Fighting Wildfires in Western Idaho

Some do it for the adventure, others for the money, I do it to prove that I can after breaking up with my girlfriend.

As we’re driving over the crest of the McKenzie Highway, through the lava fields that stretch like rocky scars on both sides of the road, the moon is almost full. It casts its glow over the black volcanic landscape. We are dirty and tired from fighting a fire in Central Oregon, crammed five to a truck, heads pressed against windows or propped on sweatshirts, dozing off. As we drift to sleep we hear the crackle of the radio in the front seat. It’s the matter of fact voice of Chris Snortland, a squad boss and one of four drivers in our caravan. He needs to pull over. As we ease the F-250 Super Duty trucks off the road, we learn that he is not tired, but unsafe to drive. Snortland is in the middle of an episode of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, flashing back to his time as a Marine, when an IED bomb buried in the dirt road blew up his vehicle while on patrol in Afghanistan. It was 2008, the only summer in the past nine years Snortland was not fighting fire. In many ways he got his initial military training from working in the woods.

We are on our way to a new fire in Western Idaho, this band of 20 wild land firefighters, paid less than a $1,000 a week to trudge up the steep mountains of the Western United States in the middle of a burning forest. Some do it for the adventure, others for the money, I do it to prove that I can, after a nine-year hiatus. I broke up with my girlfriend in Brooklyn and I needed to get back into the woods. I needed to swing a tool and stand in a remote and beautiful forest someplace far away. In all my romantic musings of being “on the hill” again, I had forgotten how painfully hard this work really is.

We wake up at 0600 to a shake of our frost-covered tents, put on dirty green Nomex cargo pants and pull on dusty, stiff boots, cursing the cold morning. We line out and try to stay warm under hoodies and beanies, rubbing tight cold hands together to get the blood flowing. The “moving” call comes down the line and we march towards chow.

We are spiked out in the middle of the Payette National forest in West-Central Idaho, at a small camp away from the main Incident Command Center, closer to the fire. The amenities are fewer here: no hot breakfast, no showers and no cell phone service. We eat cold cereal, fruit, and drink coffee, using pieces of cut logs as chairs. We pack power bars and bananas in the pockets of our sweatshirts, like chipmunks storing up for a long winter to ensure we have enough protein and calories to get through the day’s work. We put our lunches and water in our backpacks – eight bottles, three canteens and a Gatorade – and crawl into the rigs to stay warm.

The smoke hangs in the valley clinging to the trees in the morning, a layer of cold air trapping it next to the earth, making for a dusty pink sunrise as we drive to the mountain. It’s a half-hour up a narrow camping road, through a herd of muscular cows that stand glaring at us like big, dumb kids with a bone to pick. We pass a cardboard sign reading, “Road Closed. Fire Danger” and through a gate where one of the other crews propped the skull of a bull elk; fur, and sinewy skin still clinging to the dirty chalk-coloured bones, a comically ominous invitation to “the hill.”

We unload after getting the rigs placed precariously on the side of the road. “Tool up and line out” our crew boss yells, and we all repeat it. John Seaman, is a tall, hansom man of 29. He sports a Hitler youth haircut – high and tight, with a swoop of long hair on top that he covers with a dirty T-shirt sleeve to absorb the sweat. He commands the crew with a quiet, unchallenged authority.

We grab our fire packs from the bed of the trucks and slide out our tools – Pulaskis, shovels, grub hoes, chainsaws – and line out ready for the real work to begin. It’s a grueling mile-and-a-half push up the steep side of the mountain to the helicopter landing that we have been clearing for the last few days. I am carrying a can of gas on the handle of my Pulaski, slung over my shoulder. The smell of chainsaw fuel, two-stroke oil and sage-brush is almost nauseating as we break the day’s first sweat. After a half-mile most of the crew is panting, and relieved when the call comes down the line to “Hold and Water”, which means we can stop and hydrate for a moment. The taste of dirt on the lip of my canteen is familiar and there is a sting of sweat in my eyes as we all rest a minute.

We keep hiking up the hill and some of the guys’ calves start to cramp up and shake. I keep my head down and concentrate on my breathing, watching the boots of the worker before me to plan my next step. Don’t look up. Try not to think about the weight of your pack as it digs into your shoulders. Just keep hiking until they tell you to stop. As we get to the ridge, the forest opens up into a clearing and we see the valley stretch out before us. Blue-green smoke covers the hills as far as we can see. The fire hasn't burned this side of the ridge, and it's quiet and cool in the morning.

The heli-spot is the size of a football field with large trees stacked like pick-up-sticks in a mess of limbs, branches and trunks. Our objective for the day is to cut the trees into movable pieces and drag them to the other side of the hill. I am one of four swampers, which means it’s my job to clear the brush and cut-trees directly away from the guys wielding big saws, the sawyers. I rip off blue spruce limbs and javelin small pines towards the other side of the line.

