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Authors: Sandi Ault

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2
The Inferno

Wednesday, 1230 Hours

I didn't have to worry about getting the firefighter down to Medical. Before I got to the fork in the road, a host of vehicles came toward me—first a brush truck, then a Forest Service engine, a crew truck filled with firefighters, and finally an ambulance. I pulled to the side of the road and got out just as Kerry Reed, my longtime boyfriend and a division sup on our team, scrambled from the driver's seat of the brush truck. “Jamaica, are you okay?” he yelled.

“Firefighter down!” I shouted. “Get the medics!”

A team of paramedics examined the man who—because of his powerful thermal imprint on my body—I knew only as “the burning man.” Nearby, the newly arrived firefighters began to gear up, pulling on their line packs and gloves and grabbing their tools. The percussive
thwack
of a helicopter's rotors drowned out even the noise of the fire as a bucket suspended on a cable below the chopper lowered into Stollsteimer Creek with amazing accuracy, filled with water, and lifted straight up into the sky. In a matter of seconds, the ship vanished into the cloud of smoke.

Even as the fire raged to one side of them, the crew of helmeted, yellow-shirted men and women with their distinctive, low-riding line packs calmly gathered on the road in a semicircle around Kerry, who was pointing to a map spread across the hood of his truck. When they broke, the saw team left first in their heavy chaps, carrying gas and chain saws, going ahead to fell trees and cut down the snags. Smoke hovered above the ground like low-lying fog as they disappeared into the gray haze. The remaining squad members lined out in a row, each one holding a tool on their right. Every firefighter carried fuel for the saws in addition to a forty-pound line pack, except for the last four men on the crew. They carried medical kits and sleds for moving the injured.

I pushed the paramedic's hand away from me. He'd been examining my eyes, asking me what year it was and who was president. “Why so many sleds?” I asked. “Just one old man up there, right?”

“You may end up looking like you got a sunburn,” he said. “Your face is a little red. Anything else hurt?”

“I'm fine,” I said. “Is it the hotshot crew? Are they in trouble?”

“What about your arm? Your shirt's torn at the shoulder. Are you burned? Did you get hit by a snag?”

I looked at my right shoulder, reached to touch it with my left hand. It hurt. “It's nothing. It will be okay,” I said.

He lifted the ripped cloth and peered under it, then straightened up. “You probably ought to have it looked at—and your face, too, just in case.” He pointed a thumb at the ambulance, where the other medics were working on the burning man. “I think they're going to have Life Flight land on the main road. We better get him down there.”

“Can you tell me what's going on?”

“With the hotshot crew?” he said as he packed up his kit. “I heard they had to deploy shelters. We haven't heard anything since.”

“And the guy I found?”

“I don't know.”

“Is he going to be all right?”

He shook his head.

“Please tell me.”

“It doesn't look good.” He tossed me a cold pack. “Put this on that shoulder,” he said, “and use that burn gel I gave you on your face.” He turned and jogged back to the ambulance.

Kerry Reed yelled into his radio: “Charlie, get an air tanker, get anything. We need more air support. I don't care if we've lost the initial attack—we've got firefighters in the burn, and we've got to get this fire flanked, or we'll never get to them! Break.” He lowered the radio for a moment, reached under the rim of his helmet and rubbed his forehead, took a deep breath, then continued: “We're going to tie in here at the road, try to flank to the east. I'll get coordinates to you. Out.” He glanced up and saw me. He reached out a hand and squeezed my arm. His hand was shaking, and his grip was painfully tight.

“I went up to get a man who snuck around the barricades,” I said. “I never got to him. I knew there was a crew up above there, but…what's happened?”

“I don't know the whole story. The local team here was monitoring the Three-Pueblos Hot Shots' radio traffic. The Three-Pebs had started to hike out when their superintendent gave the order for them to deploy shelters, and that's the last anyone has heard from them.”

“Well, there's some dead spots up there,” I said.

He looked at the map. “Yeah, the terrain looks treacherous.”

“No, I mean I couldn't get through on the radio. Maybe…”

He started nodding his head up and down, still searching the map for answers. “Yeah, maybe.”

“And the firefighter I found?”

