Fireby Sebastian Junger
Forest fires, terrorism, war: explorations of danger by the author of The Perfect Storm. For readers and viewers of The Perfect Storm, opening this long-awaited new work by Sebastian Junger will be like stepping off the deck of the Andrea Gail and into the inferno of a fire burning out of control in the steep canyons of Idaho. Here is the same meticulous prose brought to bear on the inner workings of a terrifying elemental force; here is a cast of characters risking everything in an effort to bring that force under control. Few writers have been to so many desperate corners of the globe as has Sebastian Junger; fewer still have provided such starkly memorable evocations of characters and events. From the murderous mechanics of the diamond trade in Sierra Leone to the logic of guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan and the forensics of genocide in Kosovo, this new collection of Junger's nonfiction will take you places you wouldn't dream of going to on your own.
Author Biography: Sebastian Junger is the author of the international bestseller The Perfect Storm and a National Magazine Award-winning journalist. He lives in New York.
Read an Excerpt
Late in the afternoon of July 26, 1989, a dry lightning storm swept through the mountains north of Boise, Idaho, and lit what seemed like the whole world on fire.
A dry lightning storm is a storm where the rain never reaches the ground. It evaporates in midair, trailing down from swollen cumulus clouds in long, graceful strands called virga. The electrical charges from a dry storm do not trail off before they hit the ground, however; they rip into the mountains like artillery. On July 26, 1989, lightning was hitting the upper ridges of the Boise National Forest at the rate of a hundred strikes an hour. Automatic lightning detectors at the Boise Interagency Fire Center were registering, all over the western states, rates up around two thousand an hour. By nightfall 120 fires had caught and held north of Boise, little one-acre blazes that eventually converged into a single unstoppable, unapproachable front known as the Lowman fire.
For the first three days Lowman was simply one among hundreds of fires that were cooking slowly through the parched Idaho forests. Around four o'clock in the afternoon of July 29, however, the flames reached some dead timber in a place called Steep Creek, just east of the town of Lowman, and the fire changed radically. The timber was from a blowdown two years earlier and was so dry that when the flames touched it, the entire drainage went up. The fire created its own convection winds, making the fire burn hotter and hotter until the fire behavior spiraled completely out of control.Temperatures at the heart of the blaze reached two thousand degrees. A column of smoke and ash rose eight miles up into the atmosphere. Trees were snapped in half by the force of the convection winds.
The fire rolled across Highway 21 and right through the eastern edge of town, detonating propane tanks and burning twenty-six buildings to the ground. A pumper crew was trapped at the Haven Lodge, and they hid behind their truck and finally stumbled out of the blaze an hour later, safe but nearly blind. The fire had attained a critical mass and was reinforcing itself with its own heat and flames, a feedback loop known as a fire storm. The only thing people can do, in the face of such power, is get out of the way and hope the weather changes.
Which they did, and which it did, but not until a month later, after forty-six thousand acres of heavy timber had been turned to ash.
I saw the site of the Lowman fire in 1992, three years afterward, when the ponderosa seedlings were already greening the hillsides. A roadside plaque said that eight million ponderosa and Douglas fir would be hand-planted by the mid-1990s. The plaque went on to describe how the land had been treated with enzymes so that water and microorganisms could penetrate soil that was now seared to the consistency of hard plastic. Thousands of flame-killed trees had been dropped laterally along the slopes to keep the land from washing away, and thirty thousand acres had been planted with grass and fast-growing bitterbrush. In a hundred years, more or less, the area would again look the way it once had.
I was driving a big, painfully beautiful loop from Ketchum, Idaho, around the Sawtooth Mountains and down the South Fork of the Payette River toward Boise. It was late afternoon when I drove through the Lowman burn, and the quiet darkness of the dead valleys depressed me. The West was well into one of the worst droughts of the century, and I was out there to see the wildfires that it was sure to produce. My idea was to go to Boisewhere all the fire-fighting resources were coordinatedtell them I was a writer, and hope they let me on a fire.
I pulled off down an old logging road and pitched my tent in a clear-cut. It seemed to get dark very quickly that night, and I cooked spaghetti on my camping stove and went to sleep listening to the weekend traffic die down on Highway 21. The Lowman fire, I'd heard, had burned so hot that Highway 21 had melted. There were places, I'd heard, where fire trucks had left their tread marks as they rushed from Boise to fight the flames.
