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Holding the Line
I had been fighting fire for so long that I was not even sure what day it was. In the last two weeks the days had blurred together in a constant waking dream of smoke and fatigue. Roll out of the sleeping bag, pull on stiff leather boots, grab my pack and tool, dig fireline for sixteen hours, fall into bed, clothes still on. Repeat.
The state of my flame-resistant Nomex shirt might be a clue. I must have been wearing it for at least five days for it to smell this bad. My Kevlar pants were worse, stiffly crusted with spilled saw fuel. I thought I remembered taking a shower two days ago, though my legs were permanently stained black from walking through knee-deep ash.
My long hair was knotted into dreadlocks under my sky-blue hard hat; my lips scabbed from sun and wind. I did not look or feel like a woman anymore. I was not anything substantial, just a constant motion. I only bent with the pulaski in a kind of endless dance. Scrape the duff down to mineral soil. Take another step. Ignore the sweat that trickled down my neck and between my breasts. Shove everything else — hunger, thirst, regret, fear — deep beneath, in some other place.
The sound of deep fire coughs echoed down the line. We had all sucked in enough smoke to equal two packs today. There were no masks light enough to wear and still do this job. We did it half-assed instead, pulling bandannas over our noses and mouths. The smoke filtered in anyway. Weeks after I left here I knew that the tightness in my chest would linger.
The rest of the twenty-person fire crew were falling into the usual grooves, the kind that you ground into after a few days on the same fire. At first, everyone had kept their mouths shut and their tools flying, but after a few tough shifts, I could size up the crew pretty well. I knew who the slackers were, and the freelancers, and the good ones. There were those who could save your butt if things went south, and others who would fall apart, lose it, and get burned up.
I couldn't think about that tonight. Instead I kept an eye on the crew, because invariably they were doing something they should not. "Look into the green!" I yelled down the line. The rookies were making the typical mistake of staring, mesmerized, at the fire itself. It was an impressive sight as it jumped into the tops of black spruce and sizzled in the oven-dry needles. But where we really needed to be looking was in the green, unburnt section, our backs to the fire. This was where spot fires could blossom, caused by unseen sparks tossed across by wind. Firebrands, they were called, and the analysts in camp carefully concocted predictions of ignition in terms of percentages.
The scale went up to one hundred percent, meaning that if an ember were to fall on unshaded vegetation, there was a hundred percent chance of a spot fire beginning there.
Today was more like fifty percent, a long night stretching ahead of us without the adrenaline rush of spot fires. We had pulled the night shift again, or more accurately the dim shift, since this far north in Alaska the sun never really set, just sort of puttered around near the edge of the horizon. There was already a snap in the air, which did not bode well for staying warm. Our initial attack backpacks were already stuffed to the brim with extra food and water, so it would be a cold night without the sweatshirt left behind at camp. A loud thrashing in the brush could be a moose; one had been spotted on the fireline.
We were spaced out evenly along the line, the next person a hundred feet down the hill, so we could only shout to each other. Already there was mutiny in the ranks, evidenced by sounds of loud unnecessary chopping. Several green aspens already lay skinless and bleeding on the green side of the line. The sawyers were knocking down trees for the hell of it, creating their own clear cut. Each thump was greeted with a rebel yell, as if they had conquered something bigger than themselves.
"Hey! Stop sport falling!" I yelled.
"Yeah, whatever," Dan, the ringleader, yelled back.
Years after we were gone, the scars we left would still be here — our three-foot line, snaking through the permafrost, the ground laid bare, unzipped to its core, the stumps, the tracks of dozers. I thought of all the other fires, in Florida, Wyoming, Colorado — long swathes of forest changed forever, not only by the fire but by our stopping it. The cut trees, the brush piles, the thin red line of fire retardant.
My mind wandered. How many times had I stood just like this, shivering a little bit in my thin Nomex shirt, carrying a pulaski, holding the line? There had been nights of spitting rain, huddling under flimsy space blankets. Nights curled around warm stumps, praying for the sun to poke out from the other side of the mountains. Nights spent hauling water up the line, each of us sunk in our own private misery, icy water from leaky bladder bags snaking down our backs.
There had been a hundred other nights like these, both on the fireline and on a trail, countless hungry, freezing, desperate nights that were sometimes easy to forget. When was I going to call it quits, say enough was enough? I was forty years old. Shouldn't I have had kids, taken them to soccer practice, become another, different woman with shiny hair sweeping my cheeks at a careful angle, fingernails the color of tangerine, everything perfect, not used up, stained, broken? What kept me here, what was this thing that grabbed me and wouldn't let go?
I looked down the line at the rest of the crew. There was a row of hard hats as far as I could see, stretching down the line and around the corner. Some leaned on tools, their chins resting on the handles, staring into space. Others fiddled with Meals, Ready to Eat; packets full of lumpy, mysterious stews and pound cakes the consistency of sawdust. All of us were here because we were fascinated by fire. Some said it was for the money, a little extra to see them through the lean winters. But press each of them a little bit, and it was something other than money that kept us out here season after season. One thing was for sure: you either loved it or you hated it. There was no in between.