“One of the hotshots. Someone said he had a Three-Pueblos patch on his shirt.”

“Oh. I guess I didn't have time to notice.”

“My guess is he couldn't stand it in the shelter. Some guys can't take it, lying there baking in that foil envelope while the fire rages over them. Damn! I hope the rest of the crew fared better than he did.”

Just then, the chopper returned for another dip in the creek, and the howl of its rotors, the pressure of air beating down on us in rhythmic pulses, made communication impossible. Kerry grabbed at his map as it started to take flight and—fighting it all the while as it flapped—headed around the truck to the driver's side. He pushed the map into the cab, climbed in behind it, and began shouting again into his radio.

In my peripheral vision, I saw red and blue lights flashing. I turned to see the ambulance driving away. I walked to the place where it had been parked and watched it disappear down the road. I closed my eyes, made a small circle in the air with my left palm, and sent a blessing to the burning man.

Then I turned and looked back at the conflagration behind me. This normally peaceful mountain valley with the two stone pinnacles of Chimney Rock in its center had become a war zone. On one side, an angry wind drove a hungry fire to desecrate and demolish the land, while on the other side, a helicopter's blades thundered through the sky, and an army of green-and-yellow Nomex–clad soldiers swarmed to the line to fight a life-and-death battle. Thick smoke rolled off the inclines above and filled the saddles, but a gust of wind suddenly lifted the gray curtain. Red-orange flames on the slopes stabbed at the sky and shot in long daggers as high as seventy feet in some places. A fire whorl rose up like a thin red tornado, then disappeared between the trees, which stood in dark relief against a low, crimson glow. The heat of the monster's breath parched my lips and made my face hurt. The forest cried out in a chorus of groans and piercing snaps and pops. Every few seconds, a large, flaming ember flew out of the sky like shrapnel and struck the road, leaving a litter of smoldering charcoal confetti sprinkled across the gravel. The high-decibel din of destruction assaulted my ears, my mind, my body. I suddenly felt as if I might faint, and then as if I were floating upward, drifting away from danger, away from the sound and the heat and the urgency. I heard my own thoughts like a voice from outside of me:
Why did the burning man leave his crew? What did he mean by “save the grandmother”?

What would make him risk incineration in a wild inferno?

3
Team Work

Wednesday, 1330 Hours
Command and General Staff (C&G) Meeting

Every wildfire comes down to a story. Like the dragon in tales of old, the fire makes a lair in an untamed and often inaccessible place, then proceeds to ravage the land and terrorize its citizens. The locals muster forces and fight, but when the beast proves too much for them, a call goes out for the dragon-slayers.

My pager had sounded when I was on my way to work at a little before six a.m. that day. I hit the road with my fire gear within an hour, driving from Taos. This scene repeated across the Southwest and beyond, as more than a hundred firefighters rushed from their regular jobs, from their homes and their families and all that was routine, to join in a battle for which they had trained and qualified to exacting standards.

Unlike most government workers, I didn't lack any excitement in my regular job. I was a resource protection agent for the Bureau of Land Management, where—until just over a year ago—I had patrolled remote wilderness areas as a range rider. But when a backcountry standoff turned deadly, my boss, Roy, had pulled me from that solitary assignment and appointed me to serve as liaison for the BLM to one of the local Indian pueblos near Taos. And there soon proved to be plenty of peril in my new post.

Since Roy was IC—incident commander—on the fire management team, he drafted me into the job of liaison officer on the team. He did this partly out of respect for the strong relationships I'd managed to forge with the Native Americans at Tanoah Pueblo, and partly, I suspected, to try to keep me out of as much trouble as he possibly could. I didn't go out with the team every time, but when the incident occurred on Indian lands, I deployed with the rest of the Command and General Staff.

For this fire, Incident Command Post—or ICP, as we called it—had been set up in the visitors' center at Navajo State Park, on the Colorado–New Mexico border. Around it, a city of fire tents had sprouted up in the campsites along the shores of Navajo Lake. Catering trucks, shower trucks, supply trucks, a field commissary, and a medical tent found their places near the center of camp, surrounded by the individual spike tents of line crew personnel. A helibase had been set up in a flat stretch of meadowland. Together, all this composed Incident Base, commonly referred to by its inhabitants as Fire Camp.

