Commentary: Season of Fire

  • Photograph of the Horseshoe 2 Fire from the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

June 22, 2011
Updated July 6, 2013

We got the news on Friday.  Our friend Maryna, and her horses, had been successfully evacuated from the path of the Monument Fire near Sierra Vista.  It was a bright moment in the wrenching tale of what's become an historically bad season of western wildfires.  I wonder how many of us understand what that fight has entailed.  I claim no deep insight. I'm a small-town, rural volunteer firefighter; I've never battled a wilderness holocaust.

Recently, though, I took the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's two basic courses in wildland firefighting.  That hardly makes me an expert.  But it has fundamentally changed what I hear in the words "wildfire under control."

In my little Allegheny Plateau town, brush fires are relatively simple.  Note the terminology: brush fires.  We don't really have wildfires.  Our climate is wet; fires tend to move slowly.  Most of the time we're protecting a small amount of property and not lives.  Our woods and fields are crisscrossed with roads that allow our little brush truck, with its 250-gallon water tank, to get right where it's needed.  Often enough, we can get a full-sized fire engine close enough to do a thousand gallons of good.

The guys out in Arizona and New Mexico have much more limited resources, at least compared to the size of the fire they're facing.  Aerial water drops, power tools and even burning out vegetation in a fire's path can all play a role—resources, weather and the character of the fire permitting.  But mostly, you stop a wild fire by cutting down, digging up and raking out of the way whatever can burn.  Manually.  And that is back-breaking work.

Emblematic of the work is a tool called simply "the Pulaski," a wooden handle attached to a combination axe and adze—a kind of sideways axe.  A Pulaski is good for cutting limbs off trees so they don't overhang into a fire, or, using the adze, digging out roots and organic soil.  he idea is to make a barrier devoid of anything burnable, above and below.  You need to do this to stop the fire; you also need to do it to prevent the fire from creeping under or sweeping over you.

I don't know how long I manned a Pulaski in my class.  I am an old fart.  But it became very heavy in my hands.

My own real-life brush fire experience is pretty modest.  At my first outing, I found myself at the nozzle of an inch-and-a-half hose, dousing the undergrowth wherever I saw smoke.  It was challenging for a newbie—the pressure on a fire hose has some serious recoil, and you have to be careful that you remain in control.  But it wasn't rocket surgery: As they say in the fire service, you put the blue stuff on the red stuff.

Any tendency I'd have had to pat myself on the back evaporated as we laid the hose back into the engine.  The driver informed me that the chief was a bit pissed at us, because we'd have to refill the tank.  Turns out I'd emptied all thousand gallons onto a little brush fire.  Rookie mistake.

When you join a search and rescue team, you don't want people to go missing. When you join a fire company, you don't want fires. But you've prepared for these things, and if they happen, you want to be there to help. Next time we have a brush fire, I think I'll keep a better eye on how much water I'm using — if only out of respect for those who fight fire with no more water available than the one-quart canteens on their backs.