In 1965 the U.S. government established the Boise Interagency Fire Center to coordinate the three federal agenciesthe Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service, and what was then known as the Weather Bureauthat were engaged in fighting wildfire in America. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service were added later, and the name was ultimately changed to the National Interagency Fire Center. Two years after BIFC was established, the Northern Rockies were hit with a catastrophically bad season that culminated in the Sundance fire in northern Idaho. BIFC managed to deploy thirteen thousand men and thousands of tons of supplies, prompting a study by the Office of Civil Defense, which was trying to figure out how to handle a similar crisis in the event of a nuclear war.
BIFC is located next to the Boise airport, across the interstate, south of town. The lobby is filled with the sort of display that, were you even vaguely inclined toward a job fighting fire, would make you move out west on the spot. There is a smoke jumper mannequin in full jump gear, including a wire face mask for when the jumper goes crashing into the treetops. There is a board with everythingfood, medical supplies, toolsa jumper needs for forty-eight hours on a fire. There are color photos of air tankers dropping retardant and sheets of flame rising from stands of trees. One photo shows a fire in dense forest on the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon. "The total-timber jump spot," the caption reads, "trees in this photo are between 80 and 125 feet tall. Five of six smokejumpers committed to this fire `hung up' in trees, thus the rope carried in the leg pocket for a `letdown.' The fire was stopped at a quarter-acre."
A short, powerful man named Ken Franzone of the Boise smoke jumpers, as it turned outspotted me loitering in the lobby and came over to investigate. I told him I was interested in wildfire, and he motioned me into a cluttered conference room and sat me down at a long table to tell me the basics. Behind Franz was a map of the western United States that covered most of one wall. There were seven red circles on it around seven towns: McCall, Idaho; Boise, Idaho; Missoula, Montana; Redmond, Oregon; Redding, California; Silver City, New Mexico; and Winthrop, Washington. Franz turned and pointed to them.
"Those are the smoke jumper bases," he said. "We are constantly getting sent from one place to another; you never know where you're going to be the next day, or the next week. They just shift resources around to wherever the hazard is greatest."
That shifting of resources, Franz explained, is what BIFC is designed for. Everything from government-issue paper sleeping bags to food to foam fire retardant to Ken Franz himself is shipped around the country, following fires, following thunderstorms, even following droughts. There are 410 smoke jumpers and perhaps 20,000 active and on-call fire fighters in the United States. Should a smoke jumper's father die, say, or his house burn down, BIFC would know what state, what fire, what division, and what 20-person crew he was on. Should an air tanker go down en route from Denver to Missoulaone of hundreds of flights during a busy day fighting fires out westBIFC would know what route it was taking and when it was supposed to arrive. The immense task of keeping track of all these things is accomplished at the logistics center on the top floor of the main BIFC building, across the parking lot. Across one wall of the room is a huge map of the country. Cardboard cutouts representing airplanes are moved around on it; cards representing fire crews are switched from "available" to "unavailable" slots. More detailed information is stored on a computer. In late August 1987 lightning started two thousand fires across the West that burned almost a million acres. In ten days 22,500 fire fighters and forty-five tons of supplies were deployed to fight the fires. BIFC accounted for every chain saw, every hard hat, every gallon of retardant.
"Smoke jumpers are considered an initial attack force," Franz went on. "That's a generic term for the first response to a fire. The classic situation would be a lightning-struck tree in a remote area where two guys jump in, fell it, buck it upput out what amounts to a small campfire. Basically, the whole world's a jump spot; within a mile of any fire you can usually find a very acceptable place to land in. On a big fire you have to start somewhere, so you jump a whole planeload and establish an anchor point, at the tail of the fire. You clear helispots for landing supplies, and you work your way around the sides of the fire."
Smoke jumpers land with eighty pounds' worth of gear, including two parachutes, puncture-proof Kevlar suits, freeze-dried food, fire shelters, and a few personal effects. Following them in cardboard boxes heaved out of the airplane with cargo chutes are chain saws, shovels, ax-hoe hybrids called Pulaskis, sleeping bags, plastic cubitainers of water, and dozens of other things needed on a fire. If there's an injured jumper, a medical emergency pack comes out of the plane. If it's a fast-moving fire, the crew can call for boxes of explosives that can blast an instant fire line in the forest duff. The list of what can be thrown at a fire is endlessand expensive. A more cynical view, popular among many, is that the government puts fires out by throwing money on them until it starts to rain.
