Grant Village, Yellowstone National Park: July 25, 1988
Ramirez had them up before daylight beneath a smoke inversion that blocked the stars and moon. Shivering cold prompted them to eat breakfast pacing or standing and moving their feet to generate body heat. Soon afterward as dawn disclosed an ashen gray sky, they found themselves in the village area, spread closely across the fronts of four cabins on a road with other cabins guarded by other crews, facing a forest on a slight incline where nothing seemed to be happening. Two fire engines, one manned by Park Service personnel and the other by a volunteer crew, had hoses laid out and ready. Six Rivers had its saws and handtools and four drip torches. Farther down the road two men sat in the cab of a news truck with a satellite dish.
Ramirez pulled the crew from the cabins, gathered them into a group on the other side of the road, and reiterated that fire officials predicted the Shoshone would reach them sometime that day, probably in the afternoon.
“They want us to stand here and wait for it, but I’ll be damned if any hotshot crew of mine’s going to do such a thing.” he said. “I want to see 10 feet this side of the road clean down to mineral soil. We’ll pull the rug out from under the Shoshone when she gets here.”
Near noon when they finished clearing the ground and resumed their earlier stances in front of the cabins, the inversion had dissipated, freeing a breeze to play among the treetops and air tankers to groan slowly somewhere to the south, beyond the hill in front of them. An hour slogged by, the wind stiffening its intensity, the low drones of the air tankers resounding closer and closer, and above the hill what began as light white smoke built itself to a menacing height, like a siege tower pushing inexorably closer until it stared down the civilization its progenitor aimed to decimate. Maybe the way buffalo in their millions more than a century ago set the ground aroar with hoofbeat, so, too, the fire approached. Blustery wind pushed dust into their faces and then—flames still shrouded behind the hillside—a blizzard of ash.
Ramirez and Flowers paced by their two cabins, radios in hand.
“She’s comin’ and she’s comin’ hard!” Ramirez yelled, while the engine foremen barked word to their own crews. “Shelby, Bertram, Davis–light it up! The rest of you, watch the cabins, knock down any hot spots!”
The burn team had loosed only a few dribbles of flame beyond where they’d bared the soil when the stampede burst over the hill, manifesting a flame ball above the trees and into the sky, an angry god indeed, and one in a great hurry. It seemed to pause a moment, as though surveying a route, before hurling itself down the hill, swallowing trees in seconds, sending the cursing burn team retreating back across the road. As soon as the wall of heat and rumble of flame dashed nearly to their line, engine crews opened their hoses, shooting blasts of water along the ground and powerful arcs into the crowns, intensifying the spattering cackles amid the overwhelming roar.
Near Jeremiah one of those arcs of water suddenly collapsed and lashed wildly along the road. Eileen and Willingham bolted toward a man on the volunteer crew who lay on his back, the water-shooting hose snaking on the pavement near where he lay. Eileen shouted something to Willingham, who pulled the man by his shoulders toward the cabin, while she grabbed the hose, took several steps forward, and directed the torrent of water deadeye into the flames roiling atop the trees. Jeremiah trotted to the scene and knelt next to the man, declaring to the man’s crewmates that he had EMT training. He noted the man’s glazed eyes and shallow, pained breaths, felt a faint pulse.
“Get Shelby or Mullins to radio for an ambulance,” he said to Garcia, who’d come to assist. Jeremiah didn’t notice the reporter and the cameraman come sprinting up the road, stopping only when blocked by other crewmen. Instead, the reporter directed the camera operator to point toward the road, where Eileen stood subduing the monster, and he began speaking into a microphone.
While across the road flame-bathed pines cried out full-throated crackles, hurling heat across the road, Jeremiah kept two fingers pressed against the carotid artery next to the man’s adam’s apple. One of the man’s crewmates knelt at his feet.
“Help’s on the way, Kirby,” he said. “Hang in there, buddy. We got this fire licked.”
The man’s vacant eyes stared at overhead smoke, his pulse tapping erratically against Jeremiah’s fingers, his chest scarcely moving as seconds trudged and Jeremiah’s own heart raced. Then his fingers felt only skin and the movement of breath ceased.
“Kirby!” called the man at his feet.
Quickly Jeremiah tilted back the head, pinched the nose, and administered a long breath, watching his exhalation lift the man’s chest. He positioned his hands one atop the other over the base of the sternum, pushed down the heel of his hand, remembering the rate, almost two per second, silently counting the compressions, shifting to the mouth, delivering a breath of oxygen, returning to the chest. A long-ago instructor’s voice whispered: CPR often fails. Please let it work this time, he thought, half aware that leg bottoms and boots had gathered within the scan of his eyes, fellow humans whose quiet prayers matched his own.
An eternity of two minutes burgeoned fear but brought no breath until in mid-shift the man sucked in a half-gasp of smoky air, pushed it out, raised his own chest with life, flipped on the switch to his artery and heart.
“My God!” came words from above one of the sets of boots.
From the start the reporter observed, waiting for an opening. When the possibility of death diverted attention away from him, he smacked the video operator’s arm.
In the evening Jeremiah would learn that life restored had been recorded on film.