Fire and the God Who Won’t Let Go

“The problem of self-identity is not just a problem for the young. It is a problem all the time. Perhaps the problem. It should haunt old age, and when it no longer does it should tell you that you are dead.”

Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean

Leader’s Intent

Here’s a fun oddity for you to wrap your mind around: picture a young boy enamored with guns,  war, and heroism, but is raised by self-proclaimed pacifist hippies. Welcome, you’ve just stepped through one paradoxical door of my childhood. 

I was the youngest of four children by a number of years (6, 11, and 12 years apart, respectively), so I found myself playing alone quite a bit. My backyard escapades were typically either sports or war. Sports were a little more difficult, but I became pretty talented at somehow managing to play both sides of a football game all while jabbering a rousing color-commentary. Ever realize you’ve been talking to yourself for hours and then suddenly realize how quiet it is and wonder if anyone was eavesdropping? Ever knock the wind out of yourself while playing soccer alone? Picture Calvin and Hobbes, and you’re getting close to my growing up experience.  

When I wasn’t up to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning with a full count in game seven of the (imaginary) World Series, I was at war. Of course toy guns were not permitted in my conscientious objector home and violence was prohibited. However, anyone who has children understands this obvious principle: the forbidden becomes all the more alluring. 

When it came to playing war, I wasn’t just lining up green Army men and daydreaming. Oh, no. I was hemmed in, lying in mud and filth in the Ia Drang Valley, or saving the Union at Little Round Top, and waving men on from the beach at Normandy during Operation Overlord. I was living it. And not just as a lowly footman, or a paper-pushing bureaucratic. I was something gritty like a sergeant, or maybe a lieutenant. Still in touch with the boots on the ground, but carrying some influence with the top brass. I was in command. 

From the cozy dining room table, my peace-mongering parents likely watched with dismay (did he just bayonet that snowman?) as their youngest progeny pretended to enlist and go off where men win glory. For hours I would call over my toy walkie-talkie for air support because, dammit, I have ground to hold and I don’t care what the stuffed shirts in Washington have to say about it! Send the mortars! (For disclosure, I seriously doubted I said dammit. For being pacifists, my parents sure scared the hell out of me.)

A lot can happen from the ages of 9 to 18, and I guess I was finally influenced away from the military and onto the conventional route. I enrolled in college, played a sport, got decent grades, and learned a few things. I received a good education from a good school, got a job, and largely stayed away from any real danger. It seemed, for the time, that my parents had finally won the war of my heart and life direction.

Until the Waldo Canyon Fire.

Blow Up

In June of 2012, my wife and I were living in Colorado Springs. It was our first experience of the American West and all it stood for. Including, to our shock, wildfire. 

Wildfire is as native to the Western landscape as bison and bear (and beer, oh my!). However, due to urban expansion and some well-founded fears, wildfire has been suppressed throughout the United States at a staggering rate. While generally this makes great sense where homes and properties are at stake, it can come with an unfortunate consequence. Dead and down timber in the forest can stack up creating unsafe conditions called “fuel loading”. The end result is a forest jammed with decades of dried out logs, pine needles, and leaves creating a tinder box at explosive levels just waiting to ignite. Which is exactly what happened on June 23, 2012.

I was working in town when rumors of “fire” began to spread. People who’ve lived in the West for some time are more accustomed to wildfire, at least from a “there’s a fire somewhere in the woods” perspective. Coming from the very temperate and moist Midwest, wildfire was as common to me as nuclear fallout or an alien invasion. I had no idea what it meant. And certainly not when the fire is four miles from your town. It wasn’t until the helicopters started flying over carrying 700 gallons of water at a time trying to douse the blaze that the reality of the situation became clear.

