After the recent flurry — the enormous flurry — of wind-fed fires in the western states, this seemed like a good film to watch.
It’s a documentary that was filmed in 2018 about a team of 20 firefighters trained in Grants Pass, Ore., by Grayback Forestry and their team’s work in that year’s fire season.
While my understanding was that many firefighters are college students earning money during summer breaks, this group is different. (It is possible that the lengthening dry season in the west, from May into October or November, means that students can’t miss that much of a school year, or at least could not in 2018.)
The novice firefighters are a mixed bunch, including several with records and previous substance abuse issues. Several smoke cigarettes. But as a group, they are willing to do hard work, and they seem drawn by the opportunity to do work that is meaningful.
After a week of fairly intense training, they are sent out as needed to clear land after fires and, finally, to fight a major fire outside Monterey, Calif.
If you think you know how fires are put out, this movie will teach you a good bit, starting with, “Never carry your pulaski on your shoulder.”
(A pulaski is a short-handled combination of an axe and a hoe that is used by firefighters to clear vegetation and cut trees to establish fire breaks. Fire breaks are lines of cleared soil to frustrate the spread of fires by depriving those fires of fuel.)
In one amusing adventure the group use their pulaskis to check and clear hot spots after the suppression of a fire presumably set by an angry marijuana farmer on a competitor’s plantings in public forest land; this is in the area around Eureka, part of Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, a region where the biggest industry has been growing pot since long before the state legalized the stuff. My impression is that, even after legalization, most of the business operates off the books.
The movie is short, and its characters are sincere. It will benefit us all, not least in the west, if we begin to consider what is at stake as seasonal rains decline and vegetation dries and becomes more vulnerable to any strike of lightning or crazed firebug.
The movie is not long and, while centered more on the personalities of the individual crew, does provide a nice introduction to the growing business of controlling burns in western wildlands.
Books of Note
If you have even the remotest interest in fighting wildfires, you should read Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean, a literature professor at the University of Chicago who returned to Montana, where he was raised and started writing his own books.
After the first, the fine novella, A River Runs through It, Maclean took as his subject the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949. In that fire, 13 smoke jumpers — elites in the fire-fighting community — were dropped on the ground and died within a couple hours, chased up a steep hillside by a wind-driven fire that they could not escape. Maclean studied the men, visited the site and clamored up the same hillside to research exactly what had happened and how.
Maclean died in 1990, apparently leaving behind an early draft that was edited by his son and his publisher, the University of Chicago Press, and released in 1992. The book observes improvements in firefighting techniques between Mann Gulch and the days of Maclean’s writing. It also is a deeply moving story about the smoke jumpers themselves, respectful of them and ennobling their efforts.
On the 25th anniversary of Maclean’s book, another edition was published with a forward by Tim Egan, who wrote 2009’s The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, a recounting of the hot, dry summer in 1910 that culminated in August in a then-unthinkable fire that burned three million acres across parts of Washington, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia and that left 87 persons dead. The book also places in context the expansion of the US Forest Service after the event.
Meanwhile, John N. Maclean, son of Norman, gave up his editing job at the Chicago Tribune and began investigating another deadly fire. This led to 2009’s Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire. Fourteen firefighters died in that 1994 fire on Colorado’s Storm King mountain. Three were smoke jumpers and nine came from a 20-member crew called the Prineville Hotshots, another Oregon team like the Graybar Forestry group that is the subject of this week’s movie.
The younger Maclean has kept at it, publishing other books on firefighting and management of firefighting efforts. He discusses these regularly on his blog.