Not much of the money, however, goes to the fire crews. A jumper makes about $8.50 an hour. If the fire is uncontrolled, as, since smoke jumpers are initial attack, it almost always is, the crews get another 25 percent hazard pay. If they work overtimeagain, almost a sure betthey get time and a half. The jump itself has been ruled as simply another way of getting to the fire, like a bus or a pickup truck, so jumpers get straight pay when they leave the airplane and time and a quarter when they hit the ground. If they are injured on the jump, however, and don't make it to the fire, the hazard pay does not kick in. From fifteen hundred feet it takes about a minute and a half to reach the ground with a parachute. At $8.50 an hour, that's about 21 cents.
"In a good year you can make almost thirty thousand dollars," said Franz. (As with all fire fighters, a "good" year is a year with a lot of fires; a "good" fire is a fire that isn't brought under control too quickly.) "Under twenty thousand is more typical. That's for six months. The rest of the year we sew."
They sew everything: harnesses, fire line packs, jump bags, even little duffels with the BIFC flame logo on the side. They do it to save the government money, they do it because they're better sewers than most manufacturers, and they do it to keep themselves employed. The only thing they don't sew are the parachutes. Some jumpers are certified to make repairs, but the chutes themselves are bought from a manufacturer. The parachutes the BLM uses cost a thousand dollars apiece and are expected, with upkeep, to last at least ten years. They were of a design invented by a French kite maker in the early 1900s. They are called Quantum Q5 Ram Air parachutes.
"Ram air means there are cells that fill with air," said Franz. "They make the canopy so rigid you could walk across it. You could also put a line on it and fly it like a kite; in Alaska, jumpers fly their chutes like kites. You steer with toggles and have a forward speed of twenty miles an hour. It's a very high tech delivery system for a very low tech job; once we hit the ground we're just fire fighters. Afterward we have to pack ten miles or more, to the nearest helispot. Our gear weighs over one hundred pounds, and usually we're not even on trails; it's harder work than fighting fires. It keeps you honest."
Honest means capable of enduring a training regimen that used to weed out 30 percent of the preselected men at the training camp (overwhelmingly men, but not entirely). Rookies are considered the fittest and most perfectly trained because they have endured boot camp most recently: three hours of workouts a day, a jump simulator called the Mutilator, an array of courses and tests that virtually guarantee you'll pull your ripcord after jumping out of the plane. Overwhelmingly, it works, though not always. In 1991 a jumper in Montana was killed because he didn't reach for his ripcord until "ground rush," when it was too late. The entire thing was caught on video because it was a training jump. The consensus was he froze.
"The biggest hazard is probably the fire itself," Franz told me. "Felling burning snags, logs rolling down hillsides. Jumping is usually a relief. It's hot in the airplane, and sometimes you feel sick; then suddenly you're totally focused on what you're doing. It's a little dreamlike."
After our talk Franz took me for a quick tour of the jump loft. He showed me the rigging room where the chutes are packed, and the sewing room, and the weight room. Afterward we returned to the conference table, and he popped a short tape into the VCR. It was quick and unprofessional but highly dramatic. It showed a jump crew working a fire at night, right on the line. At one point a sawyer was cutting down a huge ponderosa, and his saw was halfway through the trunk when flames started pouring out like liquid. The tree was hollowed out by fire, it turned out, and was drawing like a chimney. The sawyer kept cutting; the flames kept spurting; eventually the tree fell.
As I left, I asked Franzagainst all hopeif there were any fires around for me to see. He told me I'd just missed a good one. An older couple from Pennsylvania had been towing a car behind their RV, and the car got a flat tire; sparks started a fire front two miles wide. Six thousand acres, a million dollars to put out.
"I suspect the government will try to collect too," he said. "Try the dispatch office; they'll know what's going on."
The dispatch office for the Boise National Forest was a trailer east of the airfield. "I just came from BIFC," I told the young woman behind the desk. "I'm a reporter. Are there any fires?"
