Into the Fire

·40-min read
Photo credit: Jordan Gearey
Photo credit: Jordan Gearey
Photo credit: Jordan Gearey
Photo credit: Jordan Gearey


It was a slow day until apprentice Ian Fox spotted a smoke a quarter mile away. My wildland firefighting crew, the Truckee Hotshots, dropped the hoses we were holding, grabbed our chain saws and hand tools, and raced over on foot. The smoke was part of a pair of wildfires known as the North Complex, in California's northern Sierra Nevada mountains. It was early September 2020, just over halfway through fire season. A week later, the fire would kill sixteen people as it ripped through the Plumas National Forest. But at the moment, we still believed we could get ahead of it.

When we arrived, we found a ballooning spot fire—an ember thrown from the main fire had ignited a new one, which was now tearing uphill. In the chaos of wildland firefighting, crewmates often drift apart. Although there were twenty of us, I looked around in the grip of thick smoke, at the flaming head of the fire, and saw only two others, one with a chain saw and the other with just a pair of hands.

"Bob, we need scrape!" Kameron Conlon yelled to me over the scream of his chain saw. He was furiously hacking down trees and shrubs, while another crew member, Trevor Hill, hucked the fallen branches out of the way of the fire—a job known as swamping. As a rookie, I hefted a tool known as a Pulaski, basically an axe attached to an adze. He wanted me to dig a line in the dirt that would halt the charging fire, a task that usually requires about four more people and a lot more time. Suddenly Hill fell out, having nearly passed out from the heat and smoke. His deep, reddened eyes looked haunted as he handed me his gloves. For the rest of the season, I would be Conlon's swamper.

We worked in a near-constant retreat, the acridity filling our lungs, our muscles breaking down. I was near tears from exhaustion. Now there were more of us; other sawyers and swampers had appeared out of the smoke and worked in a desperate rhythm. Suddenly, when I felt I couldn't breathe or work a minute longer, I heard someone yell, "Water's here!" From uphill a neighboring hotshot crew brought hoses, as if from heaven, from an off-road fire engine that had just arrived. Like the end of a bad movie, we were able to put out the spot fire in minutes. Conlon, whose arm was cramping around his saw, nursed his forearm on the ground, while our captain treated Hill on the side.

Hotshots, along with smoke jumpers, who parachute from aircraft, are the toughest and most celebrated firefighters in the wildland. The U.S. Forest Service, the main employer of wildland firefighters, has about two thousand hotshots in its ranks, who work ten- to forty-hour shifts, depending on a fire's need, for fourteen consecutive days; take two days off; and repeat for as long as our lengthening fire seasons last. Specialists in steep, remote settings, they are deployed all over the country—to Alaska, to California, to Florida, to New Mexico, wherever is burning—to combat the most intense, hardest-to-reach parts of fires.

Photo credit: Peter Ross
Photo credit: Peter Ross

The paradox of hotshots is that, while they're elite firefighters, anyone with a high level of physical fitness can technically do it. Most of us had joined as seasonal workers, primarily as a way to test our mettle, with a handful ascending to the highly qualified permanent jobs that made hotshot crews elite. I came from the Ozarks; I had no particular expertise or talents, little history with wildfire, and a 145-pound body. No one on my crew who I talked to dreamed of becoming a firefighter when they were a kid. For all, including myself, it arises as an adventure, a challenge, a social responsibility, a paycheck.

Last year's wildfire season was the most devastating on record in California. It included four of the five largest fires in state history. Thirty-three people died. Four percent of the state burned. One fire in northern California ripped through old-growth redwoods across the entirety of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Another, in southern California, crisped 1.3 million Joshua trees. A third killed nearly 10 percent of the world's sequoias. 2021 has been similarly devastating. The National Interagency Fire Center raised the fire preparedness level to its highest tier in mid-July, more than a month earlier than in 2020. Lytton, a village in British Columbia, broke Canada's heat record three consecutive days, from 113 to 121 degrees, then burned down in a wildfire on the fourth. On August 12, the Dixie fire, now California’s second largest fire on record at nearly 1 million acres, became the first fire ever to cross the “granite wall” that is the Sierra Nevada crest. Twelve days later, the Caldor fire became the second. The Windy fire and the KNP Complex have likely killed hundreds more giant sequoias in southern California.

You might call forest fires a dramatic overture to climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse. To do one's job in the face of rapidly expanding fires and fire seasons requires a certain faith or a blindness, depending on your perspective. For hotshots, eleventh-hour climate response becomes a mundane daily regimen. It's what you sign up for. The psychology of the first responder is one of narrow-walled focus, of shutting out structural questions in favor of tactical ones. The wildland firefighter is the only first responder tasked with defending both human beings and the surrounding ecosystem. That enormity creeps, adding weight to packs, deepening breaths, lowering the rims of helmets. Eventually, it starts to take a serious toll on firefighters' bodies and minds.

