Consumed by Fire

On the front lines of the Hayman blaze.

When most people think of firefighters, they imagine the New York City guys, or the men in Massachusetts who enter burning warehouses and don't always come out. But the modern firefighter doesn't spend a lot of time actually battling flames -- a big reason that career firefighters are able to find the time to become experts in "butt ball" and other preoccupations. In 2000, the nation's 26,354 fire departments responded to about 20.5 million calls. Continuing a long-term downward trend, only 1.7 million of those calls -- or 12 percent -- were fires, and a lot of those blazes were small. Another two million calls were false alarms.

In fact, the vast majority of calls to which firefighters responded in 2000 -- 12.25 million -- were requests for medical assistance. I know of one local fire department whose new recruits throw money into a pool after they graduate from the academy, with the kitty going to whoever's called out on a real fire first. The money can languish for months at a time.

Wildland fire is a subspecialty of the fire service; until recently, it's been treated as a poorer cousin of the more glamorous structure fire. Generally, wildland firefighters are trained much less rigorously than structure firefighters (although this seems to be changing as forest fires gain a higher public profile). The baseline training required for someone to enter a burning building is known as a Firefighter I designation; this can take anywhere from several months to a year -- nearly 300 hours in all for volunteers, more for paid firefighters. To work on a federally overseen wildland fire, however, the only requirement is the S-130/190 course, or "red card." An overview of fire behavior with an emphasis on safety, the class can easily be completed in just a few days. From there it's just a matter of slapping on the omnipresent protective gear -- yellow Nomex shirts, green pants, leather boots, light plastic helmet, gloves -- and you're good to go.

Up close, but not personal: Fire approaches a house in the Turkey Rock subdivision.
Up close, but not personal: Fire approaches a house in the Turkey Rock subdivision.
Up close, but not personal: Fire approaches a house in the Turkey Rock subdivision.
Up close, but not personal: Fire approaches a house in the Turkey Rock subdivision.

Despite the different training (and pay), firefighters all have a common fascination with fire. We're not pyromaniacs -- although some, like Terry Barton, the Forest Service employee charged with starting the Hayman Fire, or Leonard Gregg, the contract firefighter suspected of igniting the massive Rodeo Fire in Arizona, technically fit the definition. For the rest of us, it's enough to be close to the flames -- feeling the heat, watching the awesome, destructive power of fire from courtside seats.

When a firefighter says, "We saw some pretty good fire behavior," he doesn't mean that the fire lessened in intensity, but that he got to see the majesty of combustion up close: giant flames rolling across a forest canopy, whole trees exploding with heat, boiling convection columns reaching toward the heavens, whirling fire devils skittering across the ground. Good fire behavior is spectacular fire behavior, a spectator sport without equal. Most of us carry a camera in our packs.

I'm not an expert on fire -- far from it. In most respects, I'm a rank beginner. There are many, many men and women who've devoted their lives to fighting forest fires, who know every detail of those elements that determine whether you're safe or in danger: weather patterns, topography, how the fire will behave in an hour or a day. It's no exaggeration to say they can save your life.

Tellingly, they're usually not the young superstars, the loud up-and-comers you might see in, say, a bond-trading outfit. This is not a career for the hurried and ambitious. The best firefighters rise through the ranks the old-fashioned way, by putting in the hours and days and weeks. The brightest fire commanders have seen decades and decades of fire.

But nobody in Colorado had ever seen anything like the Hayman Fire.

Hayman Fire, Day 6:
Acheiving fighting weight

By the time we wake up on Thursday morning, at about 5 a.m., the camp has grown even larger. Crews are pouring in from across the country; the Hayman Fire has been designated the nation's top wildland-fire priority right now, which basically means that the bosses get whatever machines and people they ask for.

Morning briefing comes at 6 a.m. sharp. It's held in an open shelter at one end of the Lake George campground; about a hundred people attend. The good news, we're told, is that the fire, which had exploded during the two previous days, has slowed in the past 24 hours. About a half-dozen separate reports follow: weather forecast, fire-behavior prediction, public information and logistics reports, operations summary, safety message. These are all bundled together in an "incident action plan" for the day.

Our engine crew -- a truck plus three guys -- is assigned to Division X, one of nearly two dozen divisions on the Hayman perimeter. We'll be working on the southeast flank, which encompasses a still-burning section of the fire, along with two hand crews.

While the mid-management types gather for specific direction from division superintendents, the rest of us scurry around gathering supplies for the day. And, if possible, for the coming month, or year.

Although a federally managed forest fire is a thicket of paperwork, it's also a bonanza of stuff, much of it available just for the asking. For local fire departments, a massive wildland fire in the neighborhood means the opportunity to stock up: Gatorade, power bars, snacks, batteries and small equipment such as hoses and foam are given out at the supply tents. Some things must be accounted for -- I sign for a second sleeping pad to cushion my aging back -- but most are handed out with no paper trail whatsoever.

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