Consumed by Fire

On the front lines of the Hayman blaze.

Thirty-eight were actually "caught or trapped" by fire and smoke and perished. That's not an inconsequential number, and it is a hideous, terrifying death. But technically, farming is more dangerous than firefighting.

While we all welcome the emphasis on safety, we also bitch about it. Because of the heightened concern for firefighter safety, for example, fire managers are by necessity less aggressive in attacking a fire than they once were.

New wildland firefighters are hammered with reminders on how to stay safe (LACES = lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones; Always remember the eighteen "watch out situations," etc). Researchers have taken the time to figure out many specific safety standards. With 100-foot-long flames, for instance, a "safety zone" -- the nearest place you can go if threatened by a fire and remain unburned -- needs to be precisely 502,655 square feet.

Brian Stauffer
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.

Individually, and in theory, each of these things makes sense. Taken collectively, however, they can be paralyzing. Safety zones, for instance, often must be built by bulldozer. Yet constructing the above-mentioned zone -- the equivalent of about 11.5 acres -- could take a bulldozer all day. And in many instances, safety zones need to be built every quarter-mile or so.In short, we can follow all of the safety rules and guidelines to the letter, and we can fight fire. It's just hard to do both at once.

Keeping firefighters out of harm's way is not cheap, either. These days, given the choice, bosses are less likely to call for a hand crew and much more likely to call for a helicopter or airplane attack -- the most expensive tactic of fire suppression.

The effectiveness of all of this is difficult to measure. But as a reporter, I know there's one concrete benefit to maintaining a sense of perpetual danger: Controlling the media is a lot easier.

Reporters are seldom permitted on the actual fire lines. Instead, in the name of safety, they're shuttled from parking lot to parking lot for a distant view of the flames. One television cameraman I know finally decided to take the "red card" course just to get closer to the action --- even though he thought it was a ridiculous requirement. "I don't have to go to a handgun course to do a ride-along with the cops," he points out.

The day is plenty of fun, although more in an orienteering, "let's go for a hike" way than a firefighting one. In fact, we don't see a flame all day. Highlights include many, many more trees snapped off their trunks like Popsicle sticks, falling up to my waist in a mud bog, and running into a bear.

"HOLY SHIT! A FUCKING BEAR!" my partner observes. Then, because we all strive to sound like Chuck Yeager on our radios, we wait a minute before casually announcing over the airwaves in a calm, slightly Southern accent: "Just an FYI -- there's a bear in the area."

Camp tonight sounds like a tubercular clinic. We're told the crud is circulating, and to remember to wash our hands.

Hayman Fire, Day 9:
Fire=money. Also appropriateness.

A new management team has taken over. Incident Commander Martin leaves to go work on the Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona. He is replaced by Steve Frye, chief ranger at Glacier National Park.

Each boss puts together his own team of sub-bosses to help him work the big fires. Thus, each crew has its own personality. Frye's team comes with three Human Resource Specialists. The morning briefing package explains:

"We are here to insure a positive work environment for everyone involved with this incident, to support cultural diversity and awareness and to promote the civil rights for everyone."

The human resources guys even have their own logo! It is a silhouette of foresters (a man and a woman, naturally) looking at some trees. Inside are three bulleted points:



•Appropriate behavior.

Of course, this becomes a running joke: "Cut down that tree, you pussy."

"I'm sorry; did you say 'pussy'? That's inappropriate. I'm calling HR."

We laugh about it, but the presence of the three sensitivity police, whose job apparently is to wander around camp and receive complaints about offensive behavior, has an undeniable effect. While in camp, we're on guard, constantly checking over our shoulders before muttering some profanity.

The fire, we're told, is now 35 to 40 percent contained. Our particular assignment today: staging, which gives me plenty of time to observe a few things about how fires are fought. Such as...

We may be America's Heroes, but it's still a job. I can't tell you how many times I've heard "It's a good day today -- all overtime."

Like any profession, we have our own -- extremely overused -- lexicon that everyone tries desperately to cram into casual conversation. "Tie in" means to meet up with. "Bump up" means to move ahead. "Face to face" means talk directly to. As in: "I'm going to bump up to the next intersection and tie in with the division supe so we can have a face to face. After that, I'm going to stage and take a nap."

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