When the North Complex did eventually blow up, we felt helpless in the face of vast destruction. The following day, one of our captains was trapped behind advancing flames and had to be sent to the hospital with burns on his feet. As dusk fell, we waited to find out what had happened to him. As we texted loved ones in the back of our crew's vehicle, Ian Fox asked me to take weather measurements, a meaningless task he'd meant as a joke but that I misunderstood as serious. Like me, Fox worked seasonally, but this was his fourth year as a hotshot and he was on track for a permanent job, so he had seniority. When I returned with the weather results, he laughed. My emotions thin, I hurled the weather instruments at him. He stood up. "You want to fucking fight?" he yelled. I backed down.

Fox, now thirty-three, long-haired and thin, from Richmond, Virginia, has a way of deploying fuck as a literary device. "You take that fuckin' saw and you put it on your fuckin' leg and you walk in there like you're going to tear the whole world down," he once advised a new sawyer. Most hotshots were here for the (meager) money or the adventure; despite his sharp tongue, Fox was one of the few who looked at the woods and saw beauty in its dynamic ecosystem—a beauty to be handled and managed, not simply observed. Pine cones of notable species on fires ended up on his bookshelves at home. In his twenties, with only the vague plan of studying forestry and getting his life together, he was drawn west to Flagstaff and eventually firefighting, coincidentally right at the time when nineteen hotshots in central Arizona were killed in the Yarnell Hill fire. Many of his crewmates had been friends with the victims. Then he moved even farther west to Truckee to stay with his girlfriend Haley, whom he once described as "probably the best person walking the face of the earth right now." A hard shell invariably protects something soft.

Photo credit: Adam Jarkow
Photo credit: Adam Jarkow

In the peak of fire season, around the month known as "Snaptember," emotions tend to spin out. As fire seasons grow more intense, so do their effects on firefighters. In early 2020, Aaron Humphrey, the respected superintendent of the neighboring El Dorado Hotshots, published a resignation letter addressed to his crew. In it, he described how worsening wildfires had helped to break down his personal life. "The day the fire tornado came and everyone did the best they could I lost the mental fight," he wrote in reference to 2018's Carr fire, which burned into Redding, California. "I can't describe it in words but from that moment on I was different. I became someone I don't recognize and pretended a lot.... For the first time in my career I considered just driving the crew home. I thought about quitting. The past incidents and guilt and sorrow all hit me at once. I felt dead inside that night. I wanted my wife and family and a different life. Instead I sucked it up…. By not being able to correctly express what I had felt and how bad it was actually distanced me from my family more. I became an even worse husband and father. I feel like I was leading multiple lives. I needed real help."

Two pillars of firefighting are solving problems and not complaining. Mental health normally goes unaddressed. Humphrey's letter was shared among firefighters across the country.

Later on the North Complex, Conlon and I took lunch above a creek. Fox strode past up a steep dozer line, holding a roll of heavy hose. "Ah, Ian, now you're making us look bad," Conlon said.

"It's okay, you two don't ever do anything anyway," he replied.

"Ian, you have no idea how much I fucking hate you," Conlon said.

"I'll come up there and find out."

"Send it."

"If I had a dime for every time I saw you sitting on your ass doing nothing," Fox said, rolling the hose out, "I wouldn't have to do this job."

With Fox gone, Conlon gazed at the other side of the valley as he ate. He'd just felled a huge, particularly dangerous pine tree leaning over a creek while a crew of San Luis Obispo firefighters watched in awe. The trunk now spanned the valley bottom. I told him I'd like to write about him someday—a prospect that made him uncomfortable. "I just don't know what... aspect of me you'd write about, I guess," he said after some thought. A pensive and humble worker and Truckee's lead sawyer, he was being groomed as a future leader on the crew. Conlon, now thirty, grew up in Oxnard, California, just west of L.A., and had just enough Spanish blood to be put on the "Mexicans" team when his schoolmates played soccer. His thick, dark mustache gave him an air of quiet authority. "If it weren't for hotshotting, I'd be a fuckup," he once told me. When he was in high school, his father died of colon cancer. His grades tanked, forcing him to transfer to an alternative school to catch up on credits and earn his diploma later. He floated for years before finally pitching for a baseball team at a small college in Nebraska. After graduating, he floated some more, with no sense of purpose until he found the hotshots. A gripping fear of letting down others made him one of the hardest workers I've seen. A few days before, he'd strode into a nest of swarming, angry bees that had stung me and cleared them out.

Photo credit: Robert Langellier
Photo credit: Robert Langellier

Conlon planned to stick with Truckee for several more years. He loved the Truckee crew. In many ways the hotshot lifestyle had ripped him from the apathy of the first world. But longevity has been a challenge for other hotshots. Agencies outside the Forest Service, like Cal Fire, often pay living wages. A first-year firefighter for the Forest Service might earn a base pay of $13.45 an hour, lower than California's minimum wage. Even smoke jumpers start at about $16.80. Earlier this year a job posting for a gardener at the National Interagency Fire Center was listed at $23.05.

"Holy shit," Fox said. It was August, and we were sitting on a bank above the Trinity River, in the far northern part of the state, 150 miles northwest of the North Complex. His long brown hair framed the topographic map on his phone, which showed the borders of the Red Salmon Complex as drawn by infrared sensors attached to airplanes. "Shasta, Humboldt, Siskiyou," he said, counting out the counties burning in a newly born pair of fires in the remote Trinity Alps Wilderness. "This is the trifecta." The region is widely known to be one of the harshest places in the West to fight fire.

When we arrived, the Red Salmon was only eighteen hundred acres, tiny compared with major western wildfires, including the eighty-thousand-acre conflagration known as the July Complex, which we'd just left to get here. The slopes of the Klamath Mountains, of which the Trinity Alps Wilderness is a part, are remote, steep, and covered in poison oak. Pressed between the Pacific Ocean and the southern Cascades, it's so thick with biodiversity that it's hard to penetrate. Almost 90 percent of wildland fires nationwide are started by people, usually by accident, but the majority of acres burned in the West start from lightning strikes, which often occur in remote areas—like the Red Salmon Complex. The region's typical marine fog layer was gone, displaced by smoke spread low and evenly like a condiment over the range.

Photo credit: Robert Langellier
Photo credit: Robert Langellier

The smoke reddened our eyes and scratched our throats. Wildland fire smoke contains toxins such as acrolein, benzene, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and formaldehyde, as well as carcinogens known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. (So does your campfire, but in much smaller quantities.) Then there's the particulate matter, not to mention the crystalline silica kicked up by bulldozers moving huge amounts of earth. Arguably the worst part of the job for a firefighter is working in thick smoke for long stretches. "It's hard to see the long-term hazards," says Kathleen Navarro, a former hotshot and a research industrial hygienist for the CDC who has studied the effects of smoke inhalation on wildland firefighters, "when you're faced with things that are going to kill you immediately out on the fire line." After a century of wildland firefighting, scientists have yet to conduct a longitudinal study on the effects of smoke inhalation on those who fight wildland fires, as has been done for urban firefighters. The lack of hard numbers makes it almost impossible to link the work to long-term lung and heart problems, for which firefighters get no federal compensation. Two months earlier, our crew's second-in-command had to leave hotshotting for good due to heart and lung issues, uncertain whether a career spent within billowing smoke had contributed.

There was only one way into the wilderness where the fire burned: by helicopter. But with cool, low air keeping the thick smoke from lifting, our aircraft had to wait until late afternoon to safely take off.

From the ridge where it set us down, we hiked into a steep valley. That ridgetop, known as the Devil's Backbone, drops two thousand feet to Eightmile Creek; across the creek, another ridgeline climbs two thousand feet back up. With the help of four other hotshot crews, we would have to cut a path all the way to the bottom and up the other side, then carry hoses and a sixty-pound water pump to the creek to put the fire out in that area. On the way down, one crew member fell on his knee, causing a bone contusion, and was airlifted out of the wilderness.

Photo credit: Jordan Gearey
Photo credit: Jordan Gearey

The brush, mostly towering willow and ceanothus shrubs, was thick. Adam Jarkow, then a fifty-three-year-old sawyer, slashed a tunnel through it, while I launched the fallen branches and leaves out of the way. The pace, due more to work ethic than imminent danger, was frantic. The whine of four chain saws obliterated a sense of time, and the crush of willows did as much to space, the sweet smell of coyote mint below swallowed by the waft of two-stroke fuel. Finally, we took a break. I was dehydrated, claustrophobic, about to freak out. I pulled out a Parliament from my backpack and lit it, calming down. The end of the season, around October, is known as "rollie season," when it's socially acceptable to start smoking. I'd started smoking this season in June, in part due to a reputation for not keeping my cool on long shifts. "I can see you get frustrated," Jarkow said calmly. "You can't let that happen." I noticed his scratched hands were covered in blood, but he didn't complain. "Even this shift will end."

Most hotshots last two or three years before moving on to less-physical work. Jarkow was in his eighteenth season, by far the oldest seasonal hotshot I'd met or even heard about. Before he fought fires, he was a whitewater kayaker and guide; in 1995, he and a friend attempted an end-to-end run of Peru's Acobamba Abyss, one of the most difficult runs on the planet. A waterfall tipped Jarkow's kayak, washing his food and supplies downstream and dislocating his shoulder. It took them three days to make it out of the three-thousand-foot Amazonian canyon to the remote stone hut of a shepherd, then onward to civilization, where hospital orderlies cranked his shoulder back into place. Compared to that, Jarkow liked to say, hotshotting was easy.

