Authors: Sandi Ault
Wednesday, 2300 Hours
When I got back to Fire Camp, I headed for the chow tent. I knew they wouldn't have supper this late, but there were usually a few goodies one could grabâthey often left them out for crews who arrived in camp late. It was still over one hundred degrees, so the first place I went was to the beverage area. I took my plastic bottle out of my belt holder and filled it first with crushed ice. Then I poured in a couple packets of sweetener and a pouch of the fake lemon juice they had for tea. I filled the jug to the top with water and shook it to mix up my improvised lemonade. I poked around the coolers set up along the chow line and found some ice cream bars in one of them. I sat down at one of the tables and began unfolding the wrapper from a frozen fudge bar. A small gust of wind blew through the tent and a strip of the paper I had pulled from the ice cream flitted back and forth and then stuck again in the frozen fudge. I remembered the flap of flesh on the singed face of the corpse, the tuft of hair fluttering in the breeze as I examined the body that was almost certainly the remains of Grampa Ned. I set the fudge bar, still in its wrapper, on the table. For a moment I felt queasy, and I forced myself to breathe slowly.
I told myself. But my mind was not calm.
What was Grampa Ned doing there? Who hit him on the head?
Kerry wandered in and looked around. He got himself a cup of coffee and came to sit across from me.
I leaned back in my chair, welcoming this distraction. “Coffee?” I asked. “This late?”
“I won't sleep anyway.” He pulled a small round container from his Nomex pants. I watched as he opened it, pulled out a pinch of chewing tobacco between two fingers, and stuffed it between his lip and his lower jaw.
I knew that Kerry had struggled with this vice for years before giving it up. He called it “dipping,” and he had tried several times to quit before he met me. Finally, he'd used a course of nicotine patches, and that had worked, or seemed to haveâhe had not had a dip in the year and four months that I'd known him. Until now.
I leaned forward and reached across the table to stroke his hand.
He seemed nervous about being touched. “I had to have a dip,” he said. “I got a can at the gas station in Arboles.”
“I know. I'm stressed, too.”
He pointed at the table. “Your ice cream bar is melting.”
“I'm not hungry.” I got up and threw the fudge bar into a trash container, then returned to sit down.
“Yeah, me either.”
“I almost cried when I saw Mountain a little while ago.”
“You saw Mountain? Here?”
“Oh, I forgot, we haven't had time. He's with Momma Anna up at the Native American ceremonies on top of Chimney Rock.”
“Oh, that's not good. We don't have good containment on that side. Just because the fire's moving north now doesn't mean it won't blow out on the east again if we don't get a good fire break in there somehow.”
“I know. I guess they've established some trigger pointsâfactors that will determine if and when the Indians have to evacuate.”
“Let's hope they're right, and it's enough time to get everybody down.”
“God, what a day. The woman who's coming to debrief us should be here any time now.”
He gave a snort. “Yeah, there's a real waste of time. As if I didn't have enough to do with this fire going like it is. Man, I've never seen a wildfire like this one. It's been totally unpredictable. This thing has run as fast downhill as it does uphill, which a fire never does. It's spotted way out beyond the lines, embers flying like tracer bullets.”
I tipped my head to one side and looked at the man with whom I often shared my spare time, my bed, and my most intimate thoughts. “You okay?”
He pulled up. “Why do you keep asking me that?”
“A lot has happened today. You seem really amped up.”
“I'm amped up? You're the one who said you almost cried. Listen, there were firefighters in the burn and I couldn't get to them. Don't I have a right to be concerned when there's an enemy out there I'm supposed to fight, and I can't figure out a way to fight it?” He'd raised his voice enough that crew members walking past were staring into the chow tent.
I was quiet a moment. “Of course you have a right to feel concerned. I'm justâ”
“I'm fine, okay?” He gave a false grin. “Stop worrying about me.”
“You mentioned Somalia earlier.”
“You mentioned being close to a helicopter in Somalia.”
“When we were driving back to Fire Camp, in the truck.”
He looked confused. “Well, I was probably talking about working around the choppers.”
“You never talked to me about Somalia before.”
“Nothing to talk about. Army ranger stuff.”
“Well, you just called the fire an enemy. And a minute ago, you mentioned tracer bullets.”
He got up from the table, pushed his chair back under it, spit tobacco juice on the dirt to the side, and said, “It was just a way of describing things.” He started to walk away. “We've both had a long day, babe. Let's leave it at that.”
“But what about the critical stress debriefing?” I said, getting up from my chair.
“I wouldn't miss it for the world.” He winked and gave a corny smile.
Kerry was right. The critical stress debriefing was pretty much a waste of time. Most of the CSD team had gone to Albuquerque, since the hotshots were there and families were being transported in. So it was just me, Kerry, and the facilitator, a young woman named Barb who barely looked old enough to drive. Kerry did very little talking, and only answered the questions in terse replies. Neither of us had truly had time to take in the events of the day. When I told Barb what had happened, it felt like I was describing a movie I'd seen. “I'm not in real time,” I told her.
“Not in real time?” she said.
“A lot has happened today. It feels like it's been a week, and it's been less than twenty-four hours.”
Kerry and I answered a few questions about how we felt. We watched as Barb scribbled on a paper clamped to a clipboard. “Watch yourself and your teammates for signs of stress,” she warned. “Talk about it with one another if that feels right, or call us and we'll come back and talk with you. Let us know if there's anything we can do. Seeing someone in deathâeven just the injuries you saw today aloneâcan cause extreme trauma for the observer.”
When she left, Kerry walked out, too, but I remained and fixed myself another jug of iced lemon water. I shook my head, thinking about our facilitator.
She's so sweet. She's just trying to help.
