Summers of Fire: A Memoir

Summers of Fire: A Memoir

by Linda Strader

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Overview

Linda Strader is one of the first women hired on a fire crew with the U.S. Forest Service. A naïve twenty-year-old in the mid-1970s, she discovers fighting wildfires is challenging—but in a man's world, they became only one of the challenges she would face. Battling fire is exhilarating, yet exhausting; the discrimination real and sometimes in her face. Summers of Fire is an Arizona to Alaska adventure story that honestly recounts the seven years Strader ventures into the heart of fires that scorch the land, vibrant friendships that fire the soul, and deep love that ends in devastating heartbreak.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781945805660
Publisher: Bedazzled Ink Publishing
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Pages: 250
Sales rank: 806,605
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Linda Strader has published many articles online about landscaping with desert plants. When The Green Valley News, a local newspaper, printed an article about her firefighting adventures, it lead to the magazine, Wildfire Today, publishing an excerpt. She works as a landscape architect in southern Arizona.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Summer of 1976: Florida Ranger Station, Santa Rita Mountains, Southern Arizona

Monday, May 31st

"UH-OH," MY crewmate Joe said, staring behind us. "There go our packs."

My Pulaski froze mid-swing. I lowered it to my side, momentarily forgetting the wildfire in front of me. Smoke swirled between the two of us. I leaned around Joe and saw nothing but pine trees on fire, which, all things considered, made sense. Where did our packs go? Was an animal dragging them away? Then it hit me. Our packs were up in flames. The forest fire had jumped our line. The narrow defensive belt of raw earth we'd feverishly clawed through the woods had been breached. All of our gear. Gone. Including our canteens of precious water.

This was my first fire; but not Joe's. When he said we'd just rebuild the line, I thought, okay, no big deal. He seemed calm and not too concerned about when we'd get more water, so I didn't worry about that either. Even with our gear a pile of ashes, we'd no choice but to continue to build line. In my hands I clutched a Pulaski, invented by a forest ranger for just this kind of work. A combination ax and hoe, it made building line easier. Easier, but still brutal hard work. With flames a mere foot away, I removed fuel from the fire's path, down to bare mineral soil, our fireline. Soon my arm muscles burned from swinging the ax at small trees, my back pinched from leaning over to scrape pine needles and the duff underneath them with the hoe. Intense heat from the fire and exertion made me thirsty. A drink of water would be good right about now. I had some gum in my pack, which might have helped, but it had become a melted glob. As I chopped and scraped everything to bare earth, I mentally inventoried what I'd lost besides my canteen: headlamp, socks, my Levi jacket. Damn, I really liked that jacket.

While we continued to battle flames, the sun rose higher in the sky. Temperatures had climbed over ninety, I figured. My mouth felt like the dry, dusty, desert below. I so wanted a drink of water. I really needed a drink of water. An abrupt shift in the wind funneled smoke into the draw like water pouring from an overflowing dam, filling my lungs. I exploded into a coughing fit. I can't breathe! Remembering the bandana around my neck, I retied it bandito style over my face. My eyes stung, teared, my vision blurred.

"Over here!" Joe said, waving me on. "Get down low."

Crawling, choking, with tears streaming down my face, I followed him. At the edge of a smokeless ridge, I yanked down my bandana to suck in fresh air, terrified it wouldn't be enough, terrified I'd inhaled too much smoke. My chest seized, hurt, until oxygen filled my lungs. Not being able to breathe scared me more than the fire below.

I turned to Joe, who also wheezed and coughed, until color returned to his face. His presence was comforting. At least he knew what the heck to do next, which was to wait until the smoke dissipated. We sat for a few minutes, clearing out our lungs, blinking to regain our vision. If I had any moisture left in my body, I would have wiped my brow, but I didn't. My tongue felt swollen, glued to the roof of my dry mouth. My teeth were gritty, but I didn't have enough spit to lick them clean. Don't think about how thirsty you are, it will only make it worse.

The drone of plane engines rose above the crackling of the nearby fire.

Overhead, a huge, slow-moving C-47 carried fire retardant, slurry. The silver bird gave me a twinge of hope. Slurry, a mixture of water and fertilizer, would knock-down the fire. The plane circled, making a second pass. I watched in awe as the hatch doors on the bottom opened, releasing a plume of dark pink, which rained through the forest canopy, dampening flames. Nose turned up, the plane disappeared from view.

