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ABOUT THE BOOK
For the first time in paperback and ebook formats State of Fire gives an unexpected look at one man’s journey into the world of fighting wildfire. This book is of a series of essays that reveal various and often-overlooked aspects of being a wildland firefighter, from extreme camaraderie, to the jobs transformational quality, to the raw physicality involved, to what happens when someone shits the dryer. Within these pages wildland firefighters are not “hero-ized,” but are portrayed with all of their flaws, weaknesses, and baggage, giving the reader a better understanding of the people in the wild lands of America who go toe-to-toe with Nature, the whole time shedding light on the realities of what it takes to fight wildfire. Filled with danger and beauty, laughter and sadness, this is an unfiltered insider’s take on what it means to be a wildland firefighter.
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SAMPLES FROM “STATE OF FIRE”
State of Fire
The President declares a state of emergency. It is Washington State from June through September of 2015, and it is suffering from savage wildfires where the earth burns from lack of rain and every firefighting resource within a 200 mile radius and the National Guard and the US Army and citizen volunteers and firefighters from as far away as Arkansas and New Jersey and Australia and New Zealand are called to the fight. It is a State of evacuations and looting and where a multitude of family homes go the way of the flame. Fires burst beyond containment lines. 50 mile per hour winds rip through the guts of the State. Three wildland firefighters lose their lives. It is a State that is breaking the wrong kind of record, that of destruction by wildfire. By summers end it’s dubbed the “worst-ever” fire season in Washington’s history, losing more than 1,000,000 acres to the ravages of Nature, and leaving a $178 million IOU for the State to cover.
There is drought upon the land, a result of too few inches of wintertime snowpack and too little rain, and the forests are sick and overgrown and dying and fire-prone, and the grasslands are infected with cheatgrass, a hot and fast burning and invasive species. Nature has reached a breaking point and is fighting back the only way it knows how: using wildfire to butcher forests and abort humans from their habitations, and because it is my summertime profession I spend this summer like I have the previous two, as a wildland firefighter on the Highlands 20, an initial attack fire crew.
Early in the summer of 2015 the Highlands 20 makes a pit stop at a roadside gas station. This sentence is stenciled on the window.
The Best Has Just Arrived.
The words seem a good omen for us and our upcoming fire season, and not just for my fire crew but for me, because right now I feel I am the best, I’m at my apex: my spirit is high, my body is strong, my mind set on victory. I’m a decade or more older than the rest of my fire crew, but I tell myself that age is just a number and I believe it.
The fact that that slogan was used to advertise fried chicken is no longer lost on me. I might have begun that fire season feeling that I was the best, but by its end, I would be just like a piece of that advertised-heat-lamp-singed-chicken: desiccated, crusty, past my prime.
In the hot June of 2015 the Highlands 20 are at Central Washington University for ten days of fire-related classes. They are meant to sharpen our wildland firefighting savvy to a fine point with lessons related to leadership, heat related illness, and other fire related topics. What they are, however, are an exercise in futility, as each night my fire crew carouses through the town’s bars and by day struggles to stay awake through ten-hour sessions of things we either already know, or that we just don’t care about.
Here, amongst our fire brethren from all four corners of Washington State, the talk might be of fire and drought and weather patterns and record breaking heat and levels of destruction, but not once do I think of the danger, or my family, or the people that will be affected. Nor do I think of the cost to the environment, or of the archetypal conflict – Man versus Nature; rather, my mind is consumed with the thought of all the money that I am about to make. As those in charge drone on about the wildland-urban interface, how humans have jammed their lives into box canyons and smeared the forests with their houses and communities and ribbons of road and the risks thereof, all I hear is the flap of dollars being stacked in my bank account, with every mention of tragedy, I calculate, and give thanks for, the overtime that I am about to receive. To read more order your copy here!
It’s all part of the Gig
It’s funny how there are seasons in one’s life that, though short in comparison, define the rest of their time on earth. I vividly recall, with all of my five senses working overtime, when wildland firefighting began for me, just as easily as I can put my finger precisely on the moment it ended, when my body was wracked with pain and sanity had unraveled itself until I had no more fucks to give, the part in the story where the hero realizes that he is no longer as invincible as he once was.