A rookie named Robin hiked back up the hill to my position, a halo of fuzzy blonde hair escaping the confines of her hard hat. "Hey, what are we supposed to be doing?" she asked, planting her shovel in the skinny line that separated burnt ground from green.
It was a clear violation of the rules for us to be clumped up like this, but I welcomed the distraction. This was her first fire and she was not sure yet whether she liked it. Coming from an academic world where everything made sense, this pointless standing around bothered her.
"Why are we so far from our safety zone?" she asked.
We watched the main fire back down the hill through a cluster of hardwoods. Going against the wind, it was slower, almost casual, the flames here only waist-high. It seemed almost benign, inconsequential. It was hard to believe that this tame fire was related to the creature that roared in the canopy of the black spruce or the same thing I saw tearing through the prairies in Florida. The same thing that killed. It would be easy to turn my back, to discount it, if I didn't know better.
Robin echoed my thoughts. "The hardwoods are burning. Where are we supposed to go if we have to get out?"
I didn't know what to tell her; what we were doing was miles from fire school, where situations were put in simplistic terms. It was black and white. Never do this. Always do that. Out here it got messy and complicated. Sometimes, something you had taken for truth turned around and bit you in the butt.
"I think we'll be okay," I said insincerely, though in all honesty I wasn't sure. "See how cold it's getting? The fire should lie down soon." She nodded, unconvinced.
Laughter broke out to our south. Somewhere in the black, a few brave souls decided to huddle around a burning stump, risking the Division Supervisor's wrath. The Kalskag crew, farther down the hill, had pulled out their coffee pot a long time ago. They put on black crew sweatshirts and talked softly. When they didn't want us to understand, they spoke in their native Yupik.
Robin and I looked at each other. "Screw it. I haven't seen the Div Sup in hours. Let's go over," I said. "What are they going to do? Fire us? Send us home?" She laughed.
Robin and I cut across an area that had been nuked, everything green and alive gone. This was what we called "good black." The ground was crunchy under our boots, the consistency of burnt potato chips. The heart of the fire had passed through here, and there was no chance of any reburn. It was a safe place to be. It was what we looked for on every fire, a solid carpet of black, a place where we could let our guard down for a little bit.
The rest of the crew shifted to let us in. We leaned against our packaged fire shelters, the flame-resistant tents that were supposed to save our lives. I knew by now this was not always true. Not everyone who went in a shelter came back out alive. They made a comfortable backrest, though, even though we had been warned that this practice damaged them. We didn't plan on using them anyway. That was another deception we told ourselves out here.
That'll never happen to us.
The crew had been telling fire stories, each one more badass than the one before. Five pairs of eyes turned to me.
"You're an old fire dog. You've been doing this for how long, since the eighties?" a rookie wanted to know. He was eighteen.
I had been fighting fire longer than he had been alive. He couldn't imagine rebellious knees, unstable from years of holding the line. He didn't know how hard it was to dig a little deeper each year to stay ahead on the hikes. He did not have the memories, polished stones tumbling around in my head: Florida to Alaska; grass, desert, and mountain; all different but all somehow the same.
He stirred the fire with a stick. "Were you at Yellowstone? South Canyon? You must have some stories."
They waited. Time was irrelevant on the night shift. Each minute contained an hour. The fire crackled to itself. We were miles away from a town. A dim light spanned the horizon, the remains of sunlight. At another spot a couple of others, following our lead, quit chopping and hunkered down over their own warming fire. I could see Dan's wiry silhouette outlined in the flames as he threw logs onto the fire, building it up way past what was acceptable. I could hear him winding up one of his interminable stories. "The time that I was in jail," he began. Sensing a captive audience, he warmed to a tale that may or may not have been true; none of us could ever tell. I gritted my teeth; Dan had been on my last nerve ever since the beginning, galloping downhill into the fire without scouting, standing too close to the sawyers as they felled danger trees. Unconvinced of his mortality, he sizzled with energy that he seemed unable to contain. Nothing I said convinced him to rein it in.
Under cover of the night I could talk about the years of fighting fire. Kentucky, Wyoming, Texas, and all the places in between. I could talk about saving houses and back burning and mopping up. I could talk about sleeping on a mountain's shoulder somewhere near a nameless lake. But there was still one fire I couldn't talk about. One fire that would not let go of me. I was afraid I would forever be in its grasp.
The kid asked the question again, the one that I had been avoiding for ten years. "Were you at South Canyon?" he asked. "You know the one where thirteen people died?"
Fourteen, I thought. There were fourteen. "No," I said. "I wasn't there."
It was true that I wasn't there. But what was also true was that I carried that fire with me everywhere.
There were still hours to go, hours that would stretch into days on this fire. Despite our best efforts, all of our saw lines and hose lays and standing here all night with our tools, the fire would go nuclear, crossing the Little Chena. The rains would come too, the one thing that really could put the fire out. In the spring it would happen all over again, an endless loop.
