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Men fight fires in California

Submitted:May 15, 2010    Reads: 33    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   

The Honey Bee Fire
Steven Hunley
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 difference.
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 silent.
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 stopped.
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.
Two rangers approached their ranger from out of nowhere and told him what was needed.
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 yellow.
The ranger gave his orders and the men followed him.
"Come with me, he said.
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.
"Start here," 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.
"Never throw 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 why.
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.
The Forestry 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 happened.


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