Book excerpt: Summers of Fire

We are privileged today to publish an excerpt from a book being written by Linda M. Strader about her experience as a wildland firefighter, which began on a 10-person suppression crew on the Coronado National Forest in Arizona.

The nineteen-year-old woman, strong willed and adventurous, stepped into history when she applied for a position as a Forest Service firefighter in 1976, one year after the organization opened its doors to allow women on fire crews.

Ms. Strader is now a Landscape Architect in southern Arizona. Although she enjoys her current profession, she still remembers her days as a firefighter as the best times of her life.

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SUMMERS OF FIRE; A MEMOIR

By Linda Strader

(A PORTION OF CHAPTER 3)

Anticipation grew daily among the crew. It proved hard for me to be patient. I felt ready! The practice fire had me raring to go to a real one, but no matter how much training they drilled into us, I figured nothing would totally prepare me for the real thing.

Linda Strader and Smokey
Smokey and Linda Strader, at the end of her first fire season in 1976.

The morning of June 2nd, at five-thirty a.m., I lay in bed, awake, listening to the calls of mourning doves. “Coo-ah … coo-coo-coo” echoed in the dawn. Such a sad sound. No wonder they call them mourning doves. They sound like they’re crying. I listened intently, trying to determine how many doves I heard, and where their calls were coming from. Gradually, I recognized a new sound; the sound of gravel crunching under feet in the driveway, coming closer to my open bedroom window. The footsteps stopped.

Glenn’s deep voice came through the screen, “Linda? We have a fire.”

Oh my God, this is it!!

Suddenly wide awake, I bounded out of bed and replied in a shaky voice, “Okay, be right there!”

Trembling with excitement, I pulled on my Levi’s, threaded my leather belt through the loops, and slipped on my Buck knife sheath for easy access. I buttoned up my workshirt, and added my yellow fire shirt on top. Next came my usual two pair of socks and Red Wing boots. I braided my long blond hair, and pinned it on top of my head with a barrette, just as I did every day before work. At the last minute I remembered to tie a bandana around my neck just in case I needed an extra. I grabbed my hardhat and work gloves, briskly heading to the office next door.

When I walked into the office Glenn was sitting at his desk, hand on the phone receiver, deep in thought.

“We’re the only ones here,” he said. Then he muttered, “Humph. Don’t these guys know it’s fire season?” He lifted the receiver, and dialed a number.

“Scott. This is Glenn. Get back here on the double. There’s a fire.” He pushed the button on the phone with his finger to end the call, then lifted his finger and dialed again.

“Joe. This is Glenn. We’ve got a fire.” He hung up the receiver this time, and glanced over at me.

“Well, my guess is it will take them both an hour even though Joe lives in Madera Canyon. You might as well gas up the truck, and load up the packs while we wait.” He tossed me a set of keys.

Eager to have something to occupy my mind, I rushed over to the fire cache. Our fire packs were stored on a shelf. I grabbed Scott’s and Joe’s, and tossed them into the back of the truck. While going back to retrieve mine, I thought about Joe, since this would be the first time we would work together.

Somewhat of a mystery to me, Joe always appeared either deep in thought, or maybe just very shy. With short, almost white-blond hair and chiseled features, his deep-set green eyes struck me as observant of every little detail. His strong physique made it obvious he was accustomed to hard work. The rumor mill said he worked at Florida for two summers, under the Government’s Title 10 firefighting support program. He was always very quiet, only speaking when he had something important to say. I wondered if he fit the adage “still waters run deep.” Glenn praised him often. “They don’t make ‘em like Joe much,” he mused one day. “He’s a good hand.” For whatever reason, I assumed Joe had been on fires with Glenn before; a comforting thought at that particular moment, as I felt I could rely on him to show me the ropes.

Packs loaded, I started up the crew cab and moved it over to our mini gas station, with its own underground tank and manual gas pump. Taking hold of the three-foot long handle, I moved move the lever back and forth to start a siphon, slowly adding gas to the tank. It took about ten minutes to fill up, but it beat driving to Green Valley. With the truck ready to go, I briskly walked back to the office, hoping the guys had showed up early. With no sign of them, Glenn suggested I sit and wait.

“Might be a while before you have a chance to sit again,” he said with a knowing smile.

He looked calm. I paced, finding it hard to sit and be patient. Shouldn’t we be leaving soon? Isn’t this supposed to be some kind of emergency? Finally tired of pacing, I took his advice. A few minutes later I heard a truck pull into the Station, then another. I trotted over to the fire cache to meet them.

Finally! We’re on the way!

