I wasn’t scared of heights, but a strange combination of fear and exhilaration came over me as I looked down at the valley below. The wind was blowing chunks of my hair into my face, and I realized it was also blowing the fire toward the Alpine crew. Time slowed down as I stared at Tyler. We were stuck in a moment I’d never been in before, not skiing a summit, not on a wave runner off the beaches of Thailand, not hiking Machu Picchu. We were on top of the world, the only force between the fire and the houses I could see from the mountain we were standing on. Holding my camera, freezing, and a mile from flames that could burn me alive, I’d finally found what I didn’t know I was looking for.
“Back up, sweetheart,” Tyler said, reaching across my chest like my mother used to do when she’d slow down the car too fast.
I was nearly hanging over his arm, leaning forward, hungry to be closer, snapping shot after shot, devouring the adrenaline as fast as my body could produce it. It was better than any high I’d ever had.
The flames made a low roaring sound as they crawled over the dry brush and leafless trees like a line of soldiers pushing forward without fear. The walk to the fire site was a difficult trek. We’d driven almost two hours to the fire camp, and then hiked for nearly an hour through ice and snow, climbing steep inclines and through the aspens. My feet and face were numb before I even smelled smoke, but I’d forgotten about the cold hours ago, looking through the lens of my camera.
Taco ran up the hill, out of breath and drenched in sweat and dirt, stopping in front of Jubal to report. “Fuel break completed on the eastern edge.”
Smitty was behind him, panting and holding a drip torch in one hand, his pulaski in the other. Watts was holding a chain saw, his shoulders sagging. They looked equally exhausted and content, every one of them in their element and ready for their next order.
Jubal slapped him on the shoulder. “Good work.”
Tyler was supposed to have the day off, but that didn’t stop him from helping his team dig a two-foot-thick fire line. I watched him cut at the ground with the pulaski like it was nothing, directing the men around him as if a wildfire wasn’t burning the world less than a mile away.
Clicking through previous pictures, I noticed they were Tyler-heavy, but that didn’t stop me from zooming the lens and snapping another close-up of his sweaty, sooty profile against the setting sun. He was sort of beautiful—from every angle—and that made it hard for me to leave him out of a shot. The green pines stood waiting to be saved, and with the cool gray color of the smoldering smoke and the warm oranges of the fire on the horizon, tragedy made a beautiful backdrop.
“Helo’s coming in!” Jubal yelled, holding the radio to his ear. “Wind turned!”
“Up here there’s not. A fire makes its own weather. Farther out, we might not have wind at all, but where the fire’s burning, it’s sucking oxygen and can create thirty or forty mile per hour winds.”
More hotshots whom I hadn’t yet met had been called in. With chain saws in hand, a small group called sawyers was limbing trees to cut gaps in the canopy above, keeping the fire from hopping from one tree to another. Each sawyer had a partner called a swamper who gathered the cut limbs and bushes and threw them on the other side of the fire line.
The rest of the crew—the diggers—would work in a line, hacking away at the forest floor, creating a three-foot trench—a fire break down the middle of the saw line. The Alpine crew had been split into two groups of ten—sawyers, swampers, and diggers, and then some on lookout, one checking the weather, and the others down the way igniting a back burn. Even separated, they worked together seamlessly, half the time not saying a word. Jubal was communicating with the superintendent, and then barking those orders at the hotshots while elbow-deep in the dirt himself. They all worked for hours to create what they called fuel breaks, cutting and burning away any vegetation, covering miles bent over digging, sawing, all in an effort to starve the flames to death.
A distant thud thud thud drew closer, and soon a helicopter was zooming overhead. Just beyond a pillar of smoke, the helo released its load, and a purplish-red powder rained down.
“Slows it down. Buys us more time to dig.”
I swallowed, and Tyler touched my cheek with his gloved hand. “We’re okay.”
I nodded quickly, terrified and excited at the same time.
The hotshots barely took a second to notice the dump of slurry, and then continued hacking at the ground. I watched in awe, exhausted from just the hike to the fire site and the cold.
Tyler breathed out a laugh, and I turned to see him staring at me the way I looked at the fire. He didn’t look away; instead, one side of his mouth curled up. Even through the sweat and ash, his dimple appeared. In that moment, Tyler Maddox and his fires filled a hole in my soul I hadn’t known existed.
They worked past dark, the fire reduced to a galaxy of glowing orange embers along the hillside.
“All right,” Chief said to Jubal over the radio. “Time to call in the ground crew.”
He smiled. “The ground crew will mop up after us. They’ll pull together piles in the black and burn them out until the fire is cold. We’re done unless embers jump the fire line.”
The hotshots were already packing it in, making the long haul back to the vehicles. I walked with my camera in hand, making it easier to document the return hike of exhausted, ash-covered men trudging through the forest without a single person to thank them for saving countless miles of trees and homes. The public would never know the reality of what had happened here, or how hard the hotshots had worked to make sure no one would. The only evidence was the scorched earth we’d left behind.
A small white flake touched the end of my nose, and I looked up, seeing thousands more falling to the earth. The snow seemed to give the crew a second wind, and they began chatting about the day and what they might do with the rest of their weekend.
“As warm as one can be in twenty-degree weather,” I said.
“Did you get any good shots of me, Ellie?” Watts asked, pretending to flip back the long hair he didn’t have.
“I’m pretty sure I got at least three hundred of everyone,” I said, lifting my camera to click through the shots again. I was impressed with myself. Every time I snapped the shutter, the result was better and better. My adjustment time was faster as well.
The hotshots walked in a single file line to the trucks, the lights on their hardhats piercing the dark. The smell of smoke was all around us—in the air, on our clothes, saturating our pores—I wasn’t sure I would ever smell anything else.
An animal scurried through the snow-covered brush just feet from us, and I startled.
“I think it’s a bear, Ellie,” Taylor teased. “You’re not scared of large animals with teeth that could rip the flesh from your bones lurking in the dark, are you?”
“Knock it off,” Tyler said from behind me.
I readjusted the straps on my pack, unable to stop smiling, and relieved Tyler couldn’t see it. My new love for what Chief called adventure photography wasn’t the only thing that made me feel I was on the right path. The fires and photographs were a thrill—surprisingly, Tyler’s presence had a calming effect. Together they replaced the risks and narcotics I’d been destroying myself with since I was fourteen.