Jerry D. Mathes II
Slay the Dragon
I was a teacher at the Guard School for rookie firefighters held at a Methodist camp along the South Fork of the Boise River in the Soldier Mountains. The mountains were rugged and a mix between sagebrush and conifer forests as if the land couldn’t decide between being a high desert or a full on temperate forest. It rained and snowed on us, and the nights left a pastry glaze of frost everywhere. My six rookies met in front of my cabin where I had told them to assemble earlier. They gathered early, milling about and chatting. I waited inside until my watch read 1900 and walked out with my fire pack in hand. I set it down. Earlier I had wrapped the waist strap around its back and folded shoulder straps over the top, and clipped all the buckles. It formed a neat bundle with nothing loose to drag or get caught in doors of trucks or helicopters. I placed my hard hat on top.
“Make your gear look like mine and line it up behind it.”
After several times of me saying, “no that’s not right, it doesn’t look like mine,” they stopped and looked closer.
“The details,” I said. “Look at yours and then mine. See the pattern?”
When they got it right, I nodded. “If your gear is squared away, and I as a helicopter guy walk up looking to fly people to a fire, I’m choosing you and not the crew that looks like a yard sale. You fly first, and the other crew might not fly at all due to a change in plans. Who wants to fly?”
They all raised their hands.
I went over my expectations for the next few days. Do not be late. Do not sleep in class. Have all your equipment with you. I will teach you extra lessons before and after class. “Now what’s in your line gear?”
They emptied their bags on the ground and weren’t all outfitted correctly. I told them. “You’ll need a lighter in case you need to burn out a safety zone to save yourself. You’ll need fusees to burn out a safety zone to save yourself. You’ll need a compass to find your way and save yourself. You’ll need a pen and paper to write down the previous weather and fire behavior, write down current and forecasted weather and fire behavior, write down your orders and the frequencies for communication and latitudes and longitudes for destinations safe and unsafe as some of these will be to fires and not safety zones, write write write everything, it might save your life. Writing helps you focus and pay attention. Writing helps you remember what’s important and isn’t just a reference for you to look back on, which it is of course. You can’t memorize everything you need to know. You’ll need to have your Incident Response Pocket Guide to be able to reference those many things, especially the page on how to refuse assignments so you can save yourself. You’ll need enough food to last until morning if you get stuck out overnight, and for overnight a sweater and watch cap to keep warm if they don’t resupply you because people get forgotten, trucks and helicopters break down or a wilderness ranger decides now you are an intrusion and you are on your own. Never forget your yellow shirt, your hardhat, or your gloves—it has happened. You need a magnesium fire starter, a length of parachute cord, a headlamp with spare batteries, a knife, a bastard file, a first aid kit, more than a gallon of water, you need anything you can think that may save your life. Remember this is not the French Foreign Legion of March or Die. We march and survive. Take a book to read, as we aren’t barbarians. I have a book of poems in my line gear and while it has never saved me from a fire, it has saved my life. Never forget your fire shelter. There are many like it, but this one is yours. The shake and bake bag has saved hundreds of people from dying all the way back to the buffalo hide Lewis and Clark wrote about in 1804. A mother covered her son with a fresh skin and told him to stay until she returned. He waited under the dank, dark hide, and his life was saved. Your mother will not be able to cover you with a fire shelter. Have it handy and know how to use it. Remember your fire shelter is designed for one, but a young woman at Thirty-Mile fire took in two tourists and saved their lives. The old couple later sued the Forest Service because the road wasn’t officially closed, although they drove by several fire crews and engines, and past the fire burning on both sides of the river. Let that be a lesson to you: people ignore the obvious. Fire people cannot legally stop anyone from entering a fire area or order evacuations, but we can take them into our shelter, even if it causes us severe burns. We must look out for each other. The most important thing you possess to save your life is your mind. You are responsible to see the building clouds and feel the wind switch on your skin like the caress of a lover who has fallen out of love. At the end of the day we are responsible for each other. All the gear and checklists cannot save you without the trained and seasoned mind to wield them. You must learn to spot the breaks in the pattern of chaos. This starts now and will never end as long as you are on fire. The goal is that we all come back. You slay the dragon. The dragon does not slay you.
Jerry D. Mathes II is a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar alumnus. This excerpt is from his forthcoming memoir, Ahead of the Flaming Front, about his experiences fighting wildfires. He is the author of an essay collection Fever and Guts: A Symphony and The Journal West: Poems. He loves his two daughters very much.