Wildfire is a tough, gritty, and fascinating story from an exciting new voice in American fiction. Fans of the movie Backdraft or Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild will enjoy this fast paced debut.
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By Mary Lowry
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2014 by Mary Pauline Lowry
All rights reserved.
THE VAST SADNESS OF THE GREAT PLAINS stretched out to the east of the highway, an expanse running all the way to the horizon. To the west, the short-grass flatlands erupted into the beauty of the Front Range, the craggy peaks an oceanic blue against the lighter blue of the early morning sky, their tips snagging little wisps of drifting clouds.
At the Monument exit, I pulled off the highway to fill my tank and ask directions. I eyed a pickup polished to a high shine, the battered deer in the back obviously the victim of a car rather than a hunter's bullet.
Inside the gas station I spotted a muscular man with a compact build wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt spattered with deer blood. He carried himself with the angry confidence of a military man. As I headed to the coolers in the back for a bottle of water, I could overhear his conversation with the cashier.
"Hey Tan, sheriff call you about that deer?" the cashier asked.
"Yup. Someone hit it off County Road 240. This big buck will get us through till we go on the boards."
I walked toward the counter as the cashier set down a tin of Copenhagen. The man called Tan slid money to the cashier and then opened up the tin, putting a pinch of tobacco in his bottom lip.
I set my bottle of water on the counter. "Can you tell me how to get to the Pike Fire Center?"
The cashier's face remained impassive. "Hmm. Tan, can you help this young lady out?"
Tan turned to me. "Pike Fire Center? You got business there?" "I'm on the hotshot crew," I said. "I mean, I just got hired on."
"Well, then, you'll wanna head west out of here, right at County Road 220, at the tracks head west again. Fifteen miles from the tracks you'll see the signs."
"Thanks." I headed outside, and the door swung shut behind me.
I followed Tan's directions to a T, and after eighteen miles down the county road I still hadn't seen the Fire Center. I kept glancing at the clock on the dashboard. When I spotted an old man pulling a fishing rod from his truck bed, I pulled over.
"Excuse me. Is the Pike Fire Center this way? Or did I miss the turn?"
The old man studied me. "The Fire Center? Go back the way you came, about twenty miles. Take a right when the road hits a fork. Pass the gas station. Go another ten miles. Take a right at Dirty Woman Park. That'll be a dirt road. Keep on that a few miles and you'll see the signs."
My car trailed a plume of dust as I drove past the PIKE INTERAGENCY HOTSHOT CREW sign down the washboard road through the forest. A pond winked in the morning sunlight. Open meadows bursting with lupine and paintbrushes were visible between the stands of ponderosa, which cast long shadows across my path. Up ahead the Fire Center appeared, nothing more than a cluster of old wooden buildings with green roofs tucked up against Mount Herman.
To the right sat what I would soon learn was a big, spacious classroom built into the side of the foothills. Just behind it was the superintendent's office, stone stairs running up the side of the hill to the door. The Piker bunkhouse, to the left of the road, sat low, squat, and plain. Behind it was the little shack of a kitchen. A crew of twenty men, all of them wearing green pants and gray T-shirts, stood gathered outside the kitchen between a stone barbecue pit and three picnic tables.
I sped by, hurriedly parking in the dirt lot. I climbed from my car and jogged toward the group of men, slowing to a walk as I reached them. The man holding a clipboard trailed off and they all turned to stare at me.
"Jesus, the splittail." It was Tan who spoke. He grinned at what must have been my shocked look.
"You're late," the man with the clipboard said. I recognized his voice from my phone interview. This was Douglas, the Pike superintendent.
"I'm sorry, I —"
Douglas held up his hand to silence me.
A tall guy with a shaved head and gap-toothed grin spoke up. "Last time we had a girl on the crew, she gave at least five of us the wild herp."
"Rock Star!" Douglas barked. "Enough."
The crew quieted. Douglas continued as if the interruption of my arrival hadn't occurred. "I was saying — Each of you should know your employment status is conditional. You can't hang with training — you don't pass every PT test — you go home, rookie or vet. Got it?"
The Pikers nodded and I nodded with them. "Can we just send the princess home now?" Tan asked.
Douglas ignored Tan. "We'll be doing our yearly classroom training, too."
A red-faced guy with a big belly and a build like a brick shithouse groaned.
"Forest Service regs," Douglas said. "To get your red card, you gotta do your two weeks' training. No matter how many times you've done it before. And we don't need to be in the classroom yet for me to start hammering you about my number one rule of fire. Hawg?"
The big-bellied guy replied, "Keep your backpack on at all times."
Douglas held up a gray backpack with a small rectangular pouch attached to the bottom. "I know some of you've heard it from me before, but I drill it into you for a reason. You keep your backpack on because your backpack holds your fire shelter." Douglas yanked the fire shelter from the pouch on the bottom of the pack. "If the fire ever blows up and we can't get to a safety zone, you climb inside one of these and hope to God it doesn't fail when the fire burns over."
The crew listened to Douglas with a respectful silence.
