September 8, Afternoon
Eight miles to the southwest, a plume of smoke stretched into the clean western sky, rising like bread. It looked like a cloud creating itself. A calm settled in among the Truckee Hotshots as we watched from a hilltop at the northern edge of the North Complex Fire. This was my first season and seventh fire on a U. S. Forest Service hotshot crew, a unit trained to fight the hottest and most remote parts of wildfires. We thought we were witnessing a typical blowout, when a fire crosses containment lines. “Well,” one of my crewmates said, “tomorrow’s going to suck.”
Then the column collapsed.
That day, dry winds blew across California and beyond, wrenching fires loose and sending them ripping across the forest. The entire West seemed to be going up in flames at once, from the August Complex in the Mendocino National Forest, where thirty-seven fires were coalescing into the largest fire in state history, to the catastrophic fires in Oregon and Washington.
Two hundred miles northeast of San Francisco, the North Complex started tearing through the Sierra Nevada at devastating speeds, launching flaming bits of pine cones and needles like scouts, igniting spot fires up to four miles ahead of the fire’s advance. In less than a day, the North Complex crossed twenty-five miles of the Plumas National Forest to the outskirts of Oroville, a town of nineteen thousand, baffling experts with its rate of spread. The communities of Berry Creek, Brush Creek, and Feather Falls were overrun. Unable to evacuate, fifteen people died in the flames, mostly in Berry Creek. If it weren’t for the other simultaneous 2020 record holders, the North Complex would be the second-largest fire on record in California; instead, it’s the sixth.
On September 8, the day the North Complex intensified, a finite number of crews, including the Truckee Hotshots, were there to take it on, with no backup on the way. One air-attack firefighter flying overhead, who from his vantage could see for dozens of miles in all directions, radioed that what he was observing looked like “multiple intergalactic plumes across California.” Instantly, intergalactic, a word possibly never before spoken over the apoetic lanes of air-traffic radio, became the catchphrase all over the fire.
September 9, Morning
“There’s not a real plan,” Superintendent Scott Burghardt, the head of the Truckee Hotshots, told us the next morning. Our twenty-person crew—Burghardt, captains, squad bosses, senior firefighters, and an assemblage of apprentices and seasonals, myself included—had moved south to a staging area just outside the fire’s twenty-five-mile run. We were huddled behind our two buggies, the tricked-out, green ten-seater buses that transported the crew. A steel-headed man with a considered disposition, Burghardt understood as well as anyone when to advance and when to fall back from a fire. “I don’t know how else to say it: Get your minds right to prepare for fucked-up shit,” he said. “We’ll try to come up with a plan, pick up the pieces wherever we can.” He left to assess the area—to see what was on fire and what wasn’t, and to start figuring out how to stop it.
The staging area lay outside La Porte, population twenty-six. If the east flank of the North Complex, by then a 250,000-acre fire, kept moving east, the community faced destruction. But with enough time, we could save it.
Firefighting involves less fire than you might expect. The hotter the flames, the farther away we position ourselves. When a wildfire pushes flames one hundred feet in the air and cinematically reaches the forest canopy, there’s only so much a crew of flammable human beings can do until it loses momentum. Instead, we’d light our own fire, known as a back-burn, in the direction of the advancing wildfire. When the two met, with nothing left around them to burn, they’d extinguish each other.
There were two reservoirs between La Porte and the fire’s edge, connected by a ridgetop known as Mooreville Ridge. A narrow dirt road ran along the ridge; we’d start the back-burn there. But first, with the help of a few other hotshot crews and wildland fire engines, we needed to clear the understory to make sure our fire didn’t get out of control.
Around 11:00 a.m., we pulled the cords on our chain saws and started cutting out young firs, manzanitas, and mountain whitethorn. Dustin Friedman, detailing as one of our captains, left to scout the wildfire’s advancing edge. As we cut and cleared branches, he descended a drainage toward the south fork of the Feather River known as Devils Gap.
September 9, 2:00 p.m.
After nine years as a firefighter, seven of them on hotshot crews, Friedman knew that a fire can change behaviour at any moment. But the speed of yesterday’s twenty-five-mile advance had tweaked his understanding of its power. He made his way to the North Complex’s burning edge, crossed over the two-foot flames, and entered the “black,” the already-burned area behind the front.