The hazards are many out here: falling trees, encroaching fire, dehydration, but the only one I can focus on is the spinning blade in front of me. One of the sawyers just nicked the saw against his Kevlar chaps, leaving a two-inch scar of cut cloth on his thigh. There’s no blood, the Kevlar stops the brunt of the impact, but it’s a sign of fatigue, and by order of company policy he must relinquish his saw for the day. We all take it as a moment to stop and look around; it’s easy to get lost in the buzz and fury of cutting and swamping.

We take lunch in a shaded part of “the green”, the unburned section of the woods. We eat the Baby Ruth or dried cranberries, and “rainbow meat” sandwiches from the paper sack in our packs, drink some water.  We looking back at the swath of dead, limbed trees left in our wake, pleasantly amused at our wrath-filled path.

Firefighting is a job designed to save forests and protect wilderness, but the work we do on the ground is, for the most part, destructive. We set fires with drip torches burning thousands of acres of forest, clear entire stands of unburned trees and cut gnarly tractor lines full of dead trees and upturned roots through what was once peaceful wilderness.

It’s all part of a strategy to contain and control the fire. A crude set of tactics designed in the 1970s, still used today. These tactics still exist because they work and the human element is essential.

After lunch we are called to work in “the black”, or the burn. The fire just torched a new section near the line and we are called to make sure it doesn’t spread. We hike to the new area of hot, freshly burned forest and start digging. We stand in burned stump holes swinging axe blades against the stubborn roots and scraping burning coal with grub hoes. Water is pumped from the creek at the bottom of the hill using a Mark 3 pump that sounds like a generator buzzing in the distance. It carries the water up hose lays of one-inch line to half-inch lateral hoses every hundred feet.

The water hits the burning ground in a cloud of ash and dust splattering our safety goggles, as we stand in the hole digging furiously. This part of the job is called “mop up”, and it’s one of the worst, and most necessary jobs in fire fighting.

After a few hours we stop to watch the fire burning on the ridge across the drainage from us. The sun is high and the temperature is rising. Pockets of tall trees occasionally go up in a flash of fire, torching like matchsticks, sending dark black and grey chimneys of smoke floating above the ridge. The winds have shifted and are pushing the fire towards us. It’s this time of day when the relative humidity is at its lowest and the fire is most active and unpredictable. We are put on alert that if the it makes a run we are to evacuate immediately.

The Sawtooth Hot Shots, a 20-man gnarly Forest Service crew from southern Idaho, is working below us, punching a piece of line up the steep part of the ridge across the canyon, hoping to contain this section of the fire and direct it towards the un-inhabited wilderness to the southwest.  So far they are successful, cutting an area as wide as a highway through the woods with fallers dropping huge hazard trees that shake the ground when they hit, creating a path for hand tools to break the earth to mineral soil. This is one of the main tactics for controlling a fire, to cut a line in the dirt, removing all possible ground fuel.

That’s assuming the fire is burning on the ground. Today it isn’t. The fire has climbed the ladder fuels, a layer of dry underbrush, getting into the limbs of the tall evergreens, igniting an entire stand in one blaze. It sounds like a low, loud rumble that puts the fear in us as we witness its uncontrolled power. The fire is torching near the line, sending embers and ash carried by the wind into the unburned section the Hot Shots are protecting.

A small fire starts and several of the Sawtooths run to put it out. More embers fall, starting another and another. Soon the line is breached and the valley fills with smoke. We see the burning hill from where we stand. Pockets of forest go up like sparklers, one after another. Then the call comes down from our Division Supervisor, a short Asian man with baggy khaki Nomex pants and a grizzled expression: They lost the line, we have to evacuate immediately. We grab our tools and line out quickly. As we head down the hill in a hurried pace, we watch more sections of forest ignite, throwing 20-foot flames above the tree tops, pushing columns of smoke and ash into the blue sky. We get to the rigs charged with adrenaline and load tools and packs quickly and head out.

It’s our 14th day of work, the government limit before being required to take two days off, but on a growing fire with limited resources, we learn we are approved for an extension. As we leave the hill we come to grips with the fact that we have to muster seven more days out of tired bodies and weary minds.

It’s an hour drive to the main camp through a valley of old farmhouses, past an abandoned apple orchard and through the one-main-street town of Council, Idaho. We drive past fields of crispy, tan corn stocks that line the roads, telling the story of a record-dry summer. Two farmers stand by their trucks tilting faded baseball caps towards the smoke-filled horizon, searching the sky for a rain that hasn’t come for months.

We get into main camp and settle in for the evening, go to chow, call the girlfriends and mothers we haven’t been able to contact for the last week and shower. It’s warmer in town than at the higher elevation we are used to, so we lay out sleeping bags under the mass of stars in the rural Idaho night sky. We laugh as the chorus of farting breaks the silence, something we have gotten used to after weeks of eating camp food.