Joe and I took advantage of the temporary window to dive in and get closer to the fire's edge. Despite intense, nagging thirst, my body weak from dehydration, I kept scraping, digging. Pine sap boiled, snapped, and sputtered, as flames consumed boughs. Somehow we managed to reach the lower edge of the blaze, although I had no idea if we were catching the fire or not, or if Scott, the third member of our crew, had made any progress. There'd been no sign of Scott since he'd vanished across the rockslide seven hours ago. He had the only two-way radio, so we couldn't check in.

As the sun rose, temperatures did too, shifting winds upslope. Not good. On autopilot, mouth clamped tight to conserve moisture, I pushed myself to scrape more line clear of flammable pine needles, chopping branches that could breech our clearing, until distant voices made me pause. Through tall ponderosas I caught a glimpse of bright yellow fire shirts. Thank God, help! Leading the group: a firefighter from the Nogales crew carrying multiple canteens strapped across his stout frame — a walking canteen shop. "Anybody need water?"

"Me!" I accepted one, fumbled to unscrew the cap, and took a swig, resisting the temptation to drink too much too fast, which could make me sick. I savored the wetness, swishing the water around my teeth, tongue, and gums before swallowing. Water never, ever tasted, or felt, so good.

After quenching my thirst, I realized that behind him stood the Catalina Hotshots. Hey, I know these guys! I broke into a big grin, hoping they'd recognize me.

"Hey, Linda," one said, smiling. "I heard you made it to a fire crew."

My grin expanded. Oh, yeah I did. Too bad we couldn't talk, I was dying to tell them all about my new job, but we had work to do. We had to get this fire under control.

CHAPTER 2

WHAT A MAD, crazy day. I'd only been on the job two weeks, and barely managed to get fire training under my belt when that five a.m. fire call came in.

Glenn was the first person I'd met when I arrived at Florida Ranger Station in mid-May to work on a fire crew. The lean, darkly tanned man wore a Forest Service uniform, his lined, weathered face alluding to many years in the sun. Sweat stains radiated around the band of his gray Stetson. He extended his hand, and in a deep, commanding voice, said, "Hello, I'm Glenn."

He supervised all the fire personnel at Florida, including the ten-person fire suppression crew, of which I was the one and only woman. After we shook hands, he grasped my hand a moment longer and turned it over to study my palm. When he let it go, he squeezed my upper arm, and raised his eyebrows, a corner of his mouth lifting. I offered a tentative smile. Was he teasing, or did he think I couldn't handle the job? After an awkward moment, he released my arm.

Then Glenn introduced me to Opie Taylor. Not the one from TV's Mayberry RFD, although he resembled him enough to have earned the nickname. Glenn asked him to escort me to my quarters. Later Opie offered me a ride to Green Valley to buy groceries. After unloading, he hung around my kitchen, in no hurry to leave.

"Um, well, I'm beat, so ... thanks again for the ride," I said, putting the last of the groceries away.

Still he stood there, leaning against the door frame, legs crossed at the ankle.

"Do you want to go to bed?" he asked, leering.

Are you kidding me?

I found him more amusing than offensive.

"Uh, no, we've only just met," I said, suppressing laughter. "You need to go."

Still, he wouldn't leave, trying to get me to change my mind. Finally, I placed my hands on his back and shoved him over the threshold saying, "Get. Out!" and slammed the door shut.

I stood there for a moment in disbelief. Opie's proposition was so outrageous, I laughed it and him off. Aside from the fact that casual sex didn't interest me, after two painful breakups over the past year, I'd concluded that keeping guys for now as "friends only" would give me time to regroup. I did not want, or need, a serious relationship.

The next Monday, everyone except Mark and I went to train in Nogales, leaving me to a fate unknown. I never knew what to think of Mark. Over the past week, I'd overheard him talk incessantly about gorgeous college coeds and complain about his miserable marriage. A huge turnoff despite his good looks. Would I have to listen to endless blabbering all day long about sexy blonds with perfect legs?

