"She has done her homework well and the setting is completely accurate. This is a compelling work and I had difficulty putting it down." —Bob Barbee, Yellowstone Superintendent 1983-1994
Summer of Fireby Linda Jacobs
Texas firefighter and single mother Clare Chance flees to Yellowstone Park to try and put the memory of her best friend's death behind her. She's not the only one fighting personal demons, as wildfires threaten to consume the park. Original.See more details below
Texas firefighter and single mother Clare Chance flees to Yellowstone Park to try and put the memory of her best friend's death behind her. She's not the only one fighting personal demons, as wildfires threaten to consume the park. Original.
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Summer of Fire
By Linda Jacobs Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
Chapter One Yellowstone National Park July 25, 1988
Extreme Fire Danger.
Clare Chance gave a bitter smile at the warning sign on the Grant Village Laundromat. The lodgepole pines behind the building burned like merry hell. With the drought that had parched Yellowstone since May, moisture in the forest fuels had ebbed, making the park a two million acre tinderbox. The wind that came with the dry fronts completed the equation for disaster.
Clare hooked a hose to a hydrant and dragged the other end across the parking lot to water down the Laundromat roof. Beneath the heavy coat of the Houston Fire Department, sweat ran between her breasts and down her sides. At least it wasn't as hot as it had been in Houston on that ill-fated July afternoon, over three weeks ago.
Quick agony swelled her chest until she felt it would burst. The flaming forest became a wavering vermilion blur as she blinked hard and hoped Javier Fuentes and the other men of HFD didn't notice her tears.
Coming to the West to fight wildfire had seemed a convenient escape after she'd witnessed Frank Wallace's death. If it could happen to him, it could happen to anybody. He was ... had been ... one of the good guys, an older veteran who'd acted blind to the fact that she wasn't one of the boys.
Since becoming a firefighter, Clare had learned she didn't qualify as a bona fide adrenaline junkie, but she'd tried to match anybody's bravado. People who hadn't seen her coach basketball or yell at her trainees at the Texas A & M fire school were surprised to learn what a thirty-seven-year-old woman did for a living.
Today, at Grant Village, she watched the younger men from Houston with a warning on the tip of her tongue. The wind shifted continuously, first a puff on the back of her neck and then relief for her heated forehead.
Watering down the buildings was a last ditch effort before they would have to fight the approaching flames face-to-face. Clare didn't know what she'd been thinking when she'd assumed wildfire was somehow tamer than structural fire. Less collateral damage, maybe. In the forest, the odds were against her having to face another distraught mother.
A single look at Clare's face when she emerged from the burning apartment house told Tammy Nguyen that her small son Pham was gone. Strangers, yet kindred in loss, the two women had gone into each other's arms and sobbed. Channel Two News had carried it at six and ten.
Clare had forced herself to face Frank's wife, Jane, too, beside the closed casket. Within the older woman's kindly embrace, she had thought her heart would break.
On this, another sizzling afternoon, her hand on the rough-textured hose felt familiar, yet somehow distant. She was still getting used to the pungent incense of burning evergreen, so different from the grassy aromas of the Texas coast.
The two-way Motorola radio at her belt gave a crackling sound. She passed off to Javier Fuentes, who'd been first to sign on with her to fight wildfire. "Chance here."
"We've got to get those civilians out of Grant Village." Garrett Anderson's deep Atlanta drawl came over the airwaves. She imagined him behind a desk in West Yellowstone, his ample stomach hanging over his belt while he chomped on Fig Newtons and drank mugs of creamed coffee. One of the seasonal bosses of big fire, he'd been the first black to make fire general at the training center in Marana, Arizona. He was also the man who'd arranged through Clare's boss at A & M for her and the men from Houston to be here.
She put her foot onto the running board of the fire truck and pulled off her hard hat. God, her sweat-soaked head itched. The side mirror revealed heat-reddened cheeks beneath bloodshot amber eyes. "I thought the evacuation was proceeding as planned, Garrett."
"There's a bottleneck on the road out. Harry Gaines's crew set a backfire that got away."
"You mean that's not the Shoshone trying to burn down the Laundromat?" She considered the wildfire fighters' eccentric habit of tagging fires with a name. It was as though naming their adversary made the fight a more personal one.
"When you see the Shoshone, you'll know." Garrett sounded grimly certain. "The backfire's jumped the road and nobody will drive into the smoke. I'm trying to raise a chopper to drop water, but I need you to get those cars moving before the Shoshone gets there."
Clare glanced back at the battle beside the Laundromat. "We'll go as soon as we can."
"Go now. The Shoshone has crowned."
When wildfire leaped into the treetops, Garrett had told her it released the energy of an atomic bomb. It sounded improbable, but when she cocked an ear, she heard a distant dull rumble like an approaching train. Her nostrils flared at a fresh and stronger mix of tart resin and char. Her heartbeat accelerated.
With a tap on Javier Fuentes's shoulder, she cupped her hands and shouted to the others from Houston, "We've gotta leave you. If it blows up, head to the lake and get in the water."
