Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Smoking Mountain, Part IV

Suddenly Mark was standing over me.  “Wake up.  Tim, wake up.”

There was smoke in the air, all around us.  I sat up feeling as if I had died and woken in the land of the dead, or in some Dantean level of Hell.  Voices wandered through the thick smoke.

“Did I fall asleep?”

“Well, if you did it was only for a minute.”  Mark was taking the orange plastic safety cover off his shovel, revealing the razor-sharp edge.  “The hotshots got up a minute ago and started cutting line around the fire.”

“Mark, I need some help.  I think I’ve got a huge blister and the back of my foot is just killing me.  What can I do?”

He rummaged around in his shirt pocket, pulled out a strip of something and tossed it to me.  It looked and felt like hairy duct tape.

“Moleskin.” He said.  “Take the cover off and put it over the blister.  It will adhere pretty strongly.  Then put your sock and boot back on in a hurry, so your foot doesn’t swell.”

I stood quickly after following his advice, excited now that I would finally get to work.  No more climbing.  I removed the safety cover from my own shovel.

The two of us followed the sounds of tools clanging and scraping ahead and discovered the fire line.  It verged off the trail to the left, skirting the edge of the fire.  The trail served as a fire line itself, the fire unable to jump the strip of bare earth to the dry leaves and grass beyond.  Thus, the fire was, for the moment, trapped in the V created by the trail and fire line.  Our intention would be to close that V and surround the fire.

We walked a short distance along the scoured stripe of soil until we found the Mormon Lake crew.

When hotshots ‘cut line’ they attack the earth, in single file, with chainsaws, pulaskis, shovels and rakes.  The chainsaws go first, circling the fire, cutting limbs and roots and even felling small trees in order to clear a path.  Those carrying pulaskis follow, chopping and prying at what is left, removing large obstacles and digging up roots and grass with their picks.  Shovels come next, scraping all the detritus of this assault away from the fire, leaving nothing but exposed soil.  Rakes come last, taking care of details, making sure that the line is wide enough and clear of all flammable materials.  When the fire, separated from more fuel, reaches this line it dies there, leaving nothing but charred earth.

The line we followed was a foot wide.  The hotshot we found was a middle-aged black man down on his knees with a little, yellow, plastic hand-rake in one hand and a small paintbrush in the other.

“Hi there.” He said without looking up.  “Name’s Quality Control.  Work’s up ahead for you boys.”  He waved the little hand rake up the line.  I thought it was cool that people had code names, like G.I. Joe.

Quality Control was several yards behind the last shovel bearer, whom we could see in the smoke ahead of us.  Mark and I filled this gap.  I put on my goggles.  The smoke and the dust was so thick I took off my helmet, peeled off the sweaty bandanna that I had worn under it and tied the wet cloth over my face.  It stank of sweat and hair.

We went to work, prodding and scraping the soil and stones below.  With twenty people ahead of us there was little work left, though Quality Control, who had slipped back a few yards since our arrival, stayed busy, touching and brushing the line delicately.  He reminded me of a baker finishing an expensive cake.

An hour passed like a dream.  Smoke rolled above and all around us.  The flames were at times right up against the line and as high as my knee.  The heat was fierce on my face and noticeable even through my protective gloves.  Every now and then I was startled by a sudden sense of certainty that the fire was all around us, that we were trapped.  But I continued stepping up the line.  Somewhere ahead, lost in the smoke, chainsaws screamed.  The rushing whir of helicopter rotors briefly burst through the din of the fire and the clatter of our tools.

Up ahead, people began to pass a message down the line, from person to person.  Though few of us were more than six feet apart, the message had to be shouted.  I watched the hotshot in front of us bellow at Mark, his lips moving extravagantly.  Then Mark turned to me.

“They say you should only put dry cloth over your mouth.” He yelled. “To breathe through.”


“Because the hot air will steam your lungs through wet cloth!”

Steamed lungs, I thought.  It sounded like a dish in some Chinese restaurant. Steamed lungs of dugong.  Maybe a Norwegian meal.  I pulled the bandanna down around my neck, found a new one in my pack and put it on.  Quality Control bumped into me.

