It seems like another lifetime ago now; in 2003 I worked as a wildland fire fighter out at the Mormon Lake guard station on engine 5.1. I’ve worked for the Forest Service in some different capacities after that summer, but it was my favorite time. The terrific men and women I worked with made that season memorable. In particular, my old fire boss, Dave Bales, made that season for me. He was about the same age as I was, but he’d started working for the Forest Service as a teenager and had a tremendous amount of experience. A tall, big fellow, he’d come up the hard way when his first season on a hot shot crew consisted of him pounding away on lead Pulaski day in and day out. “Faster,” was the primary direction he received. Head down, with that curved iron tool he pounded into the rocks and caliche banging out line all summer long.
One evening, after 14 days on, we’d made our way over to Charly’s to listen to some blues, tapping our feet, and leaning heavy into our chairs and beers. He told me about his early days. He joked that it wasn’t until his third year that anyone even bothered to tell him anything about fire science, or how much of anything worked. He pondered those days a bit. He’d been a grunt on huge fire complexes where men had died (early in his career a convict crew had gotten burned up on the next ridge from his). In all his years, he’d felt camaraderie, joy, and energy, but he’d seen plenty of injuries and what fire could really do. Always at the front of his mind was the safety of the crew of engine 5.1.
His actions backed up his thoughts, too. When we weren’t on a fire or thinning, we were reading manuals, going over all sorts of tiny details of the engine and of the tools. He insisted that every person was in charge of their own safety. If a widowmaker crashed down on his head one afternoon, his consolation was that anyone else could get the rest of the crew back to safety. There’s a chain of command. There’s protocol. There’s orders. But you’re always in charge of your own safety.
Charlottesville, 2017. The events last week have sparked this memory of fire, my fire boss, and that summer long ago. Fire. It has such an intoxicating power, dangerous and terrible; its speed impossibly fast to imagine until you experience it.
A mob of KKK and neo-Nazis with torches marching, chanting, screaming their way through an American city in the year 2017 is almost incomprehensible. Only those on the ground know what a hateful mob like that was like. The horrific images can only tell a fraction of the experience. My grandfather, of whom I’m very proud, fought and killed Nazis, and yet swastika-waving men blasted through an American town, as if we’d never even fought and won World War II. The outrage throughout the United States has been hard felt and pervasive, and many of my friends have begun formulating their responses, talking counterdemonstrations, writing their politicians and the like.
In these conversations, my second thought of my fire boss comes to mind: “You’re responsible for your own safety.” While fighting fire with fire is at times needed, and at times the only solution, you need to have your lines drawn firmly first, your flanks set, your safety zones prepared. I would urge every American who found those events disgusting to take part in making sure it doesn’t happen again. But, be smart. Be effective. Do what your skill sets and ethics allow. My fire boss fought fires with knowledge, courage, and honor. These qualities are timeless and will win the day regardless of the battlefield.
Afterthought: The year after my last fire season, a book, The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, came out from the University of North Carolina Press. A powerful read, it details the history of the Deacons, a group of mostly black men who were World War II veterans and were sick of seeing their kids and other peaceful protesters getting stomped at protests or attacked afterwards by cowards in numbers. The Deacons were hard men whom the KKK feared. Some served as bodyguards for Dr. Martin Luther King, but mostly they were highly decentralized throughout the South, doing small parts to keep protestors and communities safe. The history of their actions, their politics, their rhetoric seem important to revisit now after all these years. Slainte.