Something happened last Sunday that every person who has ever served as a forest or wildland firefighter fears. A hotshot crew was overtaken by a rapidly spreading fire about 80 miles north of Phoenix, Arizona and all 19 members of the crew present perished.
I was a member of a US Forest Service initial attack firefighting crew (the Interagency Hotshot crews were formed a year or two later) during the summer of 1979. I had just graduated from college -- I was the only member of my crew with a college degree -- and that's why my nickname became "The Professor." Our crew often had to hike several miles in the backcountry of Northeastern Oregon to reach remote fires and we fought quite a few of them with little or no water.
To be honest, there weren't many occasions in which I experienced any fear of being burned alive. Most of the fires we were dispatched to were small ones, less than an acre or two. Naturally, our job was to keep the fires small and to put them out before they could blow up into raging infernos. I am proud to say that not one of the small fires we were sent to put out ever became a large fire.
There were two occasions, however, when I WAS scared. Most of the fires we fought were in forests, but one particular fire was in grassland near Phillips Lake outside of the tiny town of Sumpter. We kept putting down fire lines and, because of high winds, the flames kept jumping them. Several of us were pinned in by the racing fire with no escape route. Before we knew it, the fire overtook us.
For a few moments, I was in full panic mode...until I realized that the grass itself wasn't all that high. So, when the line of fire got to me, I simply jumped over the flames. I was wearing your typical fire resistant pants and, with the exception of some singing of my leather boots, I came away unscathed. In fact, once the fire passed us, my comrades and I shared some nervous laughter.
Moments later, a forest service plane did a suppression dump on the fire and we spent the next hour or so mopping it up.
The other occasion was a lot more terrifying. Our crew was sent to the scene of a major fire near La Grande. Thousands of acres of forests were burning and there were literally hundreds of firefighters working long shifts battling the blaze. I was one of our crew's designated drivers and so I spent a lot of time ferrying people and supplies throughout the labyrinth of roads in the forests.
I was coming back from one such run -- navigating my way slowly down a rutted dirt road -- when several trees to my right began exploding. What I mean by this is that the fire was rushing through the canopy level and it looked sort of like roman candles on the 4th of July.
All of a sudden, a burning tree fell across the roadway ahead of me. Shit!, I thought. I couldn't find a suitable place to turn around which meant that I would need to back out several miles down the rutted road. The fire was close enough that I could feel the searing heat and the smoke was so thick that I thought I would cough a lung up.
I just sat there in my rig gagging and gasping for air and wondering if my number was up. Little by little it dawned on me that I would become a fatality if I didn't get my ass in gear. So, once the initial panic subsided, I did the only thing I could do: I slowly made my way in reverse down the rutted road.
I made an effort not to look at the raging fire. No, I tried to concentrate solely on driving. But I would be lying if I didn't admit that I snuck a few peeks here and there. Each time I did, I would momentarily panic all over again because it seemed like the fire and smoke were closing in all around me.
Needless to say, I was successful in backing down the road and chose a different route to meet up again with my crew. That night I didn't sleep much because I kept replaying my harrowing experience in my mind. It still makes me shudder a bit, even to this day.
When I heard about the deaths of the 19 in the hotshot crew, I instantaneously understood the horror they must have faced. Fire can be beautiful and awe-inspiring, but it can also be an opponent that there is no escape from.