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FIRST PERSON

Chaos and Quiet--the Siren Songs of Firefighters

July 21, 1994|ERIC SLATER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The mule deer, the squirrels, the pine beetles and the pines were all dead. Sitting among their black remains, I had never experienced such silence.

I knew something of silence, even at 20, having lived my life to that point in a lumber town between the Blue and Wallowa Mountains of Eastern Oregon, where, when the chain saws stopped and the Boise-Cascade loggers came down from the hills, quiet was almost all there was.

Resting that night in the foot-deep ash of the McKay Creek forest fire, ax and hard hat resting on my chest, I realized it was the silence as much as the roar that lured firefighters into the flames.

Fourteen went in early this month and never came out, outpaced by a firestorm near Glenwood Springs, Colo. Nine of those 14 were from Prineville, Ore., a lumber town of 5,700 near where I fought my one and only blaze, and just over the hill from La Grande, where I first learned of forest fires.

In many of the small towns of the Northwest, the central dramas of summer play out around forest fires. The talk is of weather, wood-moisture, the terrific conflagration of '77 or '64. Foresters make ominous predictions and the local papers write one-year anniversary stories on the previous summer's blazes.

In places like Prineville and La Grande, kids get the taste at a young age, an ashy mouthful of excitement when a fire comes near town. And when they see the soot-covered, sweat-soaked firefighters, they begin dreaming of fighting the flames.

It happened to me when I was 8.

The world exploded, the sky went brown and the sun became a dim red dime you could stare right at.

Lights flashed, phones went dead, people ran instead of walked. Men stopped working at the mill and dropped their studies at the college and rushed to the fight. Friends lost their houses anyway. My older brother and I ran up and down our street, trying to contact the planes screaming overhead with the walkie-talkies we'd gotten the Christmas before.

"Bomber, come in," we shouted. "Bomber pilot, do you read me?"

At the end of the first day, Mom drove us to the high school football field, now filled with trucks and tents and disposable sleeping bags, and along with dozens of other onlookers, we watched what were the most important men we had ever seen, besides our father. The firefighters were giant men to us, with so much depending on them. And they were men with such faith in their immortality we could read it on their blackened faces.

We went home and donned boots and bandannas and asked Dad, "Could we please help fight the fire?"

The answer, of course, was no, and we were left to dream of fiery heroics and coming home filthy but with an excuse no mother could question.

Despite the fierce memories of that fire and the Forest Service helicopters that for years heralded high drama when they landed in the field by my house, I went on to less heroic, less poetic pursuits, fighting only the McKay Creek Fire of 1987. The entire state seemed to catch that year, and while forestry officials needed help, I needed tuition money. I was issued an ax and a fire shelter and made it into the canyon of McKay Creek in time for the last gasps of the beaten blaze.

Many of my friends, though, and one of my brothers, remembered the fires and the men who fought them in their childhoods better than I, and at 16 or 17 rushed headlong into the burning woods.

Fighting forest fires is a young person's game, Norman Maclean writes in "Young Men and Fire," his story of the 12 smokejumpers who died in Montana's Mann Gulch blaze of 1949. The physical demands of the job require youth. The saddest irony, Maclean says, is it's the young who haven't "learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy."

Those who fight forest fires have a difficult time explaining why they do it. Most are well-muscled young men and women who spend much of their time in the woods even when the woods are not burning. They save their fat, overtime-laden paychecks and spend their winters skiing or ice-climbing or studying forestry at school.

When they try to explain the powerful draw, firefighters speak of powerful themes--wind, nature, a force so awesome it can create its own lightning storm. A "good" fire season, they'll tell you with a straight face, is one with plenty of fires.

In rare moments of personal candor--far from the flames and plied with beer--they might speak of the silence, and of the time they truly believed they would suffocate and burn in the woods, paid back by the flames they had fought so long.

Some get out after that. The others go back, leaping from planes, rappelling from helicopters, humping 80-pound packs into infernos.

During the nearly 20 years I spent in forest fire country, there had never been 14 lives lost at once in the woods, and I try now to imagine the silence in the charred forests around Glenwood Springs and the dry forests around Prineville.

The only condolence is that the silence won't last. Summer after summer, in dozens of timber towns across the Northwest, the blare of sirens and roar of airplanes and an impossibly low rumbling in the distance will alert everyone--a forest fire is coming.

Work will stop. The sky will turn dark. And 8-year-olds with walkie-talkies will run into the streets, look up to the glowing mountains and dream of going to fight the fire.

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