Chapter 1 of Linda Strader’s “Summers of Fire: A Memoir of Adventure, Love, and Courage

Chapter 1 of Linda Strader's "Summers of Fire: A Memoir of Adventure, Love, and Courage

Summer of 1976: Florida Ranger Station, Santa Rita Mountains, Southern Arizona Monday, May 31st.


“UH-OH,” MY CREWMATE 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? Was an animal dragging 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. All of our gear. Gone. Including our canteens of precious 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. My arm muscles burned from swinging the ax end at small trees, my back pinched from scraping 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 really good right now. The gum in my pack, which might have helped, had turned into a melted glob. As I chopped and scraped everything to bare earth, I mentally inventoried what I’d lost besides my canteen: headlamp, socks, my Levi jacket. Damn, I really liked that jacket. While we were focused on our work, the sun rose higher in the sky. Temperatures had climbed 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. My eyes stung, teared, my vision blurred. I tried holding my breath, but couldn’t for long, and smoke filled my lungs. 16 Linda Strader My chest seized, hurt, and I exploded into a coughing fit. Remembering the bandana around my neck, I retied it bandito style over my face. “Over here!” Joe said, waving me on. “Get down low.” Crawling, choking, with tears streaming down my face, I followed him. Instead of my heart pounding from the hard work, it thumped with the fear that we’d be overcome by smoke. At the edge of a ridge, I yanked down my bandana to suck in fresh air, terrified it wouldn’t be enough, terrified that I’d inhaled too much smoke. Soon oxygen filled my lungs, and I breathed easier. I turned to Joe, who was also recovering . . . “We’ll wait till the smoke clears,” he said hoarsely. I nodded, grateful he knew what to do. 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 needed to wipe sweat from 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. Thinking that made 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. 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. With its nose turned up, the plane disappeared from view. “C’mon,” Joe said, “now’s our chance.” I nodded. We left our fresh air zone and returned to the fire, where pine sap boiled, snapped, and sputtered. Despite intense, nagging thirst, I kept scraping, digging. “Make the line four feet wide,” Joe said. Again I just nodded, afraid if I opened my mouth to say something I’d dry it out even more. Somehow we managed to reach the lower edge of the blaze, although I 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 hours ago. He had the only two-way radio, so we couldn’t check in. As the sun climbed higher, I noticed a rise in the temperature and a wind shift. Instead of fire burning slowly downhill, it picked up spead and headed uphill. This was not good. On autopilot, mouth clamped tight to conserve moisture, I pushed myself to scrape more line clear of flammable pine needles, chopping overhanging branches that could breech our clearing. I’d no idea how long we’d been working, and wondered when we’d get some help. Summers of Fire 17 Distant voices made me pause. Through tall ponderosas I caught a glimpse of bright yellow fire shirts. Finally! Leading the group: a firefighter from the Nogales crew carrying multiple canteens strapped across his stout frame—a walking canteen shop. “Anybody need water?” I uttered the first word to come out of my mouth in hours. “Me!” 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. After quenching my thirst, I realized that behind him stood the Catalina Hotshots. Hey, I know these guys! I broke into a big grin, hoping they’d recognize me. “Hey, Linda,” one said, smiling. “I heard you made it to a fire crew.” My grin expanded. Oh, yeah I did. Too bad we couldn’t talk, I was dying to tell them all about my new job, but we had work to do. We had to get this fire under control.

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Bedazzled Ink Publishing (May 1, 2018)
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1945805668
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1945805660

Michael Herrera

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