While I was waiting at the ICP for the Command and General Staff meeting to begin, I looked around for some water. My throat was raw from the smoke, and I felt dehydrated. I spied an ice chest in the hallway and made for it. As I was opening a bottle of water, I saw a woman through the doorway of an office. She was dressed in a T-shirt, khaki shorts, a hat, and dusty boots, and she stood with her back to me, studying a map on the wall. She turned around and seemed startled at my presence.

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn't mean to sneak up on you like that.”

She made a weak attempt at a smile. Now that I'd seen her face, she seemed older than her lean, muscular body had suggested from the rear.

“Do you work here in Navajo State Park?”

“No, I'm an anthropologist.”

“Oh.” I nodded my head as if this explained everything. “Are you working on the fire then?”

“No.” She shook her head vigorously. “Well, technically, I'm working right now in the Columbine Ranger District. The border between the two ranger districts is right up on top of that ridge above the Piedra River, to the west of the fire. I have a grant to do some site surveys on the ruins up there on the Piedra Rim. But years ago, I helped excavate sites at Chimney Rock. The fire management officer for the Pagosa Ranger District asked me to come here. He thought maybe I could help out with site protection.”

“I'm sure we can use all the help we can get. From what I see on the map, the whole Chimney Rock area is littered with archaeological sites.”

Just then, a man came down the hallway toward me wearing the standard uniform: green Nomex pants, a clean yellow fire shirt, and wildland boots. He was young and handsome, with dark hair and eyes, and his lean body exuded energy and vitality. “Are you on the incident command team?” he said.

“Yes, I'm the liaison officer.”

“Hello.” He smiled. “I'm Steve Morella. I'm the archaeologist with the Pagosa Ranger District. I'm here to brief your IC and his command staff about the Lunar Standstill.”

“Jamaica Wild,” I said as I shook hands with him.

“Jamaica? That's a pretty name.”

I forced a polite smile. “The Lunar Standstill? What's that?”

“We're going to talk about that in a minute, I hope. Where are you from?”

“I'm a resource protection agent with the BLM in Taos.”

“Well”—he grinned—“even if a fire had to bring you, welcome to Chimney Rock. If I can help you in any way, if there's anything I can show you or…” He happened to glance to his left and see the woman in the office. “Oh, Elaine. I see you two have already met. Good! Well, come on then.” He started down the hall.

“Hi, I'm Elaine Oldham,” the woman said, half-apologetically, as she ducked through the office door in front of me. “I don't really know what I'm doing here,” she muttered, hurrying to follow Steve Morella down the hall. “I'm an anthropologist, not a fire person.”

“This isn't going to be your ordinary C&G meeting. I sent a few people here early to tie in but we haven't yet assumed command of this incident. We've just been briefed by the local agencies and the team here who's been managing this fire. We're expected to take over at the next operational period. I'm going to tell you a few things,” Roy said, “then let our ops chief talk while I go take a ride in a chopper.

“This was a bad one when we got here, and things have gotten worse since then. We've got a shot crew somewhere in the burn area, and their superintendent called for them to deploy shelters. We haven't heard anything from them since, and that was almost three hours ago. We've got a hotshot from that team in the burn unit in Albuquerque in a deep coma. We've got a missing Ute man who is possibly somewhere in the burn as well, but we haven't found him yet. Folks, as you know, this is an ‘incident within the incident,' and I'm having my division sup, Kerry Reed, break off from our team and act as IC for that—we'll call it Rescue Command. He'll pull some folks from the main group to work on his team, and he'll brief you after he's had a chance to do his own size-up. Now, I know that's not much, but we don't know a great deal right now, so let's move on. We've got a fire that is winning the fight. We lost the initial attack, and we have limited resources—I'm going to let Charlie talk to you about that.”

