Nelson is a plain-spoken man, but when he talks about his work, especially describing the incendiary howl of a firestorm, his language is terse and compelling. "Extreme fire behavior is very uncomfortable," he says, quietly warming to the topic. "A fire makes a roaring sound. When it builds up steam, it almost sounds like a train roaring down the tracks, because it has so much built-up energy. You hear trees burning that are loaded with moisture and they just explode like firecrackers.
"You can't see very much because of the smoke and embers flying around. And it's hard to breathe--there's all sorts of things flying at you. My worst experience was a 1975 fire. For about four solid hours, I went from house to house--it was extreme, smoky and dry. It was so bad that my eyes got so dried out that they were just raw from the wind and heat and smoke blowing in your eyes. The smoke gags you so you can't breathe. Some guys vomit from the smoke because your body can't take so much exposure."
Nelson's wife, Sue Ann, heard about the Old Topanga fire by turning on the news. "She knows I don't want to miss a big fire," he explains, a hint of mischief in his voice. "I tell her not to worry because I'm a commander, so I'm way back at a command post. But then when I come back home and I'm smelling pretty awful, she'll say, 'Gee, if you were all the way back at the command post, how'd you get so smoky?' "
"You have to be willing to re-evaluate your tactics with changing conditions," Nelson says, pointing at a crude outline of the Agua Dulce fire he's chalked out on a blackboard. "Maybe the bulldozers show up faster than you thought. Maybe the wind changes direction. Always look for opportunities to execute a more direct attack."
Wherever the Wise Man of Wildfire goes, you can usually find a blackboard nearby. Much of Nelson's free time is devoted to teaching classes on wildfire strategy or incident command training. His wife Sue Ann jokes that when she and Gary drive to the mountains on a skiing trip, she can tell his mind is wandering. "When I ask him what he's thinking about, he'll say, 'Training.' "
Today her husband is chairing an informal seminar with a group of assistant fire chiefs who have gathered at county headquarters in East Los Angeles to discuss firefighting tactics. His middle-aged pupils wear their fire-commander uniforms: crisp white shirts, black ties, badges and nameplates, with gold-plated trumpet pins on their collars (miniature replicas of the horns that 19th-Century fire chiefs used to direct maneuvers while fighting a blaze.)
As a test of fire response strategies, Nelson passes out copies of a topographical map of the Santa Monicas, which shows a sample fire burning along a high ridge. He peppers the chiefs with questions. Judging from the fire's location, what will be its rate of spread? Where will the fire be in three hours? What is the best plan of action--an attack on the fire's left flank or its right?
At one point, the meeting is interrupted by a reminder that promotion recommendations are due the next day. The men respond with a chorus of groans. "They never listen to any of my recommendations," one chief says. Another complains: "I'm batting zero." A third chief grumbles: "Why do they want to have 'em?"
Nelson's response: "So they can ignore 'em."
Firefighters have about as much fondness for desk-jockey formalities as cowboys had for barbed-wire fences. Holed up in Spartan fire stations, they inhabit a clannish, nearly all-male world, its long hours of idle time interrupted by sudden fits of hellbent action. They are risk takers, according to Nelson, men who like physically oriented challenges.
"Ask firefighters what they do on their days off and they'll be off skiing, mountain climbing or river rafting," he says. "I'm not a risk taker, but the guys I ski with, they go straight downhill. It's like that with fires. You get a buzz. You like that and you want to get more of it."
In 1960, when he was a rookie firefighter, Nelson earned $5,700 a year. Today a starting fireman's salary is about $38,000. After three years as an assistant chief, Nelson now earns $105,000. Work shifts are 24 hours long, beginning at 8 a.m. One day on, two days off. In a sense, firefighters have two lives: one at home and one at the station, where they have their own beds, recreation rooms and kitchen facilities.
A cross between a military camp and a fraternity house, the fire station has its own language and tradition--and a stubborn resistance to change. Simply consider the manly rites of preparing dinner. "The whole eating thing is a ritual," Nelson explains one day as he gives me a tour of his station. "We can take up to three or four hours a day, all around food. The whole company goes to the market in the firetruck, because if we sent two guys off, then the company would be understaffed."