Joshua Berman has written books about foreign travel and living in Belize and Nicaragua, but when he took a job on the Whiskeytown Fire Use Module in northern California in 2003 it must have seemed to him that he had entered a world as foreign as those central American countries. In an article he wrote for a travel web site, Worldhum, he exaggerates and uses inflammatory language to describe life on a Fire Use Module as seen through the eyes of a rookie. It is a little disturbing to see the job described this way, but judge for yourself. Here is the beginning of the article:
Joshua Berman spent a glorious summer exploring some of America’s most beautiful wilderness areas — with a drip torch in hand.
That summer, my job was to burn, to lay flame across the earth and watch some of America’s most remote and spectacular wildernesses go up in columns of black. It was beautiful.
“Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean,” wrote Ray Bradbury.
But instead of destroying books with flamethrowers, as the futuristic firemen of “Fahrenheit 451” did, our job was to burn forests. Mostly, we used drip torches—heavy, metal cans with crudely soldered handles. These were the tools of choice for manual ignition, clutched in leather gloves, diesel-mix sloshing inside. When the terrain didn’t favor torches—when the fuel (trees, brush, and grass) was patchy, or farther than arm’s length away—we had other methods. We dropped ping-pong balls of napalm from helicopters, set off small bombs in thickets of brush, and shot flaming disks from pistols.
As if none of this was fun enough, we were also mobile, making that fire season one of the most memorable (and lucrative) traveling summers of my life. I worked for the National Park Service, roaming from parkland to parkland, charting our success by numbers of acres burned and number of overtime and hazard-pay hours earned. Not much else mattered. The kicker was, for most wildland firefighters I knew, that money saved in fire season was money spent soon after—usually on travel—when our jobs ended in late fall.
But first, we burned. The idea was, the more land burned, the less fuel there was to go up later. In essence, we were fighting future fires by beating them to the punch. With each new record-setting blaze burning out of control on the nightly news, we learned that treating fire as an invasive, evil force instead of a restorative one, and trying to completely exclude it from our wildlands, was an unnatural, impossible, and ultimately disastrous approach.
On a related note:
–In 2008 the Whiskeytown Fire Use Module’s office was threatened by the Motion Fire when it burned into Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, but previous fuel treatments resulted in lower fire intensities near the structure, making it possible to conduct a safe and controlled burn-out.
–Someone calling himself “duckvariety” is trying to sell a “Whiskeytown Prescribed Fire Module” patch on Ebay. Is that legal? I know, for example, it is illegal to sell uniforms with the National Park Service patch.