“Lift ‘em up and put ‘em down, kid.” He said, never taking his eyes off his work.  “The work’s that way.”  He gestured in the familiar manner toward the wall of roiling smoke into which Mark had disappeared.

Following the furrowed path I soon found Mark, who was diligently scraping dirt.  I did the same, grimacing in pain every time I swallowed.  I assumed it was the smoke I had inhaled while changing bandannas.

The ground became hilly and, following the line, Mark and I sidestepped up and down the rises, wordlessly slashing at the terrain with our now less-than-razor-sharp tools.  The smoke cleared up some, as the hotshots began to cut farther away from the flames for strategic reasons I didn’t hesitate to ponder.  Glancing up occasionally, I could see smoke-shrouded figures at the front of the line, chainsaws shrieking in their trembling hands.  Behind them, helmeted men and women swung their tools, gouging the earth and gelding the fire.  Mark and I made up the near end of this line.  Quality Control followed at some distance, but never out of sight.

Mark tapped me on the shoulder.  I looked up.  He was pointing up the line.  Brian, Manny, Chad and Helen were coming our way, pulaskis in hand.

Sedona crew is gonna move off the line.”  Brian shouted a little louder than necessary.  He continued in a lower tone.  “The Mormon Lake crew is about to join their line to the Flagstaff crew’s line and close this side of the perimeter.  We’re going to the helicopter landing to unload supplies.”

“How’d the Flagstaff shots get ahead of us?” I creaked.

“Same way the Prescott crew got up.” Brian replied without looking at me.  “By helicopter.”

“Mountain’s getting kind of crowded.” Mark said, smiling like well-educated, middle class men like him smile when forced to spend time with inbred folk like Brian.  We moved out.

I was a little disappointed.  As tiring as cutting line was and as much as my joints ached, I wanted to keep going.  Instead I was being demoted to loading lackey.  And I had the strange feeling somehow that it was my fault.

We walked up the line, behind the hotshots.  Soon we could see the Flagstaff crew, their blue helmets bobbing up and down in rhythm with their tools.  They were only ten yards from connecting their line to Mormon Lake’s.  We walked along behind them for a while.  They were cutting a fair distance from the fire and lighting backfires inside the perimeter, igniting the pine needles and undergrowth with spitting flares.  For a few moments we were enveloped in smoke as the backfire exhaled all over us.  Still, I could see the black earth of the fire line to my right and the occasional pair of legs, clad in Nomex, and I followed them.

When we emerged from the smoke the Sedona crew was still together.  Led by Brian we departed from the line and set out into the ‘green’, the unburned area outside of the fire’s perimeter (the burned sections were called the ‘black’).  The fire line, clean enough to eat off, arced away beneath the trees.  The ground burned beyond that thin stripe.  For a long while we could still distinguish the whine of chainsaws from the general roar of the raging mountaintop.

“Just how big is this fire?” I asked.

Without turning back, Helen said, “Brian talked to Doug over the radio.  He estimated about forty acres, but there are-“

She stopped speaking when Brian came to an abrupt halt and raised one hand in the air.  He appeared to be listening to something.  A few seconds later I heard it as well — a growing buzz that threatened to become a roar.

“It’s coming from there.”  Helen said, pointing above the trees forward and to the left of us.

“Let’s take cover.” Brian said.

Manny, Chad and Helen needed no further instructions.  They sat down against the trunks of nearby trees, facing away from the noise and towards the fire.  Mark and I looked at each other and at Brian.  Grumbling, he led us to two other trees and told us to sit down, facing in the same direction as the others, with our arms over our heads holding down our helmets and our knees drawn up.

The noise increased as he spoke, drowning out his words.  I wondered hysterically about what the hell was happening.  I didn’t have time to figure it out.  There was a loud whoosh overhead.  Disobeying Brian’s orders I looked up.  A C-130, which I recognized from my eldest brother’s photos of his days in the Army Rangers, flew low overhead, toward the inferno.  The treetops swayed.

We got moving again.  Helen explained to Mark and I that planes dropped flame retardant on the fire, but occasionally they missed their mark and dropped thousands of gallons of pink foam on firefighters.

