Alaska's 2007 fire season drizzled to a halt rather early in the year as rains picked up across the state, releasing many of our firefighting resources to drier climates where things were just getting hot and heavy. I was on the Gannette Glacier Type 2 Initial Attack crew at the time, and we shipped out to the Chimney Complex fire in Northwestern Idaho near the small town of Waha. Given a few of the more menial assignments for our first week on the fire, our crew managed to gain a modest reputation for ourselves, and as we stayed and kept working our assignments varied to included some of the jobs normally reserved for the higher level Type 1 crews. One of the more memorable events, and indeed one of my favorite memories in firefighting period, was an evening we spent working a backburn operation to seal off the last remaining gap in the fireline on this 55,000 acre fire.
A backburn is often a far more complex operation than it would first appear. The purpose is simple: to burn away fuels in front of an approaching edge of the main body of fire so that when the heat of the inferno reaches the burned area, there is no longer any fuel left to support it, and the fire's movement in that direction is halted. In many backburns throughout firefighting history, however, changing weather, unexpected fire conditions, or overlooked aspects of the burn operation have led to a loss of control of the backburn, and simply added to the damage and chaos of the wildfire leaving a lot of effort wasted and property and even lives lost. It is this potential for making things much worse that usually leaves backburn operations in the hands of hotshot crews or smokejumpers, so to have this job assigned to us was an acknowledgment of confidence in the crew that wasn't to be taken lightly.
The fire had been largely contained by this point with only one stretch left for us to make an impenetrable fireline across, and a dozer line had already been constructed through several miles of thick woods for us to use as an anchor for our burn. We started on a road system at one end of the dozer line, and with the majority of the crew standing with their backs to the black and watching the green for spot fires, the burn boss directed the torching operations. Three firefighters were armed with drip torches - simple metal jugs filled with a diesel and gasoline mixture and featuring a spout and a wick to pour fuel on the ground and light it off at the same time - and the firing commenced.
Our system was for the three burners to move through the woods in a line perpendicular to the dozer trail we were working off of, lighting the best fuels to facilitate complete burning of anything that would feed the oncoming main body of the fire. A runner kept the torches filled from a four-wheeler carrying tanks of fuel, and as we progressed the body of the crew trailed out behind to keep an eye on the green until the fire died down enough to eliminate the danger of it jumping our line. After several miles of burning, my turn at the torch came up and I took my place as the middle burner of the three man team.
Humidity dropped fast as the sun went down, making light fuels such as grass and twigs very dry and therefore easy to ignite. A single drop of flame at the base of a tree would grow unassisted to be tearing through the branches and leaping into the heavens in less than a minute. This sped things up a bit for our operation, and soon, in an effort to finish as much as we could, we were literally running in our ragged formation as drops of fire flew all around us. Running with a forty-five pound pack is strenuous, but the exhilaration of the moment fed us energy, and in spite of all the work being done we were having a blast.
Sarah Quimby was working deeper into the woods than I, and when her torch got close to being empty, she called for another. Michael Mulcahy was running torches, and as he passed me on his way to her, he handed me another torch and shouted that he'd get my empty on the way back. I looked at the half-full torch I already held, and the fresh torch in my other hand, and back at the raging destruction we were causing behind us, and I realized that given such an opportunity there really was only one possible thing that could be done. Still moving quickly through the burning woods, I lit the second torch.
Firefighters universally have a way of telling their stories in the camps and firehouses, and with only slight variances in the exact phrasing and the number of expletives, they all start out exactly the same. My story is no different.
So there I was: fire raging all around, a pack on my back , a helmet on my head, and a tool of flaming destruction in either hand. Ahead of me were a thousand trees glowing bright red, reflecting the light and heat of the hellish inferno that was rushing closer to consume them. Just yards behind me was a seething wall of fire a hundred feet high, roaring ever onward with unstoppable momentum.
Savoring the moment briefly with a grin, I ran.
We raced in a zig-zag pattern, the three of us sprinting through the woods and covering all that we passed in blankets of ripping flame. We flung fire into the night, spitting sparks and scattering the inferno all around us. With a torch in each hand I spun circles, great arcs of fire shooting from my fingertips into dizzying patterns on the ground that immediately came to life, licking hungrily toward the sky as I leapt through them and continued sprinting onward. It was something greater than beautiful.
The forest danced in an intense blaze of orange that sent showering sparks high into the air. Areas we had just vacated not twenty seconds before were now occupied by mountains of fire eating everything it touched and leaping to the stars for seconds. Shouts rose over the roar as torches were exhausted and exchanged, and we moved forward still at a run. We were creating life, a superpower with its mind set only on destruction, and we were dancing with it as it rose to towering heights and conquered everything in its path.
All good things must come to an end, however, and as the night grew cooler, humidity rose and things stopped lighting as well. We reached the planned stopping point of the day's operations, and reluctantly the three of us snuffed our torches, but only after dancing through a few more circles of fire in the grass. Our heartbeats slowed and we stared back at the glowing forest as if saying goodbye to a lifelong friend with whom we had shared a part of ourselves.
We wrapped up our burn and prepared to finish it the next day, heading back to camp exhausted, but thoroughly stoked by a great job well done. As we carried our gear the miles to the rigs, our crew boss Josh Leutzinger commented, "These are the days that keep you coming back to wildland firefighting. One day like this makes up for a whole season of miserably hard work."
I was inclined to agree with him.