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.

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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer