Drip Torch–an early love scene


Blocked by skyscraper ridges rising off Cape Mendocino, the Mad River veered north not far from Eileen’s base, meandered 70 miles through pines and firs into redwood country until finally emptying into the Pacific above Arcata.  He was waiting for her in the parking lot.  They climbed over a dune, stepped together onto the beach damp under thick fog shrouding the ocean 50 yards away.   They aimed down the slant of sand to the sound of waves.  Fog sealed up the dunes behind them as they walked through the curtain of mist past the curving seaweed line marking high tide.  Saturated air formed a thin gauze filter through which the ocean revealed itself against a gray horizon pushed close to the shore.  

Sealed by the fog in a private world they strolled the edge of the sea half-surprised when a phantom gray-shaded human stepped out the mist 20 yards ahead.  The apparition faded behind their tracks and a gathering of sandpipers took its place.  With their pointy bills they gathered beach hoppers and pillbugs and baby sandcrabs, dashed in unison from one entree to another, added choral tweeps to the ocean’s crashing song.  

Past the birds the beach dipped like a shallow funnel to tilt the ocean a few yards farther away.  In the trough Jeremiah hunched, swept wet sand aside, rose holding something that he rinsed down in the cold water.  Those few yards away, not even a first down on a football field, the mist stole some of his identity, recast him like a fuzzy motion picture from another age caught in a cloud. He walked back holding a sand dollar and there was no reason for the old-timey mountain-man figure with his thin hair flat on his head and dewy brown beard to yank at something inside her and make her feet feel unstable like maybe if she crouched with her hands to the ground the dizziness would pass and she wouldn’t fall.

He was just a friend and they were walking on the beach.  They played basketball.  They ate sandwiches and joked about getting food on their faces.  They knew what it meant to stare down flames and snuff them out with dirt and water and tenacity.  He respected her for that, didn’t call her you ladies or girls.  That might explain part of the feeling but not all of it.

They strolled through the next gray curtain into a room where a shadowy hulk disclosed its true essence, a castaway chest-high tree trunk pointing toward the hidden dunes, cratering down the sand to collect a puddle of sea from the retreating tide.  She grasped the roots, climbed and stood on the high seat, for no reason spun a circle with arms stretched to where in theory the sun ought to be, jumped off, grinned as he stepped ground-level to her side.  

I take the high road and you take the low one, she said, for no reason.

In the next fog-walled room a stream six inches high and 10 yards wide cut a channel through which it joined and lost itself in the sea.  Here they turned.  On the way back before the big log she veered around jellyfish, spotted a tarnished dull golden curve, plucked an old coin out of the sand.  It had a worn cross on one side and a shield on the other and letters smoothed over by time.

“We’re rich!” he shouted, dove to the ground, dug like a dog.  “Buried treasure, come to papa!”  But all he gained was wet sand-caked pants.

This time they both climbed the log, sat on its sandy bulk, speculated about the coin.  Spain or Mexico, they decided.  Where they perched perpendicular to the shore she had to look past his profile to scan the ocean.  It struck her for no reason how the waves spoke the same language they’d spoken for millennia long before any humans ever sat on any log and discovered what they had in common and what they didn’t.  She already knew he didn’t vote and didn’t think it mattered.  It was a big cop-out and she never imagined her heart getting tugged by somebody who thought that way.  They both wanted to work outside, not in an office; in the country, not in the city.  Perhaps that was enough.

No, it was not enough, even with the heart-tug.  She knew the heart told lies.

If the waves spoke the same language they had always spoken then they told both truths and lies.

“I won’t get played,” she said to the waves and to Jeremiah, and realizing the incongruity, she modified, “I don’t mean to say I think you’re doing that.”

He sat there quietly absorbing what she figured had to be a jolt from a gray room they hadn’t yet entered in all this fog until he found his words, facing across the beach as though looking into the misty past.

“Had a girlfriend.  And I didn’t take her seriously.  Guess I wanted all the fun, and she wanted more, and I wouldn’t give it to her.  Finally she said enough.  Called it quits.  Guess if you asked her now, she’d probably say she got burned.”

Two phantoms entered their room, took shape as a middle-aged man and woman holding hands as they walked past the log toward the scooped-out treasureless sand and the shallow stream.

“If I’m playing you now I’m playing myself, too,” he said.  “I admit the first time I saw you it was like I was on the prowl, thinking I was free, but that’s not how I feel now.  And I don’t mean to mess it up and I’m happy to stay friends if that’s what you want.”

“I don’t know what I want.  I thought I did.”

She looked in front of her and after a bit when no other phantoms appeared she made a calculation, placed her hand on his on the log in the space between them.

“Please let’s take our time,” she said.

Later at the restaurant in Arcata Square he tapped his fork at two o’clock and six o’clock around the circle of his plate to demonstrate what he called a slopover when a fire jumped their line two places in the Los Padres.