Javier leaped to the driver's seat of the fire truck. As she climbed in the passenger side, she said a silent prayer for the safety of the men they left behind. She hadn't gone an hour in the past weeks without asking what she could have done to prevent Frank's death. "These things happen, Clare," her friends at the station had drilled her.
They were right. Before she'd joined the ranks, she'd seen on the news that every few months some firefighter paid the ultimate price.
"You have to pick up and go on," they'd said.
She had, but in a different direction. Her flight to Yellowstone, and that's what she now knew it to be, had been a headlong rush toward peaceful woodland and natural beauty. She'd believed she wouldn't have to face another monstrous specter of dancing heat and light.
Javier steered along the deserted inbound lane to Grant Village, past the stopped column of sedans, pickups with camper shells, and trailers. Despite the emergency, he drove slowly, bronzed hands light on the wheel.
The approaching fire had been started by a lightning strike at Shoshone Lake, six miles southwest. After smouldering and creeping along for a month, high winds had fanned it into fury.
They came to the head of the line, a stopped behemoth of an RV. Ahead, perhaps a hundred yards, tightly spaced pines burned on both sides of the road.
Clare clicked the Motorola's button. "Come in, Garrett." She slid out of the truck to scan the sky. The sun was reduced to an intermittent copper disk. "Come in."
On the RV driver's side, she hailed an elderly man with wild white hair and wire-framed glasses. "I'm Clare Chance with the firefighters," she told him in what she hoped was a reassuring tone. She'd always had a raspy low voice that people mistook for a man's on the telephone.
"What shall we do?" The ginger-haired woman passenger leaned across.
"A helicopter is going to dump water ahead," Clare told them. "As soon as the fire dies down I want you to drive as fast as you can."
The runaway backfire wasn't going to kill anyone, but the Shoshone's rumbling underpinned all other sound. If it arrived before they could escape ...
She prayed the chopper came soon.
* * *
Steve Haywood looked out the helicopter window into hell.
Great tongues of orange flame leaped through the crowns of lodgepole pines, then reached another two hundred feet into the white-hot sky.
"Swing over Grant Village," he ordered pilot Chris Deering through their headphones, wishing he were anywhere but in the air. Although this recon flight over Yellowstone's raging forest fires was important, Steve had already decided that for him it was a terrible idea. He wiped the sweat at his temples, right where the gray had started last year.
Steve watched Deering peer out at the boiling smoke through his Ray Ban Aviators, noting the sunburst of lines around the pilot's coffee-brown eyes. As he gauged the faint smile playing at the corners of the taut mouth, Steve realized that Deering was actually enjoying this.
He knew the type. All over the mountain west, wherever choppers were flown, there were guys in military-style flight suits with winged patches on their shoulders that proclaimed Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association.
He'd come to Yellowstone for the peace it afforded, not to wind up in a war zone.
Deering fiddled with the radio and was unable to raise West Yellowstone Airport, as had been the case for about five minutes. He banked the Bell 206 into a steep turn and Steve looked straight down into leaping flames.
It wasn't the fire that had him on edge, but the flying. His decision to do recon had been one of those grand defiant gestures; he hadn't wanted to tell his boss Shad Dugan that he was unwilling to get back on the horse that had thrown him.
Turbulence seized the chopper. Steve's stomach clenched as they plunged earthward and then rebounded. Reaching for a handhold, he saw that his palm left a damp print on his green fire-retardant trousers. In the three years he'd been a park biologist he'd successfully stayed out of aircraft, preferring to visit the backcountry via the serenity of horseback. If only he were on a remote trail right now, breathing clean air instead of eating smoke from thousands of torching trees.
Deering took them lower into even rougher air.
Looking out through the bubble of glass, Steve tried to ignore vertigo and focus on the solid earth. Below, in Grant Village, at least twenty fire trucks lined the south shore of Yellowstone Lake. Near the boat ramp, pumpers equipped to fight wildfires suctioned water from the lake. With hoses connected to hydrants, firefighters sprayed the roofs of the visitor center and lodge.
Deering dipped the chopper left and Steve looked where he pointed. The road out of the village was a narrow corridor between two walls of flame. Down this slender needle, a dozen cars and several fire trucks were threaded. The knot inside Steve twisted tighter as he realized that they were stopped.
Black smoke billowed around the Bell's windshield and the visibility went to zero.
"Fuck shit!" Deering pushed right pedal.
"Easy," Steve blurted. The hard look Deering shot made him wish he'd kept his mouth shut. The pilot obviously didn't think a ranger should be telling him how to fly his chopper. His pride of ownership had been clear at the airport. Steve had stood on the ramp with reluctance while he showed off the custom paint, ultramarine edged in gold.
Deering moved the collective between the seats and put the Bell into a climb. The veins on the back of his hand stood out where he gripped the cyclic stick in front of him.
Steve tried to look through the window, but merely saw his reflection against the roiling blackness. Silver-gray eyes rimmed with red gave testimony to the irritating smoke. His thinning blond hair revealed a sunburned forehead between the insulated headphones.
The sky lightened, and as the chopper broke back into clear air, Steve realized he'd been holding his breath.
