Fire Talk to Me

Luke woke at dawn to Marie’s sweet face. “Coffee’s ready,” she said, and she kissed him on the head. She didn’t have to breathe deeply to get the stink of stale alcohol coming off him. They had a fight about his drinking when he dragged home at two in the morning, and she was determined to ease up. Whatever he was going through she couldn’t help him. She gave herself credit for recognizing that.

“And Sanderson called,” she said. “There was some light precip last night and lightning strikes they’re monitoring north of Birdsview. They want you ready but nothing urgent.”

Luke shook his head to expel the remnants of a dream. A four-point buck was laughing at him. It had lips and big teeth like a horse, and bullets went right through it. Marie was going vegan, and he was losing his taste for venison now that he had to eat it alone. Maybe he would skip hunting this season but bagging his buck on opening day was one of his life’s thrills.

“Why didn’t Sanderson call me?” Luke asked.

“He didn’t want to disturb you,” Marie said.

“Dumb shit.”

He couldn’t calculate how many drinks he’d had. The rule at the Eagle Eye was every fourth drink was free, and he had three free drinks, so that added up to …? He thought getting hammered would expel the dark scratching at his soul from “the incident” in the Willamette. That’s how he compartmentalized it in his mind. The incident – when he almost died of embarrassment and silent castigation as the crew gathered in a circle around him, and he painfully delivered his halting apology for getting drunk and hiding out in the fire all day to sleep it off. It was his birthday; they’d just snuffed a fire and saved the town. In that celebratory mood, he abandoned his self-imposed two drink limit, and suffered mightily the next day. He couldn’t erase the looks on the faces of the firefighters who turned away as he delivered his mea culpa. They were embarrassed for him, and he detected an unforgivable twinge of pity.  

Drinks at the Eagle Eye erased that dark memory, and then it returned with a vengeance, like a wave that sucked out to sea only to ferociously return. It was Sanderson, his assistant crew boss, who worried him the most. Sanderson was cool, and neutral on the outside, but Luke could see the scheming behind his eyes. He wanted Luke’s job.

Luke smelled coffee and bacon, and he could hear Marie tutoring Anna Lee, who was trying to say dump truck but sounding more like dumb fuck. This is what he worked so hard for. This house. This family. They settled on a name for the boy forming for six months in Marie’s belly. Tyler. Tyler, Anna Lee, Luke, and Marie. Their names fit together.

This better be good, Luke told Sanderson when he reached him on his Android. Lightning strikes north of Birdsview, Sanderson said. Nothing serious. The lookout spotted it, and the Cessna was on the way. Ross and Martinez were taking the bucket up to the helispot at Komo Kulshan Lake for the helicopter in case they needed water drops. He was gathering the crew to head up there.

Something about the way that Sanderson said it’s under control perked Luke up just enough to be semi-coherent. My ass it’s under control. You don’t get a spotter plane and a helicopter and a crew running up there if it’s under control. Days were getting shorter. It was cooler at night. By all accounts, wildland fire season should be over on the west side of the Cascades. But fire season was longer, fires were burning hotter, and weird fires were popping in unlikely places.

Luke quickly dressed in his fire-resistant green pants and yellow shirt, clean and crisp, thanks to Marie. She was more organized than he was. She kept him outfitted and prepared; God bless her. He laced up his White’s Smokejumper boots. The thick Vibram soles were screwed, glued, and stitched to withstand the intense heat of tromping through the scorched earth but they were separating anyway. These boots were pounding hot earth going on five years now. At about twenty fires a year, they had protected his feet and helped him maintain his balance for a hundred fires. He made a note to have them rebuilt soon.

He grabbed his walkie, phone, knife, canteen, fuzees, safety shelter, Kestrel 5500FW Fire Weather Meter, and Incident Command Manual, stuffed it all into his fire pack, and carried it into the kitchen. He kissed Anna Lee on the cheek and asked, “Who loves you?” Anna Lee slapped her hands on the table and said “Daddy.” He rubbed Marie’s belly. “How’s little Tyler today?” he asked.

“Kept me up last night kicking,” she said. “He wants to come out into the world. Got time for breakfast?”     

He grabbed the coffee Marie poured into his Seahawks travel cup. “Gotta run. Sanderson says he’s got it under control so naturally I’m worried.”

“Let me fix you an egg sandwich, so you have something,” she said. “With bacon.”

He went to the back lawn and checked his messages. He didn’t realize that the sound was off and that’s why he wasn’t getting dinged. He had three messages from Millie in Dispatch. Some of the lightning strikes had merged into a single fire that grew to a couple of acres creeping in the understory. It now had a name. The Anderson Creek fire. The crew was gathering at the Ranger Station, and they called for backups. He cursed Sanderson, grabbed his sandwich, thermos, pack, and fire shelter, kissed Marie and Anna Lee, and as soon as he climbed into his rig, he was getting updates on the radio. Rappelers were on the way. Retardant was being loaded into the belly of a DC 3. The Cessna was already doing recon.

