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Fall 1994, Volume 11.3

Essay

 

Ron Steffens

Burning the Mountain


Ron Steffens (M.F.A., University of Arizona) teaches at Arkansas State University and as a visiting writer in Wyoming and Arizona. He has worked as a park ranger and is completing a book on fear in urban and wild landscapes.

 

1. The Panic

Among wildland firefighters there is a belief, usually unspoken and romantic enough to prove dangerous, that it may be better to die on the fireline, fighting hard on a mountain slope, than by more mundane means, be it old age or an accident in rush-hour traffic.

But a few years back, on a hot day in June on the Dude Fire in central Arizona, six firefighters died when a fire burned over them. At the time I was in the Rincon Mountains, waiting for a fire. We heard the news on our local NPR station, since it's hard to get a paper in a wilderness. But you learn little about firefighting from what the public hears. We had to wait till later, when we walked off the mountain and the gossip had spread through the profession, to learn what happened. A prison crew had panicked while their crew leader fought to force them into their fire shelters. The crew leader was burned, badly, but he lived.

I know the crew leader. A few years ago I helped him teach a basic firefighting course held among the plush grass of La Paloma Resort in the grassy flammable foothills of Tucson. I remember him as having a sense of humor; he seemed diligent and, at that time, seemed to believe he was a bit tougher than most people. In other words, he seemed a good firefighter.

What I've heard is gossip and all of it could be fiction. But I can imagine the terror of the fire, I can imagine the inmates panicking—because I've seen the terror. I've felt the panic.

The basic tool of firefighting is the pulaski, an ax combined with a hoe; it's named for a man who once held a pistol to his crew. The crew had panicked and were trying to run from the protection of a cave into an inferno. Pulaski stood at the mouth of the cave, his pistol aimed until he and the crew passed out. But most of them lived.

The history of fighting wildfires is a history of men (and now women) who are trying to stop the panic. Smokey the Bear was propaganda against panic; in the 1950's the communists and wildfire were equally evil and spawned equally exaggerated attempts to control our panic.

Communism is history and today the trend in firefighting is natural fire. The question we are left with is this: How do we return a forest to its natural fire regime? This question, though relegated to debates at fire conferences and among wilderness fire crews, is not so different from the huger question of our time: How does humankind learn to find peace? If we must fight to find peace among ourselves, then perhaps we should start with a grander (yet more tolerant) partner, and search for a peace with the land. The panic will remain, for at least a few years, since a return to natural fire means we must carefully burn off a hundred years of fuel, stockpiled as a result of total fire suppression, without burning down the whole forest. And some forest fires must be contained because we do need timber and we feel obligated to protect the homes that encroach into the mountains. Many a fire must be stopped simply because of politics: if someone yells when their pretty park gets converted to charcoal, then the next fire will be stomped faster than you can invoke the ghost of Smokey the Bear.

When I walk the wilderness I dream of natural processes. I want the woods to burn and die and grow again. But it is not just an ecological vision that I serve as I spend my summers nurturing natural fire (and controlling those fires which have been deemed politically or environmentally incorrect).

I have another reason for fighting fires.

I think it's healthy to be scared by nature. I think it's healthy to remember how dangerous the world can be. I think our human world is much easier to fathom when you've stood between a fire and its fuel, or when you've walked through the ashes of a forest and seen the flowers blooming.

I only regret that these lessons take us so close to our panic. Because sometimes the panic wins. Sometimes six people die, so horribly insignificant against the flames.

2. In Our Backyard

When I fought fires in the Rincon Mountains I would celebrate the Fourth of July like some pagan, sitting 6000 feet above Tucson, on top of Spud Rock. Drinking a beer, watching the tiny bursts of fireworks, the flickering mass of city lights. The fireworks provided an excuse to climb Spud Rock, but mostly I was waiting for the crack and rumbling of thunder, the zigzagging blasts of lightning. Waiting for the flickering of orange light. Waiting for a wildfire.

After one Fourth of July a strange blast of dawn lightning ignited a fire at the bottom of the Rincons, a mile beneath Spud Rock. By the next night half a mountainside had burned.

We called it the Chiva Fire. Like most fires in a drought year, it burned because it was meant to burn. It slowed when the wind stopped, and when it butted up against a ridge; it stopped burning when the rains came. We humans merely aimed it and put wet Band-Aids around the edges.

In 1989, the year of the Chiva Fire, the oaks turned brown by May, which is normal, except they stayed brown and burned black. In 1990 the oaks turned brown but immediately sprouted out with soft baby leaves.

