The fire that burns inside those who fight flames

It's been 25 years since I put on a yellow fire shirt and green fire pants and lugged a shovel to a forest fire, but fighting fire has been on my mind since seven local firefighters died in a helicopter crash Aug. 5 in Northern California.

I worked three summers in the early '80s on an engine crew on the Prospect Ranger District of what was then the Rogue River National Forest. We went to a few big fires and plenty of small ones. We did lots of controlled burning, too.

"Setting the woods on fire so the woods wouldn't burn," we called it.

It's hard for people who have never fought fire to understand the attraction of such strange work. Some folks say it's the money, and that's certainly part of it.

There are few legitimate ways for people with limited job skills and little work experience to earn so much cash so fast. I know a 21-year-old from Grants Pass who took home a $2,500 check for a two-week stint this summer for working the fires near Happy Camp.

But there's more to firefighting than the fat pay checks. It's really about fire itself. Scratch a firefighter and you'll likely find someone who's attracted to the flames just like a moth. There's nothing in the ordinary world that matches the sheer power and awesome spectacle of large-scale fire. Nothing like the terrible beauty of a hillside in flames at night.

Nobody stays in wildland fire for long unless that primal connection burns deep inside. There are easier, safer ways to make money than standing in hot ashes on a 100-degree day, chipping away at a smoldering stump with a hand tool.

Besides the money and the attraction of the flames, there's a measure of excitement and intensity in firefighting that I haven't found in any other work. It's about as close to going to war as you can get without the shooting.

The military comparisons are obvious. Firefighters have their uniforms, and there's a chain of command any soldier would recognize. There are hours of boredom in between moments of heart-stopping intensity.

An intense camaraderie develops when you're doing brutal physical work 10 or 12 hours a day with the same people for days on end. When your shift is over, you eat with them and sleep with them, and you watch out for them while they watch out for you.

Like soldiers, firefighters are deployed to a place they've never seen before. Flames crackle a stone's throw away, and smoke drifts across the landscape, obscuring your vision and irritating your eyes until the tears run. Now and then a helicopter buzzes overhead, dropping hundreds of gallons of water just uphill from where you're standing.

Big airplanes lumber in now and then just above the trees, showering purple rain on the fire and sometimes on you and your crew.

Your crew boss is talking on the radio to his bosses, trying to understand what the fire's doing so he can keep you and the rest of his crew safe if the wind and weather change suddenly.

There's a clear sense of purpose in firefighting that's often lacking in other jobs. Firefighters know exactly what they're supposed to do — whether it's dig line, mop up hot spots, or search for tiny spot fires beyond the line.

There's danger, too — stumpholes that can swallow you up, nests of angry yellow jackets, rattlesnakes, rolling rocks, falling trees, smoke from poison oak that can infect your lungs.

Everybody knows the risks and hears about the occasional fatality, but nobody really expects to become a statistic. You're probably more likely to die in your car than on the fireline.

Wildland firefighting isn't supposed to get you killed. It's supposed to give you memories.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or

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