The fire grew quickly. Within a few hours from the initial smoke reports, it swelled to over 600 acres. By nightfall entire live trees were being consumed, with pilots reporting the flames reaching over 100 feet above the canopy. This was serious, uncontrolled, and chaotic. The next day the police recommended we evacuate, taking only what we could throw in the back of our Toyota Echo. I sprayed the house down with our water hose, raked back the pine needle duff, and prayed for a miracle. We fled to a friend’s house that was further from the inferno, already hearing reports of houses being burned over. The fire was trading its original pinyon and ponderosa fuel for 2x4s and vinyl siding. Entire neighborhoods were lost to the wildfire.

Soaring temperatures and hurricane-force winds caused the fire to spread with hellacious speed. What was 600 acres of burned area became 10,000 acres. Helicopters and airplanes dropped loads of water and retardant on the flames with little result; a fool’s errand on a grand scale. Two days into the disaster, the sun was no longer bright against the canvas of Colorado’s famously vibrant blue sky. Now the sun merely loomed orange behind a curtain of smoke, pale and muted, like one of Tatooine’s late-evening suns. The air was suffocating, like a never-ending campfire without the fun of s’mores or ghost stories. The only spooky stories told now were of flaming deer dashing across Rampart Range Road, tragically spreading the fire in horrific fashion. 

Amid all the mayhem, I took notice of something changing. It was like smelling salts for the faint. And it happened in the most peculiar place- Colorado Springs’ 8th Street Walmart. While I was gathering a few groceries for my refugeeing family, I noticed large groups of people wearing blue or black t-shirts in cargo pants also gathering provisions, albeit for an entirely different purpose. Their shirts read “Lolo Hotshots” and “Payson Helitack”, among dozens of other crew shirts. I realized that while me and 30,000 others were running away from the Waldo Canyon Fire, these men and women were running into it. Order was descending upon us.

A Command Post was established at a nearby school, coordinating the efforts of hundreds of firefighters with militaristic precision. Branch Chiefs were determined, authority was delegated, assignments were given, and the fire fighting began. No longer with helicopters hopelessly dropping water willy-nilly on a raging monster, but this time with divisions of people utilizing a targeted approach. The tide was changing, both for the fire and for me. 

Situational Awareness

About two years after the smoke settled around Colorado Springs, my wife and I moved to West Virginia for grad school. I loved National Parks and National Forests, and loved outdoor recreation. So I thought I would go back to school and try to make a career of it. And, the fact that I might be able to dabble in fire only added to the desire. 

So I thought I would go back to school and try to make a career of it. And, the fact that I might be able to dabble in fire only added to the desire. 

I finished school, and got the job. And in the poetic words of my first supervisor, I thought my days would be filled with “walking trails and swatting butterflies”. Turns out it was a lot of desk work and meetings. But then the opportunity came to become trained as a “militia” (as in, not my normal day job) wildland firefighter. I jumped at it. 

I remember talking with my mom at one point about becoming a wildland firefighter. She thought it was a bad idea; unnecessary risk for a husband and father. The irony was she thought joining the military at 18 with neither a spouse or children was also an unnecessary risk. She meant well. But she was missing my heart, and the warrior stage I was in.

Initial Attack

Fortunately, my wife is very in tune with the masculine heart, and she encouraged wildland firefighting. My first opportunity came by way of a “prescribed fire” at a nearby forest. Prescribed fires are meant to alleviate the aforementioned fuel conditions that lead up to the Waldo Canyon Fire. Under strict weather conditions, fire managers will set fire to a portion of the forest with containment lines surrounding the burn area and plenty of people to monitor it. This burns off the dead timber keeping the forest more resilient to wildfires, and less catastrophic to neighboring communities. On this particular burn, they were short a few hands and needed some help. I was all in.

I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was brand new, totally uninitiated and very unprepared. I had no idea how much drinking water to bring, how long the shift would be, or how to pace myself. To make the situation even more daunting, I discovered at briefing that the guys we were burning with were the Missoula Smokejumpers. 

