Consumed by Fire
Dropping down Route 9 from Hartsel into Lake George is like entering a thicket of gauze. A clear Colorado day gives way first to haze, then gray, then brown. Smoke grows thicker by the mile. Behind the smoke, the sun glows orange. To the north, a billowing cotton-candy cloud roils over the mountain ridge. The smell of burning penetrates everything, everywhere.
Lighted highway signs inform drivers that they're approaching the fire camp and order them not to slow down to gawk. The camp has sprung up in a pasture just west of Lake George and Florissant. A guard stops each unidentified vehicle that enters. I tell her I'm here to relieve a crewmember. "I bet he'll be glad to see you," she says.
It's near the end of the fifth day of the Hayman Fire, already the largest in Colorado history (the fire will grow another 50 percent before being contained). This is the fifth wildland fire I have been on this summer, and it's only June 12.
The fire camp is already in full swing. These massive spreads seem to spring up like mushrooms, overnight, and this one is the biggest I've seen. There are separate module trailers representing each segment of the standard "incident command" system: operations, planning, logistics, finance. Banks of porta-potties appear every several yards. The sound of gas generators never quits.
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On the other side of the camp is a trailer that houses showers; a mess tent has been set up behind the modules. The supply tents are closer to the road, marked by pink caution tape and identifiable by the cases and cases of Gatorade stacked up around them. We're like a pro football team, only much thirstier.
The majority of the tents are set up on the west side of camp, dome after dome of nylon ripstop, spreading a hundred yards or so, five or six deep. Most of the crews set up their tents together; many display hand-lettered signs indicating where they're from -- Nevada, California, Oregon. It's very clannish. The hotshot units walk everywhere as a group, in single file, led by their crew boss.
As I trade off equipment with one member of our three-person fire-truck crew, we're ordered to move our tents to the other end of camp. The winds have shifted, and the camp, on the southeast flank of the fire, is now in the path of the advancing flames. In an effort to prevent the whole place from igniting, our current sleeping spot will be burned out.
Just up a rise to the south, a hand crew is putting a protective line between us and the fire. They work in a steady cadence, their tools hitting the hard ground like a chain gang of land de-scapers; I half-expect to hear a spiritual. The metallic snarl of chain saws rises over the darkening camp.
I'm a journalist, but I've also been a firefighter for about five years now, mostly working as a volunteer for my small mountain town's single-station department. In addition, I volunteer for our regional wildland team, which usually goes out as a hand crew -- the guys who do the backbreaking work of digging, chopping and cutting through the forest. These days, though, our group also tends to arrive at a fire with a team of engines. (The word "engine" refers to any fire truck whose primary job is pumping water through a hose.)
Despite the hagiography that firefighters have enjoyed for almost a year now, I joined my local department for fairly pedestrian reasons, as did most of my friends who decided to donate their time. Even though career firefighters get most of the press, the majority of us do this gratis -- 777,350 of the 1,064,150 firefighters in the United States, or about three out of four, are volunteers.
If you want to contribute to your community, a volunteer fire department is kind of like the Kiwanis Club with better outfits. (Ask a female friend what she thinks of firefighters in uniform.) It's a good way to meet new people, and fire departments have neat toys.
Above all, though, being a firefighter is a real kick, in a couple of ways. The first is physical. On the first day of my academy, an assistant chief told us that firefighting was the best sport we'd ever play, and I knew I was in the right place. The second kick -- less acknowledged -- is the buzz we get knowing that we're looked up to. Unlike cops, we're appreciated. People like us and actually want to see us. It often feels like I'm getting away with something: having fun and being admired for it. We don't expect to be heroes -- and no matter what you read, most of us aren't.
Firefighting can be so addictive that at one time or another, most volunteers I know have contemplated changing careers. A fair number have done it, leaving their jobs to join a paid fire department. I did it for a while, too, before realizing that at age forty, I didn't fit the paramilitary lifestyle. While some career firefighters sign on for the enviable schedule, which works out to about ten days of work a month, most enjoy the high of being the one who's called when people are in trouble -- the go-to guys.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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."
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.
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.
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:
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."
You can tell how important a person is by how many people are in his vehicle with him. At the bottom are the hand crews, about twenty of whom share a ride. At the top are the bosses, who get their own pickups.
There's such a thing as a "political fire." It's any flame within view of a road. It may be a threat to nothing but a few twigs, yet it still needs to be extinguished to put the public's mind at ease.
We like to rehearse lines in the unlikely event that a member of the media is released into the fire zone. "We've fought the fiery dragon," one guy offers. "Back from the fiery mouth of hell," I suggest. "It was like a blast furnace in there. I feel lucky to have escaped." We also practice poses; one man bent over at the waist, exhausted; another, draped over his back, fatigued beyond standing. We have an image to maintain.
