Fire Fragments

Within minutes of reporting for my first ever wildfire dispatch this past July, I found myself trying to decide whether or not I was going to blouse my boots. I was one of the first crew members to arrive at the contractor’s shop and had plenty of better things to be  worrying about. But instead I just stood there in my clean greens and untied boots, glancing around at other people’s ankles and probably looking as lost and starry-eyed as I felt.

Matt, David, and Dmitri. Caldwell Fire. California, July 2020.

It both is and isn’t an important decision. It isn’t important for obvious reasons: what you do with the cuff of your trousers has literally no impact on your ability to ruck around the woods for a couple of days or weeks, dig up some dirt, and snuff out embers or flames when you see them. It is important for reasons that nobody ever explains to you as a rookie firefighter. Unless somebody has already taken a liking to you, they’ll just let you make your own choice, and then decide what to think of you based on that. At any rate, the right decision is to never, ever, under any circumstances, blouse your boots. If the pant leg is too wide at the bottom, you can use the D-ring and strap that some greens come with to cinch them down a little. But stuffing them into your boots is a surefire way to be taken less seriously or, at the very least, earn some knowing eye-rolls and smirks.

Waiting out the head of the fire in a safety zone. Caldwell Fire. California, July 2020.

The idea is that only military wannabe’s blouse their boots and that doing so as a firefighter is a sign of posing—of merely wanting the status that comes with the uniform, without actually committing to the lifestyle, hard work, or sacrifice involved. Blousing your boots, in other words, is like announcing, “I’ve seen soldiers do this and thought it looked cool and needed a low-stakes venue to try it out for myself and fire seemed like it.” It’s not that experienced firefighters or wildland fire culture at large aren’t sensible to the fact that you might just end up looking cool on the fireline (the old joke is that the safety-conscious acronym, LCES, which stands for “Lookout, Communication, Escape Routes, Safety Zone,” actually stands for “Look Cool Every Second”). It’s that too many kids with hero pipe dreams or romantic notions of manual labor and the outdoors, or both, see the relative ease with which you can join a Type 2 contract crew as a way to earn some cheap street credit and flex for social media. Make signing up to fight wildfires conditional on never talking about it and documenting nothing of it, and you’d see the crowd of (mostly) college boys and 20-somethings who show up to take the fitness test at the start of every season thin out real fast.

Nobody has ever confirmed or denied any of this explicitly. But I think everybody already knows—newbies and old-timers alike. I think I already knew too, standing there in the shop lot. Which is why I ruled out tucking or blousing more or less on the spot, even though the thought did occur to me. In other words, I prevented myself from doing something that would have served literally no other purpose besides identity-signaling and fantasy-fulfillment. I still can’t say whether I did this consciously or subconsciously.

Breakfast in camp. Caldwell Fire. California, July 2020.

In my daily life, I usually wear a pair of cuffed, tapered trousers with my Iron Rangers, because, admittedly, I do like the faux-rugged vibe and think showing some extra boot adds a little extra snap. So that’s what I went with initially—or rather, that’s what I thought I could get away with. But by the end of that first day, I still felt self- conscious about it. So I did what one of my squad bosses later advised us to do if we ever found ourselves unsure of how to behave: look around and copy everyone else. The same squad boss, during the same dinnertime conversation, pointed me out as an example: “Like Riley. He rolled up his pant leg on the first day and rolled them back down the next because nobody else was doing it. Good move.” By then I’d already earned his respect through sheer hard work and competence. But I still feel like I got lucky—like I got a second chance.

I match with somebody on Tinder in late June. We go on a few dates, realize that our dynamic is textbook anxious (me)-avoidant (her). She is terrified by this, balks. I’ve been the anxious half before, she says. 

A week later, I hear back. She’s realized that avoidant is as much of an issue as anxious, that it takes two to tango. We start back up—for three days, that is, until the contractor calls me out on my first dispatch. I’ll light a candle for you, she says. And pray to the fire gods. And here’s a cinnamon roll for the road.

Brushing road. Caldwell Fire. California, July 2020.

The thing is huge, and takes me two breakfasts to finish. Where’d you get that, a few of the guys ask during one of them. We are sitting on the tailgates of the rigs, waiting to be briefed (“Firefighting looks like 98% ‘men stand around,’” she texts at some point.) I explain, but am not quite sure what to call her. Call her your girl, they say. As in: lucky fuck got a cinnamon roll from his girl.

