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Addiction to Fire

by Charley Palmer (MSO '95) |

Trace Myers stared at the fire, rarely blinking.
Occasionally he would sip from his canteen cup, but this would be the only time that his gaze would break from the flickering flames. Although he had just put in a grueling sixteen hour shift of line digging, he did not feel tired. This was the part of fire fighting that he loved most, sitting around a small cooking fire, drinking strong, black coffee, and simply staring. The flames put him at ease, brought him a sense of comfort he seldom felt at any other time. He had never been able to understand exactly why fire had this effect upon him, but part of him knew deep inside it fulfilled some sort of pri­mal needs. Safety. Warmth. Security. Taking another sip from his cup, he was reminded of the time when an old jumper had told him that fire was one of the greatest of all therapists. At the time he did not fully comprehend just what the man meant by the anology, but more and more he was beginning to un­derstand.

Trace and five others had jumped the fire at first light this morning. At the time, the fire was only about an acre in size, burning actively at the head, but just slowly creeping at its flanks. Shortly after jump_. ing, the wind had picked up, and what had been about the size of a football field had expanded into the fire's present size of about 20 acres. Several times they thought the fire had been caught, but gusting winds and rolling embers had sent the blaze off on another run that left six jumpers scrambling in an effort to catch up. Normally, they would have called for rein­forcements, but a widespread dry lightning storm the night before had left the region depleted of smoke­ jumpers. Some fifteen hours after jumping, the six men had finally corralled the blaze well enough to take a quick dinner break of dehydrated food and candy bars, all washed down with copious amounts of black coffee.

Trace gazed at the small cooking fire, and soon he found himself thinking about how the twists and turns in the road of life had brought him to where he now sat--on a desolate but beautiful Montana mountainside. At 35, he was about average age for smokejumpers. This summer marked Trace's eleventh season of smokejumping, not to mention the six years he had put in before that, on district and hotshot crews. He had started fire fighting his first summer out of high school, and save for one year off, had been do ing it ever since. At the urging of his best friend, Logan Trident, both had applied for jobs on a district engine crew when they were eighteen. After two seasons on the Sula District in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, Trace and Logan had gone their separate ways, with Logan taking a crewmember job with the Lolo Hotshots, and Trace accepting a similar posit ion with the Bitterroot Hotshots. After four seasons with the 'Shots, each had finally bee n accepted into Missoula's Rookie Smokejumper program in 1987.

Trace jumped for three seasons after that, but by the time the Spring of 1990 had rolled around he felt he needed a change. Nine seasons of sleeping on the ground and eating bad food, trying to put out fires that in most cases would have done more good if left to bum, had left him sick of fire fighting. It was time to give up this seasonal work, which employed him for six months at best, and left him scrambling the other half of the year for various odd jobs and whatever meager unemployment benefits he could muster. It was time to quit digging in the dirt, and look for a solid, year-long job. Or so he thought. In the summer of 1990, Trace had taken a job in a local warehouse that paid him a decent wage and promised him full-time employment. Despite getting what he thought he needed, Trace found himself feel­ing miserably unfulfilled.

It was at this point he realized his addiction with fire. As strong as any compulsion for gambling or alcohol, he needed fire, and only by being away from it did he realize just how powerful this need really was. Fire brought him financial reward, true, but it brought him much more than monetary gain. Fire provided comfort. It brought him piece of mind.

Above all else, fire offered an escape. His year away had convinced him that fire was as important to his existence as was the food he ate and the air that he breathed. Trace returned to jumping in the summer of 1991 with a renewed sense of purpose and com­mitment, a reawakening that he still felt to this day.

However, as with any addiction, there existed a dark and dangerous flip side. Fire always retains the ability to harm those who get too close, to burn the careless and complacent, just as easily as it can the diligent and prepared. It only seems to pick on the former. Trace had been reminded of this in 1994, when three fellow smokejumpers and eleven other fire fighters had been killed at Storm King Mountain in Colorado. Like other addicts, Trace was firmly planted in the stage of denial. "It cannot happen to me. It will not happen to me."

Taking another sip of his coffee, Trace looked around the small cooking fire. His five fellow jumpers sat quietly, each staring at the fire, each lost in his own thoughts. Finally, after a few more minutes of pensive gazing, Trace stood up, reached for his pulaski, and headed back to the main fire to check the line. Behind him, he heard the sounds of the others doing the same.