The guys come from a range of places and backgrounds, but most have spent at least part of their lives at the edge of society, in broken homes plagued with abusive families and drugs. Jesus was born in Medellin, Colombia, spending his childhood in an orphanage, showering in the warm rain. He was adopted, with his two brothers and sister, by a Mormon family in Idaho Falls when he was six. They made the kids work, cleaning bedpans and mopping floors, in the care center for mentally disabled adults they owned. The lawyer Jesus had working to get them years of back-pay for their labour, dropped out from pressure applied by the Church. Jesus is taking the money he makes this summer to go back to Colombia to find his family. He lives in a crash pad of an apartment in Eugene, Oregon, sleeping on a couch.

Cole is a small but determined kid of 21. He looks closer to 15, slight and stringy from malnutrition but with an admirable, steely resolve from sleeping in parks and fighting for food most of his life. He hasn’t had a bed of his own since he was 17.

Hans is one of the few men with a family. He grew up in the white supremacist- dominated section of Northern Idaho, poor, with an asshole step-father who later killed himself with a shotgun. Hans used to go to the woods every fall with a buddy, a case of beer and a chainsaw to harvest lodge pole pines to sell for firewood. He is by far the hardest worker on the crew, smiling constantly and telling stories about hunting, fighting and getting in trouble with the Idaho police. He is working to pay for the chemotherapy for his six-year-old daughter with Leukemia.

Hans knows more about the forest than anyone else on the crew. Back on the hill the next day he is pointing out different varieties of trees in the hyper-diverse Payette National Forest, “White fir, Douglas fir, larch, ponderosa pine, lodge pole pine, blue spruce, aspen, birch.” He shows me an elderberry plant, holding the fibrous bamboo-like stock down with its bunches of tiny periwinkle berries. “We used to make wine with them,” he says, as I taste the tart fruit for the first time, feeling them pop like pomegranate seeds between my teeth.

This part of Idaho is a mix of high desert and temperate forest, full of plant life new to me. Sagebrush grows at the higher elevations, clinging to the rocky soil. Cold creeks gurgle up out of the ground their banks surrounded by mountain mint – its aroma a beautiful scent somewhere between peppermint and marijuana. With one look at the ground you see wild strawberries, rose hips, purple thistles, spidery succulents, tiny yellow paper flowers and bright green lichen.

As we cross a creek on one of our last days we get warning to keep our heads up. A baby black bear is hiding in the branches of a tall Douglas fir and her mother is surely nearby. We never see the mother and the baby seems unfazed by our presence or the fire burning all around. It lolls, instead, in the tree, letting one arm dangle, looking more bored than anything.

This seems to be the story of our season, close to danger, in the middle of a burning forest but never getting burned. Our season is, therefore, a success. Besides some rolled ankles, bouts of dehydration and a few near misses, we all make it off the hill unscathed. We have worked a total of 21 straight days with five days of travel and feel physically strong and mentally tired. Away from girlfriends and wives for nearly a month, the most sexual excitement coming from a handful of tingly Gold Bond applied to our balls to combat chafing, we are ready to be off this hill, out of these dirty clothes and into the arms of a woman. 

The needles on the Larch trees are turning a golden yellow, as we drive up to the hill on our last day, it’s one of the few conifers that sheds its foliage for the winter. The leaves of the huckleberry plants are already red and orange as fall has taken over, in what seems like overnight. We drive our trucks slowly on the bumpy dirt road, grey clouds overhead. The rain comes on strong about four o’clock and “hunker down” is the order, which in this case, means find a place out of sight and out of the rain. We tromp through the wet woods, over downed mossy trees and through thick patches of vine maple. We are drenched by the time we get to the stand of firs that offer enough cover for all of us.

Me and two other guys go farther in to check out the creek that runs at the bottom of the drainage. It’s rushing hard as we stand on the bank under a big maple and talk about drugs: Salvia, mushrooms, DMT, what we’ve tried, what we like. The rain has come and done our job for us, quelling this fire in one day, where a month of our hard labour could not. When the call comes down to pull off the hill we are soaked to the socks and head out in tool order – chainsaws, Pulaskis, hoes, shovels – back to the rigs.

We drive to camp for the last time, drying our heads with sweatshirts and beanies, past the patch of forest we worked for nearly two weeks, the scarred, barren trees we limbed and dead ones we cut in preparation for a burn we will never see. The results from our work will remain hidden to us. No house built or fence mended, just sweat and toil left in the forest. After we leave, the woods it will be silent again for bear and elk to return to watering holes and trees to grow. Nature will overcome. In the end we are just digging in the dirt, trying to tame, direct or influence a force of nature.