When I first joined the Highlands 20, once described as an elite 20-man hand crew, I was thirty-four, it was mid-summer in central Washington, and I stepped out of our squad’s buggy and into the hot noonday sun ready to fight wildfire for the first time. The air smelled of timber smoke and acrid sweat and reverberating through the mountains was the chud-chud-chud-chudding of a rotor (helicopter) as it passed overhead. Around me: my crew, of which, I was one of twenty, the oldest by a decade or so, and all I could think of were the words that Larsen, my sawyer, had told me a month prior, “Once you pop your fire cherry, boy, that’s it. You’re addicted,” and something within whispered that I would never be the same. In truth: I never was.
A few weeks later on the way to a fire, a song played in the buggy that went “It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all,” and late at night as I lay in my sleeping bag upon hard and rocky soil I wondered if that were true. I know now, as I knew then, that the song was speaking of matters of the heart, but in the moment, my feet were blistered, my knees felt as if they would give out on me at any second, and my back was stiff and knotted with aches. One of the positives of being a thirty-four year-old man and working and living with men a decade or so younger was the belief that like them, all conflicting evidence aside, I, too, was invincible. To read more order your copy here!
The Boys of Summer
In the summer of 2013 I was thirty-four, and I lived from June through September at the Highlands 20 Fire Camp outside of Loomis, Washington (more accurately: the-middle-of-nowhere-Washington). It was a perfect summer, as far as fire seasons are concerned; an equal balance of work and party, and the best summer of my life. Not because I made more money than the pope or I got laid all summer long or I spent it on a yacht drinking champagne, sailing the royal blue waters of St. Tropez. No, it was the best summer of my life because by summer’s end I had gained something I had never had before – fire brothers.
Fire Camp was a special place unlike anywhere I have ever been. It was rural, remote, far from the beguilement of cellphone service or the World Wide Web. It suggested another world, another time, a world that was long gone, a world which now seems so far removed from the collective consciousness that it is even hard to imagine that a world like that ever existed: a man’s world. It was a land void of women where political correctness had not tainted the mindset, a place where a man could piss wherever he pulled his dick out, could curse and be rude and say things that would make his mother want to wash his mouth out with soap and no one even blinked an eye. There, sun seared flesh, terrain was unforgiving, lakes blue and beer cold. You were respected for your hard work and expected to work hard. It was a place where you could grow a bushy mustache or a scraggly beard or shave your head or have a mullet all without the stigma of what society deemed unfashionable. At Fire Camp you worked, played, ate, slept, and showered side-by-side with the same 20 men for the duration of the fire season – which made the crew proverb, “There are no secrets on the Highlands 20,” even more relevant. It was a place for men who wanted to be men and be in the company of likeminded men. There, we sharpened our chainsaws and oiled our boots and hiked the surrounding mountains in preparation for our next bout with Nature. We argued about real boobs versus fake tits, how Washington 10s were, at most, Cali 7s, why chewing tobacco was more disgusting than smoking cigarettes. Fire Camp was a world of loyalties and ball breaking, of strength over weakness and shared cigars, drunken nights and blistered feet and skinning rattlesnakes, a place where we shared our most intimate secrets and played pranks and talked about all the pussy we were going to get when what we really wanted was love. Despite the filth that ran through our thoughts and poured from our mouths, being removed from civilization as we were somehow made us innocent again. It acted as a portal that transported us from the dimension of nightly news, stock market debacles, social media, and racial and sexual tensions, to a simpler reality; one in which all that mattered was keeping each other safe and alive and going home in one piece at the day’s end. In Fire Camp, it mattered not how difficult the situation was, you adhered to a Code of manliness, which was thus: Don’t be a pussy. We were the Lost Boys of our very own Neverland. We were a tribe. Fire Camp was Eden lost.
However, Fire Camp was just a physical locale, while it was us, the crew of the Highlands 20 that made Fire Camp what it was, gave it its soul. We were an island of men in a sea of fire.
