I miss fire. Not the danger of the job, but the adrenaline rush and excitement of being in the firefighting world. In summers such as this, when it seems all of Alaska is burning, I still get that 'missing out' feeling.
So far this summer's statistics are stark and brutal with homes lost and the harsh reality of people facing sudden loss. Alaska's wildfire season is worsening, with over 300 fires keeping thousands of responders busy. Firefighters have been injured from bears and other hazards, but thankfully so far no lives have been lost. This brings back memories.
Coming from Montana, I was used to forest fires. I worked as a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula, Montana in the early '80s before moving to Alaska to work for The Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In 1986, BLM started the Fire Familiarization Program (FFP) to educate future land managers on what it takes to manage a fire program. Twelve of us pencil pushers were selected and labeled the FFP crew. We were excused from our normal jobs to work for the Alaska Fire Service (AFS) in Fairbanks.
After completing two weeks of fire training at AFS, I worked to pass my 'step test,' a measurement of cardio fitness required for all firefighters. If I didn't pass the step test, I wouldn't get my 'red card,' to qualify me for fire duty. During lunch I ran laps around the Park Strip in Anchorage like a wild woman and pumped iron in our garage in Spenard.
On fire line flank of fire
In July 1987, I was dispatched with my crew to the BLM Alaska Fire Service in Fairbanks for a fire assignment to the Eielson Fire. We landed at the Fairbanks airport in near-zero visibility of an eerie, orange haze. The second we stepped out of the airport, the air reeked of burnt timber. You can tell when a large fire is near, the sun turns into a red fireball as if it were dipped in a lava flow and your eyeballs dry out from the smoky air.
The fire began with a lightning strike in the mountains east of Eielson Air Force Base on June 23. It burned slowly until the fifth of July, when the wind shifted and the fire made a run from 890 acres to 2,600 in just 24 hours. It produced a tower of fat grey smoke, creating unease with nearby residents and the base commander.
Eielson Air Force Base is 26 miles southeast of Fairbanks next to the Tanana River, between Moose Creek and Salcha. Since this fire was close to Fairbanks, it was an easy shuttle of equipment and resources on the Steese Highway to the base staging area. A Chinook helicopter that reminded me of a beluga whale with two rotors, transported us from the air force base into the mountains to our fire base camp.
I was on a direct attack hand-line firefighting crew of 12-four women and eight men. A woman named Janet from the U.S. Forest Service in California was assigned as our crew boss. She had arrived in Alaska the night before and assured us she was familiar with the terrain. Some on our crew muttered they hoped she knew what she was doing. At the time I thought they were harsh remarks. Looking back, they were spot on.
Early next morning after our briefing, we left base camp on a ridge a few miles from the head of the fire, which was burning through dense fuels of spindly black spruce on the boreal forest. The Chinook wasn't available, so we set out to hike five miles to our work site on the southwest flank of the fire. We walked single-file in our clean yellow Nomex shirts (Nomex is a brand name for flame-resistant material). We carried our fire packs, fire shelters and Pulaskis, with Janet in the lead. A couple of guys carried chainsaws and we took turns carrying the oil, gas and saw sharpener.
With every step, I became obsessed with not stepping into a smoldering squirrel cache of pinecones. They'd warned us about it in training. These caches can be large and deep, depending how old they are. If you fall into a smoldering cache, you could be cooked alive, especially if it erupts in flame. I scanned the forest floor with ground-penetrating radar.
"Hey Martin, got the mole-skin? We ran out last time," I said, my voice wobbly as my boots trampled tangled roots and sidestepped wind fallen trees. We were side-hilling, gradually descending a slope.
"No worries, Simenson, I have plenty." Everyone's feet were sure to be sore later tonight. Blisters formed on blisters, and moleskin was my best defense from further foot torture. We scrapped over moleskin like cave men over bones.
Martin was always prepared. He was the most woods-savvy out of all of us, tall, fit and blonde, always vying with himself for a personal best for the next 5K run. Rego was another rugged outdoorsman, solid in stature. He reminded me of a bald Al Pacino, sassy and no-nonsense. No one knew his first name and it didn't occur to us to ask. I felt comfortable and reassured having them on our crew.
It seemed we'd been walking a long time. Janet routinely stopped to look around and study her map. Noting this, I began to feel uneasy. I shook it off.
We gradually encountered smoky conditions. It became worse, so bad my head ached. I was short of breath. Several began coughing and our eyes burned.
"Janet, where are we? Shouldn't we be at our fire position by now?" Martin walked toward her at the front of the line, reaching for the topographic map to study it. My head was exploding. I was thirsty and guzzled half my canteen. I noticed others did too.
Behind us a plane's engine whine grew increasingly louder, and zoomed over us heading in the same direction we were walking. It was a spotter plane for the air tanker that drops fire retardant on the hottest, most aggressive part of a fire. "What is the spotter plane doing here?" we puzzled.
Martin's ensuing scream answered our question. "Hit the dirt, retardant drop!" An enormous deep rumble of an engine filled our ears and vibrated our chests. We couldn't see it, too smoky. It sounded like it would land on us.
"Down, down, everyone down!" yelled Janet. She hit the ground, crumpled to a ball and clasped her hands tightly behind her neck. The words barely escaped her mouth as the massive metal gates squeaked open to release thousands of pounds of salmon-colored liquid. By that time we were on the ground like balled-up hedgehogs, braced for danger. The thick glop slapped our backs with the force of an ocean wave. The wind whizzed from my lungs, and my back stung from the slap.
The plane passed and we looked up. Everything was orange-pink, like sockeye meat, including us.