Jarkow was a faller, and he worked with a chain saw. Hotshot firefighting, boiled down, involves ringing a fire with an improvised hiking trail, then setting a fire from inside the perimeter toward the wildfire, so the two fires burn each other out. Sawyers use chain saws to cut shrubs and other ground cover out of the way so the scrapers following behind can create a trail: the fire line. As a faller, Jarkow was tapped to take care of dead or burning trees that were too large and dangerous for other sawyers to clear. He was Kameron Conlon's mentor, often taking him along on tree-falling missions. Logging is, most years, by far the deadliest job in America. The next day, a burning old-growth conifer would collapse and land not far from Conlon. Jarkow's dead trees were delicate, unpredictable, and more dangerous than the live ones loggers cut. I once saw him cut a flaming tree as it crumbled upon him.

Jarkow didn't sleep last night; his decades-old shoulder injury from the Acobamba Abyss was down to bone on bone, grinding with each movement. He's needed replacement surgery for years, but getting it would put him out for an entire fire season, which he couldn't afford.

As a seasonal, Jarkow had no off-season benefits. He started when he was thirty-five. At the time, he only wanted to work one season, then return to Peru to climb. The Forest Service doesn't hire permanent firefighters older than thirty-seven, and it takes around five years of seasonal work to get a permanent job on a crew, which meant he was too old to ever be considered for a promotion. An Obama-administration initiative in 2015 was supposed to rectify that, but Jarkow said he was repeatedly stonewalled by hiring officials in Nevada and California anyway. He's spent a decade being treated by crewmates like a high-ranking hotshot while earning less than colleagues half his age. He's told himself "one more year" every year on the job. But never having any good post-retirement plans, he's never retired. Hotshot firefighting is a vocation for those who simply cannot decrescendo. At fifty, Jarkow tried out for the Alaska smoke jumpers in Fairbanks, which would have made him one of the oldest rookie smoke jumpers ever—but he washed.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

I once asked him what had changed in the almost two decades he'd been a hotshot. "We use cell phones instead of pagers, and we use nicotine pouches instead of tobacco," he said. "Back when I first started, if you wanted to call home, you'd wait in line at fire camp to get on a landline phone and have your five minutes, kind of like if you were in jail."

The work on a hotshot crew has barely changed in over a century. Crews still rely on hand tools as their primary weapon against fire: Pulaskis, chingaderas, and McLeods. For the most part, they still get to the fires the old-fashioned way: on foot.

"It's such an old job that's been done the same way for so long," Fox told me later. "It's kind of like learning from your grandfather."

Firefighting in general hasn't changed much. Although maps are now digitized and drones are starting to come into use, we still have as many personnel on fires as ever, fighting them with the primitive techniques we've always used. As the fires have grown in size and frequency, the effectiveness of firefighting has waned. Last year, the federal government spent $3.6 billion fighting wildfires, and the state of California alone added another $1.3 billion to that. Still, the August Complex, which burned more than one million acres in California last year, was able to grow to that size because resources were stretched across an entire West Coast that was burning all at once. (The Covid pandemic exacerbated the problem, since Cal Fire, the state's equivalent of the Forest Service, depended on prisoners for its hand crews. At one point, with prisons locked down, the agency was operating with just a third of its inmate crews.)

The broad narrative of modern western wildfires can be boiled down to three very simple terms that interact in complex ways: fuels, development, and climate change. Fuels are anything that can burn, mostly plants. A century of putting out every fire in the wildlands as soon as possible has caused forests to grow more thickly than nature would otherwise let them, making them more flammable. But most western forests are ecologically designed to burn. The more we suppress fires, the denser the forests become, and the more powerful the fires will become when they do arrive. Before white settlement, anywhere from four to twelve million acres burned per year in California, but they were healthy, low-burning fires, sometimes set by indigenous communities, which rarely raged into the canopy. By the twenty-firstcentury, developers had built communities deep into the forests, such that the landscape is now stippled with economic interests and a lot of humans. In some national forests in California, virtually any new fire threatens somebody. To me, the job of stopping them often felt animal and small; there didn't always seem to be a reason beyond "energy infrastructure threatened." And climate change has served as what fire historian Stephen Pyne calls a "performance enhancer," making the fuels drier than ever before, extending the western U.S.'s fire season by 78 days since 1970 and doubling the total burned area since 1984. "The strategy of suppressing all fires, even natural ones, is not effective," says Patrick Gonzalez, a forest ecologist and climate-change scientist at UC Berkeley. "And it's counterproductive, particularly under climate change."

