The southern edge of the Buffalo Pasture Fire, seen from bluffs overlooking Little Big Elk Canyon on July 27, 2021 on the Crow Reservation in Montana.

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As climate change continues to exacerbate wildfire intensity across the western US, it has become devastatingly clear that the suppression-oriented management strategy of the past century is deeply misguided. It has long been time to reintroduce and re-imagine fire—to think of it as a biological agent to be respected and guided, as opposed to a mere chemical phenomenon to be controlled and fought.

Returning fire (or allowing its return) to the landscape presents its own challenges, however. The Wildland-Urban Interface continues to expand, thereby putting communities at greater and greater risk. Fuel is already overloaded, or, as fire historian Stephen Pyne puts it, "messed up forests only yield messed up fires." And many within and without the fire management establishment, including vested political and economic interests, still favor the status quo. One thing is for sure—the young men and women in yellows and greens are going to be kept busy. Whether they continue to function as the firefighters of old or evolve into something less like soldiers and more like stewards, they will need all the support they can get. Many are already being pushed to the mental and physical brink.

I moved to Oregon in June of 2020 and promptly joined a wildland fire handcrew. Occasionally, I overhear talk of longer and longer fire seasons, poor land and fire management practices, and mental and physical burnout. In slow moments, I find myself wrestling with the cognitive dissonance generated by the knowledge that my work is often unhelpful—even harmful—to the landscape that I love. Still, big-picture concerns are, for the most part, drowned out by the day-to-day experiences and interpersonal aspects of firefighting. Most of us are out there precisely because we relish a mental and physical challenge—because amidst the discomfort and stress, we also find a sense of pride and thrill and adventure. Thus caught between the macroscopic and microscopic—the abstract and the concrete—it can be hard to tell what or where our limits actually are.

Kyle digs a handline around a burning log on the Buffalo Pasture Fire. June 2021, Crow Reservation.

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Firefighters shelter and refurbish their line packs in a safety zone on the Caldwell Fire. July 2020, Modoc National Forest.

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Hunter and David buck up a log to make way for a handline on the Buffalo Pasture Fire. June 2021, Crow Reservation.

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Blood and Cody survey burned ridges and hillsides on the Bedrock Fire. August 2021, Lenore, ID.

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The crew waits out an afternoon thunderstorm on the Caldwell Fire. July 2020, Modoc National Forest.

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Ethan, Landon, Dylan, Dmitri, and Jerry watch a UFC match in camp on the Caldwell Fire. July 2020, Modoc National Forest.

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Brady and Jacob goof off after shift on the Caldwell Fire. July 2020, Modoc National Forest.

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Parker mops up on the Buffalo Pasture Fire. June 2021, Crow Reservation.

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Cody and Hunter watch a helicopter approach for a bucket drop on the Buffalo Pasture Fire. June 2021, Crow Reservation.

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David sharpens his chain after shift on the Caldwell Fire. July 2020, Modoc National Forest.

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Discovered while mopping up during night shift on the Mosier Creek Fire. August 2020, Mosier, OR.

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Nathan grids up a burned hillside on the Buffalo Pasture Fire. June 2021, Crow Reservation.

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Cody yells for his squad to vacate an area ahead of an incoming bucket drop on the Buffalo Pasture Fire. June 2021, Crow Reservation.

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Hunter, loaded up and ready to roll. June 2021, Philomath, OR.

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From a slow morning on the Caldwell Fire. July 2020, Modoc National Forest.

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The crew rests in the shade after shift on the Lava Fire. July 2021, Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

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Kinai marvels as smoke and storm clouds darken the afternoon sky on the Caldwell Fire. July 2020, Modoc National Forest.

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David, Cody, Kyle, and Hunter rest after hiking out of a drainage on the Buffalo Pasture Fire. June 2021, Crow Reservation.

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Jacob, Isaiah, Jerry, and Brandon joke around before heading out on a fire call. June 2021, Philomath, OR.

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Tanner swamping brush and ground fuel on the Caldwell Fire. July 2020, Modoc National Forest.

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Tarryn watches a game of volleyball at the crew bunkhouse. June 2021, Worley, ID.

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Ryan gives Parker a haircut in camp on the Juniper Fire. July 2021, Modoc National Forest.

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Jerry waiting out a thunderstorm on the Caldwell Fire. July 2020, Modoc National Forest.

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