"What the fuck was that?" Rego jumped up in battle-ready mode. "We're near the head, we need to get outta here." We all looked at Janet. She didn't know where the hell we were, she had led us into the bottom of a ravine, into the danger zone. I felt heat and heard fire roaring. I was scared. We were pink.
"There's no oxygen, it's hard to breathe, we need to get out," said Martin as he strode up to Janet snatching the map from her. Martin and Rego huddled over the map to figure the fastest way out. They shook their heads, pointing at a nearby slope bordering our ravine. It was obscured by heavy smoke, its base barely visible.
"We climb straight up this mountain. It's risky since fire burns fastest uphill, but we don't have a choice. We need to exit this ravine and fast." Martin and Rego took off and began climbing. We all ran after them like frightened, lost children.
"Hold up, we must still go to our assigned fire line position," Janet yelled as we clambered uphill. She was still in the ravine. No time to stop or look back.
"No way! We're going back to base camp. These people are oxygen-deprived. You led us to the wrong spot and endangered our lives. C'mon guys, get a move on." Martin's words hung in the smoke-heavy air. The ugly truth stung with the realization we'd surely die if we stayed where we were.
"I'll report each of you for insubordination!" Janet hollered after us. So be it.
I glanced over my shoulder down at Janet, standing in the ravine, hands on her hips like Superman. She was mostly legs, tall and gangly, with straight brown hair to her waist. All I saw were legs and hair, as I peered through the smoke.
My head pounded, hearing the heavy rumble of the retardant plane again. I clambered faster on hands and knees after Martin and Rego, clawing through alder, scratching my hands on brush and scraping them on rock. The others climbed alongside and behind me doing the same. I get why they step-test us now. I get it.
"Hurry up, retardant ship's coming back!" I panted, trying hard not to sound freaked.
We clung to the side of the mountain, heads down. This time when the plane's load let loose, it missed us, except for residual spray. We steadily climbed, on all fours now, grabbing bushes, rocks, whatever we could to hoist ourselves up. My lungs were bursting and my heart was trying to break free of my chest.
The fire roared like Godzilla, snapping and exploding trees, smoke billowing and choking us. I had no idea how close it was. Climb, climb, up, up, was all I could think of. I can't go on, this is too hard. We had no idea where the top was with all the smoke. Despair gripped me and tears streamed down my cheeks, my face contorted like a two year old.
When you're unsure whether you'll come out of something alive, your mind is a fireworks display of random thoughts I didn't have kids, I didn't become a writer, I didn't get my actor's equity card Why am I thinking in past tense, I'm not dead yet-please God, if you get me through this, I'll have kids. I'll throw away my birth-control pills.
Then a shout from Martin-the ridgetop!
We crawled to the ridge and collapsed in a clearing. We gazed down at the ravine we had just left. Rego cussed. No one else spoke. Mammoth flames crowned from tree to tree, eating every spruce where we had stood. Our ravine was a conflagration. I became sick with realization and vomited. I wasn't the only one.
As we limped into base camp that evening, our shirts the color of spawned-out salmon, everyone gaped, especially the FMO (fire management officer). When he spotted our pink crew, he waggled a finger at Janet and growled at her to follow him.
FFP Crew Author in center
"Let me guess who's getting de-mobe'd outta here," Rego smirked, munching a matchstick. (De-mobed means demobilization or release from a fire assignment). The FMO knew instantly we'd been somewhere we shouldn't have, a safety breach that could have cost us our lives.
We staggered to camp, too tired to make food. Instead we tore open MRE's (meals ready-to-eat) and sprawled on the ground outside our tents-too fatigued to crawl inside.
The next morning we had an experienced Alaskan crew boss assigned to us and a Chinook helicopter transported us to the fire line. As we took our positions on the line, we saw the P4Y-2 Privateer air tanker in the distance. "Thank God for that guy," Rego said. We agreed. That pilot saved our lives. I wonder if he'd seen us when he dumped his load yesterday.
We worked the next few days until it was time to de-mobe from the fire. As we sat in the hot sun next to the tarmac waiting for our ride back to Fairbanks, an air tanker with shark teeth painted on its nose, landed and taxied to a nearby building. The pilot climbed out and strode across the tarmac. The 12 of us exploded with clapping, shouts and whistles as he approached, clipboard in hand. He laughed and nodded in understanding. We were the yellow-shirts he had turned pink.
"Howdy folks, heard about your crew boss," he said, shaking his head at the ground, then a one-eyed squint at each of us. "Damn good thing you high-tailed it out of there when you did. Jaws and I tried to buy you time with the drop." His air tanker was Jaws. No wonder.
We each shook his hand and thanked him. His name was Whitney from Idaho. "Just doin' my job," he said.
The 10,960-acre Eielson Fire was finally contained July 9 with a fire staff of 700. I was one of the 700. It was a job well done. The total cost of this fire was $3.6 million. All of us made it out alive-what was the cost of that? I don't know. What I do know is I'm here to write about it, and for that I'm grateful.
This summer, when I hear the rumble of air tankers heading to and from fires around Alaska, I look up and wonder how many lives and homes they have saved, and how many more will be spared.
I think of the Whitneys of the world, and how hard they train to fly these planes to fight the red monster. I think of the firefighters, the dangers they face, and how everyone on a fire protects one another along with public and property. I think of them often.
As our Alaska fire season progresses, I cross my fingers that everyone will be okay and no more homes will be lost to future fires. And behind the firefighting efforts are people like Whitney, Martin, and Rego-and planes like Jaws. They will always be my heroes.