For the past half century, the notion of a return to prescribed fire, thinning out forest understories to make them less flammable in wildfire conditions, has dominated western wildfire philosophy. Yet that approach has never taken hold in a meaningful way; if anything, we've trended backward. Since 2000, California land managers have burned less than half of what they burned in the eighties and nineties. Recently, California and the U.S. Forest Service agreed to burn a half million acres of forest and range land annually. But a study published in the journal Nature Sustainability estimates that California would need to burn twenty million acres under controlled conditions to stabilize the land. The risk of escapes and smoke complaints in residential areas have paralyzed prescribed fires from approaching anything close to adequate scale. As the state dries out, the window for safe controlled burn conditions is increasingly narrowed. Hopefully that will change. This October, California governor Gavin Newsom signed three new bills into law, greatly expanding legal protections, training, and insurance for prescribed-burn bosses in the state.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service has become a de facto firefighting agency, prioritizing short-term emergency suppression at the expense of long-term forest management. In 1998, the Forest Service employed eighteen thousand people in non-wildfire positions and just fifty-seven hundred in wildfire-related jobs. By 2015, the agency employed more firefighters than non-firefighters. Firefighting has become an industry with tremendous inertia, employing mobile-laundry attendants, porta-john companies, dispatchers, mop-up crews, information officers, helicopter and airplane pilots, caterers, mobile sleep unit companies, GIS mappers, dozer operators, skidgine operators, flatbed-semi drivers for dozer transport, hose producers, mechanics, fuel tenders, water tenders, counselors, medics, guards, administrators, clerks, property owners who provide spaces for camps, traffic controllers, and, of course, firefighters.

Photo credit: Robert Langellier
Photo credit: Robert Langellier

With a woodcarver's precision, Jarkow tipped a one-hundred-foot tall tree. A flying squirrel leapt from the top to safety in a nearby branch. The snag down, Jarkow sat on a stump, pulled a sandwich out of his pack, and took a break. While he ate, he told a squad boss twenty years younger than him that he'd gotten a voice mail from a company that falls trees on a contract basis. He thought the work would be easier, and he knew it would pay better. "At my age, this is getting to be a bit much, with my fucked-up shoulder," he said. "It's fun, though."

Jarkow has two daughters, ages nine and fourteen, whom he sees only a few days a month during fire season. "Both of them have never known anything but me being gone for six months," he said. "Even when you're home, you're still kind of on call. You still got to be ready to go to an assignment. So maybe I'm there physically but not totally there, like I would be during the winter." In slow moments on fires, Jarkow plays "Girl from the North Country" through his phone. When he's home he lies in bed with his youngest and plays it as a lullaby. On those days, he tries to be a superdad, a superhusband. He's been lucky; his wife, Adriana, has stuck with him for eighteen years. In wildland firefighting, it's widely believed that divorce is the norm, although there's little data to support it. Nelda St. Clair, a Bureau of Indian Affairs contractor who works with wildland firefighters on stress and mental health, thinks that their divorce rates are much higher, adding that she herself has been divorced twice from wildland firefighters. "Most of the guys I worked with who were married, their relationships crumbled," Jarkow told me. "And because you're with them 24/7, you can almost see it happen."

On our fourth and last day on the Red Salmon, we buttoned up our part of the fire. The smoke lifted, and for the first time in days we heard the hum of planes and helicopters above, dropping water on the fire and supplies for firefighters. We hadn't been home in two weeks, and this was our last day on the line. Near delirious, relieved, covered in ash and dirt, we hiked several miles out of the valley to camp, not knowing that the adjacent Red fire would later blow up and subsume everything we'd worked on. I nearly vibrated with elation at having done what seemed to be important work and at not having to do it anymore. This was the feeling people joined hotshot crews for.

As we waited for our transportation to arrive, a clean, fresh-faced, high-ranking officer approached Jarkow. "How is it down there?" he asked, referring to Eightmile Creek.

"Who cares?" Jarkow said, deadpan.

The officer, obviously miffed, walked away while the rest of us laughed. There's a deep pride in the physicality of hotshot work, and officers in clean uniforms haven't earned respect. Jarkow might have been a dick, but he spoke for us. We'd stopped the Salmon fire in our section, and we were going home.

In September, Jarkow was in the Plumas National Forest. The crew had been spread out all day, trying to stop the North Complex fire in a low drainage. In a rare moment, the crew had all come together for a break, while Jarkow worked on felling a hundred-foot-tall white fir that was burning. The forest was thick with tall trees, and Jarkow tried to fall the fir directly between two others downslope. As we sat on a dozer line, watching the trunk fall, it landed right where Jarkow aimed. As it shot the gap, the tipping tree caught both of the live trees' branches, and the weight of its fall bowed both of their trunks backward like eighty-foot slingshots. Finally, the tree fell, snapping the two other trees back upright and hitting the ground like a thunderclap. The impact vibrated the forest, sending a cloud of ash and dust billowing into the air around Jarkow.

