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Red Skies Over Utah

I left Looking Glass Rock early in the morning and drove west on the Kane Creek dirt road for an hour without seeing another car, all the way out to the remote Needles Overlook in the BLM's Canyon Rims Recreation Area, a vast and little-known area south of Moab, Utah.  The Needles Overlook is one of my favorite viewpoints in America and offers an amazing vista of red sandstone canyons stretching for endless miles in almost every direction a thousand feet below you.  The views here are incredible and you can easily spend an hour here, like I did, walking along the sandstone rim while gazing at the wondrous geologic sights far below.

 

Above:  After leaving Looking Glass Rock in the morning, I headed west on the Kane Creek Road to check out the Needles Overlook.

Unfortunately though, on this day the skies were choked with the smoke from hundreds of uncontrolled wildfires that had been raging in the Rocky Mountains for the past several weeks.  Id been to this overlook many times over the last 20 years but had never seen it or smelled it, or tasted it quite like this.  The smoke was everywhere and made it difficult even to breathe at times.

 

That made me think back to my firefighting days with the BLM.  I spent six summers during my college years, from 1983 through 1988, working as a BLM seasonal ranger in the Colorado Rockies near the small mountain town of Lake City and during my last summer I wanted to do some firefighting, so I pushed to get firefighter training.  I knew it would be my last summer as a ranger because I wanted to move on to other things in my life, but I wanted a taste of firefighting before I left the BLM.  I got trained early that summer and during the course of the season, I fought several fires including the largest in Colorado history up until that time. 

 

So if you're wondering what it's like to be a firefighter, please read on.

 

   

Above left:  The Needles Overlook parking lot.  I spent an hour at this viewpoint and didn't see another visitor (yay!)  The skies were a strange yellow/red mix from all the smoke.

Above right:  This is one of two spectacular overlooks in BLM's Canyon Rims Recreation Area south of Moab.  The other one, Anticline Overlook, is very different but just as impressive.  Those are Fire Restriction posters on the sign, given the severe drought here.

 

   

Above left:  And here's the view.  The Needles Overlook offers one of the best viewpoints in southern Utah. 

Above right:  It was really hazy on this day from the wildfires, unfortunately.  Still, not a bad view, huh?  That's the Colorado River in the distance, a thousand feet below.

What it's Like to Be a Firefighter

How Agencies Fight Fires

There are two main types of firefighters:  urban firefighters and wildfire firefighters.  Urban firefighters drive red fire trucks and fight mostly structural fires, like house fires, in cities and towns.  I'm not talking about those brave folks.  Wildfire firefighters -- the folks I'm referring to in this section -- fight wildfires in forests and grasslands, and usually on federal land managed by agencies like the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service or my former agency, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

 

This was the theme song of my fire crew in 1988 (and the most popular song that summer).  Here's Don't Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin. 

 
   

The vast majority of wildfires are caused by lightning strikes.  Consequently, there may be no wildfires in an area like southwestern Colorado for several weeks, but then several, large conflagrations may break out at one time.  Because wildfires are sporadic and highly dependent on the fickle weather, having the right number of trained people available to fight fires poses a big challenge for land management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, BLM and National Park Service. 

 

The solution that most agencies use is to have a small group of permanent firefighters who are dedicated solely to firefighting, supplemented by a much larger group of trained, on-call emergency firefighters, which can quickly expand or contract depending on the need.  These on-call firefighters normally have other jobs within the agency.  For instance, I was normally a BLM recreation ranger during the summer season.  Most of the folks I worked with on fire crews also, normally, had other jobs during the summer season, like surveying timber or working in hydrology.   But when a fire broke out, they (like me) could be asked to drop their work and come help fight the fire if they've been trained and certified in firefighting. 

 

As an example, the BLM's Montrose District, which covers southwestern Colorado, has about 15 full-time firefighters during the summer months.  When they're not fighting fires, they do other things like preparing for the next fire, working on maintenance projects around the district, or doing other things to keep them occupied.  When a wildfire ignites, they're deployed to fight it, and when there's a really large fire, the BLM calls in trained, on-call firefighters (like me) within the agency to help them. 

