Fire on the Mountain


Wildfire is part of daily life in the American West.  An average of about 50,000 fires burn in the wilderness each year, from a single burning bush to massive infernos ravaging hundreds of thousands of acres of forest or grassland.

In the old days, when a wildfire broke out the typical response was to head down to the local saloon and recruit as many cowboys, loggers, miners and drunks as you could, fill up your water buckets, and hope for the best. These days, the grandsons and daughters of those cowboys and gamblers take a more professional approach, often paying for college by spending their summers fighting fire. (For the record, I spent my summers in college working at a golf course and a grocery store. The biggest hazard I faced was being hit in the head with a golf ball or slicing my finger with a paring knife.)

Fighting wildfire is a seasonal affair, and the frontline troops generally range in age from 18 to 25. The work is physically taxing and dangerous. Elite firefighters, called hotshots, work in crews, traveling around the West to where they’re needed most. For the “initial attack” phase of a remote fire, smoke jumpers parachute from airplanes with little more than a chain saw, a shovel, and food and water. When their job is done they hike out with their packs.

A wildfire camp is like a highly organized circus. There are food vendors, catering to the massive calorie needs of the firefighters. There are even t-shirt vendors who print up shirts for specific fires, so that your buddies back home know that you were there. More like a Dead show than a circus, maybe.

I got to spend a few days at the Lodgepole Fire Camp in central Idaho, observing how large fires are managed and interacting with the people who do it for a living. I came away impressed by how much these people love their jobs, and by how well they do it. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I wasn’t permitted to observe the fire itself, but there a plenty of photos on the web taken by the people up front (just google “Lodgepole fire”).

My photos: Fire crews gather at 0600 for their morning briefing; C-130s with fire retardant tanks wait on the tarmac in Boise; Wildfire Fighters memorial, Boise; T-shirt vendor; Grand Canyon helirescue crew with bird; Fire camp.



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