In 1989, when the rains finally came, we were frightened by huge pops and groans as the dry pines expanded, sucking up the water.

In 1990, a year almost as dry, the rain splattered early, with a half-inch of rain in early June, silently soaked up by thirsty trees. And in July every lightning blast was followed by rain and the few fires we had were labeled as "prescribed natural fire" and we watched, enthralled at a world so perfectly adapted to fire, as the flames crept underneath the pines, burning out the undergrowth.

Sometimes, as I watch a fire begin, the lightning connecting clouds to earth, the thunder so close that it sets your belly trembling… sometimes I fear I am just a thrill-seeker, a child who plays with wildfire because it gives me an excuse to live in the mountains. But there is a deeper, more mature fascination. To fight a wildfire you must also understand how fire has shaped the whole mountain. You must notice the moisture that creates the mint-green fuzz of a new oak leaf. You must notice the rattlesnakes clustering around the two springs that remain wet in a June drought. You must watch what grows after a hillside has been fertilized with a fire's ash.

In the city my wife nurtures a garden; she sits in it, wondering how to help things grow. My garden, my backyard, is simply much larger; I watch as a mountain nurtures itself.

To claim a mountain as your own backyard might be construed as an act of hubris. But if you look at a mountain all winter, and live in it all summer, you begin to feel possessive. But possession need not be so physical: this mountain is also your backyard, whether you walk in it or not. It is federal property, bought and paid for. If you live in Tucson you watch it every morning as the sun rises. When the Chiva Fire burned you might have watched as the mountainside, your mountainside, was converted into a cloud of smoke. Nine thousand acres of smoke, to be exact. A column rising 10,000 feet into the air until its heat created its own thunderhead.

Working underneath that smoke, attempting in vain to put out the fire, your hubris quickly melts. You simply begin to stare, in awe. You cut some line and then you must stop. Across the canyon the junipers and oaks are feeding a wall of fire, the superheated trees torching into fifty-foot flames. The fire runs faster, disappearing into the smoke. You feel lucky, damn lucky, to be downslope and downwind of an inferno.

Above us we watched the smoke rise like an atomic blast until the heat formed thunderheads and we hoped that this newly-bred storm would drop rain . . . but the storm only sucked the wind faster, burning three miles of a mountainside in a matter of five, maybe six hours.

By dark we looked at a mountain of ash and flaming stumps, as if a new city of burning lights had been instantly born above us. Someone quoted President Bush—"A thousand points of light"—and we laughed, we stood up, we ignored our exhaustion and went back to work.

In the cool of night our job could begin again; with most of the fuel burnt out, the fire was safe enough to fight. I was leading a Park Service crew and a crew of Apaches, cutting line through thick manzanita that erupted unexpectedly into walls of flame.

Around midnight, lost in the dark, I led the crew to a small pass between two ridges. It seemed like the right direction until we felt the wind, as if a cave had opened directly from hell and the wind was gushing, flooding toward us. On both sides of us the ridge burst into flames and the panic helped us put one foot after the other as we scrambled up and down and around the rocks.

After each flare-up you would hear the Apaches, greeting each other across the dark canyon with wailing coyote screams. And as we walked out of the mountains they made calls to the dove and quail, singing at the blue-edged dawn like a crew of tricksters.

I walked with them quietly, wishing I knew their songs, just as all of us wish to learn the ancient mystery as we stare transfixed into a fire.

So is it hubris to call a mountain your own? Certainly there is a sense of power that a firefighter feels but that feeling is rarely hubris. Perhaps a fire separates the vital elements of a life from those pleasures which are merely convenient. You sweat against a fire's heat so that a simple bite of apple can revive your entire body. You spend two weeks away from your family so you can learn how much you love them, so you can return with a strength that will break the deadening stereotypes of home. You follow faint deer trails around the mountain in order to remember that truth must be kept a bit wild, both mysterious and simple, visible yet ungraspable.

The track of a mountain lion, a golden eagle circling, a fire burning a mountain (as the entire top of the Rincons have burned, on average, every seven years until humans began to interfere)—all these details can teach a style of truth that is not entirely logical. On the mountain the difference between thinking and feeling disappears as you walk and sweat and dream.

Here is a simple truth, a mountain's truth: We should keep our city from sprawling into the desert below the Rincons—not because the sprawl is in my backyard…but because it is in our backyard. And in our backyard there are eagles and lions and bears, and they can't withstand crowds. And someday you may need their company. You might feel the need to walk out of the human crowd and into the fierce and burning privacy of wilderness.