He exhaled and found it didn't help him relax. He kept a wary eye on the way Deering's feet feathered the pedals while adjusting the pitch of the rotors. They made another pass over the stalled line of cars and trucks. This time Deering avoided the smoke.
"Okay, Doctor Haywood, look behind you." The pilot's patient tone said he regarded Steve as learning-impaired.
On the rear deck, coarse canvas made a crumpled pile, a bucket attached to a cable hooked beneath the chopper.
"I want you to climb in back," Deering continued, "open the door, and shove that out."
Steve bristled. He'd fought the summer fires of the West for three seasons during college and several times since coming to the park. "Wouldn't it be smarter if we landed to deploy the bucket?"
"Just do it!" Deering snapped.
Steve thought about the people trapped in their cars, choking on smoke. He'd felt that same heat on his own back as he bent to dig a fire line. Experience had taught him that each wildfire had its own personality, from how it devoured the forest to the play of colors in its flames. What they shared was that they could all turn deadly ... as could the process of fighting them.
Steve hurried to remove his shoulder harness and squeeze between the seats. The collapsed bucket made an unwieldy orange heap on the metal deck, with the cable snaking through a notch in the doorframe.
"Be sure," Deering's distorted voice came to him through the headphones, "to pitch the bucket clear of the skids."
Steve slid open the door. After looking through tinted windows, brilliant light shocked him. The blast of wind and high-pitched whine of the helicopter was much louder. Turning to his task, he tugged at the bucket, but failed to budge it.
Five years ago, he could have tossed it out. Now, at thirty-eight, multiple surgeries had left him with knees he could no longer rely on. Ignoring a stab of pain, he bent and put his shoulder behind the work.
As the amorphous shape inched toward the bright day, he prepared to give the bucket an extra shove. Just then, the helicopter hit a pocket of rough air and dipped, nearly pitching him out. He clung to the doorframe, watching the bucket dangle perilously close to the left skid.
Deering flipped a switch and the cable paid out. The chopper banked and lost altitude until it hung so low over the lake that Steve had a clear view of white-capped waves. He wondered if he should return to his seat, but as long as he stayed back from the wind torrent, the fresh air cleared his head. Through the open door was West Thumb, a smaller arm of the cobalt expanse of Yellowstone Lake. Onshore, the hot springs of West Thumb Geyser Basin shone in a hundred colors.
"Let me know when the bucket's full," Deering directed.
Steve forced himself to approach the door. Downwash from the rotors beat the lake in a wide circle as the bucket touched the water. The canvas grew dark and slowly sank.
It seemed to take a long time to gather a hundred forty-four-gallons, while Steve held onto the chicken bar above the door. Deering manipulated the controls with barely perceptible adjustments that kept the craft in a hover. When the bucket was finally full, Steve said, "Ready."
"We're heavy on fuel," Deering replied. It had been less than twenty minutes since they'd taken off from West Yellowstone Airport. "Fighting this wind with a full load is going to be a bitch." He powered up to climb.
Blown sideways, the craft turned up on its side and the bucket's sunken weight skewed out from under it.
Steve fell away from the open door to land hard on the small of his back. Cleats designed to hold a rear seat in place bruised him and his headphones slid across the metal deck. He retrieved them in time to hear Deering breathe, "Sum bitch."
The Bell's engines whined in crescendo and, for a long moment, it seemed to hang motionless. Steve's toes curled inside his boots. Although it had been years since he'd seen the inside of a church, he found himself sending up a prayer.
When the bottom of the bucket pulled free, the chopper picked up speed and careened toward the burning shore. Flames leaped from the tops of the pines right down to the narrow rocky beach.
Too fast, Steve thought, crouching on the deck. At the same time, he realized that they hadn't gained enough elevation to clear the trees. They were unbalanced, skewing sideways.
"Release the bucket," Steve shouted into the roaring wind.
"Can't. Cable's hung on the skid, thanks to you." They headed fast for the inferno. Deering muttered a string of obscenities, the kind of language usually heard at the end of black box flight recordings.
Steve clambered to his feet and clamped his teeth hard. With a wary look at the blur of rotors, he figured it was at least a hundred feet to the water since the bucket wasn't quite dragging. He should have known better than to fly, to once more leave the solid earth and put his fate at the mercy of wind, machine, and human fallibility.
All the fight seemed to have gone out of Deering while Steve watched his silent battle to keep the chopper aloft. His gaunt face was set in resignation, as if he were already contemplating the loss of the craft he'd shown off so proudly at the airport.
By God, this time Steve would not go down with the ship.
With as good a running start as three steps could give him, he leaped out of the helicopter.
Spreading one hand to protect his crotch, he placed the other across his chest and assumed a cross-legged position. His stomach felt as though he left it ten feet above as he plummeted.
Hurtling toward the water, Steve remembered his life vest beneath the front seat. He'd followed the pilot's lead in not wearing the bulky, bright-orange device. Hot shot Deering must have thought a quick turn over the lake didn't count as flying over water.
Excerpted from Summer of Fire by Linda Jacobs Copyright © 2005 by Linda Jacobs. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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