Summer of 1976: Florida Ranger Station, Santa Rita Mountains, Southern Arizona
“Uh-oh,” Joe said, staring behind us. “There go our packs.”
My Pulaski froze mid-swing; I lowered it to my side, momentarily forgetting the wildfire in front of me. Smoke swirled between the two of us. I leaned around Joe and saw nothing but pine trees on fire, which, all things considered, made sense. Where did our packs go? Had an animal dragged them away? Then it hit me. Our packs were up in flames. The forest fire had jumped our line. The narrow defensive belt of raw earth we’d feverishly clawed through the woods had been breached. All of our gear. Gone. Including our canteens of life-sustaining water.
This was my first fire; but not Joe’s. When he said we’d just rebuild the line, I thought, okay, no big deal. He seemed calm, and not too concerned about when we’d get more water, so I didn’t worry about that either. Even with our gear a pile of ashes, we’d no choice but to continue to build line. In my hands I clutched a Pulaski, invented by a forest ranger for just this kind of work. A combination ax and hoe, it made building line easier. Easier, but still brutal hard work. With flames a mere foot away, I removed fuel from the fire’s path, down to bare mineral soil, our fireline. Soon my arm muscles burned from swinging the ax at small trees, my back pinched from leaning over to scrape pine needles and the duff underneath them with the hoe. Intense heat from the fire and exertion made me thirsty. A drink of water would be good right about now. I had some gum in my pack, which might have helped, but it was a melted glob now. As I chopped and scraped everything to bare earth, I performed a mental inventory of what I’d lost besides my canteen: headlamp, socks, my Levi jacket. Damn, I really liked that jacket.
While we continued to battle flames, the sun rose higher in the sky. Temperatures climbed to over ninety, I figured. My mouth felt like the dry, dusty, desert below. I so wanted a drink of water. I really needed a drink of water. An abrupt shift in the wind funneled smoke into the draw like water pouring from an overflowing dam, filling my lungs. I exploded into a coughing fit. I can’t breathe! Remembering the bandana around my neck, I retied it bandito style over my face. My eyes stung, teared, my vision blurred.
“Over here,” Joe yelled. “Get down low.”
Crawling, choking, with tears streaming down my face; I followed him. At the edge of a smokeless ridge, I yanked down my bandana to suck in fresh air, terrified it wouldn’t be enough, terrified I’d inhaled too much smoke. My chest seized, hurt, until oxygen eased the pain. Not being able to breathe scared me much more than the fire below. I turned to Joe, who also wheezed and coughed, until color returned to his face. His presence comforted me. At least he knew what the heck to do next, which was to wait until the smoke dissipated. We sat for a few minutes, clearing out our lungs, blinking to regain our vision. If I had any moisture left in my body, I would have wiped my brow, but I didn’t. My tongue felt swollen, glued to the roof of my dry mouth. My teeth were gritty, but I didn’t have enough spit to lick them clean. Don’t think about how thirsty you are, it will only make it worse.
The drone of plane engines rose above the crackling of the nearby fire.
Overhead, a huge, slow moving C-47 carried fire retardant, slurry. Staring up at the silver bird gave me a twinge of hope. Slurry, a mixture of water and fertilizer, would knock-down the fire. The plane circled, making a second pass. I watched in awe as the hatch doors on the bottom opened, releasing a plume of dark pink, which rained through the forest canopy, dampening flames. Nose turned up, the plane disappeared from view.
Joe and I took advantage of the temporary window to dive and get closer to the fire’s edge. Despite intense, nagging thirst, my body weak from dehydration, I kept scraping, digging. Pine sap boiled, snapped and sputtered, as flames consumed boughs. Somehow we managed to reach the lower edge of the blaze, although we had no idea if we were catching the fire or not, or if Scott, the third member of our crew, had made any progress. There’d been no sign of Scott since he’d vanished across the rockslide seven hours ago. He had the only two-way radio, so we couldn’t check-in.
As the sun rose, temperatures did too, shifting winds upslope. Not good. On autopilot, mouth clamped tight to conserve moisture, I pushed myself to scrape more line clear of flammable pine needles, chopping branches that could breech our clearing, until distant voices made me pause. Through tall ponderosas I caught a glimpse of bright yellow fire shirts. About time we got support. A firefighter I recognized from the Nogales crew carried multiple canteens strapped across his stout frame—a walking canteen shop. I accepted one, fumbled to unscrew the cap, and took a swig, resisting the temptation to drink too much too fast, which could make me sick. I savored the wetness, swishing the water around my teeth, tongue and gums before swallowing. Water never, ever tasted, or felt, so good.
My saviors? The Catalina Hotshots, my friends from last summer.
“Hey Linda,” one said, “I heard you made it to a fire crew.”
Oh, yeah I did. How great to have them see me here. Delightful to see familiar faces—but no time to socialize. We had to get this fire under control.