Consumed by Fire

On the front lines of the Hayman blaze.

All the while, they're earning money. My friend estimates that he netted roughly $1 million for each six-month fire season he was in business. Recently, he made another pile of cash when he off-loaded his fleet to another guy eager to play the federal fire game.

Big fires are so much about money that even the volunteers get paid. Most volunteer departments have policies saying that the first 24 hours of a major fire outside of their district are considered "mutual aid" -- that is, we work for free. After that, however, and once the fire is taken over by a federal management team, we are all on the clock.

This year, that's all theoretical. I have worked on five fires so far, a commitment representing literally hundreds of hours. Because this is the federal government, though, I -- and others like me -- have yet to see a dime. The government is busy, we're told. Your pay may arrive soon -- or not.

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.

Hayman Fire, Day 10:
Real live fire -- all around us! A question of metallic cojones arises.

Today we begin with a poem.

A short man standing next to the deputy incident commander is introduced as a local who wishes to say a few words. Wearing an untucked yellow Nomex shirt and camo pants, he walks to the front of the assembled crowd and recites an epic poem in a heavy German accent. It encompasses all of the great themes: Peace, harmony, forest fires, angelic firefighters.

The man says he's lived in the area since the 1950s and that he's grateful for our work. He just happens to express his gratitude in rhyming couplets.

Tonight, his house will burn to the ground.

Another announcement. The previous afternoon, we learned that Terry Barton, a longtime and enthusiastic Forest Service employee, had been arrested for setting the Hayman Fire. After the required jaw-dropping silence, the jokes fly; most agree that Barton will probably be promoted to mid-management.

Still, the bosses want us to take this seriously. The public-information officer informs us that he is being forced to endure a "media frenzy." We're instructed not to talk to anyone about the Forest Service or its policies: We may discuss only our personal feelings. We're also told that a counselor will be on location should any of us feel the need to talk through this traumatic event.

Breakfast is hard eggs, soft potatoes and yet another pork pile. Did I say I liked this food?

Our task today is to set another prescribed fire. We'd actually begun the burnout the previous afternoon but quit because of unfavorable weather. This morning doesn't go any better.

We don't get far before our work inspires a big confab with many bosses. Apparently the division superintendent adjacent to us is concerned that our fire will jeopardize the safety of some of his crew. The bosses talk some more. A few more drop by. We eat lunch. We wait. They argue, first by radio, then face to face. Eventually, our "burn window" -- the short period of time when winds and relative humidities are favorable to controlled burning -- passes.

Back at staging, there's some action. The little puffs of smoke we'd been watching to the north and west all morning have become black, a sign the fire is picking up speed and intensity. The smoke begins to build into a tower, boiling in an inky airborne stew. I can't help but notice that this is the same place that we supposedly water- and slurry-bombed into submission yesterday.

Still, this is not entirely unexpected. The relative humidity today is incredibly low, which has a dramatic effect on the amount of moisture in the small twigs, duff and brush that help a fire spread. Now, in the afternoon, the winds have begun to build, fanning the flames, urging a creeping fire into the trees.

Soon the sky is filled with the billowing plume. When it passes in front of the sun, the day darkens and the ground turns a sickly yellowish-orange. We learn that the hotshot crew we'd worked with a couple of days earlier is still in the woods in the way of the fire. It's a good thing we pushed in those half-dozen safety zones with the bulldozer; we will later learn they took refuge inside one of them.

Another smoke plume begins building in the north/northeast. White ash starts falling out of the sky. The wind is blowing into our faces, which means the fire is heading our way. Our escape route is cut off, but there's a solid safety zone -- a big open field with ponds nearby. We get out our cameras and wait.

Within minutes, the flames appear on the horizon to the west, at first a splash of orange between the trees, then a sudden leap of fire that nicks the sky. The sound effects arrive, too -- trees cracking and exploding as the fire works down the hill directly toward us.

Then, to the north, another flame front appears on the ridge; it, too, begins to jump down the hill toward where we are parked. Behind us, spot fires begin to catch in the grassy field. These smaller fires can start with an ember falling from the sky or simply through radiant heat given off by the other fires around it. Spot fires can be extremely dangerous. They spread in a circle, like when a piece of film burns -- think of the opening scene of Bonanza. Soon the fire behind us is raging, too.

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