I felt a little bad asking the question. She didn't blink. "Seven hundred acres as of midnight last night," she said, spreading a map of Idaho out on the table. "Lightning-started, wind-driven, with three helicopters and twenty-two crews. It's called the Flicker Creek fire. They've called in a type one overhead team."
A type one overhead team is called in only when a fire is really bad or is expected to get really bad. The Flicker Creek fire was in steep terrain with extremely dry fuels and strong winds. Steep slopes help a fire because uphill fuels get preheated; winds help a fire because they make it burn hotter and push it across the land. A seven-hundred-acre fire could jump to seven thousand or even seventy thousand in no time at all.
An hour later I was driving north on Highway 21 in my green fire-retardant Nomex pants and yellow fire shirt. In the back seat were a yellow plastic hard hat and a fiberglass and aluminum fire shelter. The shelter is a pup tent that comes in a small pouch with belt loops. It reflects radiant heat, reducing what would be a 1,000-degree fire to 120 degrees or so. I would be assigned a public relations person when I got to the fire camp, the ranger told me. I would be fed and I would be lodged in a tent if I didn't have one. Tomorrow morning a helicopter would take me into the fire line.
I breezed past some bored Forest Service guards and turned off Highway 21, into the hills.
Flicker Creek is one of hundreds of small creeks that cut through the steep, dry hills of the Boise National Forest. Most of the land is grass and rocks and sagebrush, with heavy stands of ponderosa on the north slopes and in the drainages. Flicker Creek empties into the North Fork of the Boise River, which quickly joins the Middle Fork and continues on to fill the Arrowrock and Lucky Peak reservoirs. The entire West was seven years into one of the worst droughts since the 1870s, so both reservoirs were severely depleted. Arrowrock had been reduced to a muddy brook that you could practically jump across.
After twenty miles of rough driving, the road leveled off along the North Fork of the Boise. There was plenty of water up hereor so it lookedand the river was fast and lined with big, open stands of ponderosa. The fire camp was in a huge meadow called Barber Flats that ran alongside the North Fork of the Boise. Hundreds of bright nylon tents were pitched in the yellowed grass. A helicopter thumped over a ridgeline, trailing a retardant bucket. Water trucks rumbled back and forth, spraying the dust down. Hotshot crews came and went, Indian file, or slept in the shade, or sharpened their tools. Some were black with dirt; others looked as if they'd just arrived. They all had on the same green and yellow Nomex that I wore and big lug-soled boots.
I parked my car between the trucks and water tankers and searched out the information desk. The public affairs people knew I was coming, and I was pointed toward a large, deep-voiced man named Frank Carroll. "You'll need boots if you want to go out on the line," he told me. "You'll need water bottles; you'll need food; you'll need gloves. I'll set you up after dinner. You can pitch your tent anywhere you like. People get going around five in the morning; make sure you're at breakfast and ready to go by then."
I thanked him and went off to get my gear set up. All around me, big, lean men and a few women went about their duties. I pitched my tent in tall grass behind a cabin that served as a command post and then wandered over toward the catering tent. Behind it was a full-size truck outfitted as a kitchen. Hotshot crews passed by it in line, taking plates of food from the young woman behind the window and then sitting down at folding tables under a canvas army tent. The woman was pretty and had a sheath knife on her belt. I tried to pretend I belonged there, and she loaded my plate up with steak and carrots and mashed potatoes and salad and two slices of white bread.
I took a seat by myself at a corner table and watched the crews come and go, talking loudly, eating fast. Most of the fire fighters were young white men, sinewy and unshaved. There was a scattering of women among them, but the women were treatedas far as I could tellno differently from anyone else. I didn't think they would be discriminated against so much as subjected to one form of gallantry or another, but they weren't. Everyone seemed to be too tired and hungry to notice the opposite sex. (This turned out to be emphatically untrue.) Furthermore, beneath the baggy clothes and grimy faces it was hard to tell who was what.
The Indians and Latinos generally had their own crews. It was a reflection of demographics more than anything else: Twenty men from Browning, Montana, are likely to be Blackfeet, not white; twenty men taken off the farm crews in the Snake River valley are likely to be Latino, not Indian. It's the Indian crews, the caterer told me, that can really clean out a food truck. "They'll eat anything that's not nailed down," she said. The convicts eat sweets and spicy foods because they can't get much of that in prison. The white `shot crews are the most health-conscious: They eat a lot of fruits and vegetables; some won't even touch meat.
