Touched by fire | The Arizona fire disaster hits home
We called them “shake-and-bakes.”
Thin, silver, metallic, fire resistant to 500 degrees (after that the glue melts), we carried them on our belts at all times—a two-pound, eight-inch-square sunny yellow case of metal and fabric, a last and always desperate defense against a fire run amok.
Only the brass called them fire shelters. Hotshot firefighters crews—all firefighters—know better. This past week, in the wake of the horrific disaster in the Arizona forests above Prescott, the rest of the world knows better, too.
There, 19 firefighters lost their lives, many of them after having deployed the shelters—their last best chance against grisly death.
The tactic didn’t work.
We had another name for these “fire shelters” too. We called them “turkey basters.”
We used to laugh as we trained to show we could deploy the turkey basters in two minutes or less.
We would scrape out a man-sized spot on the ground, pull the neatly folded shelter out of the case, shake it out (to the length and breadth of a tall man), step on the two lower corners with leather-booted feet, grab the two upper corners with leather-gloved hands, dive to the ground and lie flat in the dirt, helmets on, faces pressed into the scooped-out breathing space.
They were shake-and-bake bags, they were turkey basters, that’s all. Someday, if luck failed and the winds turned wild, we all knew we could be that turkey.
I joined my first Hotshot firefighting crew, the Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park Arrowhead Hotshots, after three years on several “regular” U.S. Forest Service firefighting crews.
On the last night of my first week of my first summer of fire, a knock on the door sent me and my crew rattling out of bed and suiting up with helmets, gloves, fire retardant shirts and trousers.
We launched ourselves into the big crew carriers sitting at the ready and scuttled out of the rain-soaked Washington forest for the hot dry mountains of Idaho.
I didn’t have a day off for four weeks, and we didn’t come home for eight weeks.
In Idaho’s Salmon River canyons, I watched a six-foot-diameter Ponderosa pine explode in a screaming fireball that rocketed 20,000 feet into the air.
I watched fires fly up the mountain faster than a truck could drive. During the day, the roar of the fire was like the ocean in a storm; during the night, the sky was bright as day.
I ran sidewise across a mountainside so steep the sheep wouldn’t touch it, a fire lapping at my feet.
“Bump it up,” my crew boss yelled, “Run, run, run,” and we ran like wild goats, laughing.
I cut fire line for days in 100-degree summer heat, the fire at my side radiating another 20 degrees of heat, face swathed in a wet handkerchief to cut out the choking smoke.
I cut through brush and sage and we newbies, we “ground pounders,” followed the elite of the crew, the chainsaw “sawyers,” as they cut a firebreak through trees, scraping the soil down to an inorganic level that would not burn when the fire came.
Sometimes we did night shifts and slept in disposable yellow sleeping bags during the day in the hot, noisy helicopter-infested, generator-charged fire camps.
I watched the stars come to earth as we cut, scraped, and scattered the red-gold embers in wide arcs on the bare soil so they would cool in the cold night; a string of fiery sapphires in the dark.
Sometimes trees and roots burned through by fire fell in the dark. We scuttled like beetles when they dropped, peering into the night to see where they had come from.
Sometimes crews working above us on the mountainside dislodged rocks and we heard the yell in the dark, “Rock!” as they careened down the mountain, “Rock!” and we scuttled again, trying to gauge the route of the falling rocks by the sound they made as they crashed through the night.
We cooked burritos on our shovels over the embers during breaks, heated instant coffee in metal cups, and watched the flames over the mountains above us.
I slept for four hours a night, day after day, week after week. I ate 12,000 calories a day and never got enough. I climbed mountains with 20 pounds of gear; a shake and bake, four quarts of drinking water, food and tools. I carried a water-filled bladder bag that held five gallons of water and weighed forty more pounds.
When that first summer was over, I knew I would never go back to being a nanny, which is how I had been putting myself through college up to that point.
Three fiery summers later, when I got an offer to join my first Hotshot crew, I took it.
There were 40 such 20-person crews in the nation then (today there are 100), highly trained, the elite of the wildfire world (excepting the smokejumpers, which were a breed into themselves).
That first fire of my first Hotshot season, I pulled myself up my first mountain by sheer willpower, following a crew that was half goat and half man.
I had just left an exhausting year of college and I was the only woman on the crew.
A good three-quarters of them didn’t want me, or any woman, there. The sooner I dropped out, the happier they would be.
But by the fourth week, I was doing 55 pushups at a time and running four to five miles in a line of 19 men, throwing a soccer ball over my head to the man behind me during non fire days.
Drop any one of the one-two-or-three balls (the number of balls depended on what mood Jim Cook, Arrowhead’s superintendent, was in that morning) on these dreaded “Indian Runs” and the whole crew plunged to the ground to do 25 pushups, then got up and continued to run.
I never dropped the ball.
We shot over to Hawaii one week and fought impossible fires on volcanic slopes where strange trees burned like torches from the inside out and the black mountains were covered with filaments of spun glass called “Pele’s hair.”
We flew to Canada another month and fought fire in a cloud-shrouded rainforest.
Every morning the big helicopter “birds” would come from over the river and pick us up and fly us from fire camp across a teal-blue river to the fire site; the place was so remote there were no bridges.
I rode in a hundred different kinds of aircraft; helicopters that swayed, shook, and rattled; old World War II biplanes; and giant bomber planes that the Forest Service used to carry firefighters and fire retardant instead of bombs. I looked down at the silver rivers and snow-shot mountains and the deep, dark valleys and I didn’t look back.
After they dropped us off on some godforsaken mountaintop for a three-week “spike out,” we would get up on a Tuesday morning and not sleep again until Friday night.
We cut fire line for 24 hours at a time, then fell asleep like old dogs on the short rest breaks, heads cradled on our water bottles.
We didn’t trust anyone except each other and Cook. It tied us together like the proverbial band of brothers, except I wasn’t a brother.
I didn’t see home for months and I made more money in five months than I had in the previous five years.
I never, ever, thought of going back to being a nanny.
I put on the shake-and-bake every day. I wore it every moment and was tested and re-tested on the two-minute rule.
I rued its weight and bulk and I took comfort in it at the same time.
But I knew, like we all knew after being the first line of defense against almost every kind of wildfire imaginable, that if I had to use it, I was likely going to die, and die in a particularly horrific manner: burned alive if the smoke inhalation or superheated air didn’t mercifully kill me first.
I had watched one of my brothers (on another fire crew) almost do so after the crew carrier on which he was riding ran into a wall of flame after a poorly trained boss made a bad decision.
The lack of oxygen cut the engine and he had to flee the truck. His ears burned half off and his helmet melted to his hair.
Today, he carries the scars on his legs and arms like a brand, and his ears are like a child’s: small and pink and delicate.
I also knew there were only 800 of us then—800 men and a few women who would do this insane and miraculous thing we did every day.
I would be lying if I said that didn’t mean something to me, to us, if I said it didn’t mean a lot.
Mostly though, I knew we would rather take the chance of dying in a shake-and-bake than miss the trees flaming in the icy mornings, the fiery embers scattered in the night like stars, and the roar of the big birds coming to pick us up and take us home.