 

The three land agencies -- the U.S. Forest Service, BLM and National Park Service -- often work together and share staff and resources to fight large fires.  A 20-person fire crew, for instance, may consist of staff from all three agencies.  Most of the fire crews I worked on were split fairly evenly between U.S. Forest Service and BLM staff.  The agencies may also call in private contractors to help fight fires.

Getting Trained

The first step to becoming a firefighter, therefore, is getting trained.  The BLM, Forest Service and the National Park Service in southwestern Colorado had a training program at the beginning of each season in Montrose to train on-call firefighters.  I spent two days in June of 1988 getting trained to fight fires with a group of about 20 other BLM, Forest Service and National Park Service employees who wanted to fight fires that summer.

 

Above:  Our training class early in the 1988 season near Montrose.  That's my boss, Arden, wearing the Hawaii shirt.  Everyone else is wearing Nomex fire-resistant clothing.

There are usually plenty of volunteers to fight fires.  Some, like me, wanted to fight fires because it was exciting while others wanted the higher pay that comes with firefighting.  When you add up overtime and hazard pay, firefighting can be quite lucrative.

 

During our training class, we spent one day in the classroom learning theory and the next day we were in the field, getting hands-on experience learning how to "build line," deploy an emergency fire shelter and other important things.  The most important thing they stressed throughout the course was safety.  Fires can be deadly, so the instructors constantly emphasized how important it was to attack a fire safely and to always have an escape route and a safety zone in mind.  Before you fight any fire, you should always ask yourself, "How will I get out of here if the fire advances towards me?"  In other words, and as in life, always have a Plan B.

 

After completing the training course, we were each given a Red Card, like a driver's license but indicating that we were certified to fight wildfires.  Then we spent the summer doing our normal jobs while hoping (most of us, anyway) to get called on a fire.

 

During my training I learned several interesting things about fighting fires, such as:

  • For safety reasons, firefighters never attack wildfires head-on.  Instead, they attack fires only from the sides.  I always figured that you fight a wildfire by standing directly in front of it.  That's a big, and potentially lethal, mistake.

  • Very few firefighters use water to fight wildfires.  That's because water is heavy to carry and hard to access when you're in the wilderness.  Instead firefighters mostly use hand tools, like shovels and Pulaskis.  A Pulaski is my favorite trail-building tool.  It's an axe (used for cutting) with a steel claw on the other side of the head (used for digging).  Firefighters use hand tools to build "fire lines," which are like trails that separate unburned areas from "the black" (sacrificial areas that have been burned, or will likely burn soon).  Fire lines, if they're wide enough, will hinder the fire from advancing.

  • Every firefighter is given a small pack the size of a hefty book, which they clip onto their belts and must keep accessible at all times.  This is a personal fire shelter which, when deployed, looks like a pup tent made of aluminum foil.  A fire shelter, the instructors told us, should be deployed only in an emergency when a fire is about to sweep over you.  Few firefighters ever have to deploy their fire shelters, which is good because they don't always work.  Some of my experienced colleagues on the fire line, with a chuckle, morbidly referred to fire shelters as "roasting bags."

My Life as a Firefighter

Like most folks with a Red Card, I really wanted to go on a fire so I eagerly waited to get called after finishing the training program.  Most folks who have a Red Card are eager to fight wildfires instead of doing their desk job or, like me, working in the mountains.  I enjoyed my job as "Ranger Del," helping visitors and patrolling the mountains around Lake City in my BLM truck, but I wanted to go on a fire because I thought it would be interesting and exciting.

 

Above:  That's me on the left (holding a Pulaski) with my squad before heading into the 15,000-acre I Do Fire in northwestern Colorado (note the smoke in the background).  This was the largest fire in Colorado history at that time.

The call finally came in late July -- and for not one but three wildfires:  the Happy, I Do, and Home Fires in the northwestern part of Colorado, a few hundred miles from Lake City.  The I Do Fire incidentally, with a final tally of 15,410 acres, proved to be the largest fire in Colorado history at that time -- and I have a memento t-shirt of the fire (a popular item among firefighters) to prove it. 