Midday, as we refill our water tank by the side of the road, a man in a black pickup truck drives by. "Thanks for all your work," he yells, and tosses us a bag of homemade cookies. It feels nice. Really.
Toward the end of the day, a plume of smoke begins to rise above a hill to the north of us. The fire has slopped over the bulldozer line that was being built to meet up with ours. We stand by the division superintendent as he orders up a massive air attack.
Watching it is a thrill. Helicopters with buckets at the end of long ropes drop their loads and then hover over nearby ponds like hummingbirds, dipping their containers into the water until they're full, then taking off for another run. The "heavies" -- the bigger birds -- look like giant mosquitoes, long hoses dangling out of massive tanks set between gangly legs. Two slurry bombers also spray red rain on the trouble spot.
After a while, we start to add up the cost of the operation we're watching. It makes Elton John look like a skinflint. Our final rough calculation -- taking into account manpower and air power -- comes out to somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000. All to put out a spot fire less than one acre in size.
At the same time, we grunts have been told not to attend the morning briefing until 0630, an apparent attempt to save money by delaying the start of our billable day by a half-hour. This is the government's idea of cost control.
One buddy of mine who attended a recent red-card class remembers a particular bit of advice the instructor offered: Wildland fires are all about two things: safety and money. It's true. Forest fires are devastating, but they're almost always a boost to the local economy.
No one argues that combating fires isn't expensive. It is. And for reasons that are not entirely clear, the cost of putting out forest blazes has skyrocketed in the past three years or so, says Bruce McDowell, who's just finished a study of fire-suppression costs for the National Academy of Public Administration.
This year has been off the charts. By the end of June, the federal government had already emptied its firefighting bank account of $321 million. Worst-case-scenario estimates warn that the cost could exceed $1 billion by the time the fire season ends this fall.
To be fair, firefighting is difficult to shoehorn into a budget. Because it's impossible to know how many fires there will be in any given year, federal budget czars take a ten-year cost average to forecast the upcoming season. But wildly unpredictable variables such as weather -- or just a couple of arsonists -- can throw such a projection totally out of whack.
It's also difficult to know what can be accomplished day to day on a fire. On big fires, we often need to wait for favorable weather -- cool and wet is nice -- before making any significant headway. Also, as a fire grows in size, there's little that firefighters can do except stay out of the way and take pictures. Yet this is also the time when manpower expands exponentially. And even if we're just standing around gawking, we still need to get paid.
On a smaller scale, fire protection is all about what-ifs. Fire departments are full of shelves and shelves of equipment that rarely gets used. Our tiny department recently bought a night-vision heat sensor for a relatively whopping $10,000. It's a ridiculous amount of money to spend on such a high-tech toy -- right up until the night a car flies off the edge of the highway and we use it to discover an injured kid lying twenty yards from the vehicle in the dark. Then it's priceless, even if it stays on the shelf for another two years gathering dust.
Wildland fires present a huge economic opportunity. The combination of high emotion and federal bureaucracy makes for a volatile -- and, ultimately, lucrative -- environment. A lot of the money goes to other government agencies, which, if you think about it, is peculiar. Every year, local and state organizations sign agreements with the federal government setting prices for the use of their manpower and equipment. Although it shouldn't, this price varies from department to department and, to a large degree, depends on the negotiating savvy of local chiefs.
Our department, for instance, charges the feds $75 an hour for what is known as a Type 6 engine. (The trucks go up in size as their designation number drops. Type 1s are bigger, urban pumpers. Type 6s are usually built on the back of heavy-duty pickup trucks or small flatbeds. They carry about 250 gallons of water, often some foam, and usually a crew of three.) This is a far lower price than other departments charge; some get as much as $125 an hour for the same piece of equipment.
That's nothing compared with the gulf between reimbursement rates of volunteer and paid departments. Because the rates are supposed to be based on the local department's costs, paid departments cash in by claiming whopping expenses. They point out that the three guys (or, for Type 1s, four) manning the engine could be gone for up to two weeks -- so each needs to bill at time and a half. Then they point out that the three guys on the truck need to be replaced by three guys back at the station. Naturally, those guys need to be paid overtime, as well. As a result, a Type 1 engine from an urban department can run taxpayers more than $320 an hour -- never mind that the urban trucks are among the least useful pieces of equipment on a wildland fire and that many city firefighters have little experience in the woods.
Wildfires can be a bonanza for local departments. West Metro, which covers the area west of Denver from Lakewood to Roxborough, reportedly tries to have a Type 6 engine out for most of the summer, collecting billable hours. One of West Metro's firefighters told me that the district expects to earn between $500,000 and $1 million this year alone.
