During fire training, we listened with rookie bravado.
Our instructor held up a fire shelter—a sheet of foil meant to provide last-gasp protection if you’re overrun by a wildfire. We laughed when he called it a “Shake-n-Bake,” but then looked nervously around the room; the crew veterans weren’t laughing. Four firefighters died during shelter deployment near here a couple of years ago.
All spring we trained. We learned to troubleshoot chainsaw problems while standing on a steep hillside, or at night, by headlamp. Check the spark plug. Clean the filter. Sharpen the teeth. File the rakers.
We worked our bodies—running, lifting weights, building fire breaks. We developed a Marine’s relationship with our hand tools: Without me, my shovel is useless. Without my shovel, I am useless.
We learned to take orders, to work as a unit.
We got nicknames. I was Red, naturally. My hair. You were Blue. We were inseparable. We kept the secret from most of the crew, but those with eyes could see. Unwritten firefighting order #11: Your fellow firefighter is like your brother.
On days off, we rode our motorcycles through the Sierras. We stopped at mountain lakes and dared each other to jump from high cliffs into freezing water. You never said no. I laughed until my sides ached when you kept falling down Echo Pond’s slimy banks.
On our first fire, the adrenaline was high. Another crew carelessly knocked a boulder loose. It flew past, missing your head by inches. You were mad. We were all mad, but we maintained focus. Sawyers cut the trees and brush, you and the other swampers tossed it aside; Pulaskis chopped and grubbed roots; Mcleods scraped to bare dirt; me and the other shovels put out spot fires and dug out smoldering roots. Twenty-four hours with barely a water break, then home.
The calls came closer together, the fires more intense. By July, there were no more days off. Fire season was relentless as we traversed the Blazing West. California. Oregon. Washington. Idaho.
We were Hotshots and walked into fire camps ridiculously full of ourselves. Seven days without a shower was a badge of honor. Dinner in fire camp was two steaks and a potato. On the fire line we smothered our c-rations in Tabasco.
We climbed the steepest ridges loaded like mules, or rode in by helicopter, like gods. When Dre broke his leg, you and I carried him two miles to the road.
We’re overrun, entrapped. Desperately we clear ground in a “safety” zone, listening to the roar as the firestorm comes our way.
When hot ashes fall from the sky, the super yells, “Deploy shelters! Stay low, nose to the ground. You will die if the fire catches you off the ground!”
We don’t panic, outwardly.
“No matter how bad it gets inside the shelter, it will be worse outside! The heat will sear your lungs in one breath.”
We deploy side by side, together but alone in our foil saviors.
“Red! This is the real shit, Red!” I hear you yell. A black hail of ash and embers clatters off the shelters.
“Stay low!” I scream back. “Stay low!”
A sound like a freight train overtakes us. The wind blows heat.
“Don’t panic!” I yell, knowing you can’t hear. “Short shallow breaths! Protect your airway!”
Terrified, I sense a tear at the edge of my shelter, my fingers char. When did I lose a glove?
How many more seconds, minutes? When I emerge from my foil, will you be there?
It’s dark, hot, and loud. Then quiet.
“Hotshots! Leave your shelters!” the super barks, his voice raw.
Outside, I’m more scared than I was inside. I look for you in the smoke.
“Dare you to do that again,” you say, sneaking up from behind. I'm laughing and crying. I punch your shoulder.