3. The Heart of a Bug

The night after I opened Manning Cabin for the season I squashed a scorpion as it walked across the floor. I don't normally kill bugs but this cabin is small and isolated, a nine-mile hike to a road, an hour's drive to a hospital. Outside, crawling underneath a rotting log, the scorpion would have posed no threat. But inside, crawling across old linoleum, the scorpion seemed too foreign, too dangerous.

A squashed scorpion looks exactly like a live scorpion, only flatter. I poked it, making sure it was dead, and then I threw it into the wood stove, into the fire which had woken the scorpion in the first place.

We have all squashed bugs and I would have forgotten this scorpion except for what I saw a few days later. I was hiking down the mountain, back into the desert heat. I stopped where I always stop: across from a world-record saguaro named Old Granddad. Someone has counted its arms but I prefer to guess, as if this cactus were one of those jars of uncountable jellybeans. Each season the cactus appears to grow; this year, sitting on the rock, I upped my guess to 65 arms.

When I stood up I saw the bugs, crawling all over my rock. They were true bugs (you can tell from their long snout), about the size of your little fingernail, black with a bright red diamond on their backs. I looked closer. Inside each of the diamonds I saw something moving—bubbles of red fluid, moving in and out of the diamond. It was impossible not to imagine a human metaphor: I was looking into the open heart of a bug.

Four days later, as I was walking back to work, I stopped at the rock. The bugs were there, sucking something off the rock with their snouts, but the red diamonds were smaller, their shells had hardened. Their hearts were closed.

When I walk up this mountain I leave so much behind. My wife is patient but our daughter isn't; she's old enough to miss me but too young to understand. And how do you explain—to a two-year-old, to anyone—the strange lessons that can be learned from the eternal and frightening and inhuman world of a mountain.

Walking up the mountain, my heart pulsing, I remembered the scorpion, and the heart of a bug, and soon I began to feel something inside me: I imagined my own heart, opening. I could see the beautiful blood, bubbling with the power of a geyser.

Two years later Old Granddad began to die, one arm after another falling to the ground and rotting into fertilizer.

4. The Bears

I might have forgotten the scorpion and the bug-hearts if our garbage bears hadn't returned on Memorial Day weekend. We have two, a sow and her cub, transplanted from the Catalinas where they grew up on garbage. I'd scared off one bear in the afternoon; the smaller bear returned at 3 a.m. because we'd left a pack hanging outside the cabin. The bear got an apple before I scared it away, throwing rocks at two tiny blue eyes glowing in the beam of my flashlight.

Afterwards I couldn't sleep. My heart was pounding with adrenaline and the pounding reminded me of the bugs, their frightening hearts.

I was almost asleep when I heard the bear, pacing outside my tent. When I sat up the pacing stopped: I'd been listening to my own heart, echoing inside my sleeping bag. The bear never returned. Instead, from far up the mountain, I heard the soft hooting of an owl, a Mexican spotted owl.

5. Theories of Relativity

While walking up or down or around a mountain there is a chance, what with the sun and the repetition of your pace, that your brain might calcify or dehydrate. But it is very dangerous to fall into such dullardness. More likely, your mind will wander, exploring its crevices and focusing into a wild brilliance, fueled by the rhythm of your feet. You develop theories to explain why the sky is blue, since you've forgotten the scientific reason you learned in junior high. You become a great thinker, thanks to the pounding of feet, the aching of lungs. Your mind becomes a lens that doubles as a source of distraction.

There has arisen, among the fire crew, a new theory of relativity. It is known as the theory of long and short miles. All miles may be physically equal but the eighth mile, uphill, on a nine-mile hike is a long mile; the ninth mile, so near to the cabin, is often a shorter mile. All miles downhill are short, unless you are walking down into 110 degree heat.

The corollary of this theory is known as "smelling the corral," based upon the mule who speeds up as he comes closer to the smell and memory of the hay-barn. The last mile is always the fastest. I hop down the steep drop-offs in the trail, my arms flapping for balance; sometimes the whole crew runs at such a long, low, and arm-swinging pace that we could be mistaken for a herd of comedians, imitating Groucho Marx.

While walking, lost in thought, I have jumped straight in the air because of gopher snakes, cicadas, grasshoppers, grass snakes, small lizards, a gila monster, and a number of quietly buzzing rattlesnakes. From the false-frights and near-misses I have developed the theory that I will not be killed by a rattlesnake. Using the same data, my friend John (the mountain's cynic) has developed a theory that rattlesnakes are annoyed by the first hiker so they'll bite the second one.

