TCNJ Magazine: Fall 2017

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11 LAUREN H. ADAMS Each morning we rose with the sun, throwing a 70-pound pack on our backs, cutting earth with a Pulaski (an ax with a pick end) or running the chainsaw, dropping hazard trees that threatened to fuel the fire. We worked through the hottest days and nights, inhaling dust and smoke, and digging a 10- to 20-foot swath for miles to corral the fire. This was our job for 14 days straight. Then we were allowed two days off. TWO YEARS EARLIER, I fought my first fire, the Trigo fire south of Albuquerque in the Manzano Mountains. Fifty-nine homes burned down when high winds kicked an ember outside the initial control line, the perimeter established by firefighters days earlier. I was one year out of college with vague plans of being a writer, inspired westward by Kerouac novels. That summer I traveled the country as part of an AmeriCorps team assigned to a Type 2 fire crew, a ragtag group of 20 or so firefighters equipped with hand tools and chainsaws. Riding in the back of our van, I watched an endless column of black smoke suspended above the plains. Fifteen thousand acres of once-living matter, plants, and animals, now just smoke. Walking past the charred stalks of trees and the burnt rubble of homes, I remember seeing families combing the debris, searching the ruins for pieces of themselves. When we passed, they stopped and watched us. We looked like anything but heroes to them. As helicopters hauled water buckets over the tree canopy and C-130s dropped slurry on the active parts of the fire, our job was mostly mop up — we fanned out in a straight line, 10 abreast in the black ash looking for smoking embers that could reignite. I felt the ground with the back of my hand so I didn't burn the nerves in my palm. When I found heat I put my glove back on and swung my Pulaski until I struck mineral soil where the dirt retained moisture. Hotshots are the boots on the ground, the infantry of the wildland fire community. That night in the dinner lines, hotshot crews passed in single file, caps pulled low over ash-blackened faces. We were told that they were the elite of the fire world. Little did I know that a few weeks later, while the rest of my crew took a siesta under the shade of some pondero- sas, I would meet my future boss, a hotshot squad leader caught in a barbwire fence. A burly man, his dirty face covered with a black beard like a steel brush, his neck bleeding where the wire had cut into him, he flashed a satanic smile as he leaned into the thorny wire. I helped pull him out. He offered me a job on the spot. IN 2012, AFTER almost two years as a hotshot, I took on a leadership role while on a fire in Northern California's Klamath National Forest. The Klamath is one of the most dreaded places in the conti- nental U.S. to fight fire. Temper- atures soar past 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the landscape is made up of nearly vertical slopes covered in poison oak, and weird narco-hip- pies grow marijuana in the woods. During one strange moment, my saw partner and I — federal employees — cut line near a field of marijuana. Later, a hotshot on another crew hit a nearby tripwire that sent a load of buckshot into his rear end. Within three days everyone on the crew was covered in poison oak, scratching through insomnia. Addicted to the adrenaline, the god-like spectacle of the inferno, many hotshots stay in for longer than their bodies can handle. For what high is more intoxicating than holding the fire in your hands, running as fast as you can, lighting up the world behind you? Watching smoke columns so large they create their own weather? I felt the heat and breathed the smoke, like a red heart pulsing, flickering among the trees. For every hotshot there comes a day when you decide to put in for a permanent position or commit your energy elsewhere. A day when the pieces come together and rookies are asking you the questions and you are teaching them what to do. You're a little older. You hold the fire in your hand, and cradling the flame, you find yourself passing off the torch to the next generation with a gleam in their eyes. The next poor soul who is sick, catching the firebug. Andrew Erkkila '07 is a graduate student in Rutgers-Newark's MFA program. He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his wife and daughter.

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