*The names have been changed
The road wound up a steep logging unit. Four of us sat among our line gear, pulaskis, and drip torches in the back of a Forest Service truck. We bumped over ruts, and I admired the view--a panorama of snow crested mountains covered in dark-green, mixed-conifers. The guys with me seemed to be admiring it too. Their eyes gleamed beneath white hard hats. I think we all shared a sense of pride in our mission and an appreciation for where it took us that day.
Conducting a prescribed burn with such a small group in the Lolo National Forest of Montana was a special thing.
Specifically, our task was to start at the peak of the unit, and using drip torches, we would drag fire down a ridge line. As we pulled the fire down, a helicopter would ignite the slope above our position using a plastic sphere dispenser (PSD). Basically, it’d drop little plastic ping pong balls filled with a flammable mix and create ringlets of fire that’d converge as they burned on impact. The blackline we created down the ridge would then prevent the helicopter’s fire from crossing onto another aspect of the mountain. We wanted to make sure all the built up fuel on our slope was consumed to prevent future wildfires as well as to promote healthy forest regeneration.
Sometimes putting fires out in an ecosystem that depends on them can feel wrong, but I always enjoy putting fire back in it. When burning a logging unit, you know, too, that you are doing something vital for the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on lumber, from the loggers to homebuilders to everyone who lives in a home.
Everyone depends on the forest, the forest depends on fire, and we would hold the torches that created it.
Several hundred feet from the top of the unit, the four of us in the back of the truck hopped out, put on our line packs, grabbed the pulaskis in one hand and the torches in the other. We belonged to the same wildland fire crew, and after I had worked with them for a six month season the previous summer, I knew them well. Collins also joined us from the passenger seat of the truck cab. I’d only just met him, but he was friendly and wore a belt buckle that signified he’d spent at least three seasons on the crew to which we belonged before taking the position he then held in a different district. That day he would be in charge of our operation.
The winds were light and the temperature cool, high clouds, a blue sky. The unstable atmospheric conditions meant the smoke would rise and clear out of the valleys to the relief of the few people who lived throughout. We took a moment to let the truck turn around and drive back downhill where we’d meet it much later that evening. Then the five of us started hiking up and over snow drifts to our starting location.
“Are you ready?” Collins asked once we arrived.
Before we pulled fire down the ridge, we would first drag a few strips across the top of the section, which came to a point where our ridge and a ridge on the other side came together. We did not want the fire skipping over top of the mountain either. We nodded our assent and unscrewed the locking ring on top of our torches, pulled the spout from out of the can, and flipped it over. Then we tightened the locking ring back down, loosened the air breather valve, and poured fuel over the wick and onto the ground. The fuel mixture was approximately .9 gallons diesel and .3 gallons gasoline. 3 to 1. If it’s mixed with too much gas, it burns too hot. If there is too much diesel, it won’t burn hot enough. We had ours just right. Deblois lit a small fire with his lighter, and we all fired our torches off of that.
Collins would monitor the strips on the first ridge and let us know when we needed to take more. Smith, one of our squad leaders and an eight year veteran of the crew, walked over to the other ridge–about 100 yards. He would do the same. Both of them were prepared to call us over the small handheld radios that we all carried if we needed to make adjustments. The remaining three of us lined out going down hill, fifteen feet of spacing in between each person.
“Do you want to light a test fire?” Collins asked Deblois.
Delbois stood at the top of the line, I was in the middle, and O’Donnell was last.
Deblois affirmed he’d light the test fire, and he dotted in a few spots that were characteristic of the fuel we’d be burning--light grasses and pine slash. The uphill wind stoked the fire and a short flame length continued to carry it at a moderate speed.
“Looks good,” Collins said. “Send it.”
At that, Deblois paralleled the slope, periodically dotting and burning piles of slash or dragging lines across the grass to create one strip of fire that carried to the snowdrift road bed where it held. After Deblois had gone about 20 yards, I began creating a strip, and after I went about 20 yards, O’Donnell went. If anything did go wrong, being spaced out in this way allowed the person at the top to drop below the other guys. Fire backs downhill much more slowly, and it rarely has the wind in its favor.
When each of us got to the other ridge, where Smith was, he radioed that we were “tied in.”
“Okay,” Collins said. “We’ll give this thing a few minutes to come together and cool down a little before taking another strip.”
