Want to meet some half-crazy characters? The world of wildland firefighting will do just fine. During the 1988 fire season the protagonists in my novel Drip Torch contend with tumbling boulders, falling trees, wild helicopter rides and of course fire, but they also encounter wacky crewmates. Below is one example. Eileen, the female protagonist, has been placed on an ad hoc crew that will fly to Southern California, where she’ll combat her first fire.
From all parts of the Six Rivers, up and down its skinny one hundred mile length, the ad hoc FSR crew arrived in Redding by twos and threes, boarded a green Forest Service bus, and headed to the airport. Eileen sat next to Tracy, with Marlowe behind them.
“I’ve only been on a plane one time,” Eileen told Tracy. “Five years ago, when my dad was still with us. We went to Disneyland.”
“I was in Baltimore for Christmas,” said Tracy. “My family goes there every other year. It’s my mom’s side of the family.”
“Well, ladies, it won’t be Pan-Am, I can tell ya that,” proclaimed the man sitting next to Marlowe. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, slightly hefty, wearing a San Francisco 49ers cap. “Forest Circus contracts with Evergreen Air, but we like to call it Oil Leak Airways. We’ll get instant lemonade, if we’re lucky. Least we’re gettin’ paid. If the fire’s not contained, we’ll be gettin’ hazard pay, too. We get paid the whole time we’re travelin’.”
“I’ll drink Kool-Aid for that,” said Marlowe.
At the airport a skinny middle-aged man with long black sideburns and narrow cheeks boarded the bus, introducing himself as Joe Terry. He directed them to grab their gear from the luggage compartment and led them to a grassy area outside the terminal.
“I’m yer supervisor,” he said, his voice gurgled and hurried. “Right now I know what you know, which ain’t much. There’s some fire in the Angeles and they need help. Right now the South Zone’s burnin’ all ta hell and so’s Zone Three. How many of you’ve ever fought a fire?” He spat a stream of brown tobacco juice off to the side.
A little less than half raised their hands.
“Hmph. Looks like we’re learnin’ on the job. Gotta learn sometime. Don’t know what they’ll have us doin’. We’ll figure it out when we get there. Right now the only other thing I know’s that Boise ain’t got a plane to get us there. Ain’t no different than the military, hurry up and wait.” Another spit followed.
“Also want you ta know somethin’ real important.” Terry paused and scanned the group. “Follow my directions. Somebody’s gotta run the show. IC, that’s Incident Command, will tell DC, that’s Division Command, and DC’ll tell a Strike Team, and Strike Team’ll tell me what ta do, and they’ll expect me ta tell ya. Can’t have a bunch a individual chiefs decidin’ on their own if they’re gonna do this or that. Right now the word is stick together in one group, grab some shade if ya want along the terminal wall over there, and they’s restrooms inside but no lingerin’ indoors. I want ya’ll out here. Questions?”
“Can we use the phone?” one man asked.
“Let my wife know I’ll be gone.”
Terry looked displeased, spat again, then answered. “Aw, go ahead. But not more than three minutes a person. Remember ya’ll got red cards and that means yer gone any minute, anywhere, no chance ta tell nobody and no tellin’ when you’ll be back. That’s the gig. Make sure yer loved ones know that, but right now who knows how long we’ll be sittin’ here so go ahead and grab a phone while ya can. Three minutes.”
Eileen and Tracy claimed a spot in a little lip of shade against the terminal wall.
“I don’t need to call anyone,” said Tracy. She’d told Eileen that she’d spend most weekends home outside Oroville with her parents. Eileen, who lived in a McKinleyville apartment just north of Humboldt State, felt no need to call anyone. Along the wall several people read books, a half dozen started a poker game, pairs and trios chatted and laughed. She took out her sketch book and idly drew the chain-link fence that angled away between the terminal and the runways.
On the margin she wrote,
Links that separate
Our flight toward fire
Three hours later a little plane arrived, with only a number on the tail and rear underbelly. Two individuals from their crew hoisted themselves into the plane’s storage compartment and caught the backpacks the rest of their mates heaved up to them. Once inside the plane, a single attendant added a unique addition to the typical seatbelt and emergency exit instructions: “…and for those of you who chew, we have styrofoam cups.” Eileen noticed Terry, seated in the aisle seat across and in front of her, already had his cup, wedged neatly into the webbing of his upside-down hard hat. In the air, Eileen witnessed what the 49ers fan had meant by “oil leaker” as a brownish liquid dribbled off the back of the wing and into the sky.
They landed in Pasadena, far from the terminal building, grabbed their gear and donned their hard hats—but Terry immediately yanked off his helmet.
“Shit!” he muttered.
“Ewwwwww!” cried out his seatmate, while two men in front of Terry wiped the backs of their necks, turned around, and, realizing the source of the unexpected precipitation, looked horror-stricken. Brown liquid spilled off Terry’s head, dribbling down his face and onto his shirt. Instinctively he wiped his head with the crook of his arm, further sprinkling the foul-smelling spittle. Eileen squeezed against Tracy toward the window. In the next instant, everyone but Terry burst out laughing and groaning all at once. Suppressing obvious anger and clutching paper towels, the flight attendant navigated her way to their dripping supervisor, his aura of command comically diminished.
After another wait, this one 90 minutes, they found themselves on a yellow bus plodding through a midday freeway jam, the sky overhead a hot and hazy white. When they escaped the freeway, stoplights and mini-malls choked their progress, hobbled miles that Tracy filled with nonstop chatter.
“Oh my god, gag me with the smog,” she mocked the stereotypical Southern California “Valley Talk.”
“How can anyone live here? Everything’s paved. Fifteen minutes and we’ve gone 100 yards. That’s the ninth McDonalds I’ve seen since we got off the freeway. I can’t even see any mountains but they must be here somewhere. Hey, Eileen, do you see any mountains?”
“No,” she had to admit, although it seemed they were gaining elevation.
“I shot an arrow into the air, and it stuck,” continued Tracy. “Someone said that about L.A., and now I know why. Look at that stupid pickup. Who needs wheels like that when everything’s asphalt? Oh, and there goes another shoe store, and there’s another man waving a mattress sign. I’d hate having to do that.”
Finally they stumbled out of the scrum and broke loose onto a mountain highway. On long stretches of road, shaggy thick chaparral covered almost every inch of hillside, permitting only occasional pines.
“That’s chamise,” said the 49ers fan, who turned out to be Leon James from the Orleans Work Center. “Betchya dollars to donuts we’ll be right in the middle of that shit. Greasewood, they call it, ‘cause it’s oily enough to barbeque whole mountains.”