Authors: Judith Van GIeson
Judith Van Gieson
All rights reserved.
Copyright Â© 1996 Judith Van Gieson.
This book may not be reproduced in whole
or in part, by other means, without permission.
First ebook edition Â© 2013 by AudioGO.
All Rights Reserved.
Trade ISBN 978-1-62064-466-9
Library ISBN 978-0-7927-9496-7
Cover photo Â© Stephen Strathdee/
book is dedicated to the memory of the fourteen firefighters who died fighting the South Canyon fire on Storm King Mountain, Glenwood Springs, Colorado, July 6, 1994
And to the memory of Dwight A. Myers, New Mexico's much-loved and deeply missed bookman
Many thanks to Gaye Brown and Al Gonzales for filling in the blanks in my knowledge; to attorney Alan M. Uris for his legal advice; and to James PeÃ±a and John Herron for expressing the power, the terror, and the poetry of fire fighting. A special thanks to David V. Holtby for sharing his knowledge of fire fighting and the pain of his family's terrible loss.
Some of the places in this novel exist; others are products of the author's imagination. None of the characters represents or is based on any person, living or dead, and all the incidents described are imaginary.
T WAS BEGINNING
to feel like the year it rained twice. We never have a lot of rain in Albuquerque, but last spring there was none. When May turned to June it got hot. Rattlesnakes slithered onto West Mesa terraces, bears came out of the mountains searching for food or drink, and coyotes crisscrossed the foothills trolling for pets. Most years when the heat arrives the wind dies down, but this summer it continued, blowing West Mesa dirt across town, turning wandering trash bags into flapping black ravens, swirling dust devils down back roads and driveways, scratching branches against skylights, turning your mind into a house with wide-open windows. My lover, the Kid, is sometimes known as El GreÃ±as, the mophead, but even his hair went flat in the dry heat. My secretary, Anna, kept her hairdo's volume up, but it took hours in the bathroom spraying and teasing.
A controlled burn in the Cibola National Forest got out of control and the smoke drifted one hundred miles east to town. The air turned as gritty as a winter night when everyone's fireplace is cranking out smoke. It tasted like too many Marlboros and smelled like an overbooked campground. Mechanics playing with fireworks in Melloy Dodge's paint-storage room set the place on fire and it erupted in a cumulonimbus of black smoke.
In May the fires start in the southern New Mexico forests, the Lincoln and the Gila. Ignited by dry lightning strikes and exacerbated by squirrelly winds, they follow summer north, flanking the Rockies, spotting into Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. It happens every year, a cycle as sure as life, aging, and death. But last summer's fires became history: the Capitan, the Black Range, the Weed, the fire on Thunder Mountain. They burned bigger and hotter than ever, and they didn't go out until snow fell in October.
In mid-June lightning ignited a blaze in the South Canyon of Thunder Mountain twenty miles from Oro, Colorado. It was too early for a Colorado fire, but winter had been mild and by Memorial Day the snowpack had melted into the San Juan River and the Rio Grande, causing class-four rapids and fire conditions that shouted watch out. A fast-moving cold front whipped a small, containable fire into a large, treacherous inferno, and nine Duke City Hotshots (a group of highly skilled wildland firefighters based in Albuquerque) were killed trying to outrun the flames. Four of the nine were young women.
In early August Eric and Nancy Barker, the parents of Joni Barker, one of the young women who were killed, came to my law office on Lead. By then rain had brought relief and the winds had moved on to Texas. My brain felt like I owned it again. A sense of order had been restored to the Duke City, but the
were refugees from the city of grief. Their eyes were ragged reminders that no matter how tidy your own yard gets there's always another place where death is as sudden and random as lightning.
Nancy strode into the office two steps ahead of her husband. She was an athletic woman about five feet four inches tall who seemed to have an engine running somewhere inside that kept her going. Her hair was blond and short, tamed by hair spray and a razor cut. Her lipstick was bright red and had been carefully applied. She wore jeans, hiking boots, and a T-shirt with a green V-shaped ribbon pinned over her heart. She'd told me she was an elementary school teacher when she'd called to make the appointment.
