Fire Camp – Rosebud Complex – 2012

“People from all walks of life show up in one spot, they build a team, they build a city, they fight the fires, put it out, save the day, feel great about their public service, and they all disappear again.” Incident Commander Stan Benes.

Today we have an article written by W. Scott Olsen. It tells the story of his visit to the Rosebud Complex fire camp in August of last year, a fire that burned 171,000 acres south of Rosebud, Montana. We have previously mentioned other wildfire-related articles written by Mr. Olsen, who is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, but this is the first time we have published one in its entirety. He describes it as an insider’s look at the morning briefing at the Rosebud Fire Camp last year.

Chalky Fire
Chalky Fire, part of the Rosebud Complex, 2012. Photo by Mia Victoria Zuehlsdorff.

Fire Camp ~Rosebud Complex ~ 2012

I am tremendously early.

Southeastern Montana is on fire and I am heading toward the Rosebud Complex fire camp. I have directions, hastily written on a yellow legal pad, fluttering in the open window gusts of my Jeep, but in truth I have no idea how far I need to go. All I know is that the morning briefing happens first. No set time. Just first.

Yesterday, on the phone with the public information liaison, I was told I needed boots if I was going into the black, into the burned and burning. At least eight inches tall. Lug soles. They had the fire resistant green pants and yellow shirts for me there, as well as a hardhat and gloves. But I needed my own boots, and a backpack to carry water. No problem, I said. The Jeep headed west.

I found a hotel room in Miles City but didn’t sleep very well. Two hours from here to the fire? I had no clue. State highways, rural routes, back roads and gravel are difficult to time.

I left at 4:00 a.m.

I am tremendously early, the world still dark, so I pull over at a historical marker. The Grave of the Unknown Man. “In 1886,” the marker reads, “ranchers buried near here what many believe to be the remains of Private Nathan Short…Short was believed to be carrying a message from General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.”

On a hill behind me, a lone horse stands in silhouette at a fence line, watching me. Behind him, the daybreak is an indigo highlight on the horizon.

Perhaps I was driving fast.


Imagine the way it must begin. Lightning and then fire. Thick full smoke in the air. The local fire engine crew arrives. They are probably volunteers. They spray the water their engine holds and dig whatever fire break they can. But the wind comes up and the fire grows fast. Grass fire can race over three acres in a minute and there is no way the one crew can get ahead of it. Embers and firebrands are lifted by the wind and start new brush when they fall. The local crew calls for help. There are more engines, more crews. And behind them comes the supply trucks, the water and food, the equipment—shovels and Pulaskis and radios—and the need to keep it all working, to keep it all organized, to keep it all sane. Way out in the open country there is suddenly a small, temporary, town. It wasn’t here yesterday. It might not be here tomorrow.
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