Consumed by Fire

On the front lines of the Hayman blaze.

Meals, too, are generous on federal fires -- better (or at least bigger) eating than at many restaurants. Breakfast today is chicken-fried steak with gravy, potatoes, eggs with mushrooms, cereal and buckets of watery coffee. Later in the week we'll chow on prime rib, Cornish game hen, lasagna and pork chops. Every morning before heading into the field, we grab a case each of Gatorade and water, six lunches and a handful of snacks.

Wildland fires are a great opportunity to put on weight -- particularly for those of us who work off of engines all day. (Hand crews, who work harder than anyone on a fire, respectfully refer to the guys on trucks as "engine slugs.") In addition to our meals, there's so much grub donated by grateful locals that it's hard to pack it all away. This spring's Snaking Fire, outside of Bailey, earned the nickname "Snacking Fire" because of all the fine food that came our way. We weren't America's Heroes so much as America's Hippos.

Food is just part of the haul. Following the Hi-Meadow Fire in 2000, local departments divvied up cartons and cartons of donated supplies. Many local departments still have packages of unopened socks and crisply folded bandannas. (A list of leftover supplies following the Hayman Fire included -- among many, many other things -- 546 granola bars, 490 boxes of cough drops and, for reasons that escape me, 334 maxi-pads.)

A bulldozer digs a fire line the effective way.
A bulldozer digs a fire line the effective way.
Firefighting can be the ultimate spectator sport.
Firefighting can be the ultimate spectator sport.

Finally, at about 8 a.m., we're ready to work. We're told to stage at a clearing about a half-hour's drive along dirt roads from camp, near the Lutheran Camp area, which was burned over a couple of days earlier. By "stage," they mean "wait."

The popular image of firefighters has them frantically running around every hour of the day, dousing flames and pulling children out of burning buildings. But those days are rare. In truth, a whole lot of firefighting is...sitting around.

Forest fires the size of Hayman are massive logistical operations, and allocating people and resources isn't as simple as moving pieces on a chess board. It's more like maneuvering an ocean liner. But poor planning also adds to the downtime: Anyone who has been on a large fire operation knows that while morning briefing is at 6 a.m., work doesn't usually begin until 9 or 10 a.m. There are many napping opportunities.

This morning, I hear specific rumblings of discontent that the incident commander, Kim Martin, is being even more cautious than usual, holding back crews. People complain that we're sitting while the fire burns -- although, to be fair, we're so far down the chain of command that it's hard to get the big picture.

Today's mission is a burn-out operation. We will purposely torch a section of woods so as to prevent any future fire from catching here: No fuel, no fire.

It's more complex than it sounds, though, and mistakes can be embarrassing. The 49,000-acre Cerro Grande Fire outside of Los Alamos, which destroyed 400 homes in May 2000, started as a "controlled" burn by the National Park Service. We have to consider wind, relative humidity, time of day, the position of other firefighters and so on. This particular operation ends up taking all day.

For now, however, while the bosses are busy planning exactly how to set their fire, we drive around the neighborhood. The fire front swept through here a couple of days ago, and much of the area is already in ashes. Still, we find a few pockets of fire and put them out.

You know the voyeuristic thrill you get when you're in the market for a new home and you tour a house not your own, peeking in medicine cabinets, looking at the books sitting by the bed, opening the refrigerator? That's how wildland firefighters get to feel patrolling an evacuated neighborhood. It's like visiting a ghost town, recently abandoned. The houses seem vulnerable, full of what their owners left behind -- a bicycle, a barbecue, an old car, a garbage bag full of beer. There's a strange intimacy.

Hayman Fire, Day 7:
Knocking Down Trees. Lots of them.

Today's plan calls for us to build a line along the fire's perimeter using two D-10 bulldozers. There's something not entirely unpleasant about violently destroying a forest.

Although forest-fire-fighting techniques have changed over the years, the basic idea has not: Dig a pathway around the blaze so that when the fire arrives, it will stop because there's nothing more to burn. When the entire perimeter is turned into an anti-fire trench, the fire is called "contained." Continuing the military analogy, when the fire "jumps" the line, you lose your containment, the fire continues to spread, and we all have more work to do.

Generally, the bigger the flames, the wider the line. Because the Hayman is producing such big fire, the bosses have asked for a couple of behemoths -- D-10 bulldozers -- to build line. These machines have blades fourteen feet wide and about ten feet high. Anyone who stops at a city construction site to watch the earthmovers understands the appeal of these very big toys.

This is one of those areas where environmentalism can clash with firefighting. Punching a thirty-foot-wide highway through a national forest typically does not appear on most Forest Service management plans -- yet bulldozers can do the work of a dozen hand crews. Thus, fire bosses love them, but foresters aren't so sure. One longtime bulldozer operator told me that on the Snaking Fire, his crew boss hid him from the local USFS rep; she was worried that driving a 'dozer through the woods might knock down a bunch of trees.

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