The cloud cleared after a minute, revealing Jarkow on the ground, rocking back and forth in a fetal position in the ash. "He's hurt!" someone yelled. Conlon sprinted toward him and knelt down. It seemed like the moment sawyers fear. What seemed a tiny branch, just two feet long and a couple inches thick, had struck Jarkow in the shoulder at high speed. If it had hit him like a spear, it would've punctured him. "If you do the work long enough, you're going to get tagged by something," he said later. In his eighteen years, Jarkow had been crushed by a boulder the size of a barbecue grill; had been nearly launched into the sky by a root ball exploding from the ground; and had had numerous trees barber-chair on him, a phenomenon in which a tree collapses backward in the direction of a sawyer. After a tense minute, he finally stood up. "I'm good," he said. With everyone silent around him, he walked slowly to the stump where the massive tree had stood moments before. He took off his helmet and blew into it. Dust shot out into his face.

Photo credit: Robert Langellier
Photo credit: Robert Langellier

For Conlon, it was like seeing his own future. Most injuries on the fire line aren't burns. They're caused by falling trees, errant retardant drops, slips and falls, and chain-saw accidents. On Fox's first career fire, flames had burned over some discarded live .22 ammunition, which exploded and hit him in the ass. Occasionally, wildfires will cross paths with unexploded bombs at military sites and drug labs in the hinterland. On our first fire of the 2020 season, a handful of crewmates, including Fox and Jarkow, were almost swallowed by a copse of willows that suddenly ignited at once, forcing them to dive uphill and run to safety. Though it was taboo to call a close call a close call, everyone knew it was. But there was no spare moment to debrief, not that night or the night after, not until a week later, several hundred miles away on another fire. On a hotshot crew, there's not always time for mental health. Risk is your price of admission, and Conlon was training for the most dangerous role in firefighting.

In September, we fought the August Complex, which had now outlived its name. It was California's first million-acre fire in modern history. Nestled inland, between the North and Red Salmon Complexes, it was already 870,000 acres and seventy-three miles long when we arrived, and we hoped to stop it along highway 36 in northern California, near the community of Post Mountain.

"There's fifteen hundred people here," our captain, Derek Kramer, said, pointing to Post Mountain on a map. "This is the priority right now. We're burning off this dozer line to protect this community." A prominent species in the surrounding forest is marijuana. The highway to Hayfork smells of weed. It was harvest season. "No one's leaving," Kramer said, "so I hope you're ready to risk your lives so people can smoke."

We got to work. Ian Fox wrapped what looked like a giant roll of aluminum foil around a wooden house on stilts while I dug a fire line around it. The material was supposed to keep the house safe, but there wasn't enough of it. The roof was made of highly flammable shake shingles, with tree branches arching over it. Earlier, on a ridge west of Post Mountain, Fox had joked about wanting to keep working forever, which is how long he'd need to for him and Haley to buy a home in Truckee. "It's fuckin' awesome to burn off around people's homes," he said, laughing, referring to the process of lighting calm fires around houses to make the area less flammable in the face of a wildfire's imminent arrival. "I'm serious. It really is cool to do that." That's what saved livelihoods.

Photo credit: Robert Langellier
Photo credit: Robert Langellier

As we walked away from this one, Fox felt a sadness settle over him. In a way, it was a wakeup call that reminded us why we did our work. The season had been unrelenting, and our morale had begun to deteriorate. A few nights earlier, as we bedded down at a fairground after a brutal shift and wanted nothing more than to sleep, a young boy stood behind a nearby fence and kept calling out for our attention. Fox poked his head out of his sleeping bag. "Shut the fuck up!" he said, unaware the boy was within hearing distance. It was a sobering reminder of how a season of fire could fray nerves. Around the same time, we received dozens of handwritten cards from schoolchildren calling us heroes.

A professional detachment is required to fight fire. But while numbness is required, loss of life, property, and ecosystems made Fox profoundly sad. A mysterious knee pain that had begun at the season's onset had grown increasingly sharp over several months of intense hiking in remote wilderness—and his mood had begun to decline along with his knees. A month earlier, the seasonals had started a new tradition of screaming into pillows on our way to and from work. "It, like, hurts for a second, but then you feel a little better," Conlon explained to his captain, smiling. Fox joked that he was working on positivity, a practice he regularly suspended.

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What attracted me to Fox was that he was me, three years later. He was caustic, witty, bitter, unpredictable, hotheaded, compassionate, and smaller than most firefighters. With starry eyes half lidded, he tended to look beyond what was in front of him, questioning the sagacity of defending sickly lodgepole forests, which sometimes made the menial task in front of him frustrating. Hotshotting had built him up and torn him down repeatedly in four years, aging him too quickly and keeping him young, giving him a certain generosity toward stragglers below him, like myself. When he was sober, he complained; when he was drunk, he challenged anyone to deny that his bosses and crewmates were saints.