Private contractors have discovered this trough, too. Everyone on a big fire -- from the caterers to the helicopters to the bulldozer operators to the guys who provide the porta-potties -- gets paid, and paid extremely well.
Caterers can earn a reported $40 per firefighter, per day. At its height, the Hayman Fire hosted nearly 2,500 firefighters and support staff. You do the math. (Never mind: That's $100,000 a day.) And more private firefighting companies, with private hand crews and private trucks, are getting in on the game. Bulldozers get $200 an hour and up -- and frequently spend days at a time sitting at a staging area, waiting for an assignment. Of course, that's for a ten-hour day. Anything over that is time and a half, or $300 an hour.
Wildland firefighters talk about how a big fire can create its own weather, but it's also true that a federal fire creates its own economy. Hell, even the commemorative-T-shirt salesman gets fifteen bucks a shirt.
A few days later, our engine is called to put out a small fire in front of a house in the West Creek subdivision. When we arrive, a black pickup with dual tires has already backed up to the flames. An elderly gentleman is unspooling hose from a jury-rigged tank-and-pump configuration he'd obviously just built on the back of his vehicle. At the nozzle, an overweight woman dressed in brand-new Nomex struggles with the hose.
We edge into position and quickly put out the fire. The man turns out to be a rancher from Montana. "Business there isn't too good these days," he admits. "Besides, we can make pretty good money doing this."
How much? I ask.
"One thousand eighty dollars a day," he replies. That's base. Overtime is where the real cash is.
One of my good friends discovered this early on. He had a fair amount of money lying around (I don't ask, and he doesn't offer to explain) and, after going on a few of these calls, splurged on 42 trucks, mostly Type 1 and Type 6 engines.
Next, he recruited a bunch of young men to man the trucks and paid for their red-card classes. "They don't have to be firefighters," he points out. "They just have to have a red card." (Even red-card instructors can make good money. A friend just took the course in Oregon along with another hundred or so students. The instructor said he made about $16,000 for the four-day ordeal.)
Then my friend called the government.
"It's pretty simple, really," he says. "Just like anything else in the government, they like a lot of paperwork, but the checks and balances are pretty weak."
He continues: "Despite what they say, the government prefers private contractors over public resources, for the simple reason that private folks can usually stay on the fire longer. Then, when they need you, they're desperate. They do the panic thing."
Fire resources in this area are dispatched out of an office in Pueblo, so, my friend claims, he "hired" an official down there as a consultant to ensure that his trucks would be at the top of the list when the call came. He charged about $2,400 a day for his urban engines, which translated to about $5,000 a day, including overtime; he collected more for a tender (what the fire service calls a water tanker truck).
The big urban engines were a particular moneymaker because of the slight wear and tear they get. A lot of the time, they're being trucked from fire to fire on lowboys. Even at fires, my friend notes, "they spend a lot of time at staging. For whatever reason, they seem to take two, three, four hours to move from place to place."
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.
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.
We're now fully surrounded by fire -- and I'm loving it. Situations like this are to firefighters what an endorphin rush is to a runner: It doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, it's an unbelievable high. We're junkies.
The next hours are a blur of activity. We burn out lawns and shrubs near the houses of the Turkey Rock subdivision while the fire dances around us. As the flames approach a home, we attempt to guide them around it, or we put the flames out when the front of the fire has passed by. Helicopters dip and swerve above us, dropping bucket after bucket of water. Many houses are saved; some are not. Everyone works hard.
So we are astonished to later read a column in the Colorado Springs Gazette purporting to describe the scene at Turkey Rock that day. (The column was repeated more or less unchanged a few weeks later in the Denver Post.) The writer reported a rousing tale of surpassing heroism, involving the crews from Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs -- and deleting the rest of us.
According to the author(s), the trucks from the Springs rushed into the fiery mouth of hell. With little regard for their own safety, their crews (who, the columnist memorably quoted someone as saying, "had solid brass clackers") put out many fires and saved many homes. They were working so hard that they even burned a hose. "You don't get to meet a hero every day," the columnist concluded.
Being a bona fide member of the media in moderately good standing, I know how these things work. You want to write about heroism and you're on deadline, so you find a way to do it. And I understand a little home cooking. But I'm also a firefighter who was there that day, and I'm here to tell you that plenty of us saw something entirely different.
For starters, the Colorado Springs hose didn't char because the trucks were working so close to the fire that it suddenly ignited. The way we saw it, the city firefighters rushed toward a house just as the flame front was approaching. Perhaps being an urban department, they weren't familiar with how to guide a fire around the building. Once they realized that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to fight a crown fire head-on, they bolted -- dragging behind them a piece of burning hose.