Scott took the driver’s seat and Joe hopped into the back. I buckled in on the passenger side, rolling down my window for a cool breeze. We sped down the dirt road from the station, dust clouds billowing in our wake. When we reached the intersection of Madera Canyon Road, we hit pavement, and Scott pressed the gas petal to the floor to keep our momentum going up the steep grade.

Still partially hidden behind the Santa Ritas, the rising sun created streaks of yellow and orange outlining the mountains against the cloudless sky. Looking up at Wrightson, I could see a column of white smoke billowing up from a canyon below the rugged peak. We turned off the paved main road onto a dirt Forest Service fire access road. The dusky, breaking daylight in the densely vegetated canyon, warned of the pending heat. Tucson’s predicted high of one-hundred-two meant temperatures in the low nineties at our destination.

Scott raced the truck up the rugged four-wheel drive road. My seat belt tightened with every bump until it started to hurt. I unbuckled it, and struggled to readjust, only to have it cinch up a notch again. Scott hit rocks and dips so hard, my head came close to bashing the roof of the truck. Glenn always stressed safety, and required us to wear our hardhats at all times, no matter what the task. However, I couldn’t imagine he thought of our hardhats protecting us from a head injury inside the cab! Scott was a virtual wild man behind the wheel! A couple times I almost blurted out, “Slow down or we’ll never get there in one piece!” However, caught up in the excitement of racing to a fire, I kept quiet and held tightly onto the dashboard for the wild ride.

The road followed a deep canyon of tall sycamore trees, temporarily obscuring the smoke from view. The idyllic forest setting, with a creek babbling along the side of the road, completely escaped me. All I could think about was the adventure ahead. What will happen? Finally coming to a stop in a level area surrounded by tall pines, we parked. Climbing out of the truck, we unloaded our tools and gear.

“Follow me!” Scott took the lead, walking up a steep pine-needle covered slope. Our truck quickly disappeared from view, hidden behind a ridge covered with thick pines and underbrush. Packs slung over our backs, tools at our sides, we scrambled through brush and trees and over a ridge until we came to a large rock slide. Now I could see smoke. A lot of smoke. And flames! Out of control and burning through dry pine needles, small trees and shrubs! The wildness of the sight definitely had my full attention. Dumbstruck for a moment, I stopped and stared. Wow.

The fire crept steadily down canyon, popping and crackling noises filled the air. Scott’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “Joe, you and Linda head downslope to catch the fire at the bottom of the slide, I’ll go start at the top, and start down to flank the other side.” He paused a moment to think, then said, “Use the rock slide as part of our fire break; that’ll save us time and effort. Hopefully we can connect our fire lines before the winds pick up and change direction.”

The coming sunrise meant winds would change from downslope to upslope. We needed a secure line before that happened. Fire burned much faster uphill, making it much harder to contain. When we reached the bottom edge of the slide, Joe and I started digging fire line. Our fire packs were awkward to keep on our backs while we worked, so we set them down outside the newly cleared area. We both used Pulaskis to remove flammable plant debris in our four-foot wide line. The fire, no more than twenty-feet away, burned in the forest understory, consuming pine needles and duff, the partially decomposed matter under the needles. Bent over, we dug and scraped at the ground with the hoe end, cut small trees with the axe, and kicked pine needles aside with our boots to speed up the process. I kept looking up at the fire, scared and fascinated at the same time.

Which way is it burning? Is it coming closer, or moving away?

The fire reached overhanging branches of a pine with its volatile sap. It exploded into flames! A slight breeze intensified the spectacle, sending fire and smoke swirling and twirling into the air. A vortex of fire. Miniature dust devils, I thought, thinking of the larger versions created from superheated air during hot, dry summers. Resembling mini-tornados, dust devils could create a lot of havoc; including ripping off roofs. The big ones were scary enough; and the thought of what they could do to a raging fire terrified me. So focused on the spectacle before me, it took Joe’s loud voice to bring me back to the moment.

“This is too hot! Let’s back off!”

I nodded, and we retreated from the heat. While waiting for the flames to die down, I looked over at Joe to see if he appeared concerned or worried.

Nope, he looks calm.

I kept thinking about those corny movies, the ones we watched in training. Will this turn into a crown fire?

We could hear Scott on our two-way radio, “Yeah, this is Steinberg calling Dispatch, do you read?”

“Ten-four, Steinberg, we copy. Over.”

“We need slurry. On the double.”

“Ten-four. Slurry on the way. KOG seven-eight-five.”

This meant slurry bombers, aircraft loaded with fire retardant, would be coming soon. That meant the Kent Fire had a better chance of being extinguished before it grew, and hopefully before it jumped into the tops of trees. The Forest Service names fires based on geographical features near the fire. Each name is unique, and is not used twice. The Kent Fire was named after Kent Spring, located near our parked truck.

