“Real names, please. What are resource goals?”
“Thinning, prescribed fire implementation, habitat improvement, trail construction projects … stuff like that. Sometimes we go to the schools and do … you know … Smokey Bear stuff.”
I snickered. “Thanks for that,” I said, scribbling on my notepad. “I’d like to get a picture of you in the suit at some point.” He frowned, and I nudged him. “You’re a peach for showing me around and an angel for taking me to see the superintendent.”
“So, how many hours do you work on average?”
Tyler crossed his arms. “We’re doing this now?”
I looked up at him from my notepad. “Yeah?”
“It depends on if it’s fire season or downtime. If we’re fighting a fire, we just sleep, eat, and work. We can work up to eighteen-hour days, but working thirty-two hours a stretch isn’t uncommon. Up to fourteen-day stretches.”
“Holy shit,” I said under my breath.
“Used to be twenty-one. Then we get our required days off—a forty-eight hour R & R—and then we’re back out. We travel all over … wherever they need us. Even Alaska, Canada, and Mexico.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“I can’t shut up and answer…” He trailed off, recoiling from my glare. “We’re on our third season. We were ground crew before that.”
“We?” I said, looking up at him again.
“Basically,” he answered matter-of-factly, and I imagined him doing the same in interviews as well.
I scribbled a few sentences, and then touched the pen to my lip. “I don’t see a lot of older guys on your crew. Why is that?”
“You won’t see many at all. Wildfire fighting is brutal. If you do it more than five or six seasons, you start seeing some lingering physical issues. The superintendent goes on site, but he’s basically restricted to a desk because of his back, knee, and shoulder surgeries.”
“Nothing. You’ve mentioned something about the community. What else do you guys do?”
“You mean community outreach? During downtime we have AM and PM physical training built in to the schedule, patrolling, drills, chainsaw work, fence building, signage…”
I jotted down his answers while he spoke, hoping Jojo could somehow produce a story from my random scribbles.
“Not during fire season. I took today off to get some shit done.”
“Do you need to…” I said, gesturing to the door.
“You don’t want to leave me alone with these guys, do you?”
“What will you do when you leave until you come back? What does a hotshot do on his day off?”
Tyler’s brows pulled in, and he stared at me, confused. “What do you mean?”
“You’re leaving, right? You don’t live here, do you?”
“No, I have an apartment with my brother here in Estes Park. We typically only stay at the station when we’re on shift, but yeah … you’re here, so I’m here. I cleared you with the superintendent, so you’re my responsibility.”
I wrinkled my nose at the thought.
“If the guys get called out, your plan is to ride along, right?”
“Then I’m staying. They’ll be busy. They won’t have time to babysit you.”
“I went to kindergarten. I can follow directions.”
“I’m not arguing with you. This is how it’s going to be.”
“What about when you’re on shift?”
“Oh, so they won’t have time to babysit me, but you will?”
“Jojo wanted you to follow us around, right? This is how it’s done when we have journalists shadow. Someone has to make sure you don’t get hurt.”
“You can’t be serious. I’m assigned to you, and you’re assigned to me? I was just beginning to feel cool.”
“I’m not leaving you alone. It’s dangerous, Ellie.”
I suddenly felt heavy, and then panicked as bitter bile rose in my throat.
“I was just kidding. Are you all right? You look a little green,” Tyler said.
“Bathroom’s down the hall, second door on the right.”
My stomach lurched, and I gagged, covering my mouth. I didn’t wait for it to happen again, sprinting to the bathroom just in time. Just as I bent over the toilet, I thought about my camera being dunked in toilet water and covered in vomit, but it was hovering over my right ear, held by the hotshot I loved to hate.
“Why am I so stupid?” I moaned, my voice echoing off the porcelain.
Tyler was holding my camera with one hand, my hair in the other.
“Is she okay?” one of the guys asked from the hall.
“She’s fine, Smitty. She’s caught that stomach bug going around,” Tyler said.
“What a bad ass,” Smitty said. “I was in bed for two days with that shit.”
I hurled again. Both men made the same sound, equally surprised and disgusted.
“I’m super excited to have an audience for this on my first day,” I said.
“Not humiliating at all,” I said, puking again.
“Whoa,” I said, taking a step back. I’d been on several house fires and car fires, and even a few grass fires my first week, but Tyler was right. Wildland fires were different.
Tyler kept eyes on everything around him while guiding me to a safer area. I was bundled in a base layer, thermal, fleece pullover, with oversized flame-retardant jacket and pants for a top layer, making it more than difficult for him to keep a grip on my arm. He was in a fire-resistant shirt and tan cargo pants, with maybe thermals underneath, wearing goggles, a gear bag, and a hardhat.
A line of Alpine hotshots—most of whom I’d just met two days before at the fire camp, but who Tyler loved, including his brother—in bright yellow jackets and blue hard hats were digging a line at the bottom of the hill. A symphony of their pulaskis and rhinos clanging against roots and branches bit through the constant drone of radio communication.
Tyler had brought me as close as he could, trying to help his crew while keeping an eye on me. We’d camped for two nights, and excluding any embers jumping the fire line, he predicted we would be packing up by nightfall. No one was more surprised than me that I wasn’t looking forward to it.
There were no engines with hoses or pumper trucks full of water. The hotshots fought fires with drip torches, shovels, and chain saws, digging trenches to pull everything out of the ground that could fuel the fire.