Seasoned By Fire
Floret silva nobilis
floribus et foliis...
Floret silva undique *
Recently I read an article in Scientific American about the process of recovery from the Yellowstone fires of 1988. The numerous articles, books and films I've been exposed to over the last two years have not reflected the things I saw there, perhaps because I am from the mountain west and tend to see things in a different light.
My great-great grandparents were the first ones of my family to go into the Yellowstone country, having first settled in western Wyoming in 1888 after passing through on the Oregon Trail in 1847. In 1913 my grandparents honeymooned in Yellowstone and were the first people to cross the new Jackson Lake dam, which they did in a white-top buggy. My father and grandfather helped build a number of landmarks in the park as CCC workers in the 1930's. I have been going to, or through, the park off and on all my life. I consider it part of my home and in 1988 that portion appeared to be burning up. Living in Wapiti, which is very close to Yellowstone, the thick, omnipresent smoke began to choke our valley in mid-July and it was worrisome, to say the least. It seemed insane to the locals that noone appeared to be doing anything. Everyone was mystified as to what was going on. A month later I started work on the Clover Mist fire and I had a chance to see a lot of what was happening. To say the very least, it was interesting.
The real prelude to the fire season began with three consecutive mild winters. The snowpack was so meager during those years that the water level in my well, 25 miles east of the park's east gate, fell 32 feet. Each spring, though, I and others opined that the next winter would most likely make up for it. Wyoming has a way of making you pay for its exquisite moments with weather that borders on the intolerable. We figured that we'd probably pay for the lustrous autumns and mild winters by being housebound by blizzards for days at a time - winters like those of my childhood. It didn't happen. It was cold but very little snow fell. The springs came graduallly and were warm.
et iam sugit
ver estatis ubera
For ten years prior to the fires I had made my living in helicopter-borne alpine exploration so I was familiar with much of the National Forest lands which were involved in fire. But the oil boom that had brought me into the business left me high and dry when it turned into an oil bust. Another tough Wyoming cycle. As a result of that I had begun writing and taking pictures as a way of finally following earlier ambitions. When the chance to work on the fires came up I signed on.
I then worked on the Yellowstone Complex fires over sixty straight days during the months of August, September and October 1988. As a photographer and media relations person, I had a privileged view of two large fires. As one of seven generations of Wyomingites, however, I saw the fire in some ways that differed from most who were there. Consider this a personal recollection of someone lucky enough to participate in a benchmark event of western American history. Someone interested in a real healing of my part of the country.
People who aren't native to the west often wonder at the depth of feeling that the landscape inspires in the "locals", the common term for people who are tied to the place. I believe it's because when you live in the mountain west you cannot help but be pulled into the landscape, to become part of it. On sunny days the ground can be too soft to leave the road so you have to learn what time the supporting frost will be gone. At the very least you come to know that the north side of a hill is cold and the south side is warm, that there will be ice on the road where a rock point shades it. You learn to see weather coming in spite of what the weatherman says. In summer we play Dodge 'em with the deer and winter brings the elk and others down to join the game. Outdoor recreation is integrated into the general population, probably, like very few other places in the modern world. The simple daily commerce of everyday living will bring you into close enough contact with the country that you will learn about it even spite of yourself. I am convinced that this is amplified with each consecutive generation which lives here.
Making your living on or through the land has its indelible effects too. Spending years exploring buried mountain ranges, crawling over kratons thrust ed up through miles of the earth's crust, smelling the smells of a Permian swamp drawn to the surface after two hundred million years, touches you in ways and places that books and magazine subscriptions cannot. It is a long way from the mind to the heart and it's a trip the timid seldom make. But taking a physical place in the backcountry does things to you.
It has been suggested that the eyes are windows to the soul. We out here are constantly immersed visually in sentient beauty. After a length of time, and if you are interested at all, you will not have to be prosletyzed by the Sierra Club or poets like Kim Stafford and Gary Snyder. You will come to see, and feel, for yourself that the landscape around you, and so the world, is alive.
Having said that, let me add at this point that during the height of the fire activity one veteran that I worked with said, in awe as we watched a thirty thousand foot high column of smoke, "This country wants to burn." He had ascribed a persona of some sort, a will to the fire that I felt most of the time that I was under its influence. When I left in October it had burned almost half a million acres on the two fires that I worked, Clover Mist and Storm Creek-Hellroaring. And even as I was leaving they were still smoldering and flaring each evening as the firefighters were being ferried out on seeming waves of helicopters. But by then the fires had nowhere to go, really, except through a last fringe of forest and finally up against the bare rock of the Beartooth Range summits. It had finally contained itself.
