The tragedy of the Prescott hotshot crew has me remembering my short stint as a wildfire-fighting “hero.” It started when I worked for the U.S. Forest Service (Superior National Forest in MN). I began my Forest Service career as a volunteer, first on the ranger district in Grand Marais (wilderness trail crew) and then on the district in Cook (photojournalist).
When I was in Cook, I got my first taste for what wildland firefighters do by delivering lunches from town to the fire camp as a driver. I enjoyed the obvious camaraderie of the camp and hearing the fire fighters’ stories. A few years later when I got a paying job with the Forest Service and the annual call came out for Fire Guard School, I was eager to sign up. I attended a week-long training camp conducted by Forest Service and Minnesota DNR staff. Notable among my classmates was Minnesota-based writer Peter Leschak, who went on to write several books about his later experiences. We learned how to dig trenches and sat in a lot of classes about fire behavior and the function of the fire organization.
We also learned how to deploy our ‘shake-and-bake’ fire shelters. These are the devices that every fire fighter carries in case they get caught by the fire and have no other options. You shake it open, climb into it, and drop to the ground on your stomach with the shelter over you (at least that’s how we were taught back then, it might be different now). If the fire passes over you, that’s where the baking begins. The shelters are better than nothing, but truthfully, not by much.
A few months later Yosemite National Park in California started burning. It was my first, and only, on-the-ground firefighting experience. Our first job was to allay the fears of the residents of Foresta, Calif., whose town had been partially burned by the fire. Several trees still smoldered on a blackened hillside above the town and it was our task to put them out . . . at night in the dark, despite the possibility of hidden mine shafts and unexploded dynamite. After a few hours of hiking up the 90-degree incline, we found the snags and put them out. We “skied” down the loose dirt only to hear that the day crew had been called off the mountain because conditions were “too dangerous.” Maybe the fire conditions were worse during the day, but we found it ironic.
My recollection of most of the rest of the experience centers around trudging through a foot of soot, which collected under my fingernails, in my pores, and despite wearing a bandanna — in my nose, and more worrisome, in my lungs. Morning in the fire camp was a cacophony of coughing and hacking. A few days later, I ended up in a clinic with a fever and a racing heartbeat. I was diagnosed with bronchitis and instructed to rest for a day and take medication. I rested in a spike camp that my crew was helicoptered into, high on the mountainside. Wouldn’t you know it, that was the day our crew built a fire line right next to the flames, and I missed it.
We worked out of the spike camp for a few more days (I did get to see some flames) and then we were ‘coptered back to the main camp, where we got a day of R & R (rest and relaxation). We took our first showers in 5 days and got a bus tour of Yosemite, which had been closed because of the fire, but recently reopened for tourists.
As we walked around the park attractions in our distinctive yellow and olive green fire clothes, people shouted their thanks to us for working on the fires. They wanted to shake our hands and pat us on the backs. With a start, I realized they considered us heroes. We certainly didn’t feel like heroes, we were just doing the job we were trained for.
Because I’m susceptible to pneumonia, I figured I’d have trouble with my lungs if I kept fighting fires directly, so after Yosemite, I started training to be a fire information officer. These are the people who work with the media and local organizations to get news about the fire out to the public. That way, I had all the fun of the fire camp but none of the soot. I ended up helping with fires in Colorado and Minnesota, but when I left the Forest Service for another job, my fire career ended.
I miss it. I like working in small groups to get things done. And I’ll probably never be recognized as a hero again. But the hero thing is not why I, or I assume, the Prescott hotshot crew fought fires. You do it because you like it, you do it to be part of a team, it’s exciting, a bit dangerous, and sometimes even fun. You wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Rest in peace, guys.