Operations Section Chief Charlie Dorn stepped up to a map and took a pointer from the table. “Air support is what it's going to take to fight this fire, and air support is going to be hard to get. The single-engine air tanker in Durango has been assigned over in Grand Junction, so we can't use that. Colorado has fires all up and down the Front Range, and those teams are shouting ‘structures threatened' and getting all the air resources.” He turned and pointed to a red line on the map representing the known perimeter of the fire. “We have no roads and this terrain is tough—if we try to hike people and supplies in to fight it, they got nothing left by the time they get in there. We can't even use dozers in this country. We're going to have to use helicopters to paracargo in all our personnel and supplies, and I don't know when—or even if—we're going to get those birds. We have one chopper now doing bucket drops, and I think we can hang on to it. Beyond that, I don't have any more news about additional resources, air or otherwise. They have a helicopter at Mesa Verde they're going to loan us so we can do some surveillance for the shot crew and to check out the size of this fire—Roy's going up to do that in just a few minutes. But we can't keep that bird either, so we're going to have to make good use of her while she's here. The fire is within Southern Ute tribal lands, the San Juan National Forest, the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, and privately owned property. So it has potential to impact residences and prehistoric and spiritual sites. If we get another wind event like we had earlier and the northern flank expands, there's homes, businesses, and a major highway—on the other side of which is a one-hundred-twenty-five-kilovolt power line that feeds from Durango to Pagosa Springs—that are all in its path.”

Roy put a hand up to signal Charlie to pause. “Folks, I'm going to have to go take a ride. But before I go, I got one more thing to add that we need to keep in mind: there's a Native American ceremony going on this week up top, at the ruins at Chimney Rock. It's a sacred event, some deal that only happens every eighteen point six years. We got representatives from thirteen tribes in attendance. And the eastern flank of this fire could easily run up to the top of Chimney Rock if we don't get it contained.” Then he looked at me. “Jamaica, I want you to come with me.”

“Okay, Boss,” I said, and I followed him out.

“C'mon, walk with me,” Roy said as he strode at a fast clip down the sidewalk in front of the Incident Command Post. Across the parking lot, a truck idled in the shade of a lone tree, the air around it shimmering in heat wrinkles from its exhaust. “I need to take a look at this fire and see what it might do next, and we're going to locate that hotshot crew. When we spot the Three-Pebs, we'll try to find a place near 'em to land a chopper and get them out. I want you there with the first rescue team.”

“But why me?”

“This is a Pueblo hotshot crew. They're all Tiwa, some of 'em from Tanoah Pueblo. We may need your expertise.”

“Wouldn't it be better to have a human resources specialist?”

Still walking fast, he pulled off the beat-up straw cowboy hat that was his trademark and exchanged it for a white helmet he'd had tucked under his arm. “I'll order an HR person, but this can't wait until the order gets filled and we get a warm body here. We need someone now.” He opened the door of the ground support truck. “And Jamaica?”

“Yes?”

“I want you to do two things right away. First, get up on top of Chimney Rock and make contact with the tribal representatives. Let them know that we are doing all we can to protect their chances to continue with their ceremonies, but don't shine 'em on. Tell 'em we're trying to flank the fire but it blew up on us today, so we may have to evacuate if things don't improve. Then, go into Ignacio and see a woman named Clara White Deer. She's a member of the Southern Ute tribe, and the one who reported your missing guy—what's his name—Grampa something?”

“Grampa Ned.”

“Yeah—anyway, go talk to White Deer. She works at the intermediate school there. Assure her that we did everything we could to try to find the guy, and see if you can get her calmed down. Evidently she was real upset when the sheriff talked to her. He asked me to send someone from the team.”

“Okay, Boss.”

“Another thing, Jamaica.”

“Yes?”

“Go to the comm van and get a satellite phone and call me with the number. I don't want you on the slopes without a way to communicate. The minute we find the Three-Pebs, I'll call you.”

“Okay.”

He slid into the passenger seat. “You know you're going to have to do a critical stress debriefing as soon as we can get someone here to do it. There will be an investigation.”

I bit my lip. Roy and I had both been through investigations before, including one that nearly lost me my job. He accused me of being able to find trouble wherever I went. And when I did, it wasn't small-time trouble. Lives hung in the balance. People died.

As he gestured for the driver to leave, I said: “This time I didn't do it!”

BOOK: Wild Inferno
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