“They had learned to regard fire as a living thing, with nerves and a brain, a tenacity to survive.”
Viewed even from afar, wildfire locks its talons into our primal brains. Scientific description cannot portray how the sight and the smell and the heat of rampaging flames usurp the sinews, commanding instinctual opposites, terror-driven flight versus mesmerized hypnosis. The language of mythology and poetry, of personification and metaphor, better suits the guises that fire wears, its changeable moods intimately linked to land and air.
The line that leads this post comes from Drip Torch, the novel I’ve written to portray the world of firefighting in 1988, the year of the great Yellowstone infernos. It follows a man and a woman who battle those flames while also confronting attitudes about women in a macho world. The remainder of this post includes some of the many different ways that Drip Torch uses language to portray the phenomenon of fire.
A line of jumbled rocks had barred the flames from spilling over the top, but below it cliques of flame lingered, immersed in festive dances, unaware that the main fire had left them behind.
Eileen stared mesmerized and thought of dragons, as if a whole mountain could be a dragon, wrathful and intimidating.
Thousands of cinders hitched a ride upon the miniscule breeze, calmly drifting past their fireline, touching down in a thousand secret places, challenging the crew to a game of hide-and-seek.
It seemed like dozens of fires scattered about, not a single one, as though this wildfire, avoiding open confrontation, preferred guerrilla tactics.
Then a breeze began to play upon the boughs, a waltz composed by the fire itself, proclaiming its imminent presence.
Into the depths away from her, the churning flames intensified, flashing a brighter, higher-climbing orange, bellowing loudly. Like riotous mobs seeking and finding each other in an orgy of mayhem, the drip-torched blaze had united with the ones from the pistols, and now those flames and the ones from the helicopter were converging, heeding the dreadful call of its larger cousin, the Mink Creek fire itself.
Confined within a blowing gray cloud, they had no sense of where they were or how far away the fire burned, but sometime during the afternoon they thought they could hear it, a faint rumble of doom rising above the whoosh of trees, compounded by echoes of shots like cherry bombs. Had the beast surmounted the ridge to force its wrath upon them, or was its voice so hot that it reverberated from behind the mountain, broadcasting Armageddon through the megaphone of wind?
To their left and downslope, harsh crackles resounded ever more vociferously as black smoke churned into the sky, but for more than 15 minutes they saw no flames, as though the fire contented itself with frolicking in some other neighborhood and had no designs on their own.
Fire was a crafty creature, lying low, scheming to emerge from hiding after the mortals left the scene. Sometimes it burrowed beneath white ash, sometimes beneath black, depending upon the type of duff, the depth, the air, the humidity. It would conceal itself deep in the stump holes that remained after it had burned away the roots. Sometimes they would find it nestled halfway up an apparently unburned tree, waiting for the humans to abandon it, waiting for a breeze and some midday heat.
A crack spoke just above the roar and before she could react the top half of a lodgepole crashed into the building where she had been standing before she began chasing the flame varmints, as though the devil determined if branches failed to dislodge them, perhaps a tree would do the trick.
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.
Later it would be said that they’d saved the town, but after all he’d experienced this summer he knew otherwise, that if by whim the wind had rotated a tad more south, the rain of fire would have engulfed all the structures that held so very many memories, and all the machinations of his mortal allies would constitute futility. On this night this one time nature decided to let them have a victory, to let them think their efforts could prevail.