Tuesday, July 31, 2018
THE LESSON FROM THE SKINNERS MILL FIRE (CIRCA 1977)
A Church of the Open Road mini-memoir
In the summers between my first three or four years as a classroom teacher, I picked up work as a truck driver for a small, north state freight outfit. It was great! In ten weeks of trucking I could make about 2/3s of what I’d earn in nine months of teaching. Normally, my gig was to deliver local freight to small towns in our area, but, once, when a wildfire broke out, I was tapped to haul perishable groceries from Willows, California to a fire camp about 30 miles west of Corning.
“You’ll get a ton of hours, but you won’t be offered any overtime,” the freight dock foreman told me mentioning something about the contract Peters Truck Lines held with the Forest Service. “Toss in a sleeping bag and catch a little rest whenever you can.”
The run from Willows to fire camp was about sixty miles, thirty of which were on freeway, the rest divided between paved secondary and dirt forest roads. The bobtail I drove was refrigerated, packed with steaks and eggs and milk and OJ and whatever produce firefighters would need to rekindle their energy and rejoin the fight. Someone loaded the truck, I didn’t, and when I got to camp, inmates unloaded it. All I did was drive, making the round trip four times in one twenty-four-hour period.
Arriving once at dusk, whoever was in charge of the kitchen pulled me from the cab and pushed me to the front of the chow line. “You’re the most important man in camp,” he said, slapping me on the back. “Eat up.” And the largest steak I’d ever seen was unceremoniously draped over the edges of one of the 10” round Chinet® paper plates I’d probably just delivered. A steaming baked potato was plopped on top.
I guess I must have been important because I was invited to stand and eat with a group of uniformed US Forest Service firefighters twice my age, one of whom appeared to be in charge.
“You know, kid,” he began, “In school, I betcha you teach about the fire triangle. Well, it’s actually a square. There’s four elements: heat, fuel, oxygen and the California Division of Forestry.” He paused and then said, “You take any one of those things away and the fire goes out.” His colleagues laughed at the joke they’d probably heard a hundred times before. Then he got serious, “Son, thank you for bringin’ up all this food. I don’t know how long we’re gonna be up here. You see, we aren’t gonna put this fire out. We don’t put fires out. They go out.”
No one was laughing this time.
Over the intervening forty years, our fire seasons have morphed from a finite early August to mid-October to something more like year-round. In that time, I’ve learned that fires die when there is no more fuel to burn, like when the wind shifts driving the fire line back over the already burned area, or when it arrives at a lake or sea shore; or when a cooler, more moist air mass moves in over the area or when a storm drowns the damned thing. Change of the seasons meant that an August fire might be contained until a late September rain doused it.
In our contemporary times, fires – big ones – have been sparked in July, June, May and even April. And those rains may not come in October.
This smoky morning, as I pick up the paper and see the orange tint of the smoke-filtered sun on our freshly painted house, I am reminded of the words of that old Forest Service Fire captain…
We don’t put fires out. They go out.
…and realize that what rainy season we might hope for is over three months away.
Church of the Open Road Press