Her husband, she'd said, taught history at UNM. Eric was several inches taller than Nancy, about five ten. His hair was curly and slivered with gray. He had a thin face with high cheekbones and pale, intelligent eyes. He wore khakis and a rumpled white shirt, and he, too, had a green ribbon pinned over his heart. His aura of grief and despair was almost palpable. Both of them were in their late forties, I figured, barely old enough to have raised a firefighter daughter, far too young to have lost one. They were about ten years older than me, but looked twenty years fitter.
They sat down in the chairs across from my desk and I offered them a choice of drinksâwater or coffee. Eric requested coffee with two sugars. Nancy had water. Then I asked why they had come to me; most of the cases that found their way to my law office involved real estate and divorce.
“We heard you were interested in environmental issues.” Nancy said.
There were plenty of those in New Mexico, but in the past the environmental cases I'd handled had involved endangered species. One thing endangered species and fire had in common was that they'd both been heavily managed by government and might have done better if left alone.
“We live in the East Mountains.” Nancy added. “We wanted a New Mexico lawyer.”
But it had been a Colorado fire. A pack of Marlboros was sitting in my desk drawer, but I picked up a pencil and rolled it around in my fingers instead. “The fire was a terrible tragedy,” I said.
“It was,” Eric said.
“The green ribbons, are they a tribute to your daughter?”
“Yes. Green is the color of the hard hats the Duke City Hotshots wear.”
“What is it you want me to do?” I asked.
Eric stared down at his shoes. Nancy leaned forward. “We want you to sue the government for negligence in Joni's death.”
wants to sue,” Eric said.
My office window with its decorative burglar bars was wide open. Eric was looking out through the bars, but not at the alley or at Lead. He was focusing on some point in the distance, the vanishing
perhaps. “We're already getting a settlement of a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars from the Forest Service,” he said. “Suing for more won't bring Joni back. It'll just drag out the suffering. OSHA is investigating. I think we should let them handle it.”
“Do you think one government agency is going to find another one guilty of negligence, Neil?” Nancy snapped. Anger, I saw, was fueling her engine.
“I don't believe anger is the way out of grief,” Eric responded.
For some people it might be, I thought. Nancy's eyes had a spark in them. Eric's were gray and flat. “It's not the money,” she said. “I want someone to be held accountable for Joni's death.”
It's the basic issue in civil suits. Better to make the guilty party pay or to forgive and forget? Or try to forget if you can't forgive? The answer depends on the aggrieved person and on whether a settlement will make any practical or emotional difference to that person. Both were valid points of view, but, when one couple harbored both of them, the result could be big trouble. I'd spent enough time around feuding couples in my real estate and divorce practice to know how difficult they can be, and this couple seemed evenly enough matched that the opposing points of view would stay that way. It appeared unlikely that either of them would dominate the other. Still, it wasn't every day I was asked to sue the government for negligence. Where the government is concerned there's usually more than enough blame to go aroundâand there's always an unlimited supply of money.
“I can't represent you in the state of Colorado, but I can in a federal court,” I said.
“It's a federal case,” Nancy replied. “The U.S. Forest Service and the BLM were in charge.”
“Can you tell me why you think there is a case?” I asked her.
“Joni had been on a fire in the Gila for fourteen days without a break, and she was exhausted. She came home for one day, then got the call to go to Thunder Mountain. The hotshots were helicoptered into the fire in the morning with no briefing. There was a cold front moving in, but that fact was never communicated to the firefighters. The only weather information they had came from the weather channel. It's all in the interagency report. I brought you a copy.” She handed the report to me.
“Thanks,” I said.
“The oldest person on Joni's crew was twenty-eight years old,” Nancy continued. She stared straight ahead at the white wall behind my desk. Her eyes were dark and focused. “The bodies were burned beyond recognition. The only way to identify them was by dental records.”
It would have been enough to make me sue if I'd been a parent.
“It was a very fast-moving cold front,” Eric said.
“That canyon was a tinderbox. The firefighters were totally unprepared. They never should have been sent in there,” Nancy responded.
Why were they?” I asked.
“Because nearby homes were threatened,” she answered.
“Many of the government's fire-fighting orders were ignored,”' Eric said. “The crew built a fireline downhill on a steep slope with no designated safety zones or escape routes. That's in the report, too.”
“Who was responsible for that?” I asked.
“James Chancellor, the Incident Commander, made some errors,” Eric replied.