A J Walker Author
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Since the skies out west are full of smoke casting a burnt orange tint over the dry forests, I thought I’d share some of my experiences as a wildland firefighter.
Before I dive in, I’ll make a note to say that most of my time working as a wildland firefighter was benign and non-life threatening. They drilled safety and situational awareness into our heads with the start of every workday. With fires season staring in the spring in states like Arizona and New Mexico and spreading north through the western states and well into the fall, our day-to-day project work as wildland fire fighters was backed by the constant reminder of preparedness. We had to be ready to go on a fourteen to twenty-one-day stint at a moment’s notice. During the four seasons I did this job, I never had to deploy my fire shelter. There were only several instances where I needed to run or drive quickly to get away. In my experience, escape routes were well known and worked when we needed to use them. That said, injuries happened regularly every season. I worked on one fire where someone was burned over and had to be life flighted to the burn center in Salt Lake City (he survived). Another fire I was on there was a medical-related fatality. One of the major reasons I quit working this job was because no matter how safe and prepared you were, accidents happen. No matter how safe you are, changing conditions on the fire line can become dangerous, and very quickly at that.
I’ll start with some memories of working a massive fire burning in the Selway and Frank Church Wilderness. I was on an engine crew for this two-week period. This fire was an eye opener for me. I nearly got hit by a tree while assisting a helicopter bucket drop. I had to run through a creek bed to escape falling timber during a surprise windstorm. I spotted a six-acre spot fire while doing a massive back-burn and spent eighteen hours lining it with little help. That spot fire, for me, got so hot that I melted everything in the outside pockets of my backpack. By the end of that day, I was standing on the line we’d created, watching a hundred foot dead tree. It was dark and so tired that I perceived my dehydrated swaying as the tree falling. I shouted, “Falling!” and ran. When I stopped running, and saw that the tree was still standing, I knew I needed to get some sleep.
For many of the fires I worked on off forest, I was on a sawyer/swamper team. These chainsaw teams are the ones who go out ahead of the digging crew. They cut and clear brush around the edge of the fire so when the fire reaches it, the flame lengths are as minimal as possible. The digging crew comes in right behind the sawyers and digs down to bare soil the creeping fire burns out when it hits the ‘line’. The sawyers also fall snags (which are dead trees) and any other trees that are burning and might threaten fire line and crew safety. While on fire, it’s inevitable that you’ll walk on hot coals, which is why they use fire boots. When you feel heat coming through your fire boots, it only gets hotter. Leather causes a delay in the heat transfer to your skin so if you don’t step off the hot stuff quickly, you might just end up running into the green unburnt forest ripping your boots off and shouting in pain. Once it happens, you pay attention to it more.
My hottest, hot foot experience was while sawing up the side of a fire in front of the rest of the crew. I went to cut down a burning tree that was leaning over the fire line so it wouldn’t be a threat to the rest of the crew. The burning snag was kind of in the middle of a pile of downed logs that were burning. I ran out on the logs that were burning at the base of the snag. I had to balance just right because there was quite a lot of fire below me. My feet got really hot, and I knew that it was about to get much more intense because of the delay in heat transfer through the leather. My saw blew air on the fire around me as I cut. I could feel the fire running up my legs and shouted with pain. I ran across the log and back to where my saw partner was standing. We had a quick chat, most of which was me telling how fricken hot it was, then I ran back out on the log. I was basically standing in a bonfire while I fell that tree. After, I struggled through the heat burning in my boots as we continued working our way up the edge of the fire. Later that night, when I undressed in my tent, I saw the welting burn blisters on the insides of my legs. It got hotter than I realized. I was able to keep them clean and continued working to the end of the roll.
There were multiple other fires where I got to take rides in helicopters. The first was in Utah at Dinosaur National Park. We were loaded into the small chopper right at the edge of this deep canyon with steep cliff walls. Since it was my first time, they let me sit in the front next to the pilot. The pilot lifted off and dove down the face of the cliff, giving me a huge lurching in my stomach. That was a thrilling sensation for sure, but not the only one on that fire. They dropped us off on the opposite rim of the canyon. A fire was burning its way down into the canyon and we were supposed to stop it before it spread into areas where it couldn’t be controlled. After the first day, one of the younger crew members was flown out for dehydration/physical exhaustion. I was with the sawyers and didn’t really know what happened other than she wasn’t drinking water. A terrible choice when it’s over a hundred degrees and you have to hike in thick Nomex pants and long sleeves next to a fire all day.
One day we were eating lunch where the fire line dipped into a steeper section of the canyon. The fire had stayed on the ground, so the trees were offering some pleasant shade to eat and rest in for a few minutes. When we finished eating, we started hiking back up into the black (already burned area) when the fire started crowning in the trees below us. Since we had about fifteen minutes of hiking in, we didn’t have far to go to get to the top of the ridge where it burned clean, a great safety zone. The trees where we were eating burnt quickly, crowing and torching everything right where we’d just been. It was really lucky we left when we did because running with a forty-five pound back and chainsaw over your shoulder isn’t easy. We stood with our backs to the flames as it torched the trees below us, watching for it to throw spotting embers on the backside of the ridge. It didn’t and we were flown out a few days later.
One of the things I didn’t like the most about being reliant on wildfires to provide work was the random timing I had to get up and go. One minute, the day’s winding down and you think, what will I have for dinner tonight, then the next it’s, “Hey you’re going to California. Expect to be gone for three weeks.” One year on the night before my birthday and I got a call at two in the morning saying I needed to drive out to the station, get my gear on, and start working a fire that started in the foothills outside town. After hiking in and working hard to cut and dig a line around it, I was so tired that I did something we’re warned as firefighters not to do. I curled up next to the fire line and laid down in some fresh dirt warmed by the forest fire. When I woke up, several hours later, there was a buzzing noise going on above me. I opened my eyes to see a hornet's nest directly over my head. It was the biggest I’ve seen, a few feet around and at least three feet long. I quickly rolled away and ran out from under it.
Another time, in Colorado, I worked a sixteen-hour shift, drank nearly two gallons of water and Gatorade, and never peed once. I was sweating so too fast for it get through my kidneys. On another fire, I heard someone yell that fireballs were raining from the sky.
There are many more experiences where I thought things were going to get bad. Like when a friend’s throat started to swell up from a bee sting miles and miles into the backcountry. Besides the stress and anxiety, it was causing my mental health and my relationship, one of the things that really stuck with me was the day I had a chat with my two bosses of our fire district. We spent a day reviewing a safety situations and personal experiences. They both told me multiple stories where they’d thought their lives were over and they were going to be burned up. One of them said he just gave up and sat down, and somehow the fire burned everything but where he was sitting. They both told me if I stayed in that line of work long enough, I’d have a story to match theirs. After thinking about the people I knew who’s made a career out of wildland fire, many of them had a story of a near burn over or had known people who’d been killed while working on the line. I decided, for me, it wasn’t worth it. The stress it was causing my loved ones and family was only going to grow if I stayed working the fire line. The first summer after I quit fire, I remember rafting on the river, seeing a fire column blowing up in the forest I used to work on and thinking to myself, “I bet I’d be going to that right now.” But I wasn’t. I was wearing shorts and floating the river with my friends.