In the belly of the beast

I know what it’s like, to feel the heat from tinder-dry brush and trees when they erupt in red and orange flames, making it look like there’s no way out, making the heart beat quick and the feet beg to fly.

None of the forest fires I fought, in the years I spent in a little hamlet 90 miles north of New York City as a volunteer company member, reached the status of the monster wildfire event in Arizona that claimed the lives of 19 firefighters Sunday.

And in no way do I wish to suggest that I have anything in common with these heroes, me being the guy who mostly makes a living in air conditioning writing about the work other people do.

But what the experience does give me is the knowledge of how great their sacrifices are, not to mention what is happening right now for their families.

They cope with the knowledge that this hell on earth now spans 9,000 acres, and that their loved ones died doing battle with the Devil himself, with his brush-fed spawn, and that a simple shift in wind was enough to make this horrible thing happen.

It was a much smaller fire that we encountered in a wooded area in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, 30 years ago, with Indian tanks – water in metal canisters with hoses attached – on our backs and rakes or hoes in our hands.

At this one fire a park ranger, who was supervising, backfired the blaze, meaning he set fire to trees that were nearby, knowing that fire would not visit what is already burned. But the wind did its will, and the backfire effort, while laudable, was futile and made things worse. It’s that kind of decision which comes with firefighting. You have seconds to decide, you have a lifetime to regret.

We made it out OK. But that wasn’t the case for 13 firefighters who died in the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 in Montana’s Helena National Forest.

They had parachuted into the blaze to fight it, but found themselves surrounded. The sole survivor, Wagner Dodge, is remembered in a song written by Richard Keelaghan, who recounts Dodge’s backfiring effort and the scoffing of the others at the time.

“13 stations of the cross to mark their fall” is one of the stanzas in Keelaghan’s song, called “Cold Missouri Water,” which you should look up on YouTube. A lot of people including Richard Shindell have done great covers of it.

We are unfortunately as people too dependent on numbers to mark how tragic an event might be. It was 19 firefighters in Arizona, the 13 at Mann Gulch, and so many others of lesser numbers in so many places.

Which brings us to the men and women who might be sitting around right now a block from where you read this, maybe grabbing some food, maybe training for the next time the alarm goes off.

Each and every one of them, like those lost this past week, are heroes, because you don’t have to die to become one. You just have to be the one who runs into a place from which everyone else is running out.

That’s certainly enough for me.

We have placed a great deal of emphasis on the heroics that are involved in fighting human enemies, and I think sometimes we forget that fire and other aspects of nature can be our enemies to, and that those who protect us are always on guard even when we aren’t thinking about it.

So I’m going to pray, and listen to Keelaghan’s song, and think of the heroes. I invite you to do the same.

Just take a few moments to remember those willing to walk into the belly of the beast. The next time I see a few, maybe buying some groceries at Rouses, as I did not so long ago, I’ll remember to say thank you for all they do.