But she didn't know that I'd watched three men die less than a year agoâone of them Momma Anna's son. And there were more deaths before that, but that was another story.
I see death more often than I see my neighbors.
Of course, I don't really have any neighbors. Unless you count coyotes and mountain lions. Deer and elk. And bears.
Wednesday, 2330 Hours
After the debriefing, I walked to the newly emerging supply cache, which consisted of three long tables and some yellow caution tape defining a perimeter around pyramids of boxes, mounds of sleeping bags rolled tightly into sacks like fat sausages, crates of bottled water, sunscreen, and other items. I grabbed a form and made a list requesting the things I needed to do my job: pens, paper, a clipboard; a whiteboard, tripod, and markers so I could leave notices by the restrooms up in the parking lot at the top of Chimney Rock. “Where do I order meals?” I asked the supply clerk.
He pointed to the logistics chief, who was strolling toward the ICP.
I made out a requisition for forty-five breakfasts and bag lunches, and got the paperwork into the right hands.
Then I went to my Jeep and drove to one of the three furnished cabins there at Navajo State Park. Two had been assigned to the men on the Command and General Staff, and the third was for the high-ranking womenâthere were twelve of us on the team. I hauled my red firefighter travel bag, complete with small spike tent and sleeping bag, in the door of the women's cabin and found that the six bunks were already taken and women on sleeping bags occupied most of the floor. I noticed Elaine Oldham lying on her side, still awake, in one of the upper bunks. We exchanged smiles. There was no place on the floor except for the middle of the room, where the others would need to walk to get to and from the bathroom. I plugged my sat phone into one of the wall outlets, then took my kit back outside and set up my spike tent on the lawn. But it was too hot to get inside. Instead, I sat on the grass before the opening, a hot wind occasionally gusting over me.
I reached to untie the laces on my leather smoke-jumper boots. These lifesavers were made with a raised heel and a lug sole designed specifically for fighting wildfire. They were sturdy, the pair weighing eight pounds, and they had a dozen sets of lace hooks and eyelets. I started unwinding the leather laces and felt pain in my right shoulder where the burning branch had struck me.
I pulled on the buckle of my belt and drew it through the belt loops, rolled it up and put it in one of my boots, along with the pair of heavy wool socks and the thin pair of silk ones I wore as a liner next to my skin. My feet felt like throbbing red knobsâhot and swollen. I must have walked fifteen miles that day. There was no one around and it was dark, so I stood up and dropped my Nomex trousers. My shirt had tails that reached the middle of my thighs, so I climbed out of my cotton panties without exposing anything of consequence. I rummaged in my kit and found what I wanted: the stretch bike shorts and oversized T-shirt I wore for pajamas on incidents. Once clad for sleeping, I pulled out my ditty bag and squeezed paste onto my toothbrush, then stood and walked around in my bare feet on the dry, crunchy lawn while I brushed my teeth. I spit onto the ground and rinsed my mouth using water from the CamelBak in my pack. I drank more of the water after I'd finished, then used some of the lip balm attached to a clip on the pack to try to soothe my parched lips. My face felt as dry as a sheet of parchment, but I was too tired to go inside and wash. I took my hair out of its ponytail holder and ran the brush through it, then set the alarm on my watch for 4:30 a.m.
Still unwilling to climb into the hot tent, I used it to shelter my belongings and stood and probed the darkness with my senses, searching for a good spot to sleep.
I knew from looking at a map that here, on a wide peninsula, the cabins and a small campground were surrounded by the waters of Navajo Lake, which stretched like a long, twisted root into New Mexico, down to Navajo Dam, and then back up a slender branch called the Pine Arm toward Colorado again. I could hear waves washing against a beach, and I followed the sound, walking about fifty yards to the edge of the lawn nearest the water. I spread my sleeping bag out on the grass, stretched out on top of it, and prayed there weren't any snakes, spiders, ants, or other biting beasts that intended to join me for the night.
I listened to the water lapping gently at the shore of the lake. I wondered if Kerry would stay up all night in the war room. He'd always had trouble sleeping, as long as I'd known him. When he spent the night at my place, I would often wake and find him sitting at my kitchen table alone in the dark, or even propped up on one arm watching me slumber.
I turned on my side, the way I liked to sleep. I missed Mountain. I thought of all the times we'd sat on the stone outcropping near my cabin at night under the starsâme wrapped in a blanket, him snuggling into my side or at my feet. We often dozed off like that and slept the whole night, waking only when the sun's rays pierced my eyelids. I knew that if he were here right now, I would welcome him onto my sleeping bag and put my arms around him, no matter the heat. Mountain and I knew how to share thoughts. And silence. I longed to have him beside me, to connect with his simple understanding of life. I remembered Momma Anna's words about the wolf and fire:
Wolf and fire live same place, time before. He know how not get burn.
That's more than I can say for some of the rest of us,
I thought, remembering the singed corpse I had seen just hours before, and also the tremendous heat that I felt when I embraced the burning man. I squeezed my eyes tight and tried to block out the memories. I had to turn on my other side because my right shoulder was throbbing where the tree limb had struck it.
I dreamed of Grampa Ned as I tried to sleep in the heat on the hard ground. His black, fire-shrunken body was lying opposite me, and when I opened my eyes, I saw him looking at me with glazed pupils. A scorched hand reached for my bottle of icy lemon water. I offered it to him, and he took it and drank eagerly. Then I became aware of my own thirst, and I demanded that he return the bottle, but he would not. I tried to take it from him, but he crumbled into a heap of ash. I was startled by a tap on my shoulder. I turned over to see the burning man lying beside me on the sleeping bag, his body emanating heat. His cracked lips opened and mouthed the same words he'd said to me before:
Save the grandmother.
But instead of making the sound of those words, his voice made a noise like fabric ripping.