"I think I'd rather make a run for it than try my luck in that piece of tinfoil." I turned to see who spoke. It was a young guy, who looked a little too soft to be on a hotshot crew. He had on the same green pants as the rest of the crew, but no crew T-shirt, so I guessed he must be the only other rookie on the crew. The Pikers looked at him with disdain.
"Most of the men on Paloma Canyon last year who didn't make it had your same idea," Douglas said. "They were trying to outrun a fire blowing uphill at forty miles an hour. Fourteen firefighters died that day. Ten of them hotshots."
A long silence hung in the air before Douglas clapped his hands. "We're gonna do paperwork and check out gear."
The picnic tables where we stood faced a small dirt parking lot where three Suburbans and a saw truck, all Forest Service green with the Pike logo on the side, sat parked. A stand of trees separated it from another dirt lot for the Pikers' vehicles, where I had parked my car. Alongside the Piker rigs and just across the road from the office stood the two-story Saw Cache. Taller and more imposing than any of the other buildings, the Saw Cache was clearly the heart of the Fire Center. A life-sized cutout of Smokey Bear hung from the side of the building, along with a sign that read, WELCOME TO THE PIKE INTERAGENCY HOTSHOT CREW.
The guy called Rock Star exited the Saw Cache. "Princess, Archie, you're up for checking out gear."
I hurried toward the doorway behind Archie, a tall, lean Piker with auburn hair and a goatee, and stopped just inside, arrested by the space. Work counters had been built out of plywood and unfinished boards. Rows of fire tools hung from one wall, and a grinder for sharpening them hunkered in the corner. Tobacco stains covered the concrete floor. A wooden ladder reached up through a hole in the ceiling. The shiplap walls had long disappeared behind posters — Stihl chainsaw ads and giant black-and-white photographs of men cutting down enormous trees with misery whips hung next to busty blondes drinking Budweiser. The remnants of a small fire had begun to die out in the potbellied stove. Accustomed as I was to the cold majesty of my grandmother's house and the impersonal space of my rented college apartment, the sudden urge to belong in the Saw Cache overcame me.
I stopped in front of a couple of Stihl chainsaws sitting on a work counter. The saw bars glinted in the light. "Don't look too close. Those are for the saw team," Archie said.
Above the chainsaws hung a photo of a younger looking Archie and Rock Star standing with an older man in front of a lake, all three of them holding up fish.
"That's me and Rock Star fishing up at Ice Lakes with my dad a few years ago."
In the photo Rock Star grinned wildly; Archie looked more relaxed. Standing next to him I felt a calm reliability coming off of him.
"Don't even think about getting comfortable in here." I turned to see Tan standing in the doorway. "The Saw Cache is for sawyers and swampers only." He spat on the top of the potbellied stove, and the spit curled into a ball, sizzling and dancing from the heat.
Archie gestured at the ladder, and I climbed it up to the attic, Archie's reddish brown head popping up through the hole in the floor after me. The attic was bright with sunlight falling through the three skylights above. We walked together toward the giant walk-in storage closet where Douglas stood next to a tall, lanky, weathered man with leathery skin and a smiling face.
"Julie, Sam Magrue. You're gonna be on Sam's squad this season. He's your squad boss."
Sam and I shook hands, and then Sam moved quickly to pile gear up at our feet. Archie and I each received a canvas red bag, a sleeping bag in a stuff sack, a one-man tent, a hard hat, a backpack, a silver fire shelter in a clear plastic box, a head lamp, a space blanket, a red, long-sleeved wool shirt, a knit cap, four quart-sized plastic water bottles, and an MRE.
Archie began to rifle through the big shelves of green Nomex pants and yellow buttoned-down Nomex shirts on the back wall. Many of the shirts, though washed, were still black with ash. I pulled out a bright shirt wrapped in clear plastic. "Look! A new one, a small," I said, excited by my find. Archie glanced over at me and smiled, bemused.
"You sure that's the one you want?" I tucked the shirt under my arm, a little defensively.
"You let me, I'll keep an eye out for you," he said. "Teach you some things."
"I never fought fire before," I said. "I'm a little nervous."
"Seems to me you should be."
We hiked hard and fast away from the Fire Center toward Mount Herman. Following no trail, we traveled straight through the forest, scrambling over dead and downed trees. Dry needle duff crunched beneath my boots, the air sweet with the resinous scent of ponderosa pine. Meadowy patches between the trees burst with purple alpine fireweed. Blue forget-me-nots pushed up through cracks in gray stones. I wore my new green pants made of fire-resistant Nomex, my backpack full of gear, a blue hard hat listing to one side of my head; I carried a chingadero. The tool looked like a short-handled shovel with the blade bent at a 90 degree angle. All the other Pikers' shirts had been permanently blackened by ash. My bright yellow shirt fresh out of the package was like a neon sign screaming, "Rookie!"
Douglas led the single-file line of twenty, and behind him I could see three sawyers with their chainsaws slung over their shoulders. Behind the sawyers hiked the three swampers and then the rest of us, the diggers, followed suit. I was smack in the middle of the line, behind Hawg. The baggy Nomex felt oddly comfortable, familiar on my frame, but my hard hat kept tilting to one side. On Douglas's recommendation, I had spent $300 a few weeks before on my new White's fire boots. I still wasn't used to their high arch, thick lug soles, and big heel. And the stiff leather uppers rubbed the tops of my ankles raw in no time.