After being hired by the Shoshone National Forest in Cody, I was attached to the Clover Mist Fire Information Office in Crandall, Wyoming as a photo documentarian and writer. That meant that I was to take the pictures of everyday operations that would go into the historical record and write for the camp newspaper. Being familiar with the documentation of WPA projects in the 1930's, I knew that the mundane thing of the moment can become the art of the future so the prospect was exciting. As an official photographer I had immediate and unquestioned access to the fire lines and all the realities of the operations. I did not face the regulations and the restrictions on access that the civilian media did. Also, I had had experience on fires and years with helicopters so I was qualified to go to the remotest fire lines. Luckily, my first immediate supervisor was Pat Kaunert, a Class I Fire Information Officer from California's Stanislaus National Forest.
Fire incident management is done by two grades of managers, depending on the size and complexity of the fire. Class I teams work either the monster fires or the high profile incidents where structures are involved. Pat was assigned to the Class I team because of his experience and expertise with major media. His forest is close to the major markets of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento so he was at ease in the tide of media that lapped at the edges of the fire. He had come up through the ranks, working his way from seasonal firefighter to Public Affairs Officer for the Stanislaus. A Kenny Rogers look-alike, his first hand knowledge of fires, his old firedog's slurry-crusted hardhat and showbiz sense of the drama in a major fire, made him a field producer's dream. He spent a lot of time with his face in a lense.
In crisis situations people tend to become close without the normal protocols and Pat and I became friends within hours of my being assigned to him. As the days ran into one another under a wan pink sun, and through a pall of choking smoke and politics, a dialogue began between Pat and myself. I was eventually reminded of the dialogue, in the Bhagavad-Gita, between Arjuna and Krishna as they are poised for battle.
Both of us divorced and raised in violent, alcoholic homes, we soon fell into a running discourse on the high and low roads of life, duty, sex, war and brotherhood as it currently opposes itself to sisterhood. But always there was the choking smoke, the falling ash and hot twigs and brands, the hurrying people and machines - peripheral evidence of the fire in its many manifestations and previously unseen behaviors. It was etching its way from the park and through the Absaroka Wilderness. It would soon jump onto the non-wilderness part of the forest. There we could attack with the common knowledge and tools of firefighting. The veterans could hardly wait. They were cocky in the extreme. But it was Pat who would come to the realization that the country wanted to burn. He was instinctively describing a process larger than a local situation that had gotten out of hand through a conjunction of shortsightedness and unpropitious weather. As a firefighter he had at first seen it as a fire that needed to be put out. But when he really came to understand the magnitude of the thing he was awed. Nothing in his experience had prepared hm for the scale of the Yellowstone Complex fires. Millions of acres seemed to be in the process of being wholly consumed. This was according to the best information that could be obtained - from sources as varied as infrared-sensing aircraft flying over the area by night to horseback scouts who returned with stories of whole drainages on fire and smoke obscuring the trails so badly that horses stumbled blindly in the dark of noon. This event was taking on the form of something outside of anyone's experience, outside the accumulated knowledge of generations of fire management professionals.
A firestorm occurs when enough fuel ignites that a convection column forms and air begins to flow in at the bottom and out the top as it heats and rises. When it reaches air that is cold enough it stops and builds into a cumulonimbus form. The familiar mushroom of a nuclear explosion is probably the most coherent and familiar form of a convection column. Although wood and other vegetable materials don't produce as much energy as nuclear fusion, enough heat was generated in some of the Yellowstone firestorms to form columns well over thirty thousand feet high. They were visible from over a hundred miles away and dropped ash further than that. Winds generated at the bottom of the columns became so strong that small trees were seen being uprooted and sucked into the columns. Rumor had it that thousands of animals were dying in the heart of America's finest game sanctuary.
...olim pulcher extiteram,
dum cignus ego fueram.
et ustus fortiter!
One of the methods that a fire uses to regenerate itself is to spew brands out of the top of the column and drop them out of the mushroom head and into waiting vegetation. The huge firestorms of that summer were "spotting" up to two miles away from the base. Ordinarily, fires are fought at night because humidity rises and the fires cool and "lay down." Those fires sometimes ran for miles in the dead of night, chasing hotshot crews before them. Unheard of. The firefighter were beginning to come back to base camp speaking of the fires with awe-stricken voices.
