moving on God’s uneven earth. While we sat on the hill and waited, I chanced my eyes closed. The squaddie threw a rock at my helmet, which was loud and rattling for the skull inside. “Hey, no napping. You too Chinstrap.” He was referring to the scapegoat of the crew, a 23-year-old, red-bearded guy who didn’t fit in very well. He was quick to nap and had erred more than anyone else; he once misplaced his line pack and, when confronted by the leaders, had nothing to offer other than shrugged shoulders. He’d become the punching bag of the ruthless group of males. Here’s how he came to be called Chinstrap.
Someone told him on his first day that he needed to wear his chinstrap all the time (which isn’t true) so he was the only one with it securely fastened under his chin as we hiked that steep trail our first day in Idaho. I think the tattoo artist coined the nickname. We were all waiting at the top of the hill for the stragglers and he said, “Where’s Chinstrap?” and we all knew instantly whom he meant and had ourselves a good laugh, myself included.
Finally the dozer passed. We had to leave the smoking tree for tomorrow. Though the smoldering mass around the tree was giving off noticeably less heat. We hiked down, dirty, sweaty, and getting bit by mossies (Australian term for mosquitos that I’ve adopted). Everyone was relieved and in high spirits, having completed a full, hard day’s work. On the way back down the dozer line I saw a yellow tiger swallowtail stuck in the mud and think thought there was a metaphor somewhere in that image but I was too spent to dwell on it. I do remember, however, that I did my second grade butterfly report on that species. I also saw several leopard print butterflies batting about cheerfully, seemingly oblivious to the havoc the fire had wrecked upon its environment.
During a water break I picked an orange-red Indian paintbrush flower for special someone that I kept in the breast pocket of my yellow Nomax for the rest of the week. It was covered in white ash. I intended to send it through the post pressed in a letter but it wilted before I could send it. Maybe there is a metaphor in that too…
On the way back to camp we stopped at a gas station store. All 20 of us soot blackened blokes stormed through the doors, perusing the aisles hungrily for cheap gastronomical thrills. Most of the crew was always talking about how they want to quit cigarettes but lots of packs are purchased anyway. American Spirits and Camels were the most common among them except for Deon’s special Newports. They chuff them outside the gas station as they wait for everyone to make their purchases. I get a half-G of milk and manage to get it all in my stomach before bed in addition to the Sysco dinner. My feet finally felt okay; wearing two pairs of socks is definitely the way to prevent blisters.
I crawled into my tent and stayed up just late enough to scribble down some thoughts about the day in my leather notebook while hip-hop instrumentals played faintly through my phone speakers.