The cliffs are aflame and the air smells sour and the sound is like water spitting loud in a hot frying pan. The manzanita is burning. The scrub oak is burning. Black chunks of stump plummet out to the road, live orange flame still flickering off the wood. Thirty thousand acres are burning, or burned. The land was jagged California forest, old brush out in the shimmering end-of-summer heat, stacked, dry, waiting. The lightning came last Thursday, two strikes, as the evening rush hour gathered down in Pasadena. The air turned the color of dirty cream and the Angeles National Forest went up in flames.
"New boots," mutters the squad leader from Davis. Her name is Mary Lou Sherman. She is a 28-year-old house painter and on-call firefighter, and she is at this moment brandishing an unfolded Swiss army knife at an angry white blister on the ball of her right foot. The new boots are beside her, in the dirt on the side of the road. She has soot smudged down either side of her nose, striped suspenders, dirt under her fingernails, brown hair curling out from under her blue hardhat, thin gold loop earrings, and a lime green toothbrush poking out of the pocket of her No-mex high visibility yellow fire shirt.
Sherman smiles, "You never know when you'll have a chance to brush your teeth," she says.
She has slept, by her calculations, about seven hours in the last four days. She slept 45 minutes yesterday, but the fire burned the firefighters out of camp. "Zombieland," Sherman says. She has been digging fire lines, clearing brush away in bare paths that might starve the fire into submission; her shovel is on the ground by her shoes. At home, in the Davis house, she dreams about flames in the forest.
Just down the road, Joel Burcher, aspiring jazz trumpeter and lead pulaski for the Chilao Hotshots, leans on his pulaski and squints up at the flames. A pulaski is a double-bladed hoe, named for the forester who invented it. Hotshots are the firefighting elite, the tight little crews that live together and train together and storm bad forest fires with a kind of buoyant machismo.
Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit. If you ain't from Chilao, you ain't worth a s-- -.
Burcher, voice matter-of-fact: "There was flames above us and flames below us, it looked kind of critical, we just ran down this road, there was rocks coming down, smoke below us, smoke above us, we just ran. It was totally dangerous but that was the only way out." Laughs. "Man. What else is happening? I carry five quarts of water. I'd say these packs weight at least 45 pounds. And that's what we have to swing a shovel with."
The calls often come in the night: The loud jangle in the darkness, the urgent voice on the other end of the phone, the swift rush of adrenalin for the students, or farmers, or full-time foresters who fight major forest fires.
They are an altogether different collection from the men pressed quickly into service 15 or 20 years ago. Back then it was anybody who could pick up a shovel or an axe on a moment's notice.
"They'd go down to Skid Row, go to the unemployment office, say 'Hey, we've got a fire, we need some help,'" says fire information officer Jack Darnall, maneuvering a rented blue Camaro up toward the southern boundary of the Angeles fire. Now they are mostly young, Darnall says, physically tough men and women, trained by the Forest Service to understand fire and anticipate its behavior. They are paid by the hour -- $5 and up, 12- to 20-hour days, free meals and a cot to collapse on, no overtime pay for part-timers.
The money is good -- not great, they will grunt after 17 hours spent swinging a pulaski at burning shrubs, with searing eyes and blistered hands and poison oak up both arms -- but steady enough to clear $400 a week in a bad fire. Kathy Wheelock, a 21-year-old U.C.-Davis student who works in Sherman's crew, figures this fire will be the one to cinch up her Europe trip.
There is an elegant clarity to the work: "They feel protective of the natural land base," Darnall says, "and here comes fire, raping, ravaging, and pillaging . . . it's so clear cut, you know. There's the enemy. And in an increasingly complex world, especially with the federal bureaucracy and the federal maze, it's simple."
And the danger, for a certain sort of tenacious daredevil, makes the blood sing. Sweet pounding of the heart, the good battle: "A lot of these guys, when they work a 16-hour shift, they don't even realize it," one firefighter says, "because the time goes by so fast."
The Redding Hotshots are said to be like that. They are somewhere on the line right now, nobody knows exactly where. "Probably down in some smoky ravine or something, that's what they're like," a resting firefighter says softly. 'You have your Hotshots from Stanislaus, from Oak Grove, from Texas Canyon; you have Los Prietos, 'the black ones,' with their pseudo-Latin motto that reads Incendi Propeliatores. But the word on the Redding boys is that they know just about every kind of fire: how desert fires flash fast and sudden across the grasses; how a fire works slow and intense through a lodge pole forest, each thick old tree holding heat as it burns; how dry, tangled hillside chapparal will trap a firefighter as easily as it feeds the flames."