From a standard perspective, it appeared that Man was marshalling all his available resources and was gathering to do battle with the fire. Engines and people were coming from as far away as Hawaii, Florida, Canada. The Army and Marines were called up. Mountains of supplies were cached and engines and busses loaded with people and equipment convoyed up and down the roads. Tent towns were erected and helicopters filled the air like dragonflies over a summer pond. Man was there to fight the fire.
A few days after Pat had made his observation about the fire having a will of its own, I suddenly had an insight. I realized that the fire was drawing Man and all the trappings of his ego into its storm. We had been caught up in the convection being generated and it was then apparent how man was integrated, was a part of the organic process. His will was a mote in the fire's will. In coming to "fight" the fire he had become a part of the whole of it. The great Wheel of Life was turning effortlessly and, as usual, man rode it blindly.
Fortune rota volvitur:
alter in altum tollitur...
In the largest possible sense, the fires could be seen as "process". That is how the NPS chose to see it when they originated their Let Burn policy in 1972. The apparent life of the biota was the basis for the Park Service's decision to keep its hands off and let nature take most any natural course that it might. However, during the one hundred years that the park had been in existence there had been a tremendous amount of "fuel loading" taking place. That means that a lot of trees had fallen to the ground and were building up into a great mass of ignitible material. Heretofore it was reasoned that the natural processes of degradation and occasional fire would eventually reduce the dead wood to humic, soil-building materials. Unfortunately, the possibility that a conjunction of natural processes could result in a fire beyond the magnitude of anything seen to date seems to have crossed their minds mostly in retrospect.
Ironically, while talking "natural process" during the conflagration, and trying to hold off the politicians and defuse the public outcry through the constant underlining of that term, the NPS was scrambling to do whatever they could to save the buildings and other artificial constructs that they had added to the place over the years.
The Forest Service, on the other hand, had determined to fight the fire with every resource that it could muster once it had reached the accessible parts of the forests which were its multiple-use resource base. The differing responsibilities and philosophies resulted in some serious misunderstandings at the outset. The fires had been the sole responsibility of the park as long as it was inside its borders and the several forests depended upon the NPS for updates and assessments of the situation. As a case in point, while preparing for the inevitable encroachment on their wilderness areas, the Shoshone National Forest people would phone to ask the park people what was going on. They expected some sensitivity to the fact that they could do nothing concrete until their resources were being directly affected. When they contacted the park on August 23rd and found that, days before, the fire had broken through Republic Pass and run miles onto the North Absaroka Wilderness they were outraged at the seeming indifference to their radically differing fire policy. They then gritted their teeth and mobilized immediately.
It was confusing, to say the least, for the Forest Service people who had made careers out of grabbing large fires by the throat and forcing them to yield when major resources were threatened. The media, and so the public, were also confused - therefore a lot of the controversy that raged was over the misunderstandings involved over differing philosophies as to the appropriate courses of action. Different agencies, different mandates, different policies, different people.
Yellowstone can be an isolated place in more ways than one. It is a high volcanic plateau ringed by several mountain ranges and four national forests. The park is also isolated in that it is managed for the Department of the Interior by the National Park Service while most of the country that surrounds it is managed for the Department of Agriculture by the U.S. Forest Service. People confuse the two agencies and at the height of the fire activity that was to become a concern for many people.
The Park Service is, of course, responsible for the maintenance of all the national parks. For the most part, these areas are pristine examples of nature, except for major access corridors such as roads and trails that connect the outside world with a few major natural features. That natural environment is, for the most part, managed according to a hands-off policy in which nature is left to take its mostly unchecked course. That leaves the Park Service in the role of being mostly traffic and people managers. These mandates naturally place them in the roles of rule makers and enforcers in order to keep the features as natural as possible.The rigidity that goes with the federal law enforcement role makes for contradictions that are confusing, especially for the employees of the NPS. At the heart of the problem are the massive contradictions that go with thinking that a pristine wilderness can be managed through a supposed hands-off policy while, at the same time, several million people move through it each summer. This contributes to what appears to be an unrealistic approach by the Yellowstone staff that, during the fire, resulted in incidents where park rangers were threatening to write firefighters tickets for driving vehicles onto roadless areas to put out spot fires. It resulted in rumors the like of the ranger who was supposedly trying to find out who owned the bomber that had dropped slurry during the seige of West Yellowstone. Some of the slurry had drifted into the park and, supposedly, he wanted to write someone a ticket. True or not, the fact that that sort of story would be repeated as fact, with much head shaking, illustrates the sort of regard that local people were holding the Park Service in at the time.