As I sat there it came to me. I had been running away all my life. It was, finally, time to stop.
The fireline was just another way to run. I didn't know if I would ever see myself the way I wanted to be. I couldn't outrun the girl I used to be; I'd tried that already. I had not drowned her in the rivers we crossed; I had not lost her in the canyons. She would always be a part of me, like it or not.
I thought of the other women I knew who faced no such dilemma. Not firefighters, they never had to grab two forty-pound cubitainers of water and a pulaski and haul them uphill. Nobody had ever yelled at them to close the gap because they were walking too slowly in the single-file line. They were content to let men help them. They had never felt like they needed to prove anything.
For so long my identity had been as a firefighter. I had spent years building this persona, years of trying to crank out enough pull-ups, my hands sweating on the cold metal bar, years of gritting my teeth to keep up on the hikes. Only I knew that it now felt like a carefully orchestrated act. The person that others saw was someone I had created, layers of thick skin enveloping the softer girl who was hidden underneath. The one who would sometimes have liked to lean on someone. The one who would sometimes have liked to stop.
The men on the fire crew offered few answers. They seemed content to live this life until they were halted by their failing bodies. They seemed equally able to put the past behind them, whether that was their younger self or a cross on a burnt hillside. Their conversation was an equal mix of trash and longing, stories of girlfriends who didn't understand why they couldn't stay home. The women on the crew earned their respect by carrying loads without complaint, but they didn't want to marry us. Their women were lipsticked and glossy, not firefighters.
Who would I be without fire?
I recognized my own younger self in every set of bright eyes around the warming fire, every flash of white teeth against a grimy face. There was probably more to all of them that lay beneath, just like there was with me. Probably each of them had something that split them in two, something they were trying to cover up by diffidently spitting Red Man into the fire or wielding the chainsaw in a shower of falling sparks. I was not the only one who wondered whether to go or stay. I was not the only one haunted by a fire from long ago.
As I sat there, thinking of the right words to speak, I knew deep in my heart that it was time to try to stay home. It was time to hang up my fire boots for good. Turn over my gear to the next girl, the one with bright eyes and a long ponytail, the one who did not have as much weight to carry. It was time to go back to South Canyon, to climb Storm King Mountain, to finally hear what the mountain had to tell me.CHAPTER 2
Burning the Prairies
One of the best memories I had of the three of us was the last time we burned the prairies together. I could still recall everything about that day. I could feel the weight of the squat steel canister I clutched in one gloved hand, smell the combined kiss of diesel and unleaded as I lit a match to the wick. I could see the three of us walking parallel, lines of fire behind us, merging together into one blaze.
The effortless Florida dusk dropped like a heavy stage curtain and a distant glow marked the path of the main fire as it tore toward us across a savanna of sawgrass.
The smoke column rose thousands of feet into the air, high enough into the atmosphere that it created its own weather. Today it brewed up a thunderstorm: lightning forked out of the smoke and a few drops of rain sprinkled onto our blue hard hats under an otherwise cloudless sky. Tourists headed up Alligator Alley, the main highway belting the state, pulled over to take pictures, running with cameras and flip-flops along the safety fence.
Roger, Jen, and I were on foot, carrying our long-handled flappers and drip torches as we finished up our burnout, the blackened edge that would ring the prairie. As we walked, fat eastern diamondbacks wriggled out of our backfire and across the trail.
"Watch out for burning bunnies," Roger called. It was true: an animal, fleeing our fire, could spread flames across into the unburnt "green" side and trap us.
Sometimes the snakes, inexplicably, turned and wriggled back toward the fire and certain death. We had seen it before, an entire field covered with dead snakes. Even though none of us really liked snakes, we tried to save them with shovels, herding them out into the unburnt neighboring unit. They resisted, striking at the metal blade and slipping past us back into the heart of the fire.
What lay under our boots, hidden by a thin layer of soil, was an immense field of limestone, tipped so that underground water flowed over it toward the Gulf. In places the acidic water had eaten through the soft rock, making grooves where trees had taken over from the prairies. Here, mere inches determined what grew. There were the lower-lying cypress strands, awash with black water, and the slightly higher hardwoods, oaks and pond apples and strangler figs in mounds called hammocks. Often, walking through those, we found the bones of small animals that had died there, stranded during the wet season. They starved, running out of food on an island refuge.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fire in the Heart"
Copyright © 2017 Mary Emerick.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Holding the Line 1
2 Burning the Prairies 11
3 The Accidental Firefighter 21
4 Sisterhood 55
5 Size-up 64
6 How to Get Over a Smokejumper 90
7 Walking Through 109
8 Close Call 123
9 Fire Family 142
0 Fire in the Blocks 148
11 Death at South Canyon 164
12 Losing My Edge 177
13 After Roger 195
14 Ginger 205
15 On Storm King Mountain 217
16 Alaska 222