After a week of nonstop work on the August Complex, we rallied around one homestead overlooking a stunning valley invisible behind an ethereal veil of sepia smoke. In a dramatic and final thirty-hour shift, we managed to save it from the fire.

For hotshots, this is what victory looked like: small, personal. To me the season had begun to feel like dreaming a long dream in a state both out-of-body and extremely present, the fatigue overwhelming the spirit as much as the body. There would be weeks when we only worked night shifts, unable to see beyond our own headlamps except for the unplaceable glow of distant wildfire in the dark. In downtime I would write letters to a friend, trying to describe the experience to myself on paper. I felt both vibrantly alive and in a constant fugue state. The soul rises like the stomach—that is to say, when it's plummeting.

When the soil-burn-severity maps for the August Complex came out later, they revealed a patchy burn, with some areas lightly burned, with beneficial ecological effects, and others devastated. Results for the Red Salmon Complex, which had burned at a somewhat lower intensity, made me wonder why we were on that fire to begin with.

Photo credit: Trevor Hill
Photo credit: Trevor Hill

The seeming paradox of needing to keep western forests from burning too much or too little is part of all forest management, not just wildland firefighting. What is clear today is that the old model of firefighting, of putting out every wisp of smoke in the wilderness, is a dead model. In 2021, the new chief of the Forest Service issued a memo declaring that, due to Covid-related personnel issues, widespread fires, and drought, the Forest Service would temporarily end all progressive wildland fire-monitoring efforts and attempt to put out all new fires immediately—in essence, the old model of firefighting.

"Maybe those early fire crews are in the same category as big tree loggers and dam builders and other things that we think of as sort of the heroic story of the West and struggle against nature, when in fact the long-range consequence was harmful," fire historian Stephen Pyne told me.

What is less clear is how exactly to proceed when the stakes are so high, when fire seasons are changing faster than fire budgets, and when there's no modern precedent for what we're putting our forests through and what they're going to become. Firefighting has become significantly more progressive in recent decades, but in a sense, it's still flailing.

In November, the season typically reaches its denouement. Instead of fighting fire nonstop, we spend part of the time kicking around the crew's station near the Lake Tahoe–adjacent community of Hobart Mills, working out, doing small projects, making repairs, waiting for the district to end our employment for the year. While the rest of the crew ran on nearby trails, Fox sat on a chair outside the main office, elbows on his shot knees; he was worried he'd need offseason surgery, which could impact his next season.

The crew had suffered a basket of minor injuries over the course of the season: One crewmate was hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis, another with a bone contusion. Our captain retired for heart and lung issues. His replacement was hospitalized for burns. Several seasonals developed knee injuries, ankle injuries, and shin splints. Most of us earned a handful of bee and wasp stings. Conlon swallowed silica dust from a defective practice fire shelter in the preseason.

"This was going to be the year," Fox said, half joking. "So much for that." It had been a tough year, not just for his knees, and Fox had decided to move on from the hotshots. A rookie sawyer named Jordan Gearey pulled up after his run. At the beginning of the season, Gearey had beaten out Fox—and a handful of others—for an empty sawyer slot. He'd heard that Fox had decided to work on a helicopter crew, still a firefighting job but less physically and mentally erosive. "Is it done?" Gearey asked. Gearey didn't know it, but his own knees were almost shot, and this season—his first—would be his last.

Photo credit: Robert Langellier
Photo credit: Robert Langellier

"Yep. Going to helitack. If I ever do this job again, it's got to be yard," Fox said, firefighter slang for nowhere near here. "I'm going way the hell out there, far from a city."

"What about Lakeview helitack?" Gearey said. "There's a bar there you'd really get along in."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Fox said, visibly offended. "People say that to me all the time, and they're wrong. What do you mean?"

"I don't know, it's just kind of a hillbilly bar. You can still smoke inside, and spit on the floor. It's carpeted."

"Yeah, I'll get along there," Fox said.

Of the twenty crewmates on the Truckee Hotshots, only eleven would return in 2021. Hotshot crews, whether due to the intensifying struggles of the job or the policies of the agencies employing them, have grappled with turnover. Up to 20 percent of permanent positions went unfilled last year, meaning that many crews, lacking the required staffing qualifications, have been unable to maintain their official hotshot status. Federal firefighters can make almost twice as much money doing the same job for Cal Fire or as contractors, so they do. The hotshot crews still fight fire, but with dwindling fire-line experience. As of July of this year, thirteen of California's forty-four hotshot crews were understaffed.

Fifty yards away, Jarkow stopped a group of us as we walked across the lot. "Hey, uh, today's my last day," he said awkwardly. "I'm leaving. The falling crew picked me up. It's been really... it's been really good to work with you all." He paused. No one knew what to say. The bond among hotshots is rebar thick, but we don't always know how to express it. "If you could do me a favor and tell the other guys," he said. In one sense, Jarkow's lengthy career with the hotshots had been a way to escape reality, an endless adventure of seasonal work. In another, hotshot work is one of the few jobs that truly confronts our harsh climatic reality on the ground. The crew kept him young, even as it left his young body behind him. Still dumbstruck, we watched him turn around, walk to his truck, and drive out of Hobart Mills for the last time.