These and other, real, instances had the unfortunate effect of making the NPS appear unfeeling and callous to the people whose property and futures were at stake in the historic and frightening scenario that was being played out. They appeared heartless and uncaring about what was at stake in the ordinary peoples' lives. Suddenly being cast in this new role created a lot of confusion and anger in the Park people. This resulted in scenes like one I witnessed, during the siege of Cooke City, when a Park Service employee grabbed a CNN reporter and pushed him out a door and up against a porch railing. And this outside the park on private property. Only the crush of the larger story kept it from becoming national news.
similis sum folio
de quo ludunt venti
The second major agency which was responsible for fire suppression was the U.S. Forest Service. It is part of the Department of Agriculture and it manages its lands under two basic sets of policies. One set is designed to manage wilderness lands which are very much like the national parks in that they are mostly pristine. Unlike the parks, though, there are only a few vestigial roads in the wilderness areas and they are quite remote.
The other, non-wilderness, lands are managed under a multiple-use philosophy that is a result of the fact that people were making their livings on this land as miners, lumbermen and in other occupations before there was a forest service. Their interests had to be accommodated in some way and the multiple-use policy was an eventual result of that prior use. With the ecology movement and the Arab-inspired oil boom of the 70's, the Forest Service found itself in the position of having to find middle ground for what became militantly opposed interests. While the National Park Service was isolated and exempt from those pressures, the Forest Service learned to become tuned to the faintest seismic waves that signaled changes in public opinion, and political will. Also because of the lawsuits and sometimes unflattering publicity that were generated by the years of conflict. Also, historically they have had to consider the interests of the local people who depend on the forests for a lot of their needs. Bending to all the political winds that have blown over them through those years had the mostly salutary effect of making Forest Service people flexible and canny, in contrast to the NPS.
Yellowstone is surrounded by national forests: mainly Bridger-Teton on the south, the Targhee on the east, the Gallatin and Custer on the north and the Shoshone on the east. All of them have wilderness areas that adjoin the park. By June or early July the managers of those forests had realized that they were in potential catastrophe. They began to fight all fires as soon as discovered. Depending mostly on other criteria and interpreting the same data in different ways, the park maintained their hands-off policy and went about their normal business of managing people and traffic.
Where the Forest Service had, through experience, become geared to respond quickly to winds of change, Yellowstone's comparatively narrow mandates, plus their lofty self-image, had combined to place them directly in the path of a maelstrom of fire, world attention and bad publicity. Another result would be a siege mentality that is still reflected through shadows of anger that flit through articles written and interviews given today.
In Fortune solio
nunc a summo corrui
The USFS had their moments too, though. The Fire Information Officer in charge of the Cooke City office had the media evacuated immediately when a backfire jumped into Silvergate and threatened the town. As the press was leaving they noted bus drivers wearing Levi's and nylon running shoes observing the fire with cups of coffee in their hands. Phone calls to Ted Turner and Senators, plus some hardnosed talk from The Denver Post, the AP and others quickly convinced her that she should reconsider her hasty decision. Having reorganized themselves they were back in less than an hour to get the fire story instead of filing the news-management one.
What Pat and I had become conscious of, the process larger than the biological and political one, was not something that was shared by anyone of our acquaintance in the agencies. Now things were becoming political. When one believes and accepts something without real effort or understanding it is political. It is the antithesis of things spiritual or intellectual. And the politicians were beginning to descend on the scene, summoned by the cries of their constituents. People wanted to know what was going on and why the fires weren't being put out. Presidential candidates, Senators, Congressmen, Governors, local pols, wildlife and conservation organizations, hunting organizations and hunters, the public and, most of all, the media began to focus their attentions on the situation. A lot of the questions that came up at that time are still not answered, no longer pertinent once it was realized that the fires had not consumed the park and left it in ruin. And even though much of the surrounding national forests' resources were wasted. In the park it was a long-overdue event that, once begun, outran the experience and expectations of people who made a lot of short-sighted assumptions. It ended as a painful learning experience for everyone involved there. The effects on the National Forests differed greatly. Some were comparatively unscathed. Others suffered major losses, but because they are not part of Yellowstone the attention of the public was, and is, not on them. "Yellowstone" became the buzzword for the event. The confusion over the differences between the agencies and their missions is still part of a major public misunderstanding. Some of the confusion of those days has since been cleared up. Most of it remains.
quid fecisti sors turpissima?