For two weeks, my mind and body do not exist in the same place. Physically, I am in northern California, on a stretch of fireline in Lava Beds National Monument. I am wearing the same yellows and greens as the guys around me, caked in the same dirt and ash. We are digging out the same smoldering stump holes and trudging across the same boulder-strewn, blackened hillsides. But internally, I am unaccounted for, still sitting on the edge of the bed with a warm cinnamon roll in my hands, suffocating in this great, big, want, while she looks at me with serious eyes and promises to light a candle and pray to the fire gods.

Saw maintenance. Caldwell Fire. California, July 2020.

The crew boss tells a story about waking up one morning on a month-long run, years ago, to a pair of wadded up yellows and greens, an empty fire pack, and a helmet sitting on the hood of a rig. Poor fuck just couldn’t take it any more, bounced in the middle of the night. Even had his girl drive all the way up to the roadblock and pick him up. I laugh along with everybody else. Thanks to T-Mobile, I only get cell reception on a few inexplicable stretches of mountain road in between our camp and the fireline itself. It takes us no more than 30 seconds, bouncing along through thick clouds of reddish dust, to pass in and out of most of these spots—barely enough time for a jumbled backlog of SMS messages to blow up my phone. (With every cascade of trills and dings, the guys in my rig start giving me shit: “Fuckin’ A, dude, how many nudes did you ask for this time?”)

Waiting. Hog Fire. California, July 2020.

Miraculously, there is one other spot where my data signal is fairly reliable, if a little weak, and it is right by where we park the rigs every morning and wait for our crew bosses to get back from their briefing with division. We have anywhere from 3 to 20 minutes to dick around in the meantime, depending on the nature of our assignment and how on top of his shit division happens to be that morning. It only takes me three mornings, at any rate, to discover exactly which stump I have to stand behind for that single, meager bar to appear in lieu of “No Service” and for the friendly blue bubbles to start rolling in. It’s convenient too, because the stump’s at least 30 yards away from the rigs and hidden by a thicket of shrubs—the perfect spot to take my morning dump and ping off a couple texts. Make a call, even, if I’m feeling brave.

Cody, my squad boss, is onto me. He watches as I shuffle off with a gravy hoe in one hand, a roll of toilet paper in the other.

“Again? Jesus.”
I peer through a gap in the shrubbery while on the phone. Cody is talking with a couple guys and pointing in my direction.
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t fuck anybody while you’re away,” she says.
They’re laughing, but I can’t hear them.
“Same,” I say.

Cody. Hog Fire. California, July 2020.

At night, in the privacy of my tent, I can finally reread her texts as many times over as I want to and say all the things that were on my mind during the day, all the things that I want her to imagine. I stay up late texting these things and smiling to myself, even though I know I should be asleep. Things like:
“God I miss you. Wish we could be spooning right now.”
Or: “I’m taking my boots off in the light of a full moon—it’s beautiful.”
Or: “At 5 am the coyotes start howling and none of us want to go outside and pee anymore.”

In the morning, there are little red exclamation points and “Not Delivered” flags next to each one.

It’s 5 o’clock in the morning and we’re pulling night shift on a little fire up in the gorge, gridding over a mile-long stretch of bulldozer line—back and forth maybe four or five times per night for the last four nights. It’s out. It’s been out. 

Radio. Caldwell Fire. California, July 2020.

Nobody’s talking anymore, not even Ethan, who runs his mouth and chalks it up to being Italian. Too late for that. Every couple of steps, we kneel down, scoop up a little bit of ash with our hazel hoes and pulaskis, pat it with the back of an ungloved hand. The dozer line snakes through the woods on our left. I try to anticipate its twists and turns. But it’s easier to just to orient myself with specific stumps and boulders and countours in the ridgeline, which at this point I know by sight.

“Bump up to the line. Take 10.” The command travels down the grid. We gaggle up beneath stand of young pines and switch off our headlamps, which are running too low on battery power to be of much use anyways. Darkness caves in on us like a wave, or a womb, and inside of it I feel an intense awareness of my physical body—of my breathing, my heartbeat, my sitting here under this particular tree on this particular ridge, in the Columbia River Gorge, due south of the town of Mosier.

Mark gridding at night. Mosier Creek Fire. Oregon, August 2020.

10 minutes turns into 15, turns into 20, turns into 30—our squad boss’s way of saying, Fuck it, last night of the run fellas, everything’s cold, I know. Somewhere, I can hear Ethan snoring lightly. There’s only an hour left on shift, but I still can’t bring myself to actually doze off because it makes lining back out at the end of break that much harder.

At some point, I look up, through a gap in the canopy directly overhead. There are no clouds, so I can see the stars.

November 2020
Philomath, OR

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