 

I worked 16-hour days that week, from 6 a.m. until late every night while digging fire lines and working on a chainsaw squad.  Physically it was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life and I was utterly exhausted at the end of the week, but fortunately the adrenalin rushed through my body the entire time and kept me alert.  After I got back to Lake City, however, I crashed and slept for a full day.

 

After those three fires, I fought another wildfire late in the season.  I was driving my BLM truck back home to Lake City one sunny September afternoon after working all day when I heard a broken message crackle on my truck's radio.  Someone in BLM's Gunnison office was calling me, asking if I wanted to go on a fire that was burning at Taylor Park, about an hour north of town.  I was excited, to put it mildly.

 

Above:  Fighting the I Do Fire.  Moments earlier we had been digging a fire line on the other side of that now-charred fence in the center of the photo.  Then the wind shifted and we got out of there fast.  My affable mentor, Rick Barton, is on the far left.

I rushed back to my housetrailer in Lake City and changed quickly into my Nomex fire-retardant clothes, including my standard issue green trousers and yellow shirt.  I grabbed my helmet along with my Red Pack (a duffel bag with clothes and personal items that you leave at the fire camp) and my Yellow Pack (a daypack with water bottles, gloves and other items you'll need on the fire line).  Then I hopped back into my BLM truck and dashed off to Gunnison, 90 minutes away.  After spending an hour in the office for briefing and organization, I climbed into a Ford Bronco with six other Forest Service/BLM crew members and we drove north to Taylor Park. 

 

We arrived at the fire site around 9 p.m. but couldn't see where we were going in the darkness and, while driving across a large meadow, we almost drove, slowly, into a pond.  But then we got our bearings, backed out, and met up with 15 other firefighters.  Our crew built fire lines for the next few hours by the light of the forest fires, which was an interesting experience.  Dinner arrived around midnight-- cold Big Macs that were trucked in from the McDonald's in Gunnison an hour away, which we warmed up by the glowing embers of the fire.  After a few days, our 20-person crew had put out the fire. 

 

Above:  That's me on the right working on a chainsaw squad on the Home Fire, with my buddy, Jeff.  I was throwing burned wood into "the black."  This was hectic, intense work in 95-degree weather.  The chainsaw got so hot that every time we refilled its tank, the gasoline bubbled up and overflowed -- not good near a fire.

You get a tremendous sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when you fight and extinguish a forest fire, much more than you get from crunching numbers or writing a report while sitting at a desk.  I thought so, anyway.  Firefighting is much like warfare, I imagine, and there are numerous parallels with being in the military.  You're battling an enemy on the front lines, hoping to beat them -- or, in this case, hoping to keep things green and prevent the loss of structures (or the loss of life). 

 

That was the main reason we were all there:  we wanted to help.  That desire to help and do something tangible and productive is, I think, the common motivation among both urban and wildfire firefighters -- along with the adrenalin rush, of course. 

 

A few weeks later I got called for another fire.  This was a controlled "prescribed burn" in the rolling hills west of Gunnison to rid the area of sagebrush and improve the forage for cattle.  I spent the day pouring a powdered substance called "Alumagel" into 55-gallon drums of gasoline and mixing it up to create a jellied substance like napalm.  A helicopter then lifted the drum and dripped the ignited gasoline onto the sagebrush to start the burn.   After inhaling Alumagel all day, I can still remember what it tastes and smells like 14 years later.

 

Above:  On the prescribed burn near Gunnison.  I mixed gasoline and Alumagel in the red 55-gallon drum that was carried by the helicopter to start the burn (note smoke on the right).

Fighting fires was a totally new world for me, one reason I wanted to do it.  It was also the closest experience I've ever had to being in the military because, as I learned, everything on a fire crew is tightly regimented:  when to wake up, when to eat, when to work, and when to sleep.  You have to work as a team to get things done, it's important to follow instructions, and discipline is tight. 

 

Also, like in the military, there's a distinct hierarchy.  Each fire crew (consisting of about 20 folks, and often from various agencies) is divided into squads of about five people, each of which has a specific function.  For the I Do Fire in northwestern Colorado, I worked on a chainsaw squad, and in Taylor Park, my squad built fire lines with hand tools and "cold trailed" the fire line (i.e., checked for warm embers).  Each squad boss reports to the crew boss who, in turn, reports to the fire's Incident Commander (or "I.C.") who's in charge overall.