In February I met Kameron Conlon at a bar in San Luis Obispo, the sea air drifting through the patio. I hadn't seen anyone from the crew since November. I'd been recuperating in San Francisco, considering whether to come back to the crew. Coming off a mountain on his bike, Conlon wore a Truckee Hotshots hat. I asked him how he'd been.

"I actually had my worst day yesterday," he said. He wasn't talking about mountain biking.

"What did you do about it?" I asked.

"Pushups."

A light crept into a dark room. Suddenly, I realized I'd been depressed for months, that what had started as a long-awaited vacation had at some point devolved into something bleaker. There's a trope among wildland firefighters that, once the season ends, depression fills the space that hard work, intimate friendship, and nonstop action vacates. Being under near-constant physical and mental duress for months at a time forges bonds that are hard to replace in the off-season. A primal sense of purpose is replaced overnight with welfare checks. Suicide rates among wildland firefighters far eclipse those of the general population (estimated at three to ten times higher, depending on the year, although there are no hard statistics). The Forest Service offers limited free counseling sessions with mental-health-care professionals, who often have no experience with wildland firefighting. Many firefighters find them unhelpful. Until Conlon's admission, I hadn't even admitted to myself what I'd been going through.

"It's too much going at a hundred miles per hour, and then too much being at five miles per hour," Jarkow once told me. "I don't think it's healthy for anybody to be kind of waiting around for six months to go back to work."

It was no secret that Conlon, Truckee's star seasonal, imagined possibly leaving the hotshots someday, perhaps to fight fire on a military base for the Department of Defense. That was no certain thing, though. More than any seasonal on the crew, Conlon seemed built for hotshot life, and he also imagined moving to smoke jumping. In July, he'd been promoted to permanent seasonal, a sort of half step toward permanent work and a mark of trust from the Forest Service. Not quite overhead, Conlon jokingly referred to himself as "middlehead," but the distinction came with both pride and a poignant farewell to carefree seasonal life. Although usually jovial, Conlon grew progressively more serious as a brutal fire season unfolded. It's perfectly conceivable that crews could be year-round. There's work to be done in the woods: emergency suppression in the summer and long-term prevention in the winter, thinning forests and conducting prescribed burns. While we were fighting the August Complex, Patrick Gonzalez, the climate scientist, published a memo outlining a shift from firefighting to fire prevention, wherein he claimed that full-time crews would save money in the long run, or at the very least be revenue neutral. It would save firefighters from having to rely on unemployment—with its attendant bureaucratic uncertainty—to survive the winters and would maintain the sense of purpose that drives them. It would turn firefighting from a seasonal adventure into a real job with real benefits.

Photo credit: Peter Ross
Photo credit: Peter Ross

On June 30, 2021, President Biden announced a series of short-term salves for firefighters, including an immediate pay increase to $15 an hour for starting firefighters, a 10 percent retention bonus for permanents, and $1,000 for any seasonal committed to stay on through the 2021 season. Attached to it, less widely reported by news outlets, was a call for hundreds more seasonal jobs to be converted into year-round jobs with benefits. Thanks to advocates from a group of current and former firefighters called the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, the 2021 federal infrastructure bill would increase the base salary of all wildland firefighters by $20,000.

I asked Conlon why he wanted to become a hotshot in the first place. "I didn't feel fulfilled, and I wanted to be a part of something bigger," he said. "I just felt like a fucking individual out there, you know?"

Wildland firefighting is structurally flawed, but it remains vital. The feeling of contributing to something beyond oneself is universal, whether or not the fires are manageable, whether or not federal agencies address the untenably high turnover. The hotshots allowed Jarkow to remain in top physical shape into his fifties. They gave Conlon's life purpose. They brought Fox face-to-face with the management of the forests he loves. They gave me an undreamed-of level of physical and mental discipline. In the end, though, I decided to join a Forest Service botany crew this year, to see the other half of the agency. Instead of choking in the smoke, I'm sitting on stream banks in Montana, picking and identifying wildflowers in the name of monitoring fish habitat. On a lot of those idyllic streams, staring at a minute flower on a single blade of grass, I have time to think about the miles of hacked-up, retardant-speckled manzanita I chucked off fire lines. The last time I saw Fox, both of us were more than ready to leave the hotshots. The last time I talked to him, on the phone several months later, both of us expressed an unexpected amount of nostalgia. The last time I talked to Jarkow, he speculated on possibly joining another hotshot crew next season. Leaving the crew to rejoin oneself is one of the harder decisions a hotshot makes. From then on, every smoke is a memory.

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