Nostre vite gaudia
But policy, politics, and personalities aside, there was the pure adventure of it all. As with all events, I suppose, you come away remembering the vivid and mostly forgetting the mundane. Personally, my memories of the fires are a mixture of impressions. My first strong memory is when I had been working for a day or two and I was told to take some finance people to Cooke Pass to find a phone for personal calls. It was ten o'clock at night when we neared Pilot Creek and our eyes were drawn up. High above us the distinctive Dolomite-type summit of Pilot Peak was being backlighted against the black satin sky. We pulled over to watch and almost immediately trees began to torch on the south shoulder of the peak as the fire began etching its way onto our side of the mountain. It was the first real glimpse of the fire and it signaled its initial run into the Crandall area. Several weeks later it would be spot fires from this run that joined with the Hellroaring/Storm Creek fire to form the complex of Yellowstone's largest fire.
The strongest memory, by far, is of the day that the fire almost overran our camp. I recently obtained a copy of Salt Lake City's KUTV video production on the fires and it includes footage from the evening and night of September 8. The emotion comes back. In it you can see a miles-long, glittering red line limning the contours and relief of the Squaw Creek drainage, Squaw Peak and down into Crandall Creek and beyond. Our fire camp, home for over two thousand people, sat a couple of hundred yards from Crandall Creek. The Army was camped right on the creek. And all of us were directly downwind from the undulant crescent of pulsing fire.
The next morning was choked with smoke and the night's dramatic line of creeping flame was invisible in the pungent greyish yellow light. Things were very tense in the camp. Some of the world's best firefighters were coming out of the command center, away from the radios, telephones and other sophisticated communications gear that had tied them to the distant fires until now. They came out and stood silently or gestured with minimal hand movements as they looked the fire in the face.
That afternoon, when the wind began to whip the fire down on us, I pulled my dome tent up by its pegs and threw it, contents and all, into the back of my pickup. Then I engaged the front hubs and parked it in front of the Fire Information shack, pointed out. I went to Supply and checked out a shovel for want of anything else to do. Puny as it was, it made me feel like I was at least willing. I started out across a sagebrush-covered swale toward the highway to get a better view of the advancing fire. I heard a whistle and turned around. It was Terry, one of the Fire Info officers. Normally a preternaturally jolly man from South Carolina whom we called Bubba, he walked down and said, "Don't go out there." I looked at the two hundred yard expanse and saw little. I then looked back at his tense veteran's face. What he saw instead of a spanse of grass and brush was reflected in his eyes and it chilled me on the spot. Bergman would have had a man dressed in black standing out there in the swale. Within the hour the whole perimeter of the camp would be burned, in some places flames coming within feet of tents and vehicles.
When things got hot it happened in a hurry. Suddenly everything to the west, northwest and southwest was on big fire and it was running down on us. Sheets of flame scooted across grassy meadows. Groves of trees exploded. Two miles away a huge ball of fire jumped three-eighths of a mile through the air, from Squaw Peak 's summit, and landed in a trailer court, melting several trailers.
Nunc in scutella iaceo,
et volitare nequeo,
dentes frendentes video
Luckily for us, the highway and pumpers blocked most of the south perimeter of our camp. The Bitterroot Hotshots crashed a roadblock and saved the Army camp on the west. The Crandall Creek gorge and small backfires saved us on the north. Pat Kaunert and a member of the command staff set a backfire on the southeast that the fire roared along at forty miles an hour then jumped the highway and flashed into tall grass, junipers and six-foot sagebrush. I have a picture of that two hundred-foot-high flamefront running within fifty feet of the Wyoming National guard site as civilian supply persons flee down our company street. It's too bad that Californians have worn the word "awesome" to a nub because it's the only word that I can think of at the moment.
Wildfire, to me, used to be like high voltage electricity. It was dangerous, unpredictable and mysterious. Being around professional firefighters for a length of time proved the analogy. Just like professional electricians with their knowledge of their trade, these people have studied fire and ordinarily know its behavior in any given instance. The tools of their trade range from the little spinning anemometer of the meteorologist through the slurry bomber and out to satellites and man's intuition. Normally all this is used to predict the fire's behavior in order to head it off with the appropriate numbers of men and equipment and beat it down when it's most vulnerable, at night. I was surprised to see how effective a foot-wide strip of mineral soil could be even against a moving fire. In fact, "pounding line" is probably one of the most effective tools in fire management. It takes a lot of effort but it works. Squads and squads of people go out in the dark with headlamps and do the exhaustive work of cutting and digging a fireline, or bulldozing a firebreak, in front of the resting beast. In Yellowstone the beast seldom rested and never slept.