Being a wildland firefighter was not all ball-breaking and having a few laughs. No, we actually had to fight fire. The beauty of wildland firefighting was found in the physical act of fighting fire itself; by doing so it allowed us to shed all responsibilities, all cares, all external real world happenings, all beliefs and differences and focus on one goal: suppressing the fire by whatever means necessary. It was through that taxing act that we formed our strongest bond. We hiked into every fire in single file STO (Standard Tool Order), led by a squadboss, followed by the sawyers (chainsaw operators) and swampers (assistants to the sawyers) and the rest of the tools (Pulaskis, Rhinos, etc.). As you did so you kept your head down and focused your gaze on the heels of the man in front of you. Rarely anyone spoke. If they did it was a curse word. What was normal was to hear the labored breaths of those around you as you pounded your way step-by-step up the mountain. Every time you heard the lungs of your crewmates straining for air you felt a sense of solidarity. You were not alone in your misery.
That feeling of solidarity was even more intensified when we would reach a fire and begin to work, a unit of men that moved as one. We knew how to proceed, knew our tools, knew our job. No man wandered off or kicked back in the shade. When we hit the fire, it was ‘go time.’ Adrenaline that was already flowing then blasted through us. The flames. The heat. The smoke. The jet engine like roar of trees being eaten alive by wildfire while orders were shouted and chainsaws barked to life and the earth being severed by tools and rotors (helicopters) chud-chud-chud-chudding through the sky and the crackle of handheld radio chatter all culminated into a feeling of oneness. A oneness, that, as I was told, was only comparable to that of being in a combat situation.
And when the fire was contained and our buggy was once again parked at Fire Camp and the beer flowed in place of adrenaline and we wore our ‘going to town clothes’ and we flirted with the prettiest waitress in Okanogan County at the only decent place to eat in all of North Central Washington, and we talked shit and railed each other and relived in words the fire we had just fought and felt blessed to be sitting down in air conditioning giving our blisters a much needed break, it was then, after all we had accomplished and all we had been through together that further cemented our unity. To read more order your copy here!
This is an essay about relationships and wildland firefighting and it begins in Tonasket, Washington – less than a five-hour drive to Seattle, but it might as well be light-years away: not the Washington of rain-filled days and coasties and sophistication and culture, (fueled by the money of Amazon and Microsoft, all set to a soundtrack laced with prime cuts from Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix) but a rougher Washington, populated with men and women with callouses on their hands and chewing tobacco in their teeth, plunked right down in the high desert orchard heavy Okanogan County where musical tastes don’t stray far from the country and western genre and anybody who is anybody drives a 4-wheel drive pickup truck. It is a town with a population of 1,017, a slice of living, breathing small town Americana – where you wave to people passing in cars because you know everybody and everybody knows you. A place where the air is clean, the water is safe to drink from the tap, the land is fertile, the winters are harsh and the only place hotter in the summertime is Hell.
It was in this unspoiled town where on the 19th of May 2014 a wife had a disturbing conversation with her husband. The wife in question was the Tonasket High School Librarian, a 37-year old medium build, shorthaired brunette, married for over a decade, and mother of two. She, under the duress of having her husband find out what she had done through channels of small town gossip rather than from her own lips, made a confession: she had been having an affair with a student. Her revelation, the stuff of bodice-ripping-chiseled-ab-Fabioesque romance novels, did not sit well with her husband, a man of action and of few words, who walked to their front yard, gun in hand; his entire world obliterated, he looked at the pistol – mulling over his options – before raising it over his head and firing a single 9mm round into the air.
This was not an episode of a family drama, or an urban legend, or the opening scene from a three-act play about small town adultery. This incident involved Mark, my crewboss of three years on the Highlands 20, and his wife, Elise – who were both placed under arrest, he for discharging a firearm in public, and she for sexual misconduct with a minor. This took place three weeks before I was to begin my second fire season. Even though this emotional vignette could have ended far worse, it is emblematic of relationships with wildland firefighters. To read more order your copy here!
The Curious Case of the Dryer Shitter
I want to tell you where I was the day of August 9th, 2013, and why I was sitting in the cool cement-floored barracks of the Highlands 20 Fire Camp listening to Seth, my saw team leader, brief us about that upcoming night, because the entire time I was unaware that a mystery was about to unfold that still haunts me to this day.
The Highlands 20 Fire Camp sits in the Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir rich Sinlahekin Valley of North Central Washington, an isolated area cut off from civilization that the Cali Boys called “the boonies.”