Friedman has always wanted to fly. When he left the Navy, he started flight school but quit to join his wife in northern California. On the fire line, he never stops talking, his eyes twinkling, about his dream to land helicopters full of money-heavy tourists on a barge in the middle of Lake Tahoe. His laugh is a trademark hyuk-hyuk. Even his face is birdlike, his nose sloping downward like a Feather River ridgeline, steepening as it reaches the bottom. Few hotshots understand aircraft better than he does. He is always looking up.
So when a helicopter arrived with water to release bucket drops, Friedman was the man to direct it. From his position on the edge, he’d show the pilot exactly where to dump, not to extinguish the flames but to stall their advance long enough for our crew to prepare our own burn. The winds were favourable, helping to keep the fire in check. He flashed a strobe light to catch the pilot’s attention and managed to direct a few drops. But soon the fire front intensified, and the division group supervisor overseeing operations on this part of the North Complex pulled all firefighters off the line. Just inside the black, Friedman started to follow the fire’s edge, looking for a spot where he could cross and return to the crew. Then the winds picked up.
If you’ve ever blown gently on a newborn campfire, you know what oxygen does to flames. Imagine one breath amplified to landscape scale. Its influence on fire cannot be overstated. Three factors determine a wildfire’s power: wind, fuel, and terrain. On the North Complex, it was the wind more so than the woody debris or the steep slopes that was responsible for the deaths of fifteen people. When the wind shifted on Friedman, the fire suddenly went from calm to burning forward, heating up, belching out smoke by the ton. Within minutes, he couldn’t see more than fifty feet in front of him.
It wasn’t dire; he’d been in dicier situations. But when it gets hot, you revert to what you were trained to do, find a safe place and go to it. Until the fire’s edge cooled enough to cross, the safest place for Friedman to go was where he already was: in the black.
September 9, 3:00 p.m.
While dragging brush from the road, I noticed that the light coming in through the trees was particularly beautiful, a soft, crepuscular orange tint that painted the sparse understory a gentle gold. It was an evening light, the light of a coming darkness, the light that creeps in through a closing door. That’s pretty, I thought to myself.
One thing wildfires are rarely described as is beautiful. In truth, whether in daytime or at night, on a mountain or on a plain, in a forest or on grasslands, crowning or smoldering, a wildfire is awe-inspiring. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. But in nature, beauty is not often correlated with safety.
A loud whistle pierced my reverie. We killed our chain saws. The voice of Derek Kramer, our crew’s other captain, came from fifty yards up the road: “Let’s go!” A pause. “Now!”
A common theme on the lower rungs of firefighting crews is not knowing exactly what’s going on. In moments of confusion, you measure danger by the urgency of your superiors. Kramer did not sound relaxed. We dropped whatever branches we were holding and all but ran the uphill road toward him and our buggy. Fire is fierce when you can see it; it is fiercer when you can’t. Eating smoke from the fire, which was now close by, we speed-walked, me breathing blood through my nose from having accidentally punched myself in the face while trying to move brush just before. Dust, blood, and smoke filled my lungs. Finally, we reached the buggy. Burghardt stayed behind to help get Friedman out.
“Load up!” a crewmate shouted. We chucked our tools into the buggy’s exterior compartments and climbed inside. Kramer gassed it, thumping over holes and bumps. Overhead to the southeast, we saw a plume rising between us and La Porte. We raced toward town, but the narrow forest road was soon bottlenecked with engines and trucks. Slowly we made our way out to the highway and back to La Porte.
The community was safe. In the coming hours and weeks, the fire never would reach it. But at that moment, I didn’t know a thing. As we passed the local hotel and saloon, all I could think was These people are fucked.
Back in our staging area, we parked and waited. Over the radio, we heard about Friedman—that he was still in the black, waiting out the fire’s run.
September 9, 4:00 p.m.
Friedman was dancing in the black. The fire’s edge was too hot to cross. The ground was too hot to stand in one place. Although the forest of white fir, Jeffrey pine, and shrubs had already burned, timber takes a long time to cool. He was stuck.
This wasn’t natural. Forest wildfires, typically caused by lightning strikes, burn off the debris, serving as a sort of cleanser for the whole ecosystem. Hundreds of years ago, Europeans hijacked an unfamiliar land, and for the past century, we’ve put out every fire we can, leading to the buildup of matted, impenetrably thick underbrush. The result has been climate-changed forests begging to burn. Now the North Complex was burning with Friedman in it.
Burghardt’s voice crackled over the radio. “I need you to get in the black,” he said.