 

My accommodations were varied but basic, usually just my sleeping bag and a thin foam sleeping pad spread out in a clear area among the sagebrush.  We didn't have tents during the week I was in northwestern Colorado; we just slept under the stars.  I'll never forget the evenings near the Happy Fire because we slept on a sagebrush plain a short ways from a mountainside that was dotted with small fires.  It was a beautiful sight at night. 

 

Above:  Jeanette Traynor was the only woman on our crew.  I really admired her.

After extinguishing the I Do Fire, we ate a pork chop dinner out in the sagebrush then loaded into a school bus and, in the evening, traveled into the nearby town of Craig, Colorado.  We filed into the empty high school there, where we got hot showers (what a relief -- we were filthy) and then slept on the floors.  I was so tired that I didn't mind at all sleeping on the hard floor.  The next morning was warm and sunny, and our 20-person crew walked single file down to a restaurant in Craig for a filling breakfast  before we hopped onto the bus and headed out to the next fire.  I still remember the delicious scrambled eggs I had that morning.

 

The Taylor Park fire, north of Gunnison, was late in the season and it was cold with nighttime temperatures dropping down into the 30s, so they put us up in rustic rental cabins nearby.  That was the only time I slept in an actual bed while on the fire lines that season.  So, like I say, the accommodations varied.

 

The food, though, was consistently good (except for the Big Macs I mentioned) and plentiful, and you could usually eat as much as you wanted.  An army marches on its stomach and so do fire crews.  Breakfast and dinner were typically catered and brought out to the fire camps, while you usually carried lunch in your yellow pack and ate on the fire line.

 

Above:  Jeff on the front line of the Home Fire.

Along with the hazard and overtime pay, there were other occasional perks.  During the Home Fire, we flew on a helicopter into the bottom of a canyon in the morning, then we worked our way up the canyon while dousing flames.  Late in the afternoon, the helicopter picked us up at the top of the canyon and flew us back to the fire camp.  It was only the second time I'd been in a helicopter and sitting in the co-pilot's seat, I got a great view and had a nice talk with the pilot, who told me the hardest thing about flying a helicopter was hovering in one spot.  That was a memorable experience.

Types of Fire Crews

There are several different types of crews used on a fire depending on the need, including the basic hand crews I worked on, which build fire lines and do "mop up" work (i.e., put out small embers so they don't ignite).  Another type of crew are "Hot Shots," which are more elite and experienced firefighters.  Hot Shots are often the first group to attack a fire -- the so-called "Initial Attack."  There are also tanker crews, who travel in water tanker trucks to spray water on especially intense blazes that are accessible by vehicle.  Using the military analogy, hand crews are the "infantry" while tanker trucks are the "tanks" of the battle.

 

Above:  Our crew boss, Tom Murtaugh, on the Home Fire.  A helicopter dropped us off in the morning and we worked our way up to the plateau, where it picked us up in the afternoon.  It was hot and we were exhausted.

The most elite group of firefighters, though, are smokejumpers.  These are folks who are specially trained in all sorts of interesting things, including skydiving.  Using the military analogy again, smokejumpers are the Special Operations unit of the firefighting world, like Navy SEALs or Army Rangers.  Smokejumpers often parachute into fires that are too difficult to access by vehicle and work either alone or in small groups.

 

As I headed into the Happy Fire while riding in a school bus with my fire crew, a colleague passed around a list of the physical requirements to qualify for the smokejumper program (along with being fearless and somewhat crazy, of course).  It included things like being able to run a mile in under six minutes, doing 100 push-ups in less than two minutes and carrying a 100-pound pack for a mile in 15 minutes or less.  I read through the long list of requirements and realized that I couldn't do ANY of them.  A couple smokejumpers visited our fire camp a few nights later and everyone on my crew was in awe of them, including me.  They were the very best -- and they knew it.

