[Marxism] Fire

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at hunterbear.org
Mon Aug 20 17:03:54 MDT 2007

Although the following attached piece was written a few years ago, we have had a purely terrible brush and forest fire season in this Intermountain region. [The Southwest has been somewhat spared this time around.] From late spring virtually to the present, Idaho and Utah and Montana and environs have had varying degrees of drought [especially hereabouts] and so many fires [caused by humans and "dry lightning"] that, coupled with various felony crimes, most of our local news has focused on those topics only. We are somewhat safe where we live but a friend of Eldri's, living close to Pocatello, had to evacuate when a fire came within fifty feet of her home -- the inferno was halted at that point.] Now we are getting some rain, accompanied by hard lightning which can hit anywhere fairly "high", often in areas tough to easily reach, and can quickly ignite more fires.
I was sixteen when I fought my first forest fire just west of my home town of Flagstaff, Arizona. A primary attraction of the upper western edge of town was Lowell Observatory which, at that altitude of over 7,000 feet, specialized in scrutiny of Mars. Both it and the whole town were in serious danger. A bit more on my baptism coming up. [The second fire I fought was soon thereafter, in a very remote area far north of town, much larger. It is that one where, after several days and nights of work, the fire became ostensibly -- ostensibly -- "contained" and I was shifted to cooking work ["bull cook"] in the large fire camp. It was there that, as the great fire broke out of its brief confinement, that the events discussed graphically in my later much published short story, "The Destroyers," transpired -- virulent anti-Black hatred in the context of very rapidly approaching Hell.]
But back to the first fire. Attracted by the challenge and one dollar an hour, a buddy and I, claiming the old age of 18, signed up together at the Coconino National Forest fire control center on the edge of town -- but were split into different outgoing crews. I rode to the Fire War in the back of a bouncing truck, accompanied by World War Two vets who swapped stories centered on how remiscent all of this was of military combat. Once at our destination, a foreman handed us each a Kordick [large rake/hoe] and a full canteen. "Keep your fire-lines wide and keep the Goddamned thing from spreading," he barked. 
That was the sole instructional training we received. [In time, recalling that, I recognized the solidity in the veterans' comment often given young men facing imminent and dangerous challenges in other settings: "You won't learn anything from me that you won't learn there after ten minutes." I found myself working with a friendly young Latvian immigrant, only a little older than I, who was slightly crippled. He gave his name as Erik but knew no English. Later the two of us were joined by Loren, a 20 year old cowboy from the Prescott, Arizona region who was passing through town and felt obliged to lend his efforts. Although some years later, the Forest Service required fighters to wear hard-hat helmets, Loren and I had widebrimmed Stetsons which were useful in shielding us from burning embers and, placed over our faces when needed, helped somewhat on the often choking smoke. Erik had no hat of any kind but Loren and I shared ours with him. We worked an 18 hour shift; then, after four hours of sleep and some food, went back for another. The town and the observatory were saved -- barely. 
And my fire career was launched. I still have an old, brown Stetson with the charred evidence of partially burned holes. As I followed my Star, there were guys who were killed and others injured in varying degrees -- usually seriously -- but I was lucky. I did almost burn up a couple of times, however -- once in 1956 on a very large fire in the pine forests well to the south of Winslow, Arizona. There, working steadily along, I was deserted by a panicky fire crew and its foreman and barely made it through the flaming trees to relative safety.
Cowboying and coal mining -- and mining in general -- are all innately and extremely dangerous. Anyone with any savvy at all about brush and forest fire control will put that 'way up high with those. When I started in 1950, at sixteen [ostensibly eighteen], the horror of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in the Helena National Forest, Montana, hovered over the entire Mountain West. There, thirteen young men died -- essentially close together. Norman Maclean, a fine writer and a great Westerner, wrote a hell of a good book about that colossal tragedy, "Young Men and Fire." My son, John, gave it to me on my birthday, 1993.
Strongly recommended. H.
Written as Hell rips through the White Mountain country -- bearing down on the small towns I remember well.
I have a few reasonably salient thoughts on the Western forest fire situation which I'll get to in a moment or so. I know about some things -- and forest fires are high on that list.

It's personally extremely hard for me to view, even via cushioned television, the massive forest fire destruction now underway in much of the drought-tortured West -- including my native Northern Arizona. I certainly know about forest fires. I wasn't too far at all into my teens when I often began claiming that I was 18 -- and the legal age to fight forest fires. The US Forest Service in those days was casual and informal and, even though various officials knew full well how old I really was [some were the fathers of friends of mine], no sweat whatsoever. I was a big, tough and committed kid and that was enough. In that epoch I fought many forest fires and, eventually, was promoted into very important and isolated mountain-top fire lookout/radio work when I was still 17. And occasionally, in the ensuing years of full adulthood, I fought forest fires as a volunteer at various points. I'm good with an axe or a shovel, a Pulaski [axe/hoe], a McLeod or Kordick [hoe/rake] -- or a crosscut or a chain-saw. I know back-fire burning. And I know dynamite. It's been awhile -- but, living where we do right now in Southeastern Idaho -- we're always alert this time of year. 