But there are rewards for all the exhaustive work. Adrenaline and awe are two of the main rewards. The men that I was around most of the time, the old firedogs who had retired from the firelines to the command staffs, were still fueled by memories of their years on the line. You have to be in, or even near, a real flamefront to understand the emotion that those memories must generate. Just a moderate flamefront will serve. One that is, say, two-hundred feet high. Not too long after my arrival I got a chance to see what it was in their pasts, the memories of which still seduced them.
Quid agatur in taberna
ubi nummus est pincerna,
hoc est opus ut queratur,
si quid loquar, audiatur
When the fire broke out of the wilderness and jumped into Pilot Creek we had our first real encroachment on ground where the traditional methods of firefighting could be used. Because of the amount of timber (fuel) in the drainage, plus the consistent winds and the venturi that the narrow mouth of Pilot Creek represented, it was decided to backfire a long strip of timber that ran across the entrance to the drainage. This was because if the fire ran out of the canyon it would be on the main road that supported the widespread local community in a matter of minutes. It also threatened one of the most beautiful scenic corridors in America.
Before the backfire could be ignited a wide firebreak was bulldozed between the canyon and the Cooke City highway. The firebreak was fifty-to-a-hundred feet wide and probably a mile and a half long, eventually being extended for almost fifteen total miles.
Some of the most beautiful pictures I took are of this backfire, which was set in mid-afternoon. The backlighting, the hues of color that range from the white of steam through carbon black, but made up mostly of pinks, oranges and reds, make them look almost floral. A giant bouquet of fire. It was a good photo opportunity for me.
It was also the first opportunity for the professional photographers working the Clover Mist to get some sensational "fire for the wire". But one old firedog supervisor wasn't having any of it. He wasn't comfortable with anyone but firefighters or veterans. He seemed to dislike the media on principle. And that included Fire Information Officers, veterans included, which put Pat between the supervisor and the public's right to know, as represented by the major media who were thick by this time.
The one thing that this canny old guy knew was that the First Amendment and the public's right to know takes a backseat to only one thing: safety. He knew that he could stand firm on that and stand he did. No press people would be allowed on the fire line except when escorted by multiple government employees and only then at a goodly distance from the flames. It made for pretty pictures when taken with long lenses but, as Pat knew, the real photographers needed people "fighting" fires to lend any drama to the images. The pictures that excite emotion in viewers are the ones which show other people in the context of the event. The vicarious thrill is what sells. You have to show the danger and the supervisor doled out the danger to those whom he deemed fit and worthy. That didn't include wussies like the media. Those wussies included veterans of Viet Nam , Honduras , the Middle East and one crew which had come directly from the blood in Sri Lanka . But he stood his ground, knowing that if he was countermanded and anyone got hurt then the countermander's career was on the line. Safe to say that he got things his way.
Pat Kaunert, as I said, was in a very uncomfortable position between his agency and the media. His job was to spend his whole day with national and international media, fielding their questions and addressing their concerns while trying to serve the best interests of the U.S. Forest Service and other involved agencies. His face would be seen many times on prime time news all over the world. And he had his own professional reputation to uphold.
The media were putting pressure on Pat to help them come up with something that would show the world the magnitude of what was happening just over the ridgeline in the wilderness. The government controlled all access which was a form of de facto censorship. Using safety as an excuse to distance the media had the same effect. Subtle hints from press people that there were major political strings waiting to be pulled didn't help Pat's position. He had to respond somehow.
His solution was to choose an ablebodied, smart pro and take him to the edge of the huge Pilot Creek backfire after dark so he could document the people at work with a dramatic background of fire. Until that moment, my experience as a fireboss had included one and two acre spot fires, set by seismic explosions, which were controlled in relatively short order using helicopter water drops and mop-up. I didn't know what Pat had planned and I wasn't prepared for what I would experience that night.
Just before dark Pat told me to drive him to the Pilot Creek official parking area. There we met the photographer from the Denver Post, whom Pat knew from coverage of the huge Stanislaus Complex fires of the previous year. Pat was convinced that the man had the experience and the smarts to not get himself into anything that Pat couldn't get him out of. Pat trusted him.
When night fell one could see how much fire there was at the mouth of the drainage because the 11,000 foot spires of Pilot and Index peaks were lit so that individual rock features on their faces could be picked out easily. During the day smoke had obscured most of the flames but at night the fire was revealed for what it really was.