The sun made its way higher into the sky, now shining into our canyon of fire. Temperatures started to climb. Sunrise also meant gusty winds. I watched the fire take on new life. Looking over to Joe for guidance, I noticed he stood perfectly still, staring back toward where we started. He glanced over at me and gave me a look I couldn’t interpret.

I stopped working. “What?” I shouted over the roar of burning trees.

He kept looking behind us. Then he turned to me. “There go our packs.”

“What? What happened to our packs?”

Then I realized what he meant. Our packs were up in flames! The fire had jumped the line! My first thought went to my burned up clothes. Then I realize something far more important. Unfortunately, our canteens went up in flames too. Neither of us had thought to carry them with us. We did not say anything to each other, but the reality was clear: It would be a long day without water.

Turning our attention back to the fire, we had to again back off building line as the intense heat became unbearable. The wind changed direction, blowing rolls of thick smoke into where we worked. Coughing, I followed Joe’s lead and tied my bandana over my nose and mouth. Despite the cloth filter, the smoke burned my lungs. My eyes stung and watered. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and now I couldn’t see a thing! Fire hissed, crackled and snapped as pine sap boiled. Where is it? How close?

Joe coughed, and hoarsely called out to me, “Down, get down! Move … this way … over here!” We crouched low to the ground for slightly less smoky air, and scrambled up a slope away from the fire. Once over a small ridge, we found a smokeless breeze to catch our breath. Lying on the ground, I tugged down my bandana, and sucked in as much fresh air as I could. I coughed spastically, trying to get the smoke out of my lungs. Fear screamed through every inch of my body, but I refused to panic. Joe doesn’t look scared; I trust him that we’ll be okay. My parched throat felt like I had swallowed dirt. Don’t think about how thirsty you are, it will only make it worse. Thinking that made it worse.

The wind changed again, gratefully turning the smoke and fire away from us. We went back to the fire’s edge and continued our efforts to build a secure line. Still energized with adrenalin, we chopped and scraped furiously, trying to make up for lost time. Hours later, the three of us were still the only ones on the fire. We were assured by radio that support was on the way. Finally, I heard the drone of approaching aircraft. Slurry had finally arrived! I placed my hand on top of my hardhat as I looked up to the sky.

Holy Cow that thing is low!”

The huge C-47 with a belly full of slurry, dipped even lower, almost touching tree tops. Doors on the underside opened up, dropping the bright pink slurry in front of the hottest part of the fire. The aircraft tipped its nose up, and disappeared from view. The fire waned. Just what we needed! Taking advantage of the fire’s temporary setback, we moved in and aggressively continued scraping and digging. Joe and I had not seen Scott since we parted early that morning.

With absolutely no concept of time, the only indicator as to how long we’d been there was the sun’s movement in the sky. Looks like early afternoon to me, I thought, gauging the current sun angle. That meant Joe and I had been without water for the past seven hours. No doubt dehydrated; somehow I kept pushing. The muscles in my arms burned from the constant digging. My hands hurt from the continuous tight grip on the handle of my tool. To conserve moisture in our dry mouths, we did not talk. Working a lot slower than we started, I heard voices and stopped to see where they were coming from. First I noticed bright yellow shirts coming down through the trees; then I recognized familiar faces as they approached. The Catalina Hot Shots had arrived to help, and Rudy, from Nogales, led the way. Looking like a pack mule with multiple canteens of water strapped across his stout frame, Rudy called out “Anybody need water?”

An angel from Heaven! If he only knew! I reached out, as he un-strapped a canteen from over his head, and handed it to me. Hoarsely I whispered, ”Thank you.” I have never been so thirsty in my life. A hard and dangerous lesson, I never carried less than six quarts on me since then. Whenever I recount this story, I always need a drink of water to finish.

The surreal day came to an end as the sun dipped behind the mountains. We finally took a much needed break, and along with water, Rudy passed out dinner in the form of C-rations.

“C-Rats” as we called them, were left over from the 1960’s and questionably edible. They consisted of a variety of canned goods, including such “delectables” as canned Spaghetti with Meatballs in Sauce (Type I or Type II), Tuna Fish, Beef Stew, Fruit Cocktail, Pound Cake, Fudge Rounds, Crackers (Type II), Peanut Butter (Type II) and V-8 Juice. Also tucked in those plain cardboard boxes were packages of salt and pepper and tiny Tabasco sauce bottles.

“Aw…aren’t these cute?” Tom commented, holding up the one-inch tall bottle. “Guess that tells you just how bad the food is; you need hot sauce to disguise the taste.”