But what's going on in Northeast Central Arizona -- around Heber and Lakeside and Show Low and other little towns, in the White Mountain country -- is the worst by far and away that any living person has seen in that region. There has never been anything like this: at this point [Sunday afternoon], over 300,000 acres have burned, around 30,000 people have been forced from their homes in a half-dozen towns, and there's no simply no end in sight. Not too many years ago, my parents and a brother owned land in the Lakeside region and I had nieces and nephews near Show Low. I certainly have friends right there, right now.

If there's any rainy season in the future of this hideous Southwestern drought, it's still several weeks off -- and it'll be preceded by much "dry lightning" which always plays fire hell in the woods during these periods.

It takes literally hundreds of years for cedars and junipers and pinon pines and the much bigger Ponderosa [Yellow] pines to grow to maturity in the always dry Southwest. Takes only a minute to destroy one -- leaving simply a burned out, black shaft. 

I've heard, since I was a child, the on-target talk about "too damn many people" coming into the West. That's true -- but inevitable. And some [certainly not all for sure] big city types -- whatever the longevity of their Western residence -- are careless, ignorant people. And it's also true, to an extent, that the forests long ago became over-protected from every fire to the point that fires often become intense and high-reaching and super-destructive in the resultant, comparatively heavy underbrush. And this means that incredibly fast-moving tree-top to tree-top crown fires are common -- in contrast to the very, very old days when natural and simple and minimal ground fires simply cleaned and cleared on a regular basis without destroying any trees.

Arm-chair strategizing in a horrific situation like this is usually very questionable. But I do have these few nagging thoughts based on a good deal of fire fighting experience.

In the old days -- back when I was always ostensibly 18 -- we were all highly skilled in the basic use of fire tools. With the exception of an occasional power-wagon water-tank vehicle when there was at least a trace of a road, we worked only with those tools. We traveled in rough and often very remote country -- quick acting ground troops who generally moved on heavily booted feet but sometimes by horse or mule, often ate military combat rations, drank from simple canteens. If there were field radios, they were walkie-talkies. There were bulldozers in some places -- but the only aircraft involved were very small planes for spotting and directing purposes. [Smoke jumpers, much found even back then in Montana and Idaho and the drier side of the Pacific Northwest generally, were not utilized in our Southwest.]

Eventually, right around the end of the '50s, heavy tanker planes carrying borate solution and related things -- and, in the Southwest, based at Silver City, N.M. -- came into vogue. And sometimes dumping chemicals appeared to replace the primary, quick initial reliance on fast-moving "professional" ground crews. 

At around this time, the Forest Service became much more internally formalized. An initial indication was the insistence on a recruit really being 18. Then, it became mandatory that one could no longer wear his Stetson or whatever other wide-brimmed Western hat on a fire -- but had to wear a fairly heavy safety helmet. But there were far heavier problems developing than those:

Even though the USFS District Rangers always had college degrees in forestry, most Forest Service personnel had had no college at all -- and many still haven't. The District Rangers [and the just out of forestry college Assistant District Rangers], recognizing the value of hard-fought experience, didn't throw their weight around. They knew how to listen.

In an old-time fire situation, it wasn't unusual for the Fire Boss to be a veteran who'd traveled thousands of miles of fire-lines but who'd never set foot inside a college of any kind. One of the great Fire Legends in the Southwest was a Flagstaff man who had come West on Highway 66 as a kid during the Depression, worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps -- and eventually became Fire Dispatcher for the Coconino National Forest. From him I learned much indeed -- and so did the very great many others who were willing to listen.

But by the end of the '50s, the newly emerging Assistant District Rangers in an increasingly formalized USFS -- who eventually became District Rangers -- began to throw their weight around long before they knew where it ought to be aimed and landing. They often missed, there were heavy mess-ups, and much ill-will between these shave-tails and the veterans. But, given the new ethos of form and structure, the former prevailed.

And, even as that continued and became more and more institutionalized, there was another related trend: chain-of-command bureaucratization. In the Old Days, people weren't afraid to make quick, strategic decisions. A Fire Boss didn't feel obliged to clear a basic decision -- e.g., wide-spread back-firing -- with officials based some distance away. Sector bosses and crew bosses often made quick decisions on their own -- as did basic front-line troopers on the fire line itself. There was solidarity and cohesion -- but not at the expense of individual intuition and logic. 

Do any of these negative strains -- those that emerged forty or so years ago and are now securely embedded in USFS agency culture -- at all responsible for the colossal and truly Hellish Arizona catastrophe that's sweeping across the White Mountains and environs?

All I can say is this: It's been a prolonged period of far-flung drought in that entire region -- maybe even unprecedented. But there've been droughts before that have been pretty bad.

And the West has had too many people in it for a long time.

And the underbrush hasn't been piling up at any faster a rate than it has since the beginning of the 20th Century.

And there were bad fires -- and big bad ones -- in My Time. But not fires on the scope of these tremendous monsters. The Woods have not changed. Nor has the nature of Fire. 

 But some things obviously have.

Yours, Hunter Gray [Hunter Bear]

Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk 
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´ 
and Ohkwari' 

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