I trust my theory but I can think better when hiking alone. So always, for whatever reason, I walk ahead of the others.

Sometimes, to beat the heat, we've learned to walk up the mountain at night, and if you walk alone, with your mind wandering, we've learned that you will be more frightened by silence than by a constant rustling of moths and crickets and the chorus of whippoorwills.

There is a lesson in all these theories. We are humans, trained to seek meaning and metaphor as a way of coping with our imminent death. And so, to feed our metaphors, there are times—in the dark of night or the greater darkness of a troubled soul—when you desperately need the particular: you feel the trail so hard and familiar underneath your feet, you note the moment when you first smell the cool resin aroma of the pines. The repetition of particulars allows you to escape your own smallness—and there, outside of yourself, you can discover something entirely new. You dream that you've seen inside the open heart of a bug. You listen to your own heart and hear the pacing of a bear.

6. The Edge

A week after some 500 firefighters had controlled the Chiva Fire we were still mopping up the burning stumps. The old spreading trunks of juniper burn the longest, for weeks; even if you believe that fire is a vital part of this environment it is sad to see them dying or dead. But everywhere we walked a pink fungus was growing on the ash and grass was sprouting. Bluebirds were scavenging bugs and zone-tailed hawks were soaring in perfect mimicry of a vulture.

One afternoon two of us walked to the edge of a cliff. Every edge of the fire had been bombed with slurry, which is red and very slippery. My partner reached the rocks and his feet slipped out from under his body…he hit the rock and began sliding…I reached for him but he was too far, too far from my hand . . . and he would have died except a person's butt is perfectly adapted as a brake: he stopped on the edge, two hundred feet above a burned forest.

I sat next to him, carefully. As we talked about luck we looked down from the cliff: we saw the hills so naked and black, we saw huge dust-devils carrying black ash into the sky, and I imagined his body so far below, as I am sure he was imagining his own body falling.

On a fire you learn to trust your luck they way you trust your feet—mostly because the job is always testing the sturdiness of your feet and the resiliency of your luck. When you pass these tests you become a witness and the wildfire teaches how death can become life: the Phoenix must burn before it is reborn from its ashes. But as you learn to accept a huge impersonal death you also remember to watch your footing as you circle the edge.

I've often seen deer standing around the flames. They appear curious and they must know that soon the grazing will be delicious. This is the explanation some archeologists use when they claim that fire was the first tool of humans: we burned the grass in order to attract the grazing beasts. But today we stare for more complicated reasons—it ignites a wild past within our brains and we face a memory, so deeply lodged, of some evolutionary hell that we are escaping, day after day.

7. A Metaphor of Fire

I have another theory that an ecosystem and a civilization, when overly mature, must burn away the pine litter and duff and dead logs that clog their systems. Looking down from Spud Rock, I see that the land burned by the Chiva Fire appears naked, the hills too distinct where elsewhere they are buffered by brush or trees. The hills look as if they've been bulldozed; they roll so smooth, like hills of snow, and you can see every small wash, as if they are arteries draining into small canyons, into one big canyon. Below, from so far away, the land seems dead, just like we've been warned by Smokey the Bear.

But when you walk the hills you see acres of flowers—purple verbena, sunflowers, white poppies. They are blooming beneath the black skeletons of trees but even some of these trees are alive. Like zombies, the oaks are resprouting from their roots.

I would like to imagine our civilization so well-adapted, accepting the trauma of change with a calm beauty and resourcefulness. But as we warm the globe and log off the trees and poison the water . . . as we pile the trash around our homes I can only imagine a fiery transformation.

Wilderness exists in order for such wildness to survive. An ecosystem's experiments—from a hawk eating a vole to a climate's cyclic fires to our own human wildness—all require a landscape free of constructed rules and constructed houses.

If we need wilderness then we also need fire, simply to remind us of the power in wilderness. And if we need fire, then we also need firefighters in the wilderness. To claim one's own profession as a model of behavior is dangerously self-congratulatory. But I would argue that as we face the panic of this ecological and cultural millennium we might stand like firefighters, diligent and observant, tough and funny, fighting the fires we've brought on ourselves as we try to slowly return a forest to its natural ways. In our flame-retardant Nomex we might face our panic, and come to understand the need for fire, and learn when to run from our human conceits.

Our old ways will burn and the grass will come up greener. The deer will stare over our shoulders. And we'll listen for thunder, wait for the rains to fall and put out the fires…for this year at least, the coals sputtering in the rain even as the grass begins to sprout into the fuel for next year's fire.

 

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