We got in my truck and 4-wheeled up an ancillary firebreak to the main one. Facing the truck downhill and leaving the keys in the ignition we started uphill. It was steep and the trees toward the bottom of the hill screened us from sight of the fire but its roar was impressive enough. It sent chills all over me. When we reached the main firebreak and turned left to where the flamefront was cooking I was astounded. One hundred and twenty five foot trees, scores of them,were torching simultaneously. Men and women firefighters stood less than a hundred feet away, mesmerized by the sight. Their faces were unshielded as they leaned on their shovels and stared at the rocketing, cracking, exploding, rushing...holocaust. Still a hundred yards away, I put up my bandana, pulled down my goggles and pressed my mouth into the crook of my upheld arm. At first the heat seemed suffocating. We started jogging toward the sinuous, undulating face of the flamefront. I was more than intimidated, I was worried. I was scared.
As we closed on the scene Sean, the photog, started taking pictures with Pat right on his butt to guide him over protruding roots, holes and other small hazards as he worked. It was a pleasure to watch him go: yakking to the firefighters, kneeling, standing, changing lenses, jumping logs, interviewing, making notes, changing film, going to flash, and all the while grinning a death's head grin of ecstasy. He went through a hundred and forty four exposures in less than half an hour. He got some good stuff. A five-foot-two woman seduced by two hundred feet of fire makes for an exciting picture. So do images of laughing, craggy-faced firedogs with singed beards and crinkly, fire-intoxicated eyes. And Native Americans with bone gorgets standing transfixed by the elemental power of it all. It was spooky. It was a trip. I was glad to get the hell out of there but I wanted to do it again. You had to be there. I now knew the kind of voluptuous secrets that the vets on the command staff held hidden in their hearts.
Quidam ludunt, quidam bibunt
quidam indiscrete vivunt...
Ibi nullus timet mortem
sed pro Baccho mittunt sortem
The next day the supervisor went to command and pulled every string that he had to get Pat's ass off the fire line. But it didn't really work. The command staff knew that ink meant money and public support. Having the front page of the Denver Post, or USA Today or the Seattle Intelligencer, stapled to the camp bulletin board, with firefighters faces on them, is damn good for morale. But Pat and I were personas non gratas in that supervisor's section from then on, to put it mildly. We got little or nothing out of him or his minions after that. But that was OK, there was still plenty of fire to go around. The siege of Silvergate and Cooke City was still ahead and that was outside his district.
Except for the obvious, my favorite memory is of the Storm Creek camp at night. A lot of vendors follow the major fires, selling White lumberjack boots, T shirts and other things, even establishing small commissaries. They accept voucher numbers in lieu of cash so you give them your voucher number and they put it on their paperwork beside your signature. That amount is then deducted from one's pay. As I wandered around the vendor area, rock music playing over the PA system, I was struck by the scene.
Hundreds of people milled about under bright lights that threw strong shadows. The uniform green and yellow Nomex clothing was accented by extravagantly decorated T shirts, headbands, sweatshirts commemorating distant fires. The white men seemed mostly bearded and the women exuded an emancipated aspect but they bantered and talking coyly with one another just the same. A few were paired off.
Many of this country's firefighters are Native Americans and their faces and demeanors underlined the night's exotic air as they shopped the vendors' wares or simply leaned in small groups against vehicles under the artificial light, listening to Jefferson Airplane and watching people go by as they snacked on camp candy. This is a virile person's work so many of the men were full of pride and swagger. Their hair was long and shiny. They wore teeth and claws, brass beads and feathers. All carried belt knives. A lot of the Native American women walked with their chins up, eyes bright and engaging, flirting and exuding the confidence that comes of dangerous, hard work.
quicquid Venus imperat,
labor est suavis,
que nunquam in cordibus
Something niggled at the back of my mind as I strolled among these people and it finally struck me that this was like some surreal medieval fair or Rendezvous, a place in another galaxy where the night horizons are lit by fire and strong strangers have been marshaled to a strange land. It had the magic feel of Star Wars set or another other-worldly location.
Another time I was at a helicopter LZ in Yellowstone Park, next to the Lamar River. I was writing a piece on one of the leaders, a woman, of the Mescalero Apache/ Zuni pueblo firefighters and taking pictures. The young fighters were fishing for trout with monofilament handlines and catching some nice fish. The Park rangers were omnipresent so the guys would pull in their lines when the rangers cruised by, fearing that they might get a ticket for not having fishing licenses. Soon a busload of firefighters from the Northern Cheyenne reservation came down to the river and one of them had a fishing pole. He was a very large guy and he swaggered loudly along the bank, waving his rod around, plunking his lure next to the Apaches'. One of the Apaches, noting his lack of caution, asked him if he had a license and he said, "I don't have to have no damn license, I'm Cheyenne." He was referring to the treaty of 1878 that guarantees some plains tribes unlimited hunting and fishing on most federal lands, though not national parks. The southwestern tribes, like the Apache and Zuni, were not signatories to that treaty so it was all news to them.