A few minutes passed, and we took another strip. On the way back, I noticed a large burning snag leaning at a perilous angle against another tree. Shit, I thought, I better skirt this thing quickly, because there was really no other option to go around the path it could fall. I also looked back to see if I could holler at O’Donnell and give him a heads up, but he hadn’t rounded the bend on the slope. Maybe, I should radio him, I thought, and after wavering on the issue for another few seconds, I decided I was wasting time and better get going. Besides, while it was O’Donnell’s first year on the crew, I didn’t think he was beyond possessing the instinct to know that he should be wary of the thing. After we both made it safely to the other side, and in between catching my breath and sipping from my Camelback, I asked him:
“Did you see that snag? It would have been uphill for you a little ways...a spooky one... had a hard lean and fire running up.
“Oh no, I didn’t see it,” he said
Damn, I thought. I probably should have radioed.
“Well, shoot, man,” I said, “keep your head up.”
We were fortunate to have O’Donnell. A good sawyer, a take-charge EMT, he was intelligent and technically skilled at the job in ways that I–a line digger and occasional torch handler–was not. This gave him confidence in his place on the crew, which was well earned after several years working for another district. I appreciated being able to look over my shoulder and see guys and gals like him, and this, beyond the normal responsibility that the job entrusts, imbued an even deeper concern for their safety.
We passed back and forth several more times, until we were secure in our knowledge that once the helicopter started dropping spheres, everything would hold in place. Then we all regrouped on the ridgeline where we started to wait for the aerial operation to commence. However, we’d soon learn that the PSD device had issues and would need repair. Whether or not we’d even be able to complete the burn was a question that hung over us for a couple hours while we talked and waited.
Collins and Smith knew each other from their time working on the crew. “How are the wife and kids?” he asked.
“Good,” Collins said, “Cody and Rhea started back to school in February. They were doing remote learning through the winter. Melanie is still cutting hair…”
“And how old are they now?"
“Cody is six, Rhea is ten.”
“They’re getting old, it’s been a while since I’ve seen them.”
“Yea, well you ought to stop by the place sometime.”
“Out there past_______, right? You got yourself a little spread?”
“I got a few acres to toil around on.”
“Nice, Katie and I are looking for a place. Everything is just so damn expensive now. We’re having a hard time finding anything...”
As Collins and Smith talked, the fire edged towards us and caught inside a downed log, which proceeded to blast us with a wave of heat. We resettled just down from the log and pulled lunches from our bags. After some back and forth radio traffic, we were still no more certain about the status of the helicopter.
“What do you got there? Is that a hotdog” Collins pointed to Deblois’s lunch.
“You know it! I’m going to roast one of these weenies up.”
He attached the hotdog to a stick and walked over to the fire but was soon repelled by the heat.
“Well, shoot. Looks like I’m going to be eating them raw.” He grabbed it off the stick, wolfed it down, and proceeded to pull another from his pack.
“Gross,” Smith said while digging into a tupperware of something more appetizing.
“Protein.” Deblois responded.
Deblois was one of the youngest on the crew. He was tall and lean, had a disheveled black beard and dark excitable features. He was also a true outdoorsman in the sense that, when not firefighting during the summer, he foraged for mushrooms, fished, hunted, or skied. He wintered at a tree nursery far outside town, which he took care of in exchange for free rent, and as far as I knew, he trained almost exclusively by climbing the snow covered hills. Among us, few could run or hike a chainsaw faster.
Collins and Deblois were acquainted and took a little time to catch up before Collins turned to me.
“So, Wright...Smith tells me you’re a vet...Army right?”
“Yep, I spent a little over four years there. You too?”
“Yea, I did one enlistment with the 82nd. I was a medic.”
“Hey! A paratrooper. That’s cool. I served with 2nd Ranger Batt a couple years and with 3rd Brigade 1st Armored.
We both stared off a little while, keeping an eye on the fire, admiring the mountains, perhaps contemplating the intersecting path that brought us there. That was on mind, anyway, but even as a veteran talking to another veteran, I am light to probe. I could be talking to someone who feels the weight of men he’s killed. I could be talking to someone who has seen his buddies die, or someone who is simply working out the role they played in a war that, looking back, they’re not quite sure of. There’s an unraveling, and about the best way I’ve found to go about it is by sharing experiences. So, I asked him:
“Did you do any deployments?”
