Consumed by Fire

On the front lines of the Hayman blaze.

In this instance, however, simple logistics head off any debate. The D-10s were to have been hauled to the site on lowboy trailers, but the dirt roads here are too rough. So we settle for D-7s, a smaller version. They're plenty powerful; still, there are many sighs of disappointment.

Even a small bulldozer can become crowded. Typical of government work, a single bulldozer working on a wildfire can easily require as many as three people to run it: the driver, a mechanic and a 'dozer boss, whose job it is to scout the machine's pathway through the woods, arrange his paperwork and provide for safety. Today there are six of us: our three-member engine crew, which will help with scouting; a 'dozer boss and a 'dozer boss trainee; and, finally, the driver, who happens to know how to fix his own machine.

The driver is a young guy from Alamosa with an archaic way of speaking. When I ask him if he's ever driven the bigger D-10s, he says, "No sir, not yet. But I'm dyin' to, somethin' fierce." He is also dyin' to get started. "I've only worked prescribed burns before," he says. "They never let me knock down trees."

Smoke gets in your eyes.
Smoke gets in your eyes.
Ashes to ashes: Before it was done, the Hayman Fire consumed 137,000 acres.
Ashes to ashes: Before it was done, the Hayman Fire consumed 137,000 acres.

Today is different. Using a Global Positioning System and topo maps, we hike ahead to find a path for the 'dozer to follow. Occasionally, we lose track of the machine's exact position, although we can hear the screech of the gears and growl of the diesel. But then the top of a fifty-foot ponderosa pine will whip forward and crash to the ground, and we know where it is.

I like trees as much as the next guy, but this is pretty cool.

It's a long day. (But not too long! New safety standards permit sixteen-hour days for fourteen days straight before a break.) In our absence, we've been assigned to the new camp, at the Rainbow Falls campground. We don't get in until 9:30 p.m. Dinner apparently has been cooked at the main camp and trucked over here; we're served out of drywall buckets under a string of bare lightbulbs. We set up our tents by headlamp and fall into bed filthy.

Hayman Fire, Day 8:
Knocking down more trees -- with great safety and concern. Also a bear.

This morning's briefing package contains a sort of hip-hop safety message: "We are in an extremely bad fire situation with historically low fuel moistures, low rHs and high erratic winds. So DUH! Like I know that already, so why are you boring us with this stuff, AGAIN! Cause this fire may get up and bite you in the hyknee any time, any where; watch for torching, crowning, spot fires, & changes in fire spread.

"There's a bundle of homes in front of this monster that may get BBQed. The sheriff evacuated most of these mountain men and women, but there still may be some hiding out. Check all homes in front of fire spread and advise those found that it would be in their best interest to haul their keesters outta there. Then get yourself out, too!"

We're again assigned to be bulldozer scouts. There's plenty of work to do -- in fact, just as much as before. That's because, overnight, the bosses have decided that yesterday's bulldozer line is not precisely where they'd like it. We're ordered to rip another one about a hundred yards to the west. Fortunately, government work is nothing if not adaptable and, at its heart, optimistic. The old line is to be called not a "mistake," but a "contingency" line.

Around noon, a directive comes over the radio: It's time to observe our "six minutes of safety." Not five or seven minutes: six. In theory, we all stop what we're doing and discuss the standard "be careful" stuff: Don't let trees fall on you, keep an eye out for burning embers, pay attention to power lines, know where your escape route is and so on. Safety officers prowl the fire line, busting anyone unfocused enough to, say, have removed his helmet for a few minutes.

Safety is a major concern -- especially since the Coal Seam Fire, burning just outside of Glenwood Springs, has resurrected the ghosts of Storm King Mountain, the 1994 disaster in which fourteen firefighters died. Nobody wants that to happen on his watch.

Despite all this, I don't think most of us believe we're in much danger. Fire can be perilous, for sure, but that's what makes it interesting: It's hazardous enough to give the work an edge, but not so risky as to excite real alarm.

For the most part, statistics bear out this belief. From 1987 to 1996, 1,046 firefighters died on duty. About 16 percent, or 163 of those fatalities, were on wildland fires. Storm King skewed the stats for 1994, in which 33 firefighters died, versus, say, seven in 1996.

But the majority of those fatalities weren't caused by what most people think of when they hear "fire death." During the decade in question, nearly two dozen wildland firefighters died in motor vehicle accidents. (Despite what the newspapers will say later about the five men and women who died on the night of June 21 while driving to the Hayman Fire from Oregon, they were not fire fatalities -- even though, statistically, they will be listed that way. What killed them was their commute to work.) Another 25 "fire fatalities" succumbed to "overexertion and strain," i.e., heart attacks. Sixteen were struck by objects -- the majority of them trees. (One man will die this way two weeks from now on the Missionary Ridge Fire in Durango.) Three fell to their deaths.

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