Also included were teeny tiny packages of folded toilet paper about the size of a cigarette lighter, a green matchbook and squares of Chicklets chewing gum. The gum was hard as a rock. The Type I and II’s were identifications we never really understood. Scott felt rested enough to find humor in the situation, and asked, “What is Type I spaghetti versus Type II anyway?”

I shrugged and laughed, “You got me!”

But heck, we were hungry and scarfed them down anyway. Cold. No one had the energy to warm them up. It did not take many of those for us to eventually purchase our own food at our own expense. Tom got sick that day eating one of those fifteen-year-old cans of spaghetti.

It was here, sitting on a pine-needle covered slope, the conversation turned toward my fire initiation. Although every inch of my body felt fatigued, I found new energy when Scott, one of the Hot Shots I knew from last summer, asked, “Hey, Linda, so how did it go? What do you think of firefighting?”

I swallowed a mouthful of tuna, set down the can, and admitted, “Pretty darned exciting! I saw a slurry drop! What a sight!”

Then Mark asked Joe the same question. Wait a minute…I thought he’d been on fires before. I hid my surprise.

Joe replied, “Yeah, pretty exciting ‘till our packs burned up.” Everyone laughed.

“What the heck happened?” asked Rudy.

“Well”, Joe said, sounding a little contrite, “we thought the line was secure, and, well, obviously it wasn’t. The wind changed direction.”

“That’s a drag,” said Mark. “Bet you don’t do that again.”

Joe glanced at me; I nodded and smiled. He smiled and nodded back. Once we were alone, I decided to confirm. “So you’ve not been on a fire before?”

A small smile appeared as he admitted shyly, “Nope, this was my first.”

Surprised only one of the people Glenn sent out had ever been on a fire before, I didn’t know what to say. Wow. Should I be worried, or assume Glenn had that much confidence in us?.

Fortunately, we contained the fire at ten acres. For mop-up procedures we had help from a prison crew from Safford. When I heard this, my first thought was, Yikes! Prisoners?! Are they dangerous? Would they try to escape? Would they make sexist comments?

All of those concerns evaporated, as I noticed after just an hour how hard they worked. Not only were they hard workers, but they also had a good sense of humor.During a break one of the prisoners quipped, “These mountains aren’t the Santa Ritas, they’re the “Steep-a-ritas!” Everyone laughed. All kidding aside, he had a good point. The Santa Ritas were incredibly steep, with very few level areas other than in saddles and along the crest of the range. Those steep slopes made work extremely arduous.

Mop-up is a tedious procedure of extinguishing every single hot spot, so no fires would restart at a later date. Usually that meant chopping apart burning logs and cooling them with shovelfuls of dirt. We also used sparingly what the guys nicknamed “Piss-pumps”. I shook my head the first time I heard this. Leave it to a guy to come up with a name like that.

We had no training for this equipment, and I’d never seen one before. I preferred to call them “backpack pumps”, which is really what they were; rubber bladder bags of water carried on your back. They were made like backpacks, with straps, and had a hose emerging from the bottom, leading to a hand-pumped sprayer. To squirt water, you pumped the handle to create a siphon. While I had no doubts having water to cool down the fire would be handy; it did not take me long to figure out how difficult they were to maneuver, and not worth the hassle. I found them not only heavy and unwieldy, but when I had a full one on my back on a steep slope, the water in the bag, following gravity, tried to continually pull me downhill. This meant compensating by leaning uphill, even on side slopes.

Okay, this is ridiculous. I’m having a hard enough time moving on these nearly vertical slopes without adding something that makes me walk like I’ve had one too many shots of Tequila! Not to mention the risk of falling and getting hurt.

Oh well, I’ll use the water up since I’ve got it. Carefully, I stepped over downed, blackened trees looking for wisps of smoke or red embers. A hissing and spitting sound came from a few yards in front of me, and I walked over to investigate. Yup, hot spot. I chopped the burning log apart with my Pulaski, and squirted a shot of water on the hot coals. A cloud of hot steam rose into the air, and I stepped back to avoid burns The distinct odor of wet charcoal permeated my sense of smell, replacing the sweet odor of smoke I almost didn’t notice anymore.

When I ran out of water, I discovered another downside of backpack pumps. It was a long walk to a water source. I hiked back to our supply area and found Rudy, assigned to filling more backpack pumps, busy filling bags from plastic lined boxes of water called Cubitainers. Slipping the straps off my shoulder, I handed the empty rubber bag to him. “Here; this is not for me. I wanna trade-in my Pulaski, too. Water is nice, but I prefer a shovel and dirt.”

