Cutting Line (Aug. 14, 2002)

Fighting wildland fires for a living is a real good way to get yourself hurt or killed, and make damn little money in the process. I have often wondered what would make a person literally risk their life to stop a fire that would have to move fast and free for 80 miles before it even hit a paved road. But what a show! In terms of size, operations, visual effects and action, a hot fire season is as close to war as a civilian is likely to get. Back in the 1970s I was one of those underpaid fools, working on a California Department of Forestry hand crew for a couple seasons before signing on as a county fireman running out of the Auburn CDF station.

A hand crew usually has 15 to 20 men with a variety of hand tools Their job is cutting line. Chainsaws and brush pullers generally go through first, followed by brush hooks, axes, Pulaskis, McLeods and shovels. By the time the last man comes through. you have a fire line a dozen feet wide down to bare dirt where an impenetrable patch of thick brush used to be. Sometimes we would help the engine crews with their often vast and complex hose lays. But mostly we cut line, and lots of it. Hand crews are the grunts in the fire-fighting hierarchy, and they usually only use them where a dozer can't go. And believe me, those operators will take a dozer places that would make a deer stumble and fall to its death. So we generally ended up in the steepest, most brutal flanks of the fire.

In those days, the civilian hand crews were basically the same as the convict crews, with one important difference. The convicts could get drugs of any kind in surprising quantities. But they couldn't get alcohol, and we could. So a bit of trading often ensued in fire camp. The convicts were carefully watched to ensure there was no fraternization with the civilians, especially those wild-looking, pot-smoking teenage punks on the hand crews. But where there's a will there's a way, and the system of secret messages and blind drops that evolved would have stymied a veteran CIA operative.

We were working a fire way out in the Yolla Bollys when the boys in Crew 2 came up with some Thai weed that was way potent. So they got to smoking and joking one day, and they let the fire quietly creep across their line.

A wildfire is a tricky old bitch, and she can lay down and play dead for hours or days before suddenly leaping up where and when you least expect it. And that is just what happened. My crew was working our way down the ridge to tie our line in with theirs, when that fire flared up big time. Trying to outrun a wildfire uphill is pure suicide, but when there’s a wall of fast-moving flames below you, your options are surprisingly limited. Our only chance was to race back up the ridge; through a saddle below the crest; dig in on the reverse slope and let the fire blow right over us. We ran like only men burning pure adrenaline can run; but by the time we made it to the saddle that fire was right on us and making things real, real uncomfortable. 

We were belly down on the ground with our nomex fire suits smoking and clawing at the dirt like demented moles in a futile attempt at burying ourselves. And that's when a DC-6 dropped over the ridge; slipping almost completely sideways and going lower and slower than an airplane that size was ever meant to go. He dumped his load of firetrol across the fire and all over us; thereby saving our terrified young asses through sheer pilot skill. Firetrol is basically slippery, smelly pink mud; but we were mighty glad to be showered in it that day.

It would amaze you to see the kind of flying those fire pilots do. Every run they make is dangerous as hell, but when someone on the ground is in trouble, they will push the envelope way past the breaking point. I once found myself with the members of an engine crew at the end of a long hose lay with no water and lots of fire. Once again I was belly down and clawing at the ground. Just then a Jetranger helicopter came roaring through the smoke and up a draw so narrow that he was clipping branches with his rotor. I pulled my camera from my pocket, rolled over onto my back and snapped a picture just as he dropped his load of water right on top of us. It was the last photo that camera ever took, but I didn't mind a bit.

A fire pilot flies like a cropduster with an airliner strapped to his ass. Those crazy old boys have to prove that they can crash good just to get certified. And there is definitely a playful side to them. 

We were working a small fire in Penryn, and we knocked it down quickly with a couple engines and a convict crew. They sent the air tankers, but we didn't really need them as the fire was out by the time they arrived. I don't know if that pilot had gotten an undeserved traffic ticket, or if he was just in a silly mood. But he salvoed his whole load of firetrol directly onto a CHP car sitting in the middle of the road with both doors open. A bigger mess you have probably never seen; and the convicts were overcome with laughter for hours.

That kind of flying takes its toll. One morning in fire camp, we all watched a Grumman S-2 slam into the side of the Feather River canyon, killing the crew and starting an entirely new fire in the process. You can generally count on losing a plane or a copter every fire season.

The fire itself is only one of your worries. The terrain and equipment can kill you just as quickly. Climbing up and down steep ridges with chainsaws and razor-sharp axes for days at a time isn't especially safe. And driving a truck in that kind of terrain takes considerable skill. I once watched an 8,000-gallon 18-wheel water tender go literally end over end down the American River canyon. The driver grabbed his dog and jumped out the door at the last possible moment, and by the time that rig stopped moving there was not one salvageable piece of it left. When CDF first brought their #9 engines into service; the exhaust was mounted too low and they had the annoying habit of bursting into flames when parked in a field of dry grass. More than one engine crew working a grass fire looked back to see their truck fully involved and another grass fire taking off behind them.

Oddly enough, the only time I was seriously injured on a wildland fire was long after the fire itself was out I was helping an engine crew break down their hose lay and pack it up a ridge. When I looked down to discover that I was standing on a ground wasp nest, they were coming out as thick as smoke. They were flying right up my pant legs, and they were really, really pissed. I jumped straight off a cliff onto a pile of boulders in pure panic, but I wasn't fast enough. Those nasty little brutes nailed me 37 times before I could get away from them, and they hauled me off to the hospital swollen up like the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Every year around the end of August you could count on heading down to Southern California for the Superbowl of wildfires. The chaparral down there is probably the most flammable vegetation on the planet; and when the Santa Ana winds start up, the whole place is a firestorm waiting to happen. The way they build their houses, you would swear the folks down there never heard the word wildfire. Limited or no access is the general rule of thumb, and being Southern California, you damn near have to start cutting line through the reporters and spectators just to get to the fire. This can go on for months, and eating Thanksgiving dinner in fire camp is not unheard of.

I'm far too old for that kind of work now. In fact, I was far too old for it then. But every year when California bursts into flames I think back on those days. And I pity the poor slob making minimum wage, running a shovel on the ass end of a hand crew. 

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