Inside the fire cache, Mark gave me a box of headlamps to test while he inventoried gear. In no time he'd charmed me with his affable nature. I enjoyed his easy, contagious laugh. Mark was also sophisticated, educated — unlike anyone I'd ever met. This attracted me, but remembering his annoying comments, I didn't understand why. He can only cause trouble, I thought. Don't get involved.

Two days later, Mark asked if I'd like to go running.

Pleased, I said, "Sure, I like to run."

Jogging down the station's dirt road, he turned to smile at me. "I can run better if I think about something really nice."

Short of breath, I simply smiled back. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed he watched me — and continued to do so for a while. I wondered: Was I "something really nice"? A warm glow spread through me to think maybe I was. When we finished our run, Mark asked me to his quarters for dinner. Not a big deal, I thought, knowing we wouldn't be alone or anything. Those of us living at Florida often shared meals.

The next evening, Mark and I hit the Florida Trail to test out our fire packs before we'd need them. Virtually effervescent from our nonstop talking and laughing, the feeling continued into the next day ... until late afternoon, out of nowhere, his attention waned. Was I now invisible and insignificant? Confused, I went for a walk that night, feeling rejected and wondering what I'd done. Plus, I'd drifted from my "don't get involved" stance already, which infuriated me.

Still ruminating in the morning, I took an arduous, solo hike up to Florida Saddle, tackling the loose rock and tight switchbacks of the first two miles to reach pines — the whole point of going. Water gurgled inside a trailside pipe, the station's water source. Maybe I could fill my canteen at the spring. A Steller's jay scolded me for daring to enter his territory. Intruder alert! he squawked. Once in the forest of Douglas fir and ponderosa, I perched on a rock to sort my thoughts. Was I too ugly for Mark? Or maybe he is just full of shit.

Confusion unresolved, too soon I needed to slide and skid down to beat sunset. I returned to find the guys drinking at Mark's quarters. They invited me to join them. I figured, why not? Maybe it would improve my mood. I sat on the couch between Mark and Scott, one of our fire prevention technicians whom I'd talked with often. Mark rested his arm on the couch behind me, fingers touching my shoulder, giving me pleasant tingles. Then Scott discretely took my hand, doubling the sensation. To make it even more surreal, when Mark left, Tom, our tanker crew foreman and someone I also enjoyed talking to, took his place and my hand. Not only was all of this attention overwhelming, but mind-boggling. What in the world did they see in me?

However, their flirting delighted my soul, and like a cactus in a brief summer rain, I soaked up every solitary drop.

THE LAST DAY of May had started out as usual. I woke early, listening to the wistful calls of mourning doves, bed springs squeaking as I shifted onto my back to get comfortable. Dusky daylight filtered into the bedroom of my U.S. Forest Service living quarters. A new sound, footsteps crunching gravel, approached my open bedroom window.

Glenn spoke through the screen. "Linda? We've got a fire."

OhmyGodOhmyGod! I sat up straight. "Okay! Be right there!"

Hands trembling with nervous excitement, I marathon dressed in my Levi's, chambray work shirt, and added a yellow Nomex fire shirt. Red Wing boots tied, hardhat snatched off the kitchen table, I dashed over to the office located behind my quarters, raring to go.

"We're the only ones here," Glenn said, his mouth tight in a flat line. "Don't these guys know it's fire season?"

As the assistant Fire Control Officer, their absence annoyed him. He picked up the phone and dialed Scott at home in Tucson. Next he called crewmate Joe, who lived in nearby Madera Canyon.

After hanging up, Glenn strode over to an old wooden dresser which served as the coffee station. He filled a mug, plopped two sugar cubes into the dark liquid, and took a sip. Steel-blue eyes glanced over at me from beneath a weathered gray Stetson. "Might as well take a seat. It'll be 'bout hour 'till they get here."

What? Why weren't we gone already? This made no sense. Wasn't a fire supposed to be some kind of emergency?

With no other choice, I sat, anxious, waiting to go to my first fire. Good thing I'd trained with my crew of ten just last week. We'd even had a mock fire drill, complete with smoke bombs, which fooled everyone but me. I saw through the charade. But would that be enough? A nugget of self-doubt crept in.