“The new stuff they use won’t kill you, but if you get hit it could knock you down and cause an injury.”
There was a new spring in my step.  It was worth leaving the fire line to nearly get bombed.  In my mind’s eye I saw myself; one man on a blazing rock.  With others, I struggled to master an unleashed force of nature.  Overhead, helicopters and planes buzzed and hovered, attacking and reforming to attack again.  I was proud to be a human being, a member of such a brave, sturdy race that we dared to defy the very forces of nature that had created us.

Brian decided that we should stop and eat.  None of us had eaten during the entire ordeal and it was past noon. 

Everyone began to ask questions and discuss what they heard as they pulled fruit, sandwiches, MREs, and water out of their packs.  Doug had apparently been put in charge of the fire by the District Fire Chief, which was why we hadn’t seen much of him.  There were sixty fire fighters on the mountain with several helicopters and a C-130 attached to the operation.

As everyone else chatted I was having a hard time swallowing my food.  My throat ached.  The crumbs I managed to swallow felt like shards of glass caught in my esophagus.  I said as much and asked if it was due to smoke inhalation.

Helen shook her head, chewing on a government issue frankfurter.  “You probably steamed your esophagus.  Did you have a wet bandanna over your mouth?”

I nodded.  “But I took it off after a while.”

“You got lucky then.”  Manny interjected.  “Much longer and you would have steamed your lungs as well.  Then you’d be in bad shape.”

Mark looked at me as if he had just heard that I had cancer.

“What’s going to happen to me?” I asked hollowly.

The professional fire fighters laughed out loud at that, choking on their food.

“Nah, man.” Brian said.  “If you’ve made it this far, it’s probably no big deal.  You’ve got a sun-burn in your throat is all.”

I was so relieved that I forgot to be dazzled by Brian’s eruption of vocabulary.

“It’ll go away.” Helen said.  “But it’ll be hard to eat for a day or two.”

We continued chatting for a few minutes, eating and staring out at the terrain.  The fire was a few hundred yards behind us but we could still hear it.  A hundred yards ahead of us, according to Brian, the trees ended and a clearing dominated the South end of the plateau.  There the supply helicopters would soon begin to descend.

Eventually we moved on and set up camp near a decent landing spot.  Manny, Brian and Chad unloaded the helicopters as they came down.  Helen, Mark and I organized the supplies and base camp.

By sunset the fire was contained, caught inside a boundary of fire line, bare rocks and flame retardant.  Not far from the camp, pink flame retardant had been dumped on open ground between the fire and the edge of the plateau.  Squads of hotshots took turns walking over this Martian landscape that glowed at dusk like the embers of the fire they had extinguished.

That night, in one of many paper sleeping bags flown in by the USFS, I bedded down beneath a pine tree just two hundred yards from the dying fire’s futile glow.

I awoke.  Pine branches shuddered above me in the early morning light.  The wind blew gently, cautiously returning to the scene of the crime.  Brian whispered my name.

“Get up.  And wake up Mark.  After breakfast gets here you two are going on patrol.  Get your boots on.”

I laced up my boots with a smile on my face, noticing that it took Mark just a little bit longer to rouse himself.  The resilience of youth.  I had that, at least.  I felt wonderful, though I was filthy, covered in dust, smoke, ashes and sweat.  Nascent cramps whimpered in my legs and back and shoulders.  But my head was clear, as if something heavy and dark had been purged from my mind.

The distant sounds of helicopter rotors beating the air brought a smile to my face.  Breakfast was served.  Before heading to camp I walked across the Martian surface and looked down upon Sedona as the Sun burst into the sky.

For a moment I felt a connection with the vortex hunters.  If you were unbalanced enough to believe all that garbage, this was good place to be crazy.  God knows, it was a great place to be a fire fighter.  And, after all, it wasn’t such a bad place to be a janitor.

That reminded me of the toilets.  There would be a lot of dirty bathrooms down there by then.  I wondered how long it would take them to get me off the mountain. 

The Smoking Mountain, Part I
The Smoking Mountain, Part II
The Smoking Mountain, Part III 


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