As the road dropped out of the Southern Colorado mountains and into a majestic valley, I rolled down the window of my rebel F-150 firetruck and took a deep breath, not knowing how many hours it could be until my next encounter with clean air. “We’re almost there.” my partner said from the passenger seat as he stared at the map on his phone. “Oh I know.” I replied, as I came around a bend and pointed at the massive plume of black smoke in the distance that had finally come into view. We were mercenary firefighters, contracted by insurance companies who tasked us with protecting the properties they insured, and we blazed towards the inferno in a make shift piece of crap firetruck, with no back-up and nothing to rely on but our wit, experience and training and the tank of fire retardant in the back. This fringe niche of wild-land firefighting made me feel my own mortality and as the ominous and dark pillar of smoke grew larger in the windshield, I once again couldn’t help but question my sanity. The fire we faced ahead, was a beast. It was a “complex” fire, which meant that three separate wild-fires had converged into one massive, raging inferno, and it was tearing through dead pine trees in the mountains and towards the small town and homes that sat up against them in the valley.
We had spent the last four hours of the drive gaining as much intel as possible and formulating a plan of attack, but I knew in my gut that no amount of intel or planning could fully prepare you for the chaotic unfolding of a wildfire. This job required the added ability to trust your gut and adapt with the situation as it developed and today, my gut was reminding me that fire burns humans and that I’d better not take this one lightly. I pulled off at the Incident Command post to let them know we were there and where we’d be and when I got out of the truck and stared up at the billowing tower of smoke, a deep fear washed over me. I’m normally pretty comfortable in the presence of a fire. My objective is clear and my experience and gut get me in and out quickly and safely and I find victory over my flaming opponents. But every man is measurable and, standing in front of this fire, I felt like I had just climbed into the ring with a champion mixed martial arts fighter. It burned with a blackness I had never seen before, consuming everything in its path and belching the incinerated remains into the sky, as if from the belly of the devil himself. The sun burned dim and red behind the wall of smoke and an the eerie light of hell fell across the valley. My stomach turning, I found the Incident Commander and checked in. He looked at me like I was crazy, like they always do, and then said “good luck” as I got back in the truck and we drove into hell.
The town, whose population is normally around six-hundred, stood nearly empty of people. Ash fell from the eerie red sky like snow and the people who still remained, shuffled around in it with palpable fear and purpose as they tried to evacuate at the last minute. I pulled over and paused for a moment, listening to the dead silence that had enveloped the town. It was almost as if the town had accepted its fate, facing it’s own imminent death in peace, but still, the sadness that was left behind from its fleeing residents moved through the streets with a ghostly presence. The relationship between man and nature has always been vital to my heart, so at times like this, when these lines cross in darkness, it breaks. I wiped away tears as I restarted the truck and continued through town and towards the house on my list that was closest to the fire.
At the edge of town, the road leading into the mountains and to the flames had been obviously closed down and a sheriff sat in his car at the barricade. My historic ability to cross through these barricades as a fringe mercenary firefighter sat at about fifty-fifty so I crossed my fingers as I pulled up next to him. “Thou shalt not pass.” was the solid, un-negotiable answer and I cursed under my breath as I did a u-turn. I couldn’t afford to spend all day trying find a way around the barrier when I had other houses to go to, so I put it at the bottom of the list and sped in the direction of the next house. All afternoon we raced up and down the valley, blanketing properties and houses with fire-retardant under a bloodshot sky, and all afternoon we watched the plume of smoke grow larger and more furious. The thought of that first house had been ravaging my sub-conscious all afternoon as well though, and as we finished the last property in the valley, deep in my gut, I knew I couldn’t leave and go home without accomplishing my mission. My home was hundreds of miles away and safe. These people, whoever they were, were facing losing theirs and everything that was important to them. And what if they were still there? Too old or stubborn to leave? I couldn’t let that house burn. The winds had picked up, the day had grown hotter and drier and we both swallowed hard the giant lumps in our throats as I uttered the next task… “Lets re-route to that first house.”
This was usually one of my favorite parts of this job. Plotting and zipping through back roads and dirt roads, outlaw firefighters, carrying the blessing of the Incident Commander and rebelling against the links in the chain that sought to stand in the way of our mission. But today, as I tumbled down a dirt road that was winding up into the mountains and into the belly of the beast, I felt sick. After thirty minutes of creative navigation, we finally pulled up to the metal gate at the edge of the property. We got out and looked up at the sky. We weren’t down in the valley anymore watching the fire advance from a distance, we were in it. The smoke blocked the sky above us completely, a black raging blanket that warned boldly to turn back. I looked down the dirt road past the gate to where it curved around a bend and into the unknown. There was no telling what was around that bend. I pulled a bandana up around my nose and mouth to protect my lungs from the acrid, thick smoke and, breathing deeply through it, pushed open the gate. My heart felt like it was going to explode and the dark seed of fear in my belly was growing and rooting itself in my bones. The fire and I stood toe to toe. It hungered for the house around the bend and I, it’s chosen guardian, was not about to walk away from it. In my bones, a new blaze ignited, burning hotter and brighter than the fire I faced, scorching the fear in me and sending me through the gate and into the unknown.
The little log cabin house was nestled deep in the woods, away from the grips of society, its peaceful and serene existence now threatened. I could tell it was a loved home. Curtains hung aesthetically in the windows, cared for potted flowers covered the porch, firewood was stacked neatly as its side and a warm wooden plaque hung by door with the residents last name on it, welcoming visitors to their home. It was an older home and you could tell that it had been curated with love and attention over many years. I could see why I was here. While that family was huddled somewhere in a hotel room distraught at the thought of losing this part of them, I stood at their doorstep in the blackest smoke I’d ever tasted, determined to retain it for them. With the raining down ashes, now fell embers and I could feel the energy and closeness of the fire as it approached. In that fiery hell, next to that beautiful house, my partner ripped on the pull cord to the pump, igniting in its guts explosions of fire and it roared to life. My eyes burned and wept from the smoke and we choked and struggled to breathe as we dragged the hoses around the property sending hundreds of gallons of fire retardant raining down in salvation. Our time there was measured, we knew, and we worked fast in the heat of our protective gear, straining our bodies and minds, but intent on the mission. And as the last drop of fire suffocating liquid sprayed from the hoses, the smoke reached unbearable levels and we evacuated ourselves, leaving the little house dripping wet with a chance to also make it out alive.
The truck rumbled down the dirt road at a too fast speed until I was through the gate and far enough from the fire to breathe. I pulled the truck over and got out, stripping off the hot fireproof clothing that drenched with my sweat and lit a cigarette. I looked back at the torrid, hell engulfed mountains behind me and the ink black deluge of suffocating smoke and thought of that house standing there without its family, facing a battle it was meant to lose, but clinging to the soft rain of a fight and maybe a second chance. The afterglow of adrenaline sat in painful knots in my stomach, but my heart beat steady on that road to hell, knowing that maybe now it could still one day be a road that led to someone’s heaven. Just another day at the office, I thought to myself and, turning to my partner red-eyed, exhausted and ready for a beer, I said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”