“So there we were standing in the burn getting hotfoot and Ramirez calls us on the radio, says it’s clear.  We walk out at the edge where it went past our line and go right back to work cutting at the new flank.  No time to think about how we just got our asses chased.  Is that the way it was with you?” he asked just as the waitress brought their lunch.


““What’s that, dear?” asked the waitress.

“She said yes ‘cause she’s crazy for that fish,” answered Jeremiah.  “Used up two napkins mopping up saliva.  Told me you didn’t even have to cook it.”

“Well, it’s baked, and I hope you like it,” the waitress said to Eileen.

Eileen laughed.  “I never said that.  He said he’s an idiot.  That’s why I said yes.  I was agreeing with him.”

“Ohh!  She just doesn’t want to admit when it comes to fish, she’ll eat it right out of the water.”

“Aw, you two!” replied the waitress, smiling, as she backed away and left.

He leaned toward her.  

“Seriously.  Do you care if your fish is cooked?”

“What are you, a sushi-chef wannabe?  No way you experiment on me.  Feed it to a corpse.”

“I get no reaction from a corpse.”

“At least you won’t get barfed on.”

“Should I take that as a no?”

“Baked, broiled, barbequed, roasted, fried, seared, just not raw.”

“See, we really are finding out about one another.”

“Okay, my turn,” she said, leaning toward him.  “Are you ever an idiot, and if so, do you admit it?”

“Ooo, you don’t know me and you want me to admit I’m an idiot?  For real?”

“Well, are you chasing me?”


“Then I demand to know.  When are you an idiot?”

Keeping a smile lit within his eyes, he leaned back against the booth.

“When I look at you, I’m an idiot.  When I think about you, I’m a fool.  That’s when I’m an idiot.  And these days, it seems like all the time.”

A sweep of warmth took hold of her as she looked down at her plate and took a quiet bite of salmon.  It was a good line and she was beginning to think he meant it in more than a get-her-into-bed sort of way.  She chewed on the words and the emotion of their speaking, held them in her mouth, and swallowed.

Drip Torch–goofy scenes

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.

“Whatever for?”

“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.”


Drip Torch–Eileen’s first fire

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.

“First time?”

“Yeah, first time.”

“Welcome to the world of fire,” he said. “See you back home?”

“Yeah, sure.”

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’.”

The language of fire in Drip Torch

“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.

Global warming means more wildfires

News articles, travel blogs and university studies marvel at Yellowstone’s recovery from the devastating fires of 1988, a prominent and significant setting in the novel Drip Torch–but human activity may ultimately undermine nature’s resilience.

Today new conifers 18 to 20 feet tall crowd beneath black and gray toothpick towers that darkly remind Yellowstone visitors of the recent inferno.  Viewing a single landscape, our hearts beat somberly for the charred remnants of vibrancy while we celebrate the speed with which nature can regenerate.  The fires Jeremiah, Eileen, and the fictitious Six Rivers Hotshot Crew fought in 1988 comprise a natural part of the forest’s life cycle.  Wildfires devastating vast acreages have occurred every 100 to 300 years; the lodgepoles around Yellowstone bear cones that release their seeds only when consumed by the heat a wildfire can provide.

But just as global warming threatens communities that have occupied low-lying coastal plains for millennia, increasing heat and drought will forever change the natural mechanisms of forest regeneration, according to recent studies.  One analysis conducted by the University of California-Merced concluded that those 100- to 300-year cycles may shrink to as little as 30 years, preventing the conifers from ever completely recovering, ushering in a different ecosystem dominated by grassland, shrubs, and open woodland.  Less snowpack combined with earlier and longer summers will establish a parched tableau onto which firestorms will become much more frequent visitors to Yellowstone and forests throughout the U.S.

Are we calculating today that the benefits of consumerism outweigh the ominous perils that we bequeath future generations?

Read a scene from Drip Torch that takes place during the 1988 Yellowstone Fires:


Sample resources:



Read an excerpt from Drip Torch

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.


Sources and Thanks

Many resources and some superb input from firefighting professionals and others have contributed significantly to the writing of Drip Torch.  I had written earlier versions of this book during two different time periods, but beginning in 2013 I tackled this project yet again and by spring 2014 had completed another draft, one polished enough for seeking input.  An individual named “Ab,” who manages a very fine website for wildland firefighters (Wildland Fire–www.wildlandfire.com), kindly posted my request for technical feedback from professional firefighters, and quickly many career firefighters responded.  My plea was for them to detect and point out anything in the manuscript that was “b.s.”  Among those who read all or parts of the manuscript, I’d especially like to thank J.N., M.J., and L.L.  They identified numerous corrections, ranging from terminology for crews and supervisors, the proper direction for exiting and entering a helicopter (I’d forgotten!), how fire shelters had changed in 1988, and much more.  Some of the feedback inspired me to keep writing, including the following:

“A good playful book with some drama and excitement. I really enjoyed the read. I found the book to be very entertaining. I look forward to your next one.”

