*Consumed first appeared in Issue 04 of The Seasonals Magazine

  Photos by Jake Murie (@jake.murie)

The crackle of the wood calls to me. It calls to me like a siren singing her song of temptation. Smoke hangs and curls, freely entering my nostrils to return nostalgic memories from my summers. The flames dance and spit embers. I am spellbound by primitive fascination. Fire stokes up memories in the minds of everyone from summer camping trips, winter bonfires, or an autumn burn pile. A memory is there. A select few not only remember fire but live it every year, every summer, nearly every day.

I was one of those people. 

Right out of high school I was lucky enough to land a job with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources where I was introduced to the unique world of wildland firefighting. I was engulfed by fire, totally consumed, until I burnt out. Long hours, longer days, dust, dirt, smoke, debris, sweat, MREs, camaraderie, hardships, discipline, friendships, and the unknown of tomorrow. As a fresh-outta-school young man, I was loving everything to do with the seasonal job of wildland firefighting, so much so that I decided, from a mountaintop on lookout, that I was going to follow this path and study it at school. I was going to spend my off-season studying wildland fire and environmental sciences in an educational setting. In the summer I would spend my time hands-on with fire suppression, travel around the country where assigned, and make some damn good money while I’m at it.

The adventures were bottomless. Morning briefing had me crossing my fingers that R1 had popped some starts and raised their preparedness level, requiring more resources in the region, meaning that I could be on the crew to show up in the wilds of Idaho or Montana to fight some fire. And, again, get paid a lot to do so. With the help of the US Forest Service, I have been to every state in the Western US and fought fire in most of them. I’ve flown in helicopters above Yellowstone National Park on its centennial and spent multiple nights in the backcountry of Crater Lake National Park fighting lightning busts day and night - being flown in supplies. But it’s not all fun and glory in the fire game. There were many times when I simply wanted to finish the day, and the following one, and the one after that to put in my 14 days of grinding and be rewarded with some sweet, sweet R&R.

Shit, Shit, Shit, here we go...

I have been to the middle of nowhere Oregon, a wasted, blackened grassland, in 100°+ temperatures, gridding for smokes for a week. The act of gridding involves a squad or crew lined out with equal spacing in from the black edge of the fire slowly walking, sometimes crawling, scanning the burnt area for any sort of residual smoke or heat. Imagine doing that all day for a week, it can drive a person a little mad. I’ve also been the swamper of a saw team, the one to carry the fuel and oil, spare parts and tools, and the falling axe for the sawyer. I tossed their freshly cut debris for hours on end only to find there’s no alternative route around the massive poison oak patch and have had to hug the oily leaves like a long lost friend. I’ve been called the “poster child for trench foot” because of the rash from my ankle down and wearing open blisters on nine of my toes.

Through my experiences in wildland firefighting, one specific assignment stands out most to me. I was a “phil” or fill-in for a veterans crew out of Billings, Montana. I was incredibly intimidated by the idea of me, a laid-back, easygoing young man, filling in with 18 of America’s veterans. I thought my two weeks were about to be dictated by rough, tough, stubborn, and hardcore military personnel who I’d feel almost guilty around for not serving as well. Simply put, I didn’t want to go, but needed the money. As I pulled into the work center, I was met by the hard stares of men with short hair, beards and combat style sun-glasses. Shit, shit, shit, here we go…

I was wrong, completely wrong. Those guys were rough and tough, but they were incredibly kind, grateful to be outside on a mission, and were laughing all the time. The two week assignment on their crew was great. I got to know my squad really well while gridding for smokes in Hell’s Canyon. One guy wanted to open a brewery, another would flip houses in winter down in Colorado, and another wanted to one day be a smokejumper. Just normal guys with normal goals. After being released from Hell’s Canyon, we headed to Yellowstone to be involved in the complex of fires that were burning away at the dense high elevation lodgepole pine stands. This is where we got into some real exciting activities.

The crew had the responsibility of protecting a historical structure in the backcountry. We hiked three miles in to set up a sprinkler system and to wrap it in a tin foil like material. While we were observing the fire across the valley up on the hill, we noticed a pack of wolves at the base of the hill darting in and out around a herd of buffalo, teasing for the calves.

Our next mission was to protect a series of structures with a sprinkler system from start to finish. We were able to measure out the area and make a detailed map of where each sprinkler would go, the necessary hose and fittings for the system, and then build and test the system. After a couple days, the arrangement was completed. When the pump was fired up and the hoses began to swell, subsequently firing each sprinkler, filling the air with the repetitive and familiar sprinkler sound chk, chk, chk, chk, chchchchchchkk. For us, this moment was as glorious as the christmas tree lighting in Times Square.

The fondest memory I have of that two weeks was a sudden plan to burn out under a raging hillside at night. The plan was so sudden that we crossed the stream with rolled-up pants and carrying our boots above the water. On the other side, we laced up as quickly as possible, cut off a bough from a tree, and used it as a flapper to beat out the fire that was back-burning. Damn that was fun. Running back and forth frantically to catch and extinguish all rebellious flames, relying on our branch’s needles not to burn so the “tool” would remain effective. The burn took off towards the bottom of the hill where the two fronts would meet and extinguish. We retreated some distance away and sat with our backs on an old downed tree watching as our fire show lit up the valley. Hunger rapidly approached and we happily opened up our MREs and ate dinner.

I wouldn’t trade back a single day. People become whacky versions of themselves in tough times when morale is low but there is always one of us keeping a smile about and who’s good for a laugh. During the moment, it may have sucked, but I cherish the memories and they have made me who I am today. Fire consumed my summer. Working 14 days straight, then two days off, and repeating the process until the temperatures dropped and the fall rains arrived to end the season.

The end of the season brings a time of joy to all who dedicate their summer to the fireline. We take a much needed rest after working upwards of 2000 hours in six months (the average full-time job in America works 2000 hours for the entire year). Finally, we are free to do whatever we please. The options are abundant with several zeros at the end of our bank account balances. We travel abroad and spend summer in the southern hemisphere or experience an exotic culture. We invest in that new vehicle we’ve been dreaming about driving all summer. Some of us wait around for winter to hit and become one of the many ski bums to shred the slopes. Hard work pays off with the reward of six months of fun, enjoyment, and opportunity.

The end of the season brings a time of joy to all who dedicate their summer to the fireline. We take a much needed rest after working upwards of 2000 hours in six months (the average full-time job in America works 2000 hours for the entire year). Finally, we are free to do whatever we please. The options are abundant with several zeros at the end of our bank account balances. We travel abroad and spend summer in the southern hemisphere or experience an exotic culture. We invest in that new vehicle we’ve been dreaming about driving all summer. Some of us wait around for winter to hit and become one of the many ski bums to shred the slopes. Hard work pays off with the reward of six months of fun, enjoyment, and opportunity.

 

 

 

BIO: Tyler Garwood was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys rock climbing, fly fishing, photography, writing and backpacking. He is currently based out of Wanaka, New Zealand. If you enjoy his writing you can read more at www.thepursuitproject.org.

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