A long fifty-five minutes later, two pickup trucks roared into the complex. Packs loaded into our truck, Scott, Joe, and I sped out of the complex, dust clouds billowing in our wake. Two miles later, Scott hit the paved road to Madera Canyon, his foot heavy on the accelerator. A column of smoke rose beneath the rocky bluffs of Mt. Wrightson, the Santa Rita Mountains' highest peak at over nine thousand feet. My stomach fluttered — this smoke was the real thing.

We turned off the pavement and started up a rough four-wheel-drive fire access road, my seat belt cinching tighter with every bump. I struggled to readjust, only to have it squeeze me again the next time we hit a rock. The next jolt I narrowly missed bashing my head on the roof — saved by my hardhat. Sunlight slanted through tree tops, warning of the impending heat. With Tucson's predicted high near one hundred degrees, it'd be hot up there, even at six thousand feet, but all I thought about was tackling that forest fire.

The road ended, and we jumped out of the truck. Pack shifted into position, Pulaski in hand, I followed Scott and Joe as they scrambled up and over a ridge toward our blaze.

Emerging at the top of a lichen-covered rockslide, I got my first look at my first fire. Stiff down slope breezes pushed the heavy sweet-smelling smoke to a canyon of sycamores and cottonwoods. Wind-fanned flames crackled and popped as they consumed brush and lower limbs of ponderosa pines. I stood mesmerized and apprehensive, but unafraid. Time to go to work. I turned to Scott for instructions.

"Joe. Take Linda and flank the fire, then pinch it off at the bottom. I'll tackle the head, then move to the other side and meet up with you guys. Let's see if we can catch this sucker before the winds switch."

Fire training had taught me that winds flow downhill at night, and uphill during the day. Fire burns much faster upslope, pre-heating the vegetation ahead of it. Faster than anyone can run. Dangerous. Deadly. We sure wanted to stop this fire before it made an uphill run, when there might be no stopping it.

Scott disappeared across the rockslide, while Joe and I began building line. Fire snapped through tawny grasses, creeping steadily in its search for more fuel. Adrenaline pumped through every vein, pushing me to dig faster. My fire pack bumped my elbow. I shoved it back. Another bump. Joe suggested we ditch our packs on the opposite side of our newly built line, where they'd be safe.

Back to work, digging, chopping, moving debris away from the flames to keep them from advancing. Extreme heat prickled my face, stinging like needles. Sweat burned my eyes. I looked up to see Joe had stopped working, and was staring behind us. "Uh oh ..."

CHAPTER 3

SO MUCH FOR our fire gear.

Now, rehydrated, Joe and I joined the twenty hotshots and the rest of our crew to finish containing the ten-acre Kent Fire with a line around the perimeter. It didn't take long with so many hands.

"Okay, guys, let's take a break," Scott said. "Helicopter flew in some Crations."

I sat, but felt guilty — as though I should keep working until I'd personally snuffed out every flame. Sitting did feel good, though. Almost too good. What if I couldn't get up again? But I rejoiced in sips of spectacular, wonderful, and oh-so-wet water. I couldn't get enough.

Tom fished through the stack of cardboard boxes containing our meals. "Oh, goody. C-rats. Good enough for Vietnam platoons, good enough for us. What's your pleasure? We've got spaghetti with meatballs, beef stew, tuna ..."

"I'll take a tuna," I said, unable to imagine eating cold spaghetti, or beef stew, no matter how starving I was. A tiny P-38 can opener had the lid off in seconds. I forked a mouthful and chewed. What else hid inside the box? Kind of like delving into a Christmas stocking: A one-inch tall bottle of Tabasco sauce, rock-hard Chicklets gum, fruit cocktail, and canned crackers. That amused me; I'd never heard of canned crackers. What else? Waterproof matches and a package of toilet paper the size of a cigarette lighter. Seriously?

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Summers of Fire"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Linda Strader.
Excerpted by permission of Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company.
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.

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Summers of Fire: A Memoir 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous 11 months ago
Stirring and inspirational, Linda Strader’s ‘ Summers of Fire A Memoir’ documents one woman’s struggle to follow her dream. Entering the male- dominated world of firefighting, Strader demonstrates how courage, determination and a thick skin enabled her to overcome obstacles and accomplish her goals.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A welcome addition to our growing literature of fire memoirs, and one that moves fire season beyond an adventure into a time in a larger life.