Early in Drip Torch both main characters quickly encounter fires. For Eileen, it’s her first fire ever. She’s assigned a mopup shift in the Angeles National Forest on a makeshift crew from her home forest, the Six Rivers N.F. What follows are a few excerpts from this chapter.
(Excerpt 1) Hunched over, Eileen trotted behind him to the helicopter and took the seat where he pointed next to the pilot. From outside, the crewman helped harness them in, backed away, and signaled the pilot. Its blades speeding to a blur, the helicopter lifted a few feet, tilted its front slightly downward, and raced away, soon passing over a small rise.
Eileen saw her first fire.
Cloaking the ground, smoke-fog sent tendrils drifting eastward while flame clusters consumed chamise, silent beneath the helicopter’s high-pitched blare. On the hillsides flames spilled across brush and shimmered off the thick arms of oaks. Across the basin a barricade of white smoke, thickest near the earth and thinning upward, washed away every trace of blue. Somewhere in that direction lay Pasadena and the other cities of the Los Angeles basin.
The helicopter raced south across the burning scene and slowed as a higher mountain revealed itself through the haze. Just below the crest they landed on a ledge scarcely bigger than the helicopter itself, hustled out beneath the whirling blades, and joined the first shipload of their crew gathered upslope beneath an oak.
In a half hour, Six Rivers FSR as well as a contract crew from Oregon had assembled. They hiked to the top and stepped onto a twelve-foot wide bare path traversing the ridge both directions, a gash of dirt bisecting an army of chaparral. Downslope to their left, burned brush crowded the fireline, below which the scrubwood descended intact until disappearing in the smoky inversion spread like a reservoir of gray fluff. The Oregon crew turned left, while Terry led his crew right, kicking up dust until encountering two men who looked as though they’d just emerged from a coke mine. Terry stopped them.
“All right, ladies and gents, this here’s where our little bit begins. This here’s where ya show what ya know ‘bout puttin’ out fire, all the techniques we discussed yesterday, paired the way I put ya, experienced an’ inexperienced. Well, I’ll be dad-gummed, looks like we got our boys from Six Cricks parked up here waitin’ fer us to take over. Hey, Bertram, what brings ya to these parts?”
“Gettin’ a tan, Terry,” replied the man before speaking into a radio. “Shelby, this is Bertram. Relief crew’s here, looks like Joe Terry’s in charge.”
Shelby. That was one of the men at the phone booth back at their base. Strange, running into them here. A few days ago they’d hollered “Arizona” when they left on their bus.
“Tell him he owes me a tin of tobacco,” said Shelby from the other end.
“You tell Shelby I bought his sorry ass a fifth a Jim Beam the end a last season an’ if he’s countin’ I’m the one that’s owed,” replied Terry. “Besides that he oughta quit. That stuff’s bad for ya.”
“Tell him yourself, Joe,” said Bertram. “He’s down at the other end.”
Terry turned his attention back to the crew. “Okay, I’m gonna drop ya off in yer assigned pairs as we walk down this line. Look especially for heavy fuels, the oaks in particular, like I told ya.”
Paired with a man named Greg from an engine crew near Zenia, Eileen walked nearly half a mile before Terry designated a section of line to them. Waiting there stood that other man from the phone booth, Jeremiah, along with a partner also built like a linebacker.
“Hey, it’s Eileen,” he said quietly, smiling slightly through black-specked, cracked lips. Soot powdered his face and tinged his beard and the matted hair protruding from his hard hat. Wearing dirt and soot-covered Nomex clothes, he stood half-asleep, lightly gripping a pulaski, powerful and vulnerable all at once, a fatigued vigor summoning what looked like genuine delight.
“You’ve got yourself a fire,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said, surprised to feel a tiny heart tug.
“You get here on a helicopter?”
He regarded her with what felt like respect, like she’d joined the team, like she belonged.
“Yeah, first time.”
“Welcome to the world of fire,” he said. “See you back home?”
The men departed down the line from which she had come, leaving her perplexed. Maybe what she felt was something like sympathy, something maternal toward an exhausted man. It was strange for him to be the one she replaced, but that’s all it was, she assured herself. She pushed the little zinger of puzzling emotion downslope into the thick smoke that hid land from sight.
(Excerpt 2) Downslope the unseen snapping grew louder. A new breeze carried ash flakes overhead. On Zeke’s radio they all heard Terry transmit a new message.
“Zeke,” said Terry. “Get ‘em all from Taylor’s group up ta me on the rock pile. “Sanchez’s half a the crew is headin’ inta the burn on the south end a the line.”
“Copy,” replied Zeke, before saying to Eileen and Greg, “It should be fine. Most likely IC’s orders, keeping everyone safe. They don’t want us standing here on the ridgetop in this chamise shit waiting for the fire. Gather up Valdez and Reese ahead of you and bring them along.”
“Situation normal,” said Greg as they walked the way they’d been told. “First this, then that. One minute we’ll save Bambi and the bunnies, but the next we’re told to get the hell out of the way.”
At the rock pile Terry was waiting.
“That chamise’ll burn like a furnace,” he said, leading them into the slide of jumbled stones. “Ain’t nothin’ but gas cans growin’ on a hill. We’ll see soon enough whether that line’s gonna hold or not.”
To their left and downslope, crackles resounded as black smoke churned the sky, but for more than 15 minutes they saw no flames, as though the fire contented itself frolicking in some other neighborhood. But Eileen recalled quite vividly one element of fire behavior from her training earlier that week. Fires spread upslope, often incredibly fast. It was only a matter of time before it would visit them.
Then she saw the flames, maybe a quarter mile down the mountain. A roar like a waterfall rose above the staccato pops and snaps, and the flames rushed upslope, a roiling ball thirty feet high swallowing and devouring everything in its way. Although they sat or stood at least 50 yards away into the slide, the heat of it wrapped around them and the smoke took pathways directly into their eyes and mouths and lungs. Suppressing the urge to cough, Eileen stared at the spectacle and thought of dragons, as if a whole mountain could be a dragon, wrathful, intimidating. Greg tapped her arm and amid the din motioned for her to put the bandanna up over her nose and mouth, as everyone else, she noticed, had already done. The flames rushed higher until parallel to their own position, hit the barrier of pre-burned chamise, and suddenly stopped, seething along the edge.
“Hot damn!” yelled Terry above the gradually abating tumult. “Six Cricks did it again. Ramirez has his boys ready an’ the season ain’t even started yet.”
“Stopped that sucker cold,” agreed Zeke.
“We better get our asses out on that line an’ look for spots,” declared Terry. “Zeke, you lead ‘em back the way they came and drop ‘em off. Same escape route, same safety zone. Wait a minute. Sector boss’s callin’.”