Lessons for life from the ashes
John Maclean’s new book, “Fire and Ashes,” delivered an epiphany for me.
Nearly 20 years past the last wildfire I fought, rain tapping the roof as I read, a vestige of that same professional unease and heightened awareness on a piece of hot line returned as I sank into the second of three parts about fire blowups and the people they caught dead center.
In this part, Maclean tells the story a hastily formed fire crew of relatively inexperienced people, led by a gung ho but dodgy crewboss who doesn’t respect what he doesn’t know, taking on a backfiring operation beyond their skill. Only by God’s grace do they survive. That they were allowed to nearly get themselves killed serves as an indictment of the wildland firefighting service as far up as you want to go.
The author, John Maclean, goes as far as the command team of the 1999 Sadler Fire in his investigation. But some old salts I know paint the entire system as culpable. Much has changed, I’m told often, since my era on the line from the late 1970s to mid-’80s.
Perhaps. But my outlook is forged by my time as a ground-pounder, mostly on a hotshot crew based in backcountry Santa Barbara. Hotshots are frequently described as the “special forces” of the wildland firefighting world, well-trained crews of 20 people who typically get the toughest assignments on the toughest fires.
Hotshots generally see the most fire of all crews and because they work as units that stay together through entire seasons, they tend to be superior firefighting teams to even the glitzier smokejumpers who rain from the air mainly to keep small lightning fires from growing into the kind of blazes that the 68 or so hotshot crews in the country were formed to fight.
From inside, all that can sound like a lot of yada yada for the press, and the young women we constantly were trying to impress. I looked at it as the lowest form of professional athletics, dodging fire sometimes, but mainly enduring marathons of line construction and burning that could stretch as long as 60 hours at a time. The pride was high and the pay low. It took blowing out a knee and marriage to wrest me from the life.
I indulge in the memories now because it wasn’t until reading this book that it really struck me just how fortunate I was to serve on a crew with leaders not only deeply experienced, but also smart. Even among the hotshot crews, not all are equal, a tragic conclusion cemented from reading Maclean’s first book “Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire,” in which nine members of the Prineville (Ore.) Hotshots were killed in a blowup down the road from here in 1994, near Glenwood Springs. In all 14 firefighters lost their lives in that fire.
I had the best mentors in the business throughout my career, starting with one of Maclean’s sources for the first part of his new book, a blowup in northern California in 1953 that killed 15 firefighters.
J. W. Allendorf, who you will read about if you pick up the book, was my first foreman when I began as an engine crewman at a station next door to Ronnie Reagan’s Santa Barbara area ranch. Allendorf discovered some old paperwork in a warehouse attic about the Rattlesnake Fire chronicled in part one of “Fire and Ashes” when he later took a job on the Mendocino National Forest, where the fire occurred.
Allendorf was hooked from there, to the point he re-enacted the last dashes of the trapped firefighters and encouraged Maclean to do the same. He was also the prime force in getting a memorial to the fallen erected. His sleuthing into history might even have played a part in his progression to a top law enforcement job in Montana these days.
Allendorf, while on the hotshot crew I later joined, had his own dash with a blowup in 1975 when a lapse in communication between the crew and Los Angeles County firefighters nearly trapped him while he worked on a spot fire. The Vietnam veteran recalls being more frightened than during combat as he ducked and dodged his way to safety.
The lessons for the crew from this fire made my time that much more secure. I had a wiser J.W. for my first foreman on the engine. And the same leadership as he had on the hotshot crew when I served my stint.
Much of what Maclean described as lessons from the Glenwood fire my crew already did as habit during my time, such as saying no to fireline assignments when merited. My crew was known for its aggressive attack, but our leaders turned down assignments routinely if they felt they were poor decisions. Apparently, this wasn’t so common across the fire service as I had imagined. We had the reputation to just say no with confidence that perhaps many other crews didn’t feel.
Or, in the case of the hapless crew described on the Sadler Fire, crewbosses who didn’t respect what they didn’t know led their people into danger, enabled by leaders who really should have known better than to let such crews get themselves in trouble. The Sadler Fire is just one of several, if not many, in which crews narrowly escaped tight spots where they never should have been.
This is the toughest lesson of wildland firefighting, and with each incidence of multiple fatalities on the line, one that doesn’t seem to be learned for very long.
Perhaps Maclean, a first rate journalist with The Chicago Tribune for 30 years before leaving to chase fire in his own way, can change that.
John Maclean has a booksigning for “Fire and Ashes” scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Verbatim Booksellers in Lionshead. Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.org