Some twenty-five miles South of the Canadian border, the landscape, with its sheer rock sidewalls rising from the valley floor and its proximity to a town of any size (Omak, Washington population: 4776 and 36 miles away), makes it an ideal location for a fire camp. The locals speak of horses and cattle and orchard crops, and wear Wranglers and cowboy boots and pearl snap shirts, not as a fashion statement, but as a way of life. The land is steep and unforgiving, and views are the very definition of majestic; rattlesnakes, groups of white tail deer, numerous pristine lakes that dot the area and act as an oasis to locals and those in the know. It is a place where both cellphone and Internet service are only dreams and nothing more.
The Highlands 20 Fire Camp itself is a congregation of eight buildings separated by a gravel road, a community unto its own, bounded on the North by the defunct A-frame chapel turned weight room, and to the East – the saw shop and various outbuildings, followed by the office, the mess hall. On the South end of camp the barracks, which resemble the shape of a pipe cut in half; its rounded roof of corrugated sheet-metal and its solid concrete floors a constant cool temperature even on days that peak 100 degrees, which are frequent. It is there that I sat and listened to Seth.
I relay this to you because you need to understand precisely what can happen when you separate men from civilization for months at a time and leave them to their own devices in the middle of nowhere. To read more order your copy here!
My Challenging Bastard
Severe fluorescent light falls on the cool grey cement floor in the mess hall as Chester puts the bottle to his lips and tips his head back, the bottle up, It is June 2013, and out the window, the sky is fading blue to pink to black and ponderosa pines and fir trees brush the horizon, a green pelt of needles, soon night will come and the call of owls but now all to be heard is the glub glub glub of devil colored hot sauce emptying out of a quart sized glass bottle, Chester with the bottle in one hand, his Adam’s apple pumping up and down chugging the liquid pain, Eric – now mouth cocked open, he’s staring holes through him, shaking his head from side to side.
Now the bottle is halfway empty, and I, too, stare in disbelief at Chester, for no more than sixty seconds ago that bottle of hot sauce had been new, full, sealed, and now there is maybe a half an inch left, as Chester yanks the bottle from his lips, slaps a hand over his mouth and bounds toward the 55 gallon plastic garbage can, gripping onto the outside handles and unleashing a torrent of red, rising up on his toes as he does so, the sound is that of two-hundred and fifty dollars reversing out of him and splattering on the floor of the empty garbage can.
He might have had the will to win; but he just didn’t have the guts for it.
That’s my first clear memory of Chester O’Reilly, also known as Chet, also known as My Bastard. It had been the first week of our rookie fire season, that first week with its days of endless orientations and training. I had, moments before, been in the mess hall making an after dinner snack when Chester and Eric entered – all youth and ignorance – when I overheard Chester boast of how he could down an entire quart of hot sauce in one go. Doubting Eric bet him a thousand dollars that he couldn’t, with Chester then proving both his naïveté and innocence when he countered his offer, telling him, hubristically, in his rough and tobacco spattered voice, that he felt a thousand dollars was far too much for a feat he could easily accomplish, he’d settle for two-hundred and fifty instead.
Thus, the first of many of what became to be known as Chester Challenges was born. To read more order your copy here!
The ABCs of Fire Season
The prettiest gal in Okanogan County; in fact she was the only pretty gal in all of North Central Washington in the summer of 2013. The Cali Boys and I met her at the Breadline Café on one of our nights off in the illustrious town of Omak. With eyes of creamy jade and flax-brown hair, she was sassy and bubbly – sassy in character and bubbly in body type. All summer long she put up with our blunt childish attempts at flirtation and made us all believe in love at first sight.
When a wildland firefighter skips breakfast and instead fills their mouth with the sweet molasses flavor of loose leaf chewing tobacco.
July 9th, 2013 finds the Highlands 20 on the HWY 155 Fire on the Colville Indian Reservation. We, the saw team, finish a direct attack, cutting sagebrush away from the fire’s edge, and are fueling and oiling and sharpening our chainsaws, as the rest of the Highlands 20 finishes digging fireline. The sun is hot and drops heavy from the sharp blue sky, heating the earth, and us, past the point of comfort. There is no wind to speak of. The only bit of oasis in this desert heat is the cool of sweat evaporating from our flesh.
