This is the first of several photo essays from my season as a Type II hand-crew wild land firefighter. Let’s start with a disclaimer; I am a complete newbie and have only one season as an entry level crew member under my belt. Compared to so many of the women and men I worked with, I hardly have a toe to stand on. Also, the season I worked, we only had a handful of fires and only one of more epic proportions. But even with such a “slow” season, it was one of the most epic seasons in my life. So, in noting my novice experience, I want to have this blog series to be more creative and expressive of some of my moments or overarching feelings of the life of a wild land firefighter. Please know that I will probably misremember some specifics and that my voice is mine alone. The crew I was a part of was certainly diverse and I’ve no doubt that many of them hold differing views of what I recount. I have mad respect for every single crew member I worked with and I hope none of these writings do a disservice to any of them. I won’t be using names unless they gave me expressed permission. It’s my hope to add my small contribution to the wild land firefighting narrative and expand the reader’s knowledge of daily firefighter work through my novel voice.
Let us saunter down to the wide wilds of Magdalena, New Mexico. Where the alligator junipers rise tall and the shadows they throw always fall short of desire. After coming from the wet, heavy fir shades of the lush northern forest floor, the scorching dry could make you want to hold onto your tears for moisture. The West Fork of the Bitterroot crew had a month-long roll (a length of time when the crew goes off district) ahead of them and anticipation was high. My only previous experience in NM was a childhood train trip on my way to Big Sur with my uncle Gary. While that trip left a subliminal desire to explore the dire environment of the Southwest, I’d forgotten just how much I wanted to encounter the unfamiliar colors and textures of the region. Not even my imaginative childhood memories prepared me for the depth of mystery I felt while living there for a month. As we departed thirty days later, I felt even more curious than the first day. The small town of Magdalena had a magic that felt intensely unique to me. Spoiler Alert! We didn’t fight any fire during our time in NM. If you’re disappointed, believe me, we were more eager and ready for fire than you are to read about it. You’ll just have to wait until the next post, or maybe the fourth one…
How to describe the relationship of a wild land firefighter crew? Think of a Fellowship of the Ring that was trustworthy enough to join Frodo all the way to Mount Doom. But all nerdiness aside, you pretty quickly have to trust them with your life. Yet even more intense is that they are trying to trust you with theirs. While there are many levels of leadership and responsibility, if an error by the newest member goes uncaught, it can have devastating consequences. Sometimes these errors can come from a new type of situation that even seasoned firefighters haven’t seen yet. Don’t get me wrong, there are so many checks and balances (and the amount of training is incredible,) but the gravity of each of your decisions motivates you to be a better team member every day. Let’s not sugarcoat it too much though. You don’t have to be BFFs, but you do have to develop a trust that you don’t often afford someone so new to your life. To be honest, I found it helpful to find some level of joy in each of their presences: for like it or not, they’re going to be by your side more than some spouses. But as this blog develops, you’ll get more snippets of the fire crew bonds.
There was a dryness there that was so pervasive and intense it would blow sand into my daydreams, unabated by my desire to return to the lush Bitterroot meadows and cool alpine lakes.
Who, What, Where...?
So let’s just line up a few of the facts from the roll. We were stationed out of a ranger district based in the town of Magdalena, NM, but since the town was so small we were sleeping in Socorro, a 25-min drive away. It was hotel life for the month, and that was new to me. But honestly, it was just awesome to have a soft bed, a cold snack and a cool room after the long sweaty days. Every morning we started with an hour- long workout, both in NM and West Fork. Some days it was as a crew, other days on your own, but always pushing for stronger, healthier selves. How else would I be able to carry around a 40-50 lb pack while hiking intense terrain, digging line or felling trees for different projects? Our work days there consisted of about twenty-two different projects for the district and about six days of splitting the crew into three trucks and roaming the district searching for fire, trees in the road or other potential ways to help out the district. Needless to say, the district was huge and I’m not sure four years there would be enough to see all that the area had to offer!
There were many different segments of public land that the district was responsible for and, by extension, we were responsible for, for the month-long visit. One of our favorite areas was a small cluster of “mountains” called the Datils. I put mountains in quotes because they were different than what I grew up calling mountains. They felt more like canyons and scrubby hills with giant slabs of sandstone to me. But, “what are men to rocks and mountains”? I am hardly the one to turn to for the exact definition of a mountain. Regardless, the landscape had a peach-like orange and pink to the mineral makeup and the Alligator Junipers were massive. Crikey they were tall and wide for the region. Best of all was the sweet relief of shade, not just dinky coverage with patches of sun breaking through, but full unbridled shadow. This was crucial to surviving the scorching heat of the Southwest. After hours of felling, swamping (moving cut logs and brush for the sawyers) and digging line, shade was second to water alone in value on hot days. One thing that I’ll never be able to romanticize is the heat. So dry I could feel my molecules reaching out for moisture of any kind.
5000 Points to the Datils
One amazing treasure we found while out in the Datils was a trove of elk sheds. Sadly I never did find one myself, but the crew overall found what seemed an impossible amount, all on the same day, during a break. I was across a ravine on another ridge and for a solid fifteen minutes I heard frequent shouts of elation from over the drainage. I was all right with not finding one, though, for in my hunt I found immense beauty and joy at the thrill of combing the land with my eyes in a new way. Even if you’d rather not “hunt” for sheds, I’d encourage you to go out with intention to find something new in nature.