Waiting For Wildfire
It's the season when fighting fire can really get under your skin.
Thursday, September 21, 2000
831-Tales from the area code
At 3am the call comes over the loudspeaker. Three sharp tones, a pregnant pause, and then the deafening buzzer that grinds its way into the firefighters'' skulls and yanks them out of their beds. They step into turnout pants and boots and dash to the fire engine, fumbling at buttons and buckles, fastening chin straps on helmets, their breath steaming in the cold air.
"Engine 46," drones the dispatcher over the radio, his voice hoarse with fatigue. "Engine 46, respond to a vehicle accident with injury. Time out, 3:03 hours."
The engine lumbers down the road in the darkness, the highway empty of cars but the engineer blasts the siren anyway, more to wake up the crew than to warn traffic. By now adrenaline is pumping, eyes are wide, synapses firing. They are supremely alert; it is the kind of concentrated wakefulness most people may feel only once or twice in their lives, during times of emergency.
The car involved in the accident is on its side in a ditch, but the occupants are already out, one sitting dazed and bloody on the curb, the other lying on a tarp, her leg bent at an unnatural angle. A CHP officer is on the scene and has laid flares down on the roadside. The firefighters jump out of the cab, grab backboards, med kit and oxygen to stabilize the victims until the ambulance arrives.
Not until the broken glass is swept from the road does the crew return to the station. The sun is rising, fields are awash in a pale pinkish-gray haze. Later they wonder: was the splint applied properly, blood pressure reading accurate? They try to recall the details but the only thing they come away with is someone else''s blood smeared on their boots, a memento.
Meanwhile, most of the county--hell, most of the state--is burning and the crew hasn''t been to a fire in weeks. They are bored, stupendously bored. They wash the apparatus until the chrome gleams, they scrub and roll fire hose, lift weights, cook and eat three meals a day and watch reruns at night. They train everyday, laying wildland hoselays in the ravine behind the station. Some of the crew goes off duty, others come on for their four-day shift. "The whole world''s burning and we''re just sittin'' around," someone grumbles, and he stalks outside to put an edge on the double-bit just in case.
The captain, whose personality is steeped in the suffocating cologne of authority, orders the firefighters to wax and buff every floor in the barracks. They are just getting started on this glorious project when they hear the tones over the radio; the buzzer sounds, the crew howls, even the captain smiles tightlipped in anticipation. There is a mad scramble in the apparatus room as the crew struggles into their gear: yellow fire-retardant Nomex pants and shirt, web gear, canteens and fire shelters (called shake-and-bakes), bandannas to tie over nose and mouth, helmets with clear plastic goggles.
Forty minutes later Engine 46 rolls up to the staging area for the fire. From the road it looks like a battlefield, a confused fluorescent hell with lunatics in khaki and bright yellow running around, bulldozers lurching up a ridge, air tankers circling overhead, a helicopter making water drops over a hillside and some guy with a bullhorn yelling orders at a crew carrying hosepacks.
The captain, finally in his element, clips off instructions to the firefighters, who grab rolls of hose, nozzles and tools and set off through the brush to put together a hoselay. They try to hold back the right flank, prevent it from taking off and spreading up the canyon, but it''s burning hot and fast and they''re too close to the flames. Spot fires keep jumping over the line and suddenly the fire gets away from them and goes charging up the hill with a roar like a freight train. Trees blister in the heat; for a few moments they''re obscured in the black smoke and then they explode, branches crowning out in brilliant orange flame.
The drone of an airplane approaches, someone shouts "Air tanker!" and the firefighters drop flat on their stomachs as an S-2 tanker makes a salvo drop on the head of the fire. Rust-colored retardant spills out the rear of the plane, spattering the backs and helmets of the people on the ground.
It''s well past midnight when the fire is finally out. They mop it up in the darkness, overturning dirt clods and picking apart charred stumps, extinguishing fragments of still-smoldering fuel. Someone brings food and they sit in the damp black ash, eating soggy Kentucky Fried Chicken, the standard fare for these get-togethers. Faces blackened, Nomex stained with fire retardant, the firefighters look like war-weary soldiers from a Robert Capa photograph. Their exhaustion is bone-deep, complete, superb.
On the drive back to the station they breathe deeply, trying to clear their lungs of smoke. They peel off wet gloves, helmets that are stuck to their heads with a paste of sweat and dirt. There is grime in their hair, in the corners of their eyes, in every pore. They shower and scrub, and shower again, but the soot won''t quite come out of the small lines and circles in their palms, the whorls of their fingerprints. The crewmembers drift off to their bunks to get some rest and the next day the routine begins anew. They work and train, eat and sleep, waiting for the buzzer to sound, eager to feel the adrenaline pumping again. It''s like the tightrope walker, Karl Wallenda, said: "Being on the wire is life; all the rest is waiting."