“12 months in Afghanistan.”
“Me too. Well, I did a 6 month tour and a 9 month tour. For the most part, I was on a FOB just south of Kabul. FOB Shank. Where’d you end up?”
“We were on this little COP in Paktika. It bordered Pakistan. And I don’t know whose idea it was to put it there, but the place was completely surrounded by mountains, so that was fun, getting pot shots taken at us from up there every other day.”
“Oh shit. That’s the Hindu Kush, right?”
“Yea. I think so.
“Man, we flew out to a little COP like that when I was with Batt. They were trying to break it down and take it out, but every time the copters came in for men or supplies, they took fire. So, our mission was to post up in the hills and set up ambush points. I wonder if we were at the same place. What year were you there?”
“Shit, maybe… I was there in 2010. I remember crawling off a Chinook at night, loaded down with all my gear. We got to this spot and in the morning I noticed all these fighting positions. Someone said it was the same spot where a guy from 173rd, or I think he was 173rd, got the bronze star. Apparently the Taliban overran their position while they were there and shot a guy and tried to drag him off, but this soldier ran in, killed several Taliban, and drug his buddy back to safety.”
“That was Juden, I’m pretty sure. Tyler Juden. He was in the 82nd and stationed at the COP before I got there.”
“No shit. So you think we were at the same place? That’s f*cking wild!?”
Again we both took some time for contemplation. The other guys ate their lunch and looked on. I really couldn’t believe the circumstances though–that we could have been at the same small outpost, and on top of the same mountain even, in a remote part of Afghanistan, and then again, there we were, sharing something of a similar experience on a remote mountain in Montana. I had before reflected on that short mission in the Hindu Kush and even wrote about it–how we spent three nights up there, how we never saw a soul, but only heard several bombs from a plane dropped on a couple who we thought might be headed our way. The obscurity of time and the fallibility of memory always made connecting the actual pieces of events together a challenge, and what I was left with, and what it felt like in that moment, was a person confirming the actuality of what might have otherwise been a dream.
“F*ck man, that’s wild,” I repeated.
“Yea...Juden though, you know, he was killed later while riding in a humvee. This was a different place, and it was a patrol I might have been on. They shot an RPG through the door.”
Later, I would look up Juden (which was his real name). And I would see him in his Class A uniform, a red beret on his head, a blue chord on his shoulder, his chest lined with medals and an airborne pin, and his sleeve with the 82nd airborne patch and sergeant bars. I would read about how he was a track athlete and how he planned to get out of the army and be a teacher like his parents who survived him. He was 23 when he was killed, but he looked every bit a man who’d seen and intimately knew the dangers of the world. I would feel something like a connection to him and a sense of loss when I viewed his photo, but at that moment there was only the fire, and the guys who were with me, and the anticipation of continuing the task at hand.
About 30 minutes later, the radio call came in. We were good to go.
“Alright, let's get lined back out,” Collins said. “We’ll go three, two, one, spaced out 10 feet, parallel to the ridgeline. We can just keep the same order between you. I’ll track with the burners...Smith, would you like to drop below us and watch for rollout?”
“Sounds good to me.” Smith said, and with that, we proceeded.
The strips of fire that we put down burned well into each other and created a solid line of black that hemmed the helicopters work in just as we planned. At the bottom of the burn we spread out and monitored sprinklers that had been set up prior in order to cool the area down, so nothing would escape into the ravine just below us and threaten to jump the road, which was the ultimate ending point. By the time we got there, it was already late evening, and I admired the flame as the sun fell. There were a couple points where I dug a trench to catch burning material, while remaining vigilant, so that the burning material didn’t catch me.
Right before dark we pulled off the hill and walked back to the truck feeling the satisfaction of a job well done. Collins and our crew parted ways at that point, and little more was said between me and him than we were glad to meet each other. On the drive back to our clubhouse, I asked Smith what years Collins had been on the crew. 2014-2017 he thought. A few days later I’d look for his picture among the crew on a wall of our clubhouse where all the crew photos dating back to the 60’s are lined. 2014. 2015. 2016–the year one of our own crew members had been killed on a fire–and there Collins was a year later too.
I’m not sure Collins and I will ever meet again, and if we did, that we'd even need to say anything more about our deployments.