I'd run three marathons in the previous two years, and I'd been hitting the weights hard, so there was no risk I'd fall out, but hiking with a pack was a different enough form of exercise to make me hurt. My legs burned and sweat trickled from my forehead into my eyes. In trying to keep close to Hawg, I accidentally bumped into him. "Watch it, Rookie," he said. After that, he held his Pulaski just below the axhead, swinging it carefully back and forth so that anytime I came too close to him the handle whacked me in the thigh.
The sun had risen higher in the sky, hot and bright at altitude, and I wished myself confident enough to reach back and try to pull a quart of water from a side pouch of my new pack. We'd been climbing straight up the face of Mount Herman for a half hour, my thighs and lungs screaming, when Douglas started yelling.
"Fire in the crowns! We've lost our line."
Sam and the crew's three other squad bosses joined Douglas in hollering at us.
"Grab your shelter, water bottle, gloves," Sam barked. "Drop your packs."
"Shelter, water bottle, gloves. Run for the clearing. Stay together," another squad boss yelled.
I fumbled to undo the plastic clasps at my chest and waist. When my pack hit the ground, I crouched down, trying to unsnap the rectangular canvas holster that held my fire shelter. "Might want to hurry it up, princess," Hawg said. He turned and hauled ass up the mountain. I finally yanked the clear plastic box free, then opened up my pack and pulled out my gloves. I dropped a glove, crouched to pick it up, dropped the other. Most of the crew had already begun sprinting up the mountain ahead of me, so I gave up on my water bottle, and headed after them.
My hard hat wobbled to the side and fell off and I kept running on without it, my lungs burning, sweat blinding me, my boots ripping at the flesh of my feet and ankles. Up ahead I saw the other Pikers pull their shiny silver fire shelters from their boxes and shake them open to complete this shelter training drill. The landscape around me filled with flapping aluminum. I followed suit. "Step on the back with your heels!" Douglas yelled at me. I tried, but my boot heels didn't catch, and the Pikers around me disappeared one by one under their silver tents. Finally, I managed to pin down the back of the shelter with my feet, and I fell forward onto my stomach, pulling the silver shelter over my head as I went. The world disappeared, and I was alone inside the silver pup tent.
I held down the front end with my hands and took shallow breaths in the sudden darkness, the tent tiny and dark and hot. I lay there for what seemed like an hour, the inside of the tent heating up by degrees under the sun, feeling a sudden and overwhelming sense of panic rising inside me. Suddenly I could imagine what it would be like, to be trapped inside such flimsy protection waiting for a forest fire to roll over me. I took shallow breaths as the panic rose and grabbed the edge of the shelter so hard my fingers hurt. My chest tightened and a stabbing pain shot through my sternum. I couldn't breathe at all, and then I was bursting out into the bright air to Douglas yelling, "What are you doing? Julie, you just got burned over. You're dead." The four squad bosses stared at me, smirking and annoyed. Deployed fire shelters littered the meadow around us, every other Piker remaining inside their scant protection, unburned, dignity intact, listening gleefully to my humiliation.
We stopped in a clearing in the foothills bright with wild columbine and white meadow stones baking in the sun. Four Stihl chainsaws that the squad bosses had staged lay there in the grass.
Douglas stopped in front of them. "Gather up!" We gathered in a circle around them. Hawg stood next to me. He sniffed the air. "Princess comes to training wearing her Chanel No. 5." The other Pikers laughed.
"It's called soap," I said. "You should try it sometime."
Douglas quieted us all with a look. "Only three guys on a crew run a saw, but everybody's gonna get their Class A Faller cert. Tan, let's start it out simple for the rookies.
Tan — showing off — picked up the saw, set it on his leg, and gave the cord a yank. The saw roared to life. He let it die.
"I said simple," Douglas said. "Not everyone here was a SEAL."
Tan obliged, demonstrating the much easier move of starting the saw with it lying on the ground. Again, the saw came to life on the first yank. As he let it die, Tan looked up at me. "Princess, why don't you give it a try?" All twenty Pikers turned to stare at me, amused.
I wiped my palms on my pants as I stepped forward, bent down, and grabbed the chainsaw with one hand to stabilize it. I pulled the saw cord hard. A sputter and then nothing. I didn't look up but could feel every set of eyes on me. Another frustrated yank yielded the same lack of results.
"Before you can run a saw, you gotta be able to start one," Tan said, and the Pikers busted up laughing. I gave the saw cord another pull. When it didn't start, the Pikers hooted and laughed harder. I gave two more furious yanks, and the saw came to life with a roar.
That first night I crept down the bunkhouse hallway to the women's bathroom where I stuck my fingers down my throat to bring up my dinner. The roar filled my head, and then the savage, light-headed rush, followed by the holy feeling of being clean, emptied out, and in control.
Excerpted from Wildfire by Mary Lowry. Copyright © 2014 by Mary Pauline Lowry. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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