For the unversed, the Missoula Smokejumpers are the equivalent of Navy SEALs in the wildland fire world. They routinely parachute out of airplanes, each carrying 115 pounds of gear for cutting down burning trees, and then pack it all out for miles in mountainous terrain to the nearest road. These are the fellas that books are written about. In a word, smokejumpers are elite. They have their own Visitor Center dedicated just to them for goodness sake. The contrast was striking. My brand new Nomex fire shirt was stiff and a rendition of yellow only found on toucans and very ripe bananas. Theirs were threadbare and torn, resembling pirates from Montana. I was wild-eyed and desperate for a little more instruction. They had the settled, almost bored look of having done something a thousand times. I was pale and a little flabby. They had tattoos. I’ll be honest, it didn’t go super well. But I made it through the shift, and I learned a lot. What’s more is that a seed was planted, and it felt good.

After Action Review

The way the story goes, I ended up taking another job with a different agency, and that has allowed me to get even more involved with fire. I’m still “militia”, and my role in fire is still very part-time, but it’s done some incredible healing for the young places in my heart.

Since getting involved in fire, I have gone on assignments in Texas, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico and Oregon. I have seen single-tree fires, and 300,000-acre scorches. I have been one of those men that rushed into the fire, while the community ran away. I have had my lunch paid for, my airline baggage fees waived, and my hand shaken with a hearty “Thank you for your service”. But perhaps the best part about my wildfire experience is the youthful itch that it scratched. 

As a boy, I dreamed of being in a company of men attacking the enemy. With fire, I have been on crews doing “Initial Attack” on a burning adversary. As a boy I dreamed of calling in orders over the radio amidst a complex tactical mission. In wildfire I am often on the radio, communicating with highly trained commanders with a unified objective of knocking down a fire with ground crews, heavy machinery, helicopters and aircraft. I have been a part of task forces, divisions, and engine crews. I have become accustomed to reading military time, topo maps, and detailed Incident Action Plans. I have slept in fire camps, in the beds of trucks, and in horse trailers. I have washed in mobile showers, and gotten awful food from the chow line. I have received orders, given briefings, and participated in After Action Reviews. I may not have been in the army, but I have been a part of military-like operations. 

And that’s the thing about God, He is a God of redemption. He restores what was broken, and returns what was stolen. I thought because I didn’t join the military after high school that I missed my calling. Seventeen years later, I see now that God doesn’t give up easily. He has brought many of the things that I love about the military back into my life, but through wildland firefighting. My heart may have been missed as a young boy, but it was never lost in the heart of our Father. 

So now I ask you- what was missed in your heart as a child? What was overlooked, discouraged or even shamed? I’d encourage you to pray about it, and bring those desires back to God. You never know how the Redeemer will bring it back around to you. It might come back part-time, or maybe even in the midst of disaster. But He will bring it back somehow or another, because it’s our hearts that He’s after.

Authors Note

If you’re interested in reading more about smokejumpers, or wildland fire in general, I highly recommend reading “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean. It’s a great book.

A movie recommendation would be “Only the Brave”. It’s another tragedy (spoiler alert), but I feel like it captures the ethos behind firefighting, brotherhood, danger, and honor. Below is a trailer for the film.

Common Wildland Firefighting Terms

After Action Review (AAR): A professional discussion of an event, focused on performance standards, that enables firefighters to discover for themselves what happened, why it happened, and how to sustain strengths and improve on weaknesses.

Blow-up: A sudden increase in fire intensity or rate of spread strong enough to prevent direct control or to upset control plans. Blow-ups are often accompanied by violent convection and may have other characteristics of a fire storm.

Initial Attack (IA): An aggressive action to put the fire out by the first resources to arrive, consistent with firefighter and public safety and values to be protected.

Leader’s Intent: A clear, concise statement about what people must do to succeed in their assignments.

Situational Awareness (SA): An on-going process of gathering information by observation and by communication with others. This information is integrated to create an individual’s perception of a given situation.

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