Posted on November 25, 2007
Kyle jumped into the picture as I was snapping it with my cell phone. We were both in our Yellows and hardhats, the US Forest Service logo on our sleeves. And there I was trying to get a picture of me with the Zaca Fire in the background, when now I’d have a picture of me and Kyle with his tongue sticking out.
They called us firefighters. Me and Kyle and everyone else on Engine Crew 31. We were the bozo’s from a town called Pozo, population: 35. Shaffrar was a 20-something farm kid who chewed Copenhagen like a grown man. Lightning was from South Georgia and talked really slow and was really long winded, hence the irony of his nickname. Embrie was our Captain, and she could carry a chainsaw like the Gears of War video game. But Kyle, Kyle just wrote “poop” on fiber tape and stuck it to the back of my helmet.
The Zaca Fire was my first fire. The second largest wildfire in the history of California. And I didn’t know what to expect as we rolled up in our Type 3 Wildland Fire Engine to watch the burn show, but Kyle leaning over and whispering “scary, ooooh scary” sure wasn’t helping.
Our striketeam, made up of 4 other fire engines and us, staged in a line along the safety zone and readied our hoses in case the firing operation when array. Hotshot crews were stationed at the top of three hills, preparing to set off a back fire and kill the beast. I looked up over the ridge and took off my sunglasses in awe.
There it was, the Devil himself, the main fire came ripping over the ridge like a tidal wave made of flames. The smoldering ash was shot high into the air, making the evening sky a choking grey. Kyle and I stood at the edge of the safety zone taking weather. Wind conditions were right, everything checked out, crews loaded their drip torches and prepared to start some fire.
The flares were fired high, exploding like bottle rockets on the dry brush. Small shrubs caught flame and torched like roman candles, and soon a wave of red and orange was snaking its way toward the main fire.
It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I’d been picked up off the street lifeguarding at a pool for this job, and never in my life did I think that I would ever be fighting a wildfire in some godforsaken forest in the mountains of California. I stood there breathless as I watched the show, and thought about all my friends back home who hadn’t been there for me when I needed them, or my family who had told me not to come here, and wondered how many people in the world would ever see the things I was seeing now.
Kyle looked over at me and smiled.
“You know, fire’s not as scary as most people think it is.”
“I’m not scared,” I said trying to sound tough, “it’s exciting.”
He just smiled and continued watching the fire. We were standing really close to each other, two silhouettes against a raging flame front.
“It’s beautiful,” I gasped. He touched my head with his two fingers then.
“Keep it up here,” he said.
I shot a quick glance at him. His blue eyes and square jaw on his broad neck and shoulders made him perfect for hugging, perfect for teasing, there were plenty of things about him to make fun of. He was so beautiful too.
I thought about going for it, how the one thing that would make this moment perfect would be his hand in mine. Standing there watching the Zaca Fire, holding Kyle’s hand with my line gear on in the middle of nowhere would have been the best moment of my life.
We stood there in silence for a while, the fire danced a mile away, unable to harm us and yet threatening our lives. Then Kyle turned and walked back to the engine. It wasn’t what I was there for, I was there to fight fires and work hard. But even with my Pulaski axe proudly in my hands, I still wish I could have just bucked-up and held Kyle’s hand.