The Forest Janitors Slide Their Way to Safety

Brent has some uninformed thoughts on the government. More redundant, tedious gridding is interrupted by inclement weather, climaxing in a harrowing, muddy escape from the canyon.

Part of our early morning routine at the fire camp was to pack our pickups with cases of water and Powerade. A truckload of Dasani and Powerade cases had been brought in and was stacked off to the side of the outdoor dining area. Several of our crew would prop a case on our heads and march over to the trucks to replenish our fluids for the day’s work.

Dasani and Powerade are both products of the Coca-Cola company. They had (most likely) been purchased with tax money. I took this as confirmation that the government is in cahoots with the evil bastards running the Coca-Cola company. I pictured lobbyists on the steps of Captiol Hill with sample tables set up like you see in Costco, handing out little plastic medicine cups filled with purple liquid. After all, even politicians need to replenish their electrolytes. Realistically, the CC company must be lining the pockets of those politicians making spending decisions for the US Forest Service. This is all guesswork, all assumption based confirmation bias that I engaged in during my morning chore of replenishing the trucks with water. In some way these Dasani and Powerade cases expose my hatred for both the government and large corporations. But it was the only show in town, as they say. Like it or not, the Coca-Cola company kept us hydrated out on this fire.

We parked our trucks deep in the canyon. Everyone checked their packs, put their helmets on, and grabbed a tool. The youngest on the crew was finishing his second Red Bull of the morning, which he had purchased at the gas station the previous evening. He’s an 18-year-old recent high school graduate nicknamed “Three-fingered Jack”; his ring and pinky fingers are missing from one hand, a result of a bandsaw accident when he was eleven. As we started our hike up the canyon, a 19-year-old in his second season commented on Three-fingered Jack’s excessive reliance on Red Bull. “Damn. Lots of energy.”

“Yep. It keeps me going.”

“When you get older. This’ll get harder,” said the 19-year-old. “You won’t be able to down all that caffeine and feel good like that.”

Marching behind them, I chimed in. “Oh yeah, at 19 you must be just breaking down”.

I heard a raspy, one breath laugh behind me. Action Jackson. “You got that wit. You’re funny, I like that.”

“Thanks.” I was delighted. Witty and funny is all I ever want to be.

“When you first showed up I thought, here’s this nerdy kid, but you’ve got some one-liners.”

Nerdy? I guess because I was wearing glasses (on a fire my fingers were never clean enough to bother with contacts) and I’ve been to college.

When we arrived at the same spot we gridded the day prior, the tattoo artist had his Return of the King Aragon moment, giving an inspiring speech that went something like this:

“We wouldn’t ask you to do something we haven’t done a hundred times before. Today sucks, we don’t need to acknowledge that. Let’s show them [Division] why we’re one of the last crews out here.”

We split into groups and gridded, formally, with three foot spacing, slowly working our way up the mountain through dense brush. We dragged our hands through the ash, “stirring it up.” The checking felt redundant and absurd since most of the ash was damp and cold. Redundant and absurd, just like most of the things our government chooses to spend our tax dollars on. Wow, I’m really on my soapbox with this post.

Yet we find three smoking hot spots in the five hours of tedious, exhausting gridding. The nose is usually the first to find these still smoldering, buried logs. These hotspots let off a distinctive smell of burning natural materials. Sharp, hot, black, searing…

Morale was low. Deon was uncharacteristically silent. One of his better mates on the crew said this happens to him during most runs after a couple of weeks. “He just gets homesick. Misses his daughter. He’ll be up and all Bugs Bunny again tomorrow, just wait.”

I confide in Tony (gridding three feet over to my right) that this is it for me. Once I get home, my firefighting career is over. I don’t need this shit. I don’t know how serious I was about this but I had been checking my email eagerly every night to see if any of the other jobs I had applied for had gotten back to me. So far, my prospects were slim.

The tattoo artist got a call on his radio. Weather approaching. 30-45 minutes out. We all heard but the tattoo artist relayed us the information anyway. Sure enough, dark clouds were forming overhead, pregnant with precipitation. We bumped up to him. “This is why people don’t live out here. It’s too volatile,” he said. He set a fast pace down the mountain.

The trucks came into view just as it started hailing. All of us threw our packs racks in the one canopy truck and we loaded up as fast as possible and drove out of there, tailed by a truck from Division. 

“Did you know your tailgate is open?” came a crackled voice from our driver’s radio. It was Division. The tailgate to our canopy truck hadn’t been closed by the last person to load their pack. It was quickly established that Ol’ Chinstrap was the culprit. Those who already disliked him clutched onto this mistake. Often people collect reasons to hate people they’ve already made up their minds to hate. This mistake was rehashed and bitched about for the rest of our run. The leaders were embarrassed by the way he made our crew look to Division. 

Our driver’s radio went off again. “The road is slick coming down. I mean really slick.” It was the crew boss from the other Boise hand crew.

We were the first truck in our convoy. We paused at the top of the hill to survey the windy dirt (now mud) road that led down the mountain. “Hand me a dip!” Said the driver.

He pulled out his bottom lip and jammed it with tobacco in while hail barraged the truck windshield.

“Just reached the summit,” said our driver into the radio. 

It was a harrowing ride down the mountain. Our tires were caked in mud, forgoing all traction. On one side of us was a dirt wall, on the other side, a cliff. Looking behind us, we saw the last truck slide into the dirt wall. Deon was sitting behind the driver on the cliff side, his hand on the door handle. “Imma out this bitch,” he said. 

I was white knuckled in the right back seat, hand also on the door handle, acknowledging the lack of control I currently held over my fate. Huge steep cliff on our left, rut ditch on right. We hugged right, the car sliding dangerously. For once I was grateful for our Boise born and raised driver’s redneck tendencies. He said he has lots of off-roading experience. He appeared to be the only one in the truck who was enjoying himself.

Somehow we all made it down the hill alive. It stopped raining. Everyone got out of the trucks and started spouting stories about their descents. “White boy lives for that shit,” said Deon, referring to our driver. “Should’ve seen me drive down that bitch. Nigga be doin’ about 3.” This killed me. 

We waited around rest of day, “monitoring the fire” in the area where, on our first day on the fire, we initially saw a wall of flames run up and down  the mountain. Some of the boys engaged in a plank-off as the sun came out. I beat Three- fingered Jack after about ten minutes of him violently shaking, stubbornly refusing to give up. Apparently he wanted to be in Navy SEAL, but the recruitment guys said his missing fingers would be too much of a handicap. “They said I’d need special gloves,” he said.

We passed the time with other physical games, like who can reach out and drop the rock the furthest in a sort of push-up/plank position without moving their feet from the line and still push their way back to a standing position. This kind of male bonding felt ancient, like it’s imbued in our DNA to compete with one another in order to maximize our effectiveness as a hunting party. Everyone was jovial because we got away from the shit work on the hill and survived the ensuing mudslide escape. 

As we waited for 7pm, the time we would be contractually allowed to return to camp, Tony shared some cynical realities about our role as a Type 2 handcrew. “This fire is dead.” he said. “The hotshots are already on the next big fire. We are just forest janitors,” he said. So much for the romance of risking life or limb to battle flames, returning to our girls with soot-caked hands and tales of near escape. We are naiive forest janitors run by a bunch of egomaniacal ex-cons, our existence made possible by the ineffectiveness of our country’s government and their inability to eradicate redundancies. Or at least that’s how I felt at the time…

Stirring up Ash in an Aspen Grove

A full, hard day’s work. Brent puzzles over potential metaphors.

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.