Thank you so very much to those of you who spent time reviewing the manuscript for technical errors in the depiction of fires and firefighting.

One page-turner of a book that documents all the Yellowstone fires of 1988 with extensive interviews of key participants is Fire in Paradise by Micah Morrison.  Yellowstone on Fire by the Billings Gazette provides an excellent overview of the dramatic events.  In Hotshot, John Buckley’s recounting stories of a hotshot firefighter reminded me of my own experiences. One such incident, the invasion of mountain goats at a firecamp in Palm Springs, brought me a big smile of recognition, because I was also there as a hotshot firefighter when it happened.  Other documents and videos on the worldwide web proved to be very helpful.  Here are a few that I used quite a bit:

Definitely two other individuals provided very helpful feedback, particularly about the characters—my wife and my daughter.  In exchange for my cooking their dinners, over a period of months they listened and responded while they ate those meals and I read aloud the latest passages I’d written.  I thank both of them dearly for their criticisms and encouragements.

Death, Sex, Meaning, and Art

As a whole, it seems that Americans increasingly equate artistic experience with adrenaline, whether from shock or gore or salaciousness or any other phenomena that provide a “rush.”  The screens must get bigger, pictures must astound with ever-higher definition, and the floor itself must rumble.  In books gore and sexuality must alternate graphically.  Otherwise the story won’t sell.  None of this is new, of course, only it’s accelerated and intensified, according to our collective demands.

Let us have our stories and escapes, but we needn’t cheapen the experience so gratuitously.  If the protagonists and antagonists capture our hearts or provoke our venom, if the story carries us, authors don’t need to kill so many characters or describe every detail of every romp in the hay.  Death and sex do occur and thus do belong, but narratives that repeatedly expound and expand those experiences ad nauseum reveal either a lack of depth and poignancy or shameless pandering.

Call me a naive idealist, but I subscribe to the tradition that art should ameliorate, not merely entertain.  Accuse me of arrogance, but somebody needs to catalyze reflection and dialogue.  While meeting an obligation to stir emotion and wonder, artists and writers can and should simultaneously imbue a search for significance.  Humans laugh, cry, love, rage, fornicate, and die, but they also want their lives to matter, to see their steps on this planet within the context of a larger, meaningful story.



Hotshot Crews–Professionalism

Drip Torch is a work of fiction—any similarity to any particular person or crew is purely coincidental and unintentional.  Although today the “Mad River Hotshots,” a real-life crew based in Mad River, California, comprises an important part of the national corps of interagency hotshot crews, no such crew existed in 1988, the year in which Drip Torch is set.  Besides the additional hotshot crews that have formed in the years since then, many other changes have occurred in the world of hotshots.  All crews and crew members must meet uniform, rigorous standards in order to earn the elite designation “hotshot.” Those standards include not only physical fitness and crew preparedness, they also address professional conduct.  Some of the interactions that take place among the members of the fictional “Six Rivers Hotshot Crew” in 1988 would be prohibited at the time of this book’s writing in 2014.

However, nearly 30 years ago guidelines to define sexual harassment were only beginning to crystallize.  In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did in fact cover sexual harassment.  A few years later Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, placing additional protections and sanctions regarding sexual harassment in the workplace and also in educational settings.  During subsequent years standardized definitions of sexual harassment became more and more institutionalized, so that today in government agencies and public schools all employees receive mandatory training.

The Standards for Interagency Hotshot Crew Operations guide, issued in 2001 and updated in 2007, exemplifies this focus upon eliminating harassment by clearly addressing it very early in the manual:

“Hazing, harassment of any kind, verbal abuse or physical abuse by any employee toward any other person will not be tolerated.  Professional behavior will be exhibited at all times.” (p. 5)  (For more on the extensive standards that all hotshot crews must meet, see: http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/people/hotshots/ihc_stds.pdf)

But in 1988, the year of the Yellowstone fires and when Drip Torch’s two main characters, Jeremiah and Eileen, find themselves impacted by the sexual talk and jokes, both the identification and the reaction to sexual harassment varied widely.  While crew superintendents generally communicated clear expectations about respectful talk and behavior, struggles still took place as young men and women negotiated appropriate boundaries.  By 1988 for about 10 years a small handful of women had joined various hotshot crews, but many hotshot crews remained all-male, as is the case today, despite attempts to recruit women.  Sexual repartee still finds its way into the speech of an all-male, macho hotshot crew.  Young men still chase women, and young women still chase men–always have, always will.  A single, ambiguous adjective that the federal guidelines attach to sexual speech is “unwanted.”  Hence, even today, human beings continue to find themselves negotiating what is and isn’t acceptable  At what point does joking cross the line from goofy jabber to harassment?  When are words merely words, and when do they shape behavior and consequences?






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