In his five years with the crew, this was the first fire in the home forest. A long time since these evergreen forests burned. A hundred and forty years. They could tell by the charred remains of the old growth. Those were the pioneer days before there was organized wildfire suppression. When the fire came, the locals were on their own.

At the station, he grabbed a Forest Service pickup and jammed up a washboard dirt service road to the landing where he expected to find Sanderson. From the chatter on the radios, he deduced the fire was in the crown, whipping around, deciding if it wanted to make a run.

When he pulled into the staging area, he caught sight of Sanderson with some of his crew mixed with ground pounders from other districts. A whiff of gray smoke drifted over the ridgetop. A quick scan confirmed sufficient clearance from any combustible fuel for this staging area to qualify as a safety zone. He marched up to Sanderson. “Why the hell didn’t you call me?” he asked. When he first started, Luke had a supervisor who dressed him down in front of other firefighters, and he vowed he would never treat anyone like that. But this time he couldn’t help himself. He was furious.

“Let’s deal with that later,” Sanderson said, coolly. It was personal now. Sanderson wasn’t trying trying to hide his ambition. He was convinced that Luke couldn’t handle his job and he could. Okay, Luke thought. Catalog that for later. Being a leader means not responding to a provocation, especially in a crisis. You’re still a leader, a voice told him. Act like one.

“Who’s scouting?” Luke asked.

“We don’t have a scout on the ground yet. The Recon plane is sending reports,” Sanderson said.

“I’ll scout,” Luke said.

“I’ll get the crew together.”

“I can move faster. I know this area.”

“We got a couple of crews coming. Let’s wait for backup,” Sanderson said. They listened to the radio chatter. The fire was in a gully, showing signs of crowning. Sanderson talked about aspect and slope and time of day and fuel density and prevailing winds and probability of ignition, and Luke didn’t want to hear it. He needed to move, to clear out his head. “Let me see the topo map,” he said. Sanderson circled the fire. “See the spur off the Forest Road?” Luke said. “There’s an outcropping. I can scan the fire from there. I’ll be there in five minutes.”

“Luke,” Sanderson said.

“I hunt these woods. I know what I’m doing.”

“It’s not a good idea.”

“I’m the Crew Boss. I’m still in command,” Luke said.

“And I have an obligation to speak up when I think your course of action is wrong. It’s wrong. It breaks every code.”

“Only two of us having this conversation. I overrule you,” Luke said, and he was off, up the road and through the brush to an abandoned logging road, feeling that sense of flight, the striding, the surety that there was nothing nature could throw at him that he couldn’t outrun or outsmart. What happened in the Willamette didn’t define him. He was more than that. He was talking to himself. Willing himself forward. Banishing his hangover through action. He climbed a series of big boulders, in full form, adrenaline clearing the thumping in his temples. In a fire, he felt fully alive. It was out there, everyday life, that terrified him.

The fire was to the southeast, an updraft pulling it away from him. He called the coordinates in to the station. He estimated size at ten acres. He gave directions about which road was best for the water tankers. He was a couple of hundred yards from a good helispot to ferry in troops and equipment. He gave the wind direction and speed, relative humidity, temperature, probability of ignition and other readings. His voice was steady and sure. He gave clear instructions, by the book. He knew Sanderson was picking all this up on his walkie.

He wanted to get a better view down into the fire, and he set off across the hillside through sparse timber and thick underbrush. He ran in and out of the billowing gray smoke. Every fire has its own voice. That sizzle and pop, the rush and roar. He knew this terrain intimately. Not far from here was the spot he went to year after year to kneel silently behind a tree or crouch behind huckleberry bushes to spot that four-point buck. A deer couldn’t outrun this fire, but in that split second, he decided that he could.

 For Henry, the day started off mellow and quickly went downhill as the stink of weed permeated the boardinghouse. He was lying in bed, watching Suzanne and Olivia from his second-story window. They were outside shoring up the foundation of this old, sagging, decomposing building that housed five seasonal wildland firefighters. The women were completely comfortable with each other. The easy banter, the way they worked together. He was jealous. They’d bought the falling apart farmhouse for a few thousand dollars at auction. So far, they had a bunch of ragtag firefighters for tenants but envisioned it becoming a haven for tourists heading over the pass.             

It was a lazy day. Unusually warm and dry for the third week in September. Heavy rains were expected in a couple of days and the western part of the state would be drenched. It was an annual ritual. The coming of the monsoons. Duck weather. Get out your rain gear and get ready for the cold, wet, and dark.

Henry was feeling good about making it through his first fire season, thanks to Luke, the father he lost, the brother he didn’t have, and the hero he worshipped. In May, Henry was a greenhorn. By September he felt like a grizzled veteran. Luke was tough but nurturing and protective, a teacher, and a motivator. He was a model for a new persona, a man of the west, a family man, leader. This was a persona Henry wanted to try on.