The swaggerer strode up and down the bank, exclaiming his rights and warrior traditions as he plunked his bait and tangled others' lines. One of the young men from Arizona began to whistle a catchy, quick tune in a minor key. Some of his friends began to laugh and I looked at one of them, puzzled. He let me in on the joke. "Apache war song," he said. I loved it. A genuine note in western American life, unique to our part of the country. Couldn't haave happened anywhere else.
On another occasion I acted as a tour guide for a group of Wisconsin firefighters. We toured Mammoth then went into Gardiner, Montana to do some shopping. I was helping pick out gifts for the camp cooks so we entered a souvenir shop. The owners welcomed us with genuine warmth when they realized that we were firefighters but the conversation soon turned to the people across the line at Mammoth, site of park headquarters. Superintendent Barbee had been on national television the night before and had been quoted on many of the news services, speaking of his previous government service and how it had prepared him for the flak.
One of the old women in the store, whose family had been in Montana before mine came to Wyoming, snorted, "The bastards, all they think about is their careers. They come here for a few years and then take their families and go back East or wherever they came from and leave us here in the ashes. They don't really love this country. Hell, it's just ...Yellowstone Park to them." And she made a point. For most of the people who staff the national parks somewhere else is home and that can't help but be reflected in the way they think about the country that surrounds the park. And their thinking reflects their feelings, their actions reflect their thinking so things become exclusive, in more than one sense of the word.
The point the shopowner was trying to make was that from where she stood, in a local's shoes, it was time that Yellowstone, in the emotional sense, began to consider itself part of the world at large rather than the domain of an elite with their special agenda, an agenda sometimes at direct personal odds with the rest of us.
Hopefully the fire taught some of them that they are part of something larger than that magnificent, but isolated, plateau that holds a part of every living person's consciousness and heritage. Among other things, the fires might have taught us all that although we may think to set portions of the world aside and manage them, we are all, finally, joined together to this earth and universe. We are part of the process and it will have its way in spite of us. It will have its way through us, in spite of all our intentions. It is time for the antagonism and confrontational politics of the last few years be put aside. This country belongs to all of us. We are brothers and sisters whose lives and fortunes wax and wane like the moon, sharing a common fate.
After the fires I had the occasion to drive through the park on my way to visit my mother before winter set in. As I approached the northeast gate a man whom I didn't recognize raised his hand, signaling me to stop. He was holding the obligatory visitors material. Puzzled, I tried to wave it away, knowing that most park people don't bother to offer them to people with local license plates because it goes mostly unread and wasted.
"We had a fire," he said, still holding out the pamphlets.
"I know," I said, looking closely at him for the first time.
His face was gaunt. His uniform shirt hung on him, the collar too large for the thin neck, and something suddenly struck me. The man was mourning. For the first time during the time of the fires I understood what some of the park people must have gone through and I was genuinely moved. I took from his hand what he was offering and drove through the gate, placing it respectfully on the seat beside me.
...quod per sortem
mecum omnes plangite !
*Here are the translations of the Latin, taken from the text of the Carmina Burana :
Floret silva... The noble wood is filled with buds and leaves... Everywhere the forest is in bloom
Bruma fugit... The frost flees and Spring sucks at the breast of Summer
Olim pulcher... Once I was a beautiful swan O miserable me now I am burnt black!
Fortune rota... At the turn of Fortune's wheel One is brought down another is lifted up
Cinis elementi... Ash of the elements, I am like a leaf that the wind plays with
In Fortune solio... Once I was seated on Fortune's throne Then I was struck down and robbed of all my glory
Wafna... Wafna, wafna! What hast thou done, O infamous fate? Thou has taken away all pleasures of this life
Nunc in scutella... I am borne upon a platter and can no longer fly I catch sight of gnashing teeth
Quid agatur... If you want to know what happens in the tavern (where money gets you anything) then listen to my tale
Quidam ludunt... Some men gamble, others drink others indulge hemselves shamelessly There no one is in fear of death throwing dice for Bacchus
Quicquid Venus... What Venus commands is suave labor Love never dwellsin cowardly hearts
O Fortuna... O Fortune! fickle as the moon Always dost thou wax and wane
Quod per... Let us mourn together for Fate crushes the brave