“I’m in the black,” Friedman said. “It’s not nuked out, but it’s good. It’s just hot. It’s just going to be a while.”
“I’ll wait here as long as I have to,” Burghardt said. “I’ll be here all night.”
The canopy above Friedman was still green. It’s possible for the understory to burn while the canopy remains intact, leaving a forest susceptible to another round of fire. Although Friedman could see where he was with his phone’s topographic map, the thick haze of the smoke left him unable to see the fire. He saw single trees torching here and there, but he had no indication of what might be coming down the valley. So he kept moving, adjusting his gait with each step so that no one part of his foot bore all of his weight. Like a child trying not to step in imaginary lava, he jumped from place to place, stood on top of logs that hadn’t burned. He scraped away ash with his chingadera—an oversize garden hoe, our crew’s digging tool of choice—to reach cooler soil to stand in. But even that was untenable.
Burghardt’s voice came over the radio, asking if he’d begun making his way out of Devils Gap. “Not yet,” Friedman replied. Never one to miss a joke, he asked if he could get a cold drink. But in the confusion of the radio traffic, someone had suggested that the fire was coming up the valley that led toward Devils Gap. Even with Burghardt nearby to keep him calm, Friedman couldn’t help but ask himself: Am I good?
The soles on his boots were melting. They split in the hot ash. Blisters were starting to form on his feet. He poured water from his pack onto his boots to try to cool them.
September 9, 5:00 p.m.
A quarter mile away, on the ridgetop, Burghardt blasted his car horn repeatedly, hoping the honking would reach Friedman and serve as a beacon, but the sound was lost in the noise of the burn. He’d need to take more drastic measures.
Burghardt radioed for air attack, the fleet of aircraft dedicated to dropping water buckets and chemical retardant on fires, and asked for a water drop on the area near Friedman. But the shifting wind had sent smoke billowing up so thick and so high that aircraft couldn’t fly through it. Burghardt knew it was time to get his stranded captain out. “Dustin, I’m going to come get you,” he said.
Burghardt grabbed his pack and chingadera and began to descend into Devils Gap. He was looking for a green finger, a place the fire had not fully overtaken and thus wasn’t as hot. He found one. Just as he was about to cross into the black, his radio battery ran out. Cursing, he backtracked to his truck to replace it. By the time he returned, that finger had heated up and was no longer viable.
Eventually he found another route into the black. As he worked his way through the smoldering landscape, he hooted as loud as he could. After a few minutes, he heard a hoot in return. He moved in the direction from where it came. The men called back and forth, inching closer, until they found each other at last.
Friedman was spent. He’d been running back and forth in the smoke and the heat for two hours. Burghardt led him out of Devils Gap and up to the ridge. They stopped often, scraping down to the cool earth, standing there to rest for a moment. Finally, they made it back to Burghardt’s truck and out to La Porte. From there, Friedman was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for second-degree burns and smoke inhalation. His life had not been at risk; it turned out that the reports of the fire’s run up the valley to Devils Gap had been overstated. Still, it would be six weeks before he could walk well enough to return to the fire line.
September 8, Evening
The night before, we bedded down at a campground in the Plumas National Forest. It was dark. The quiet at the end of a day on the fire line always feels premonitory. At the time, we had no idea of the human cost of the fire’s twenty-five-mile run just hours earlier. Fir trees towered overhead, blotting out the waning moon. While the rest of the crew bustled around, prepping and eating dinner, Friedman stood by a campfire someone had lit, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, talking to squad boss Christopher Burns. “There’s not enough firefighters in the country for what’s going on now,” Burns said.
“No,” Friedman said. “The Plumas is going to look like the Mendocino,” the 2018 fire that decimated the Mendocino National Forest.
“Soon they’re going to stop measuring these fires in acres and just do it in miles,” Burns said.
“In miles now, oh yeah. It’s crazy, dude,” Friedman said.
“There’s not much we can do,” Burns said. “Fight fire with hopes and prayers.”
“Hopes and prayers. I guess we’ll keep digging line until we see God,” Friedman said. He paused. He was exhausted from a season unlike any other. “Me, I’m looking forward to two days off,” he joked, trying to lighten the mood. He gazed up at the black nothing above the campfire. “At this point, just tell me when I’m going home,” he said, something firefighters rarely know.
Burns looked over at his captain. “Tomorrow’s gonna suck, yes. But it’s one day closer . . .”
“To two days off!” they said together. They burst out laughing.
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