The Only Time I Ever Said "I Do"

Another thing I learned about fires during the summer of 1988 is that, as with hurricanes, every reported wildfire is assigned a name to identify it.  The name must be unique in that state for that year, and the privilege of naming a fire is often given to the fire spotter who first reports it. 

 

Above:  A plane dropping fire retardant on the I Do Fire.  You don't want to get hit with this gooey, red stuff.

The I Do Fire that I fought in northwestern Colorado near Dinosaur National Monument was named in honor of the firefighter who would've been the fire's Incident Commander, or "I.C." -- the person in charge of fighting the fire -- had he been there.  But alas, the I.C. was in Las Vegas that week getting married, so his second-in-command took over and named it I Do" in honor of his boss.  When I got the call in July asking if I wanted to fight the fire, I gladly said, "I Do."

 

Back in 1988, a 15,000-acre wildfire like the I Do blaze was considered huge.  Indeed, like I say, it was the largest wildfire in Colorado history up until that time.  But today a fire that size has, sadly, become commonplace.  Large wildfires today are measured in the hundreds of thousands of acres and burn for months, not for days or weeks like back then.  Forest fires have grown in size for a number of reasons, including global warming and the historic suppression of smaller fires, which has allowed dead trees and branches to accumulate, so Im afraid Smokey Bears policy of total fire suppression has backfired (no pun intended) to some extent.  But the good news is that fire managers are now adjusting their fire fighting policies by allowing certain smaller fires to burn, to clean out the understory rather than immediately trying to extinguish every single blaze. 

 

Speaking of that, my first (and only?) published map involved the effects of historic fire suppression.  I drew it for a professor at U.C. Riverside when I was an undergrad student there as well as the campus's cartographer.  The map was printed in Science magazine in March of 1983 and if you have a subscription to Science, you can see it at  https://science.sciencemag.org/content/219/4590/1287.

 

Fighting fires was one of the the hardest things I've ever done in my life.  But it was also one of the most enjoyable and rewarding, and I have many fond memories of my experiences on the line.

 

       

Above left:  The prescribed burn near Gunnison in September 1988.

Above center:  Back for another load of napalm.

Above right:  And off it goes...

Red Skies Over Colorado

Now, getting back to my 2002 trip:  Late in the morning, I left the BLM's smoky Needles Overlook in eastern Utah after spending an hour there without seeing another soul, then I headed east through the haze-filled air while reminiscing about my firefighting days.  I crossed into Colorado a few hours later and around 4 p.m. I reached the pleasant farming community of Montrose (pop. 15,000), nestled on the Western Slope of Colorado and one of my favorite towns in America. 

 

Above:  Stocking up with groceries in Montrose before heading up to Lake City.  It was 106 degrees here and the skies were an eerie red with all the smoke.

This was not the lovely Montrose I remembered, however, because the skies were a reddish/brown from all the wildfires nearby, the air was thick with smoke, and the once-mighty Uncompahgre River on the outskirts of town was running precariously low from the prolonged drought.  And boy, was it hot.  The bank's thermometer in Montrose registered a whopping 106 degrees.  Montrose is often hot in the summer, perhaps getting up to the 90s, but it's never this hot. 

 

I drove over to the City Market grocery store to get restocked, then I got back on U.S. Highway 50 and headed up towards Gunnison and Lake City.  The normally-bucolic area I drove through outside of Montrose looked downright hellish and apocalyptic with the angry red skies, and so different than when I had worked here in the 1980s.

 

I reached Lake City, the small mountain town where I had lived for many seasons, late in the afternoon and snagged a great campsite at Williams Creek campground outside of town.  It was a little cooler up here, at an elevation of 8,600 feet, and the skies were a bit clearer, but with all the smoke it was still very strange.  Nevertheless, it was nice to be home" again.

 

   

Above left:  Blue Mesa Reservoir and the Gunnison River, near Gunnison, were almost dry.  Normally this time of year, the reservoir is completely full.

Above right:  I pulled into Williams Creek campground near Lake City late in the afternoon.  At 8,600', it was a little cooler here than down in Montrose but still, warmer than I ever remember.  This would be my home while I stayed in Lake City.

 


 

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