That was hard to imagine, because the government food contracts were defined by how much proteinmeat, in other wordswas provided per person per meal. Everyone gets four ounces of meat at breakfast, seven ounces at lunch, and ten to sixteen ounces at dinner. Everything elsevegetables, grains, fruitwas considered a condiment and didn't figure into the equation. It's a lot better than it used to be, though. Back in the dark ages of fire fightingbefore women, before showers, before Nomexthe crews subsisted mostly on ham. Ham and eggs, ham sandwiches, fried ham. Catering trucks were essentially big meat lockers with ham hanging in them, and maybe some Wonder bread. Back in those days the hotshots wore T-shirts that said, "When forests burn, pigs die."
After dinner I sat in on the planning session. It was held under a ponderosa pine by the dirt parking area. The entire overhead team was there, identifiable by the fact that they weren't dirty and weren't wearing Nomex. They were trained together and used on the Flicker Creek fire as interchangeable parts of a network called the Incident Command System. The system is based on the idea that any person trained for a certain joblogistics chief, information officer, helibase managercan perform that job for any agency, in any situation. Overhead teams are made up of people from a dozen different government agencies and are pulled in from all over the country. You might find an incident commander from Georgia and an air operations branch director from Colorado and a safety officer from the next town over. There are seventeen type one overhead teams in the country, and they mainly fight fires, but they have also been effective on other catastrophes: oil spills in Alaska; hurricanes in Florida; earthquakes in Mexico. An overhead team was sent to clean up the Valdez oil spill, for example, and the system worked so smoothly that it was copied by both the Exxon Corporation and the U.S. military. A fire camp with an overhead team, in fact, can put two people in the field for every one person acting as supporta ratio roughly twenty times as efficient as the military's.
I went to bed when the five hundred fire fighters did, at dark. The only noise was the continuous rumble of the generators. The planning session had brought bad news, in a way: The fire was cooperating almost too quickly. A thirty-acre spot fire had started in light fuels on the south front but had been contained by three crews. Seven type two crewsless experienced than hotshots and usually used for mopping uphad cut line all the way down to the river, farther than expected. The winds were dying down, and unless they picked up again, the fire would be contained within days.
A fire camp is never completely still. All night long I was aware of the movement of men. They walked past, packed equipment, coughed, spat. Around four in the morning the sounds were so continuous that I woke up even before my watch alarm went off. It was still dark, and the camp undulated with human forms and occasional headlamps. Crews were packing their line gear, drifting toward the catering tent, clustering around the big stand-up kerosene heaters set up at intervals in the field. It was cold, maybe in the twenties. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and pulled on several sweaters and my bootsI had to wear leather on my feet in the helicopter, for some reasonand hustled toward the lights of the tent.
The person assigned to me was Bill Casey, a type two safety officer from the Boise area. He was a strong, clear-eyed man in his late forties who directed the local Bureau of Land Management district and was also qualified to command a type two overhead team. (A type two team handles smaller fires, but operates the same way.) He had bagged thirty elk in the past thirty-two years of hunting them, he said. His father hunts with him and can still shoulder fifty pounds of elk meat, at age seventy-one. Casey is part Blackfeet; he has dead-straight gray hair and brown eyes and a handsome, open face.
"We're a little overstaffed because the fire didn't do what we expected," he admitted as we sat in his truck at the helibase.
"What did you expect the fire to do?" I asked.
"Well." He chose his words carefully. "The guys don't want to see the forests burn, but on the other hand, they want to have a good, productive summer. They like to have two to three weeks on a fire and then move on to another one. In that sense, it's disappointing to have the fire lay down so fast."
Excerpted from FIRE by SEBASTIAN JUNGER. Copyright © 2001 by Sebastian Junger. Excerpted by permission.
Meet the Author
Sebastian Junger is the author of the international bestseller The Perfect Storm and a National Magazine Award-winning journalist. He lives in New York.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- January 17, 1962
- Place of Birth:
- Boston, Massachusetts
- B.A. in Anthropology, Wesleyan University, 1984
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