“Fire Crew” — a new book about wildland firefighting

Ben Walters, a self-described “reformed party animal, former firefighter, and former school teacher” has published a book about fighting wildfires with the Bureau of Land Management titled Fire Crew: Stories from the Fireline.

There are a lot of books about wildfire, but this one is unusual because Mr. Walters knows how to use words — words that convey to the reader what he was seeing through his eyes and put you there with him. His descriptions of events, what was going on and why, and what he was thinking are gripping, and are told in a self-deprecating and sometimes humorous manner without ego.

Early in Mr. Walters’ firefighting career he was a little wild and crazy. For example, when drinking his way through a boring evening at a fire station he climbed aboard a backhoe and attempted to dig a swimming pool for the engine crew. Without spoiling your future reading experience, lets just say it did not end well.

But it is not all about bad personal choices. Firefighters will see themselves or their coworkers in many of the well-told stories which were were collected from Mr. Walters’ 11-year wildland firefighting career with the Bureau of Land Management from 1993 through 2003. He started as a GS-2 rookie and worked his way up to an engine module leader, crew boss, and Type 3 Incident Commander. Then he taught junior high school for three years and later worked with a team that dismantled nuclear reactors and other radiological facilities. Along the way he collected a couple of college degrees and now is working with a team that does studies on nuclear fuel fabrication processes. He told us he “really loved fighting fire and there’s a lot of times I wish I’d never quit doing it. But you know how life goes.”

The book will be an excellent addition to your lap this month when the weather outside is frightful and you have some extra time around the holidays. It is edited by Kelly Andersson, a former editor at Wildland Firefighter magazine and author of the The Montana Ranch COOKHOUSE COOKBOOK. The cover photos were taken by Kari Greer, whose photos we have featured previously on Wildfire Today.

You can get it electronically from Smashwords where copies are available that you can read on a computer or various e-book readers. You can also get electronic or paper versions of the book at Amazon. The cost is $9.99 for electronic copies, and $17.95 for paper. If you don’t already have a Kindle e-book reader, you can get one at the Amazon/Wildfire Today store.

Below is an excerpt from the book, published here with Mr. Walters’ permission. It tells the story of Engine 311 getting stuck, or high centered, as a fire burns up to the truck and the crew.



The first thing we see when we pull up is Sam Quinn stuck in his engine, high-centered and facing downhill. The fire is burning all around him in big sagebrush and tall, thick grass. The radiating heat is nearly unbearable even for us, and we are still 30 or so feet away. The crackle is so loud it’s not even really a crackle, but a roar. The smoke is thick enough to make the big yellow fire engine repeatedly conduct a disappear/reappear act. This does not look good.

We quickly pull the chase into a washout well away from the inferno, but close enough to gear up and make a calculated maximum fast-walk over to 311 to help Quinn and company.

The engine looked like it was about to be burned over. I saw flames shoot up and over the top of it at one point, and that was just because the wall of orange, white, black, and gray had shifted for a split second, allowing for a quick view. Feltz was frantic, and his voice betrayed him, increasing exponentially in both volume and pitch as he screamed at us to get up there and help. We moved as fast as we could up the short slope through the tall grass, pulling a hard line behind us.

I didn’t know Sam at all then. He just looked like a dirty dude. Hair down to his waist, huge black punk-rock goatee. He looked like a pirate, minus the eye patch. I did know he was well thought of as an engine foreman though, and his reputation certainly didn’t diminish any right now. As the flames ripped around and through and over him and his crew, I heard his voice come over the P.A. of his engine. He comically but effectively instructed his crew. “Ladies and gentlemen, as you can see, we have fire all around us. Please move to the back of the engine and charge and deploy the knockdown hose at this time. Thank you.”

Two of his crew pulled the 25-foot length of inch-and-a-half hose and poly nozzle from its emergency box at the rear of the engine, underneath the pump, and stretched it out to full length. Another crewmember pulled the charge valve and the hose immediately filled hard with water. This same crewmember throttled the pump up to deliver max water pressure. The two on the hose opened full straight stream on the wall of flame that was trying to devour the engine. The roar of flame changed instantly to the hiss of a foiled cobra and then shrank to nothing. Smoke was replaced with steam, and the engine with its occupants and crew immediately cooled off. All firefighters moved with total economy and efficiency. Quinn instructed from the cab in mock proper speech. “Well done gents, now please continue to the fore end of the vehicle and employ foam and water on flame wall near right fender of engine.”

This was hugely comical and awesome to me at the same time. I resolved right then to never lose my calm on a fire if I could help it. If I did panic, I intended to internalize it. I promised myself I would always at least try to look cool like Quinn under pressure.

Days later and back on the mop-up stage of this fire, I released my grip on the railing of the engine, and released my thoughts about the fatal incident over by Boise. Standing in the middle of a sea of cold black with a few stobs of brush and grass poking through the ash, I asked Amy, Alexis, and Dave if they knew how to start the pump with the cotton starter rope if the electric start ever failed. I had watched Steve Lewis do this yesterday and thought I should pass the knowledge on to our crew.

They all gathered round while I wrapped the rope, with its wooden handle, around the Briggs and Stratton pump motor flywheel. Amy was standing closest to me, in fact right behind me. I made the verbal instructions and then showed them, pulling on the starter cord with a wicked jerk, starting the pump and simultaneously backhanding Amy in the mouth harder than I had ever hit someone.

The beautiful and innocent face had a horrible look of shock as she took one step back, put a gloved hand up, and fell to the ground. I can’t remember ever feeling so crappy about myself.

“Oh my God, Amy, I’m so sorry!” I wailed. “Are you okay? Oh crap, I’m so sorry!”

“I’m fine, I’m fine!” She was tough, but there were tears in her eyes.

It was totally an accident, but definitely live and learn. Make sure no one is standing behind you when you pull a starter rope of any kind: lawnmower, boat motor, pump motor, anything.

“Nice job, Ben.” Dave tossed at me.

Alexis and Dave helped Amy up while I retrieved an instant cold pack from the first aid kit. She put the pack on her now fattened lower lip, and we decided to postpone pump motor emergency starting lessons until later.

Ben Walters
Ben Walters

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on ““Fire Crew” — a new book about wildland firefighting”

  1. I disagree. I thought the book was poorly written. He says that he graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree, but it certainly wasn’t in creative writing……There’s so little description of the fires he fought but so much about his drinking escapades. Whooeeee!

    1. Hi Susan,

      So is your bachelor’s degree in creative writing? Which of the fires in the book did you think needed more or better description?

      You did read it, right?

  2. Thanks Bill, glad you liked the book. Seriously, the whole book is as good as that excerpt. I’ve read a book or three written by firefighters, but I’ve NEVER read one this well written, this honest, or this vivid. I expect Ben’s book will be in red bags all over the West next summer. Thanks for your review; Ben deserves it. A 5-star book for sure.


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