Legends of the Fall

By Nicholas Harper-Johnston

It is 4 am. The frost inside my sleeping bag wakes me up from a restless sleep. All I hear are the sounds of the wind whipping on my tent fly. I try to fall back asleep but it’s pointless.

Eventually, it is time to wake up. They give us five minutes to pack up, and load up gear. It is, of course, still dark. Our gear is frozen. We circle up. Someone mentions it’s 15 degrees. We walk silently in line through the make-shift camp. Everyone is in a zombie-like trance. It is the last week of September, the last week of our fire season. Snaptember is in full effect.

I’m a rookie on a Hotshot Crew, so I eat as fast as I can. I down my powdered eggs and throw some muffins and fruit in my pockets, and fast-walk to supply. I grab lunches and make my way back to the rigs. It’s a quick morning pace. Clean and inspect our rigs, empty the trash, make sure every seat has a lunch. Drink as much water as I can. Run back to supply, grab three cases of water. Run back again, grab more. Time to ride.

Pre-dawn. The smoke lingers in the valley from the overnight inversion. We can’t see those big Wyoming Wind River Mountains, but we know they’re nearby. We’re way out there.

Fire is the only natural disaster that humans are crazy enough to try and stop. Our forecast is like it has been for the last four days: cold, windy, dry. After we pulled the plug on yesterday’s line, we have a new approach today. The forecast is calling for winds out of the West. That’s big news for this valley. The terrain is going to align and we’re going to see a big run today. The best option, prep. Prep for a big run.

Remove all the fuel — small trees, branches, and bushes — and move them across the line (in this case a road). Reduce the fuel load. Reduce it because when the time is right, we are going to light along the line and provide a fuel break, so the fire can’t cross. Great plan, unless if the fire decides to throw embers, or ‘spot,’ half a mile away. The sawyers start dropping dead hazardous trees called snags along the mile of road we’re gonna prep. It’s windy. We stop for ten minutes for a cattle drive to move through. Drink as much water as I can. Once the snags are removed, the party starts.

It might be the end of the season. But it is on. The sawyers start cutting all the downed trees into smaller pieces, and they cut limbs greater than six inches wide off the trees. They drop all the live trees smaller than six inches. They work fast. Keep your head up. For the rest of us, we grab as much as we can possibly carry, run across the road, and throw it as far as possible. It’s a friendly competition between ourselves. We’re yelling, hooting, and hollering. Another hotshot crew drives by. Work faster!

In an hour, sage brushes replace the heavy timber, and our prep work is done quicker than expected. There is no time to waste. The inversion is lifting, the sun is hitting the fire, activity is picking up. The fire is going to make that run. We all know it. We pause for a bite to eat, refill our water, then head up to prep around the structures in the timber. One is a hunting lodge. Another, a historic cabin. The rest are working ranches and homes.

The bulldozers come in. They start making a line as wide as a road around the houses in the open sage. The winds pick up. The smoke column is now standing straight up, like a big thunderstorm. Great. We get updates from our Foreman; he is up-drainage, closer to the front. It is now a full-on running crown fire, spreading in the tree canopy and throwing spots ahead a quarter of a mile. It’s time.

We brief and break out into our positions. The lighters use what we call a drip torch, a can with a mix of three-quarters diesel and a quarter gasoline to put fire on the ground around the structures, and the rest of us holders will walk through the green to make sure the fire is staying on the correct side of the line.

We hear it first. The dull freight train roar. Visibility is still good, smoke is going straight up. Little licks of flame appear above the ridge. They grow higher and higher. I see a flicker of orange in the grassy field at least half a mile away from the front. It’s a spot fire. I call in the location on the radio, and before it can even be relayed to the helicopters, they are dropping water on it. To no avail. The fire grows to an acre in under a minute, with 20-foot flame lengths from the tall dead grass. Here we go.

The flames on the ridge grow larger. We are over a quarter-mile away, and we can feel the heat. More spot fires start in the valley. The wall of fire is hundreds of feet high. The mood is tense, but with a calm radio presence, our foreman tells us it is time to pull out. As we drive away, the column collapses. Visibility drops to zero behind us. We head to our safety zone with the other resources and wait for that ridge to burn.

The blacked-out sun soon begins to set behind those desolate, obscured mountains. In less than an hour, the fire has burned through the large conifer stand and across the half-mile wide valley. To our delight, every structure and house in the valley survives the fire. We go back into that black apocalypse to secure the structures. We use flare-gun and tools that look like smoke grenades so that we can increase the depth of our fire block, while minimizing exposure to falling, burned up snags.

It is dark now. As the lighting stops, I run around and put out small spot fires in the grass surrounding the structures. Hours pass. The twelve hour adrenaline rush finally begins to fade. The sky glows orange. Absolutely, other-worldly orange. I hear the occasional roar as a tree torches. Reflection sets in as midnight arrives. We have been on the road for nearly five months straight, sleeping on the ground and eating military rations.

We live our lives 14 days at a time. After two weeks of work, we drive home and get two days off. We can be sent anywhere in the country. This summer we put 20,000 miles on the odometer and worked in six states. This final assignment of the season has only five more days. One week after we turn in our gear, I get married. I’ve seen my wife-to-be less than two weeks this summer.

In that cosmic, apocalyptic midnight glow of Wyoming autumn, everything feels right. The world is finally at peace. Our world at least. We did our job and saved structures. On our tiny little piece of this fire, our job is done for the day. We get the word to head back to camp at 3 a.m.  The frost has returned to those frozen alpine fields we call home. Off in the distance to the east, the fire still rages in a different valley. Maybe we will go there tomorrow. I close my eyes. I will dream of fire, because until the snow falls, that is all there is.