Billy, squad two’s sawyer (chainsaw operator), lifts his helmet, runs a filthy forearm across his sooty brow, and says, “I don’t know about you, but I sure could go for a CamelBak (hydration pack) bukkake right about now.”
His words immediately cut a clear and soggy image. I envision nineteen of the Highlands 20, CamelBak hoses in hand, circled around a kneeling Billy, squirting his dirt-riddled face with spurts of water.
And in that moment, with my throat as dry as sawdust, and tinkles of sweat oozing out of my every pore, I, too, could go for a CamelBak bukkake.
Don’t be a pussy
Frenchie, a swamper (assistant to a sawyer), an ex-Navy man, and champion mayonnaise eater, always used the phrase, “Don’t be a pussy,” anytime a crewmember of the Highlands 20 grumbled about hiking up ungodly steep mountains, or not getting enough sleep, or having to eat MRE’s (dehydrated and tasteless foodstuffs of soldiers), or not getting a shower, or a rank fart, or working too much, or working too little, or sore feet, or a sore back, or sore knees, or a broken heart, or missing friends and family, or being stopped up from MRE’s, or its opposite: “Judy booty,” also known as, diarrhea – it was pretty much his given answer for any bellyaching from the crew. It was meant to insult, in a brotherly way; meant to put your manhood in check so as to rise above the discomfort at hand and carry on.
It became a crew mantra, and one that I use to this day; whether I’m stopped up or not. To read more order your copy here!
The chainsaw is a tool for cutting smoothly through material that needs to be hewn asunder. You, a sawyer, are a man, and wielder of the chainsaw, using it do your bidding the same way a sorcerer commands spirits to do his. Separate, and you are nothing, mere pieces in the puzzle of wildland firefighting. United, you become something bigger than the sum of your parts. You form an alliance of man and tool and become destroyers: the nemesis of wildfire.
The chainsaw is never to be forced. It is to be sharpened and respected. If you brandish it properly, wood chips fly, the wood parts – and in its wake you create: two where there was previously one – the burning end of the tree branch is no longer a threat.
To accomplish this: you hold the chainsaw as you do a woman or a double barrel shotgun – tight, close to your body, and with both hands. Your fingers must never be loose, but constantly squeezing tight with the thumb wrapped around the front handle.
When you and the chainsaw are in the moment, acting as one, you will be overcome with a calmness that flows from your mind and encompasses your entire being. Do not be alarmed at the absence of fear. Fear is still present it is merely quieted. This stillness that you feel comes only through rote training, so when crisis arrives it is that same learned tranquility that allows you and the chainsaw to cut quickly and smoothly through whatever is between you and the fire.
No matter how many cuts you make, how many trees and branches you separate from each other, you will find yourself in awe of the chainsaw: hot, sharp, loud, oil-stained. At times you will find it hard to distinguish where you end and the chainsaw begins. Never forget that you and that pot-bellied cleaver in your hands have come together for a benevolently violent purpose: the dissecting of Nature in order to save Nature. To read more order your copy here!
My Midlife Rite of Passage
Because I owed my father eight hundred dollars and had no love in my life and had lived as the prodigal son – traveling the world, blowing through all of my 401k, returning home with zero dollars in my bank account – and having survived a battle with Dengue Fever, and was in my mid-thirties and in my first year of college, and therefore every penny earned was spent to fund my education, I took a job as a wildland firefighter, a line of work that demands much of your body and more of your soul and where the median age is twenty-one.
In that line of work I could find what I sought, alongside small town boys with high school educations and ambitions that didn’t reach beyond their city limit signs, there with those who wanted to fight fire as a career and the graduates of the Rio Hondo Fire Academy and the aimless lads in need of direction and the wanderers and the renegades and the misfits and those who wanted to live the life of mountain men. We were all there because we could make a fat wad of cash in a short amount of time: as I was told, an estimated $15,000 in three months, but as I found out over the course of my four fire seasons it was more than just money that I sought. Unbeknownst to me, there was a beast within. It howled from its confines brought on by stagnant and sedentary living, it bit and scratched at the bars of its invisible prison; and it wasn’t until I became a wildland firefighter that I was to find the key to its cage. To read more order your copy here!