The Honey Bee
And then there were the
fires. The fires they were no joke. On a Sunday, on a visiting
Sunday, Dude was getting ready for a visit. So were the other
men. They were in good moods, all of them. There was extra
laughter heard around the camp and extra smiles upon most of
their faces. Many looked forward to seeing girlfriends, or
lovers, or wives, same thing. Dude was sure to see the old man
and was satisfied with this.
The day was hot
and a typical summer Sunday. A light breeze was coming from the
north-east over the brown dry hills. Dude watched as great white
cumulus clouds built up over the mountains in the distance. They
were fierce in their size and whiteness. Unusually fierce.
That's when the
alarm went off. There would be no visits today.
The men had been
trained what to do. They put down whatever it was they were doing
and went back to the dorms. They put on their work clothes and
socks and boots and laced them. They put on their web belts and
filled up their canteens. They would need their canteens. They
tied their kerchiefs around their necks, then put on their yellow
helmets and something else that was yellow that they usually
never wore when cutting line. This thing was the real-deal. It
was their no-max, a flame-retardant suit. I don't say flame-proof
you understand, just flame retardant. The men knew the
Then they loaded
into the buses and looked out the windows to see where they would
go. For some it was their first fire. They talked among
themselves nervously. No one talked to the ranger in charge. The
ranger was looking at a map he had unfolded that was sitting on
his lap. He had to look at the map. He noticed there were no
roads were they were going.
Some men of
course looked out the windows and said nothing. Other men had
nothing to say. Others that said nothing were lost in thought.
But most men talked.
The bus drove on
and on. Finally they were so close there was the smell of smoke
in the air. Soot, soot was in the air too. The men in the bus
began to talk of what they would do to this fire. Others spoke of
what it might do to them. The men who never spoke were
The bus left the
paved road and got on a dirt road. The sun, the brightness began
to dim. Not because it was late, because of the smoke. The smoke
was getting thicker now.
Then the bus
The men got out.
The air was thick with smoke and hard to breath. Many men took
their canteens and soaked their kerchiefs in the cool water and
placed them over their nose to make the breathing easier. It
seemed like a good idea so Dude did the same.
Dude had learned
to do what the old-timers did.
approached their ranger from out of nowhere and told him what was
They pointed to
the place where the smoke was the thickest. Dude looked over at
it. It was dark. Darkness in the middle of day. When he turned
to see where the sun was, it was still there on the horizon but
it was orange like a pumpkin, like an orange glowing ball, not
The ranger gave
his orders and the men followed him.
"Come with me,
So they lined up
as they had been trained to line up. First there were the men
with the axes, then the men with the Pulaskis, then the men with
the Mclouds, then the men at the end with the shovels. They were
good strong men and willing and would do the job required of
them. They followed him toward the smoke.
Then they saw
the fire. On their eyes they could have had the goggles they gave
them in camp. Plastic goggles. But the plastic goggles were
scratched with use. You couldn't see through the scratches and
all the smoke. No men wore the goggles, even though their eyes
stung and watered. If you wore the goggles you weren't a man. So
no men wore the goggles.
said the ranger, "and keep working till you get to there." He
pointed up the hill.
It was a simple
task cutting brush was, simple but hard. The hill was a big hill.
There was fire on the hill and the men knew it. They could see
its' traces. It danced before them like a dangerous dancer.
They knew that
if they cut line, and if the line was clean enough and wide
enough, that it might save them from the fire. There was no water
around, the no-maxes were useless, and they all knew that.
Running was useless. So they began to cut line.
The men at the
head of the line stepped into the brush first. Swinging their
axes, swinging their Pulaskis, they cut the first of the line.
Each one had 6 inches or more. The bushes and small trees, the
Manzanita and chaparral, began to fall. The men with the Mclouds
followed along and cut another 6 inches each, the man behind him
six inches and so on. The men in the rear scraped what was left,
leaving only the mineral soil behind. If it was just mineral
soil it would not burn. That's what the ranger had called it in
training, mineral soil.
The line got
wider, and longer, and the men extended it as they climbed up the
mountain. Maybe you would call it a mountain. Whatever it was, no
matter how big or how stubborn it was, they cut it and scraped it
and dug it till only the mineral soil remained. Sometime they
were close to the fire. Sometimes real close. If the brush they
cut was burning, it was thrown back into the fire. Never was it
thrown into the green brush on their right.
into the green," is what they had been told.
Then it would
start that brush burning and they would be surrounded. They
didn't want that, so they'd toss the burning brush to the left at
all costs. A mistake from right to left could cost them their
lives, so they were careful. Sweating and cutting and cursing and
scraping they worked their way up the hill, one step, or six
inches at a time, one step forward, six inches to the side.
Cinders were falling like raindrops of fire. Smoke would billow.
Some men coughed. Others would take a second and drink from their
canteens or splash water on their faces blackened by the work.
But only a second as the line had to keep moving. It was
marvelously dangerous work.
Dude had never
seen anything like it. The team depended on each other. All these
criminals doing dangerous work. He had never seen men work so
hard together, almost as if their lives depended upon it. Maybe
because they did.
When they took a
break and he was leaning on his Pulaski he saw the main part of
the fire down below. It extended for hundreds of yards. Although
the brush was only six or eight feet high the flames were higher,
sometimes 10 feet, sometimes twice that. He could see there was
no way you could jump over. There was no way you get around the
flames and he knew that the wind was driving their direction, he
could feel it driving the flames, and that if it changed there
was no way you could out-run them either. Who can outrun the
wind? Then he remembered what the ranger had told them.
"There's no more
dangerous job in the state of California." Now he knew
They had started
that afternoon. When they stopped at two o'clock in the morning
they were at the top of the hill. They fell exhausted wherever
they were and fell asleep, between the rocks and boulders or
wherever they could find an open spot. For this work the State of
California paid them ninety-nine cents a day. You can believe me
when I say that on that mountain top, now surrounded by ten
thousand acres of burnt brush, now snoring with faces blacked
with soot, every one of them believed he had earned at least one
dollar. At least one.
They all fell
asleep and dreamt only one dream. That dream was of the steak and
eggs they would eat later that morning when they came down from
the mountain. In California when you fight a fire they feed you
good. So they dreamt of steak and eggs.
Department names all their fires. They named this one the Honey
Bee Fire. They gave it this name because a man was smoking wild
honey bees out of a tree to steal their honey. When one bee stung
him on his hand he dropped the smoker and it started the fire.
One bee, one sting…then ten thousand acres… then the criminals
with black faces on top of the mountain. That's how it