Inhale for five seconds, hold for six, out breath for four. Five six four. Luke, of all people, taught him that. When it’s hot, go cool. Take a breath. Think. For a while Luke lead a yoga group after dinner when the Blazers were in a big fire camp, but that got scuttled when they were forced into impromptu spike camps, whatever tent they might pitch or campfire they could huddle around in the black, bunched up into squads along a hillside, stuffed into disposable paper sleeping bags.

Henry’s phone buzzed. He heard similar alarms in the other firefighter’s apartments. “4-11. Report to the Ranger Station ASAP.” It was an alert he didn’t expect to hear for six months. He rushed around his rustic studio apartment stuffing his fire pack. In a frantic eight minutes, all the firefighters got themselves and their gear together and sped to the station in Henry’s pickup. On the way, they learned that the fire was in a canyon in the home district, north of Birdsview. Sanderson had half the crew assembled and he was ready to head to it. Incident Command already called for a helicopter and an air tanker full of retardant. They also called the Rappelers.

At the station they tooled up with Pulaskis, shovels, radios, fire shelters, hardhats, gloves, canteens, and assorted paraphernalia and headed up toward the fire in three separate vehicles, a 1,000-gallon water tanker, a van, and the Helitack support vehicle, a one-ton truck with the 350-gallon water bucket on the back. Carlotta was driving the Helitack truck. Sanderson instructed Henry and Carlotta to head up to the helispot near Komo Kulshan Lake that Luke had identified on a transmission. Luke sounded totally in control of this fire. He directed the crew, air ops, and the lookout. Henry called in to Luke. “We’re on our way,” he said.

“Ten four,” Luke replied. It was good to hear his voice. He sounded chipper. The old Luke.

Henry and Carlotta hightailed up the forest road and then onto a washboard logging road. It was a sweet situation. Initial attack on the home district, warm breeze on his face, the grit of the road, he could see the gray plume of a fresh burn. Hazardous Duty Pay kicked in from the time they got the fire call, and they were making real money, almost fifteen dollars an hour. They listened to the truck radios, Air Net and Forest Net. From the air, pilots were trying to locate Luke through the smoke. Luke was on the move from the sound of his voice. He asked the ETA of the air tanker. He needed a retardant drop ASAP. The retardant plane was loaded and twenty minutes away. A roar in the background drowned out his words. Henry and Carlotta unloaded at the helispot. The helicopter beat them by a few minutes. Henry grabbed a chain saw, strapped on his chaps, fixed his safety goggles, pulled up his leather gloves and cleared brush to improve the helispot. He had to do something. Stay busy. He didn’t like the sound of Luke’s voice and the urgency in the pilot’s voice, “Slow down. What’s your 20? We can’t see you through the smoke.” You could hear the crackle and roar of the fire in the background.

The helicopter pilot muttered to himself. Slow down, man. Slow down. What’s your location? What’s your location? 10-20. 10-20. The radio chattered in the chopper, and Henry and Carlotta both had radios tuned to Air Net. The back and forth went on for minutes, but there was no way to gauge time in that hollowed space.

The pilots and Incident Command continued attempts to reach Luke. Multiple locations were calling him. His responses were unintelligible. He was out of breath and on the run. Time stretched, suspended, and they went back to hooking up the bucket for the chopper. Henry called in to Air Control when the helicopter lifted off to go dip in the lake, and he and Carlotta exchanged looks as if to confirm that what they heard on the radio was real.

Air Command gave up trying to contact Luke, and the radio chatter was just like any other fire. Aspect. Topography. Slope. Understory. Overstory. Prevailing winds. Fuel type. The retardant plane arrived. It was a full show with extra emphasis on escape routes and safety zones. Henry and Carlotta had their hands full lining up the firefighters coming up the road in vans and pickups, filling out manifests for each trip in the choppers, getting their weights, weighing the gear, calculating the altitude to the drop off point, checking in with the helicopter pilot, and monitoring the radios for recon requests.

A Bell 407 on loan from Okanogan flew in. A Huey dropped the Rappelers, and it flew into the Heliport, now outfitted with a windsock, a table for check-in, a holding area flagged off. It looked official, good enough for Overhead to fly in and do a recon. Henry was working in sync with Carlotta. With all the chatter and the motion, there was an expectation that any second, they would hear Luke’s voice. Not everybody had a radio and not everybody was near a radio, so most of the ground pounders and support didn’t know what had happened. Henry was living in two distinct worlds. One was being present and attentive and obsessively detailed; the other was waiting to hear Luke’s voice break through or for someone to say they found him.

The Anderson Creek Fire made a run to 1,200 acres. They caught it at the top of a ridge with a backburn while the wind was in a downdraft. Within three days, the fire was fully contained, which was how long it took two twenty-person crews in a fingertip-to-fingertip search to find Luke. They first found his watch, stopped at 12:34 pm. Then his radio and his wallet. He hadn’t deployed his fire shelter. His body was a hundred and fifty feet from a clearing where he would have been safe. Not far from his body lay the charred remains of a four-point buck.

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