When our crew got the call to drive to that particular scene to help out, we found a grass fire licking at one of Manitou Springs's engines. We put it out easily -- it was no big deal -- and yet we wondered at the wisdom of sending under-trained city firefighters into a wildland fire. One of the first rules of operating a truck in wildland fires is not to park it in anything that can burn -- like grass.
I'm not the only one who noticed, either. A few weeks ago, another firefighter who was there -- from a paid department -- sent a letter to the Post. "There should have been fatalities," he wrote. "The reason for this insanity? These were not wildland firefighters; they did not have the knowledge, experience or training to be on that fire."
Hayman Fire, Day 14-16:
A lower-middle-class neighborhood becomes upper middle class. Plus, the same old debates.
The last few days of our tour are spent around a lumberyard. Houses and forest burned on all sides of it, but the yard itself remained unscathed -- this despite extremely flammable piles of dry timber and sawdust dotting the property. If the fire had caught here, events could have taken a dramatically different turn. But they didn't, and now our division is mopping up.
That's okay. Things here have been dramatic enough. By the end of its run, the Hayman Fire will have charred 137,000 acres -- nearly double the size of the next-largest fire in state history (the 70,000-acre Missionary Ridge fire, which was burning concurrently with Hayman). It is estimated that, with rehabilitation of the burned area, the fire will end up costing taxpayers more than $50 million. That's approximately $376,000 per lost home -- a price more associated with Washington Park than rural Douglas County.
The ash that remains after a powerful fire has run through a forest is so fine and light that, no matter how carefully you step, it rises in a delicate puff. It gets in your nose and your eyes. It colors your skin like a fine talcum.
Stumps can smolder for weeks. After they burn away completely, they leave a hole in the soil, a negative space defining the spot where something has turned into nothing. Empty tunnels run out from the holes like spokes on a wheel, indicating where the tree's roots burned into oblivion, too. It's an easy place to twist an ankle.
Burned houses are forlorn, symbols of great loss. Yet they also excite my imagination. It's like looking at one of those follow-the-dots drawings -- you stare hard enough, and you begin to see the outlines of the picture.
What did this house look like a few days ago? Metal tends to survive, although it bucks and twists in the intense heat. Here is a folded bed frame, bent into a stiff curtsey; a wood-burning stove; a fireplace grate. A tea kettle and an iron poke out from the ash, as do the skeletal remains of a desk, surrounded by a handful of ceramics -- a cup, a glass, a few plates. A shovel has been reduced to its blade. It's all on ground level now, the wooden floors having been neatly removed by the heat, a magician pulling out a rug. The fireplace and chimney always seem to survive, leaving a spinal column without a body.
What you see when you look at the destruction depends on where you stand. A forester sees acres charred and, later, an ecosystem reborn. Homeowners, imagining their own tragedy, see the fire in terms of houses disappeared in a whirl of thick smoke and advancing flames. Insurers calculate their losses. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals try to get us to think of the displaced animals. Those with some distance will wonder about the vast expense and whether our work was worth the cost.
One afternoon at the end of our tour, while returning from Rampart Range Road 1, we pass the Gray Back fire crew filing into a Woodland Park church to attend a service for their five colleagues killed while driving to work the fires in Colorado. A month later, two pilots will perish when their slurry bomber crashes while fighting the Big Elk fire, outside of Estes Park. Last week, a helicopter crashed. We all count the dead.
The predictable raft of articles about why we find ourselves at the mercy of such terrible fires are again floated. It's the same old story: The causes of today's massive forest fires (too much suppression of natural fires plus too little thinning of trees has resulted in a dangerous buildup of fuels) and why we find ourselves fighting more of them (more houses in flammable areas) are well-known by now. No doubt there will be another huge debate at the end of this fire season over prescribed burn policy. In the foothills community where I live, every year we set a small prescribed burn in a local park. Every year, residents there complain about the smell of smoke.
Such public pressure pushes hard on the forest managers who plan and oversee prescribed burns. The paperwork to set even the smallest controlled fire looks like an urban phone book. These days, a burn boss puts his career on the line every time he goes to work.
When you get down to it, people are simply frightened of fire. At the very least, most refuse to understand it.
I can see how people come to regard fire as a sentient being. The sight of a single house standing, surrounded by acres and acres of charred forest and husks of homes, can be mystifying as well as sobering. Seemingly at random, fire picks and chooses what it will burn. Although there are usually good reasons for why one thing burns and another just a few yards away does not, a raging fire appears to move without pattern, without sense.
Despite what you may have seen in the movies, most firefighters don't take the fire's behavior personally. The closest I can come to explaining it is by imagining how a rancher regards a predator: There's nothing to say about a wolf eating a lamb except that it's normal wolf behavior. So, too, with a fire. It doesn't know you, and it's got nothing against you or your house in particular. It's just hungry, is all.
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