"They're the original Hotshots," Darnall says.
The calls for help go out as the fire gets worse: first to regional crews, then statewide, and finally to Bifsie -- Boise Interagency Fire Control Center in Idaho. The Angeles Foresters called Bifsie four days ago, as the fire roared up dry hillsides and flung burning chunks of wood across firefighters' newly-cleared lines; the out-of-staters began coming over the weekend, have arrived by now from 28 states, and are still coming. There is a winter-time ski lift operator from New Mexico and a forester from Tennessee and a Hotshot crew from Payson, Ariz.
They descend on a summer baseball field turned within hours into what looks at first glance like a massive armed camp: 3,000 cots, 38 portable toilets, two full mobile kitchens, two 40-foot refrigerated trucks, helicopters overhead, great pickups and buses spitting dust and gravel as they roll in and out.
And as far as the eye can see, spreadeagled in the sun on olive cots, there are the bodies of sleeping firefighters -- some naked to the waist, some too tired even to take off their filthy T-shirts.
"When you feel like you're going to pass out, you walk around in circles," Burcher says, standing watch on the road by the burning cliff. "I could fall asleep standing up right now. But I can't go to sleep. If it goes over the side, we've wasted the whole night." The flames above him are backfire, deliberately set with small flares so the wildfire will have nothing to burn when it reaches these cliffs. Every so often a falre soars up, brilliant magenta -- poom . And a new bush bursts into flame.
"I was born around fire," Burcher says. Palmdale, hot and dry, in southern California. "I was assisting in fires since the time I was 10, 11 years old. We used to take Clorox bottles with water, and go out and mop up, try to save the trees . . . I'm a woodsman all the way, don't like the city, don't like the traffic, all the noise. Like the soltitude, or however the word is."
And likes the firefighting, "I love it. What can I say? It's adrenalin!" Between fires he cooks breakfast, works out (six miles a day, 25 pushups, 10 pullups, jumping jacks) and plays jazz trumpet out into the forest canyon. He is not wearing his emblems just now.
The emblem of the Chilao Hotshots is a gorilla, with a chainsaw in one hand and a shovel in the other, backed by flame. "Mongo," "Gross Pig," "Stretch," "Howdy Doody" -- all the Chilao Hotshots wear the emblem.
Burcher is carrying as he stands heavily on one foot with the night's smoke smeared over his face, a can of tuna, a can of olives ("should have some peaches and stuff like that but I already ate 'em"), an extra pair of socks (he wears two pairs), a 12-inch file for sharpening his pulaski, a head lamp, and a folding aluminum fire shelter. He is to hide inside the shelter if he cannot get out of the flames. He has never used it, but knows that he may. A while ago he watched six men dive head first off a 45-foot slope to escape a fire ravaging a cliff.
The men survived, but they were burned -- second and third degree. Burcher says they are all back on the job. "It's their life, you know," he says. "This is their job. I'm really proud to be in the forest service. In the town I'm from, it's a one high school town, I see all my friends and stuff. I tell them what I do for a living. Makes me feel good. They really respect it."
"It's a love-hat relationship," says Mary Lou Sherman, pressing an adhesive gauze around one of her blisters. "You hate being out here this long with sleep, but you love being out here too . . . I see parts of California I would never have seen . . . and you don't have to ask why you're doing something most of the time."
Sherman joined three years ago and took her training with a dubious male crew supervisor, who, she is convinced, worked their crew extra distances to see whether the women would crumple. They did not. The Davis crew is now 10 women and nine men, mostly students, and all of them have learned to be good-natured enough to ignore the occasional leering from all male crews. It is almost harder on the Davis men: Do you share your women? You guys must have a great time on the fire line, heh heh. "Like we're here to entertain them or something," Sherman says.
"I was pretty pessimistic about the girls when we first started," says Chuk Ford, a Davis international relations student, watching Sherman nurse her foot.
"Women!" cries one of the women.
"We're all girls and boys until we're 94 years old," says Ford. General laughter. The crew is exhausted and punchy. The women eat sandwiches and fruit pie, hair matted under their helmets. Ford looks down at them, nods his head toward the smoldering cliffs, and says quietly, "It's obvious. We're helping. That's ugly. And that -- "he nods toward the canyon, still huge and quiet and safe from the flames -- "that's kind of nice."