I shot the elk as it broke from the edge of the forest, bugling smoke and ash from its long black muzzle. Its mane afire. It charged into the clearing, wild-eyed—antlers thrashing at the flames—and I put it down with a single shot to the heart at a distance of eighty yards. This was how I proved my worth to the forest service. How I came to have the job I have now, fighting wildfires with a shotgun and rifle.
They choppered me into the blaze on orders from Jack Hendren, the incident commander. A bookish man who understood the nuances of containment and suppression, and who wasn’t afraid to use creative solutions to achieve his ends. When I appeared under the whirling rotor blades that day the soot-faced responders in their heavy turnout gear looked on, weary and unimpressed. They took me for some kind of crackpot. A grizzled old coot with a rifle. But when I brought down that burning bull and kept the fire from spreading, it tamped out all doubts about my usefulness.
By the end of my first week in the forest the hotshots had accepted me as a brother. One member of their team, a soft-spoken college girl from Boulder, reminded me of the daughter I hadn’t seen in twenty years. Her name was Eve. She was a proby, new to the job, and a good kid. The kind of girl a boy’s parents take an instant liking to when he brings her home for Christmas break.
One evening while Eve and I were sitting together at mess, she turned to me and asked if I ever felt bad doing what I do? Shooting burning animals? I lowered my fork and told her no, why would I? I was saving lives and property the same as her. Upholding the public trust, and protecting the state’s natural treasures.
She nodded when I said this, but the gesture was born of judgment, not understanding. Her hands may have been as callused as those of her companions but her heart was not, and from that day forward she did everything in her power to avoid me. I’d tried to explain what I meant when I saw the aggrieved look on her face. But she pushed her plate aside and walked away. I called after her, saying the only reason a man should ever feel bad about doing his job is if he’s doing it wrong. But she didn’t hear me. She didn’t want to believe a man like me existed.
I’ve worked wildland fires all across the west since those early days in Colorado. I’ve ridden the backs of big yellow earthmovers with a shotgun across my thighs. Stood guard at smoldering trench lines with a rifle in my hand. I’ve killed nearly every kind of animal that walks or flies, but never dispatched a single living creature without believing it was the proper thing to do.
My old buddy Tenny O’Keefe, a smoke jumper, used to call me a fossil, because of the work I do. Atavistic was another of his favorites, though where he dug that one up, I’ll never know. He used to say I was the grit in the gear of the great clockwork we call the universe—the speck of dirt that conspires to hold back the future. I told him he was nothing but a second-rate phrasemaker. A tin-eared, post-modern poet.
O’Keefe was one of the first responders to the mighty Hayman burn. He dropped into the middle of the fire from the wing of a DH-6 Twin Otter with a hundred pound pack strapped to his back. He was a fearless man in every way—the sort of fellow who imagined and collected other people’s pain as his own—craving danger the way a dope fiend craves the needle.
The day we met there was a story making its way around camp about my having brought down a flaming owl up on the eastern face of the Divide. The men who told the story claimed the owl had screeched from the treetops like a bat out of hell, and that I’d spun to one knee like some gaudy gunslinger, dispatching it with a single shot from my pistol.
O’Keefe lit a cigarette and turned to me. “That true, friend?”
I shrugged, toeing the dirt with my boot. Shooting a bird seemed a small thing compared to jumping out of an airplane into a wildfire.
He dressed the others down with a cocky grin, then turned back to me, and raised his chin.
“No offense, brother,” he said, pointing the lit cigarette at my chest, “but only an ignorant man would shoot an owl.”
One night out there in the woods, I asked O’Keefe what it was that had lured him into fighting fires. Was his old man a hose jockey? Did he have a brother, maybe, who worked for the Forest Service?
He thought for a moment—less than a moment—before offering up a lazy pinch of his shoulders and saying, “Because I’m good at it.”
Then he asked me the same thing.
“What about you, Annie Oakley?” he said, his handsome green eyes flickering in the gaslight of the Coleman lantern. “What makes you want to go tearing around with a gun in your hands, shooting up the woods?”
The answer, which I gave straight off, was as easy for me as it had been for him. “Same deal,” I said. “I’m good at it.”
We sat there a while in silence. Watching the night sky burn orange and black in the distance. Then he reached down and pulled a silver flask from the pocket of his turnout gear and proposed a quiet toast to the day’s work.
“Here’s to fire,” he said.
“To fire,” I replied, raising my canteen, clanking tins with him. “The gift of the gods.”
My own cabin burnt up while I was away with O’Keefe trying to save other people’s property. The blaze jumped a trench line and flanked us. Burned up in a wild mosaic of flames that went on for miles. A running crown, they call it. Guys died trying to extinguish that fire—good men with wives and families—so I didn’t figure I had much room to complain. But when they determined the blaze to have been started by a woman who worked for the forest service—I won’t lie, it bothered me. Time Magazine ran an article about her, the arsonist, where she talked about an upsetting letter her man had written to her. How she’d read it, then taken it up the mountain to burn, and how the flaming paper had gotten away from her. I don’t know, maybe there was some truth in that and maybe there wasn’t. But my general feeling was, why bother asking? Fire’s a complicated wonder that sometimes tempts people to stupid things, and expecting a crazy person to give you a sane reason for an inexplicable act, well that’s something only the media could think up.
O’Keefe’s career went up in smoke later that summer after a big fir tree exploded and sent him to the hospital in Pagosa Springs with a mangled leg, flesh split and charred like a campfire hotdog. But he pretended not to care.
“Smile, brother,” he said when I paid him a visit. “You’re taking this worse than I am.”
“Am I?” I said.
“You won’t be jumping out of any more planes,” I said. “You’re fire-fighting days are over.”
He tendered a look of weary resignation my way, and turned up his palms as if there was nothing more to be said about the matter. But I knew him. It was bravado, the hero’s stalwart pose that had him acting that way, and I knew that when the shock of the injury wore off, the loss would eat away at him like a disease. We weren’t like other people, Tenny and me. We’d spent our lives in the wild, carrying pickaxes and rifles. Slapping fire from our shirtsleeves. Shooting and burying things that were once alive. It was our calling, and we’d gone to it like priests; it was not in our blood to put away the stole and crucifix so we could take up the work of the layman.
“What’s the point in looking back?” he said, valiantly. “I’ve still got two legs. So what if one of them is a little busted up? It’s not like I’m a cripple.” He turned and gazed past my shoulder at whatever mysteries lay beyond the windowpane. “I’ll just learn to be good at something else. Hell, maybe I’ll learn to make a living out of being good for nothing.”
He turned to me and laughed, though it wasn’t the least bit funny.
“You’re a better man than me,” I told him.
“I know I am,” he said. “I always was.”
Do I ever feel bad doing what I do? Killing burning animals?
Back during the Hayman burn, there wasn’t a single person in the state who’d have even asked such a question. Not when the flames were roaring through the trees, gobbling up everything in their path. Leaving behind a burn scar black as sin. People lost sight of everything but themselves that summer. Even people like Eve, the proby hotshot. They begged us to stomp the fire out. Begged us. There wasn’t a person among them that gave a rat’s ass what or who had to die if it meant saving something of their own. I know. I saw it. There were folks who would have directed me to shoot their grandmother if it meant saving their snowmobile…or their ATV...or their shiny new pickup. Not just shoot her wrinkled old ass, but piss on it to boot. It didn’t matter a guy like Tenny might lose a leg in the process, much less his life. It never even crossed their minds.
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“Burn Scar” first appeared in Kansas City Voices.