With raised eyebrows, Rudy pointed to a pile of shovels for the taking.

It only took one fire in steep terrain to convince me extra steps, especially when hiking through treacherous terrain, were something to be avoided at all costs. Walking through a burn area required bushwhacking through dense thickets, stepping into punky holes of decaying tree stumps and stumbling over loose rocks.

Mopping-up requires great patience. Every now and then I stopped to look for wisps of smoke; indicating either the presence of a smoldering log, or roots burning deep underground. This meant taking my time and stopping often to look for smoke or coals, listen for popping and crackling sounds, and taking a whiff of the air to see if it smelled of fresh smoke. As I carefully walked through the aftermath of the blaze, a wave of sadness came over me. The forest looked dead. Everything was charred black or grey, including rocks. Strangely and unnaturally quiet, the only sounds I heard were the echoes of voices and the clanking of tools against rocks. No chirping birds, no chattering of squirrels, no whispering of pines when a breeze stirred the air. Picking my way through smoldering ashes, climbing over downed trees and detouring around blackened stems of leafless plants, I spotted a glowing red stump across a wide rock slide.

Aha! That needs attention.

Making my way to edge of the slide, I studied the loose, softball-sized rocks spread out in front of me, at least fifty feet wide, and downslope for several hundred feet. I stepped on to the slide, testing the rocks to see if they would hold my weight. They did. I ventured out further. My full weight on the loose rocks made them slide downhill, taking me with them! “Ahhh!!!” I shrieked as the rocks carried me unwillingly down the hill. With nothing to hold onto, I had to ride out the slide, balancing as though on a surfboard. Finally, I stopped. My heart raced from the scare of sliding uncontrollably, but I tried again to cross the slide. More sliding took me downhill again several more feet. After several attempts, I finally reached safety on the other side. However, now I had to climb back uphill to where I saw the hot spot. Cursing under my breath, I worked my way up the steep slope, grasping and tugging on small shrubs to give me a boost. The exertion turned my legs into rubber, making them feel like they were no longer part of me. Finally reaching the glowing stump, I positioned one foot higher than the other to steady myself on the slope, and scraped the charred ground looking for dirt. All I could find was rock. Well, this is just great, I muttered to myself in frustration. Suddenly my foot felt hot! Really hot!

Ow! What the…??

I jumped to the side and realized I was standing in a bed of hot coals. Oh! Now I really get the no steel-toed boots. I dug around to create a safe place to stand. Obviously, I needed to pay more attention, as these hot spots hid under ash and debris.

Mopping-up is also incredibly hard work. With sore and tired muscles, every move became a concerted effort. It took all the energy I could muster to move from one burning stump to another. At the end of a very long day, over sixteen hours on the line, exhaustion set in. I needed more than a fifteen-minute break. We all did. Finally, they sent us home.

Arriving back at the Station, wearily I walked into my house, convincing myself a shower would be a good idea before collapsing into bed. Glenn had made it clear we needed an early start. “See you all at four!” he said cheerfully. We looked at him with red-rimmed, blurry-eyes, and acknowledged with barely perceptible nods.

Deeply asleep; fire, flames, and smoke filled my dreams. Suddenly I realized a rude clanging sound did not belong on the fire line. I reached over to my make-shift apple-box nightstand, and smacked the button down on my wind-up alarm clock.

Ohhhh…is it really three-thirty already?

I rolled onto my other side, wanting more sleep. When I moved, I could feel muscles I didn’t know I had. Every square inch of my body ached. I rolled back over and looked at the clock.

Yuck. Time to get up.

Pushing myself out of bed, I padded barefoot into the bathroom and flicked on the light. My hands hurt. I looked over my palms. Angry, red blisters screamed at me. That was my fault, as I was not a fan of gloves. I did not wear them when using hand tools. My experience proved gloves made it harder to get a grip on tool handles. I knew eventually calluses would replace the now-tender skin.

After cereal and toast, I walked stiffly into the office where we met each morning. Glenn, watching the way I walked, had a knowing smile on his face when he said, “Don’t worry, a few more days of this and you’ll work all the soreness out of your legs and hands.”

I groaned inwardly. Yeah, I suppose so.

I spent two more ten hour days combing the fire area until they declared it officially controlled. And yes, I silently admitted, the aches did go away.

Linda Strader
Linda Strader (in the red vest) and part of her BLM engine crew in Kenai,  Alaska in 1980.

(end of excerpt)

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Ms. Strader’s web site has more information about her and her book.

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. Google+

2 thoughts on “Book excerpt: Summers of Fire”

  1. What an awesome story. Gives me goosebumps remembering my first fire. Very well written too. Thank you Linda 🙂

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