Highlights included watching a burn-out operation (where hand crews light a forest fire to burn an area ahead of the wildfire to create a line it cannot cross) blow up one afternoon from a ridge above the action. Radio traffic was heavy and helicopters were ferrying and dropping water to contain the burn.
[pre-burnout]Another day, I was posted at the "top of the world lookout" at about seven thousand feet, where I had a smoky view of Mt. Lassen and an incredible 360 view of the whole Cub complex. It was like having a front-row seat for a day as crews were moved around, trees torched, spots were discovered and put out. My partner that day was a more experienced medic who used to work on the fireline, and he was doing double-duty as a lookout for our division supervisor. It was quite the education.
[steve: medic & lookout on top of the world]I got to know the faller team from my second day rather well, and ended up sharing several meals with them over the next two weeks. One day they took me with them as they cut down trees along the highway that the fire had closed down. They were looking for trees whose roots or lower trunks had burnt in such a way that they were likely to fall on the road, posing a major hazard to unwary cars. There's nothing quite like having a massive fir tree fall straight towards where you are standing and explode as it hits the pavement a few feet away. My stomach was not the same for the rest of the day. (I know it is sideways ... I can't fix it.)
I was also posted with a crew of young Pueblo men from a reservation in New Mexico. For several days they were the only hand-crew on my division and I followed them around and hung out with them on their breaks. I got to know several of the squad bosses pretty well, and on the last day they ambushed me, painted my face and put me through the same 'initiation' that their rookies go through after their first fire.
[bottom row, far left, shamefully clean shirt]On the second-to-last day of my tenure on the Cub, my partner and I left the line late and ended up heading down the mountain on logging roads we hadn't driven before. We were well behind the crews and well ahead of the division supervisors who were waiting for night-shift to arrive. That day, crews had lit a huge burn-out which was still flaming hard even in the cooler, damp night-weather. They wanted the arriving shift to know exactly what was going on. My partner and I took a wrong turn at an unlabeled T-intersection. A mile later, we came around a corner and found ourselves in the middle of the burn with no way to turn around. The road was narrow with steep banks on both sides, boulders loosed by the fire scattered across the gravel and flaming trees all around in the dark. It was surreal, as was the quickly rising temperature in the vehicle and the crackling I could hear through the closed windows. When we came to a flaming tree that had just fallen across the road, we made a quick decision to risk a 150-point-turn and high-tailed it back to our wrong turn.
(NOTE: I did not take these pictures, but they are from the Cub Complex. I spent that entire episode trying to get out alive and not pee my pants.)
[photo credit: scott linn]Thankfully, there were no major incidents or accidents on my fire. I saw a few decent burns and lacerations, and got more experience with the many and varied presentations of dehydration but for the most part the medical issues I saw were relegated to the blisters-and-sniffles I had been told to expect. When I got back to Alaska, I heard some wild stories about other medics who had some major trauma on their lines. As confidant as I am that I have the skills and perspective to deal with such eventualities, I'm just as glad my first fire was a mellow affair. It let me figure out how things work, what to expect and how to navigate the particular landscape of a long-term ICS operation.
I loved working as a fire medic, and can't wait for next season. Being paid to hang out in the woods all day and patch up a kaleidescope of wounds is just the ticket for my little soul.