One time in my first year, I rode way out to a remote fire station in the forest with the Ranger. I don’t know why I got chosen for that but I did. The remote station was more than ten miles into the forest I think and the guys there lived a little like a hippie commune. They got to go to about one fire each year. I was originally hired to go there but I got out of it before I was sent there by lobbying the captain to stay in the busier station.
While we were riding in the forest an alarm came in and the ranger who was to retire at the end of that year drove like Mario Andretti through the forest. We slid around turns, splashed through streams and suddenly there was a huge rattlesnake in the middle of the road. This ranger had been killing snakes for years and had a huge collection of rattles in baby food jars all over his office. We skidded to a stop just past the snake and with amazing agility he jumped out of his truck and yelled for me to follow. He unlatched a shovel in the bed, attacked the snake with skill chopping off its head with one cut (another reason for a sharp shovel), then he sliced off the rattles and flipped them to me which happened too fast to object to. He flipped the body off the road, dug a hole, buried the head and threw the shovel back in the pickup. It all took less time than it takes to read about it and we were off to the races again.
The ranger was considered the unofficial station hero, we all wanted to be him. He was like our John Wayne. He had worked in the Division of Forestry his whole life and he worked for the Forest Service cruising timber on his days off. Cruising timber used to be done with a yardstick-type piece of wood called a “cruising stick” (A biltmore stick) and it was used to measure tree height and diameter and even volume of wood. Kids of the lumber industry never questioned “when am I ever going to use that?” when they were taught geometry because back then it was necessary to use the cruising stick. Our ranger knew every inch of the woods because he’d been hiking them all his life.
The ranger knew Brown Dollie since he was young. Brown was the ancient water master at the local reservoir who’d chase us away at night with our beer and our girls. Old Brown had driven a lumber truck in the days when the reservoir was the mill pond. He told me once about the old transmissions with two stick shifts that made you hook one arm through the steering wheel to shift both at once. He called the new fangled shifters “Sissy Sticks”, the ones that have the little hydraulic shifter you pull up as you shift.,
On the big fire where we left our turkey dinner on the table our Ranger came to check on us late in the heat of the afternoon. He said to us, you guys look like you could use a beer. We did and he pulled some ice cold beer from a bag in the back of his pickup and gave us each one to drink. He was a great guy.
I recall at the end of the fire season that first year when we had our end of the fire season party. Just the guys and lots of drinking. None of the bartenders in town would card us, and none of the cops would object. We did a man’s job for the town all summer and the town wasn’t going to treat us like kids. We were at a bar drinking tequila and an old mountain man watched us completely unimpressed with our south of the border choice of liquor. He said to us, anyone who can drink tequila like that oughta be able to drink wild turkey. We all professed great Wild Turkey drinking skills and he bought every one of us a shot.
I know we ended up playing ping-pong back at the station but I don’t recall how we got there. In the morning our Ranger came into the barracks to say hello and to survey the hangovers. He simply said that we must have had a good time the night before. He said could tell by the beer cans on his desk. We loved that guy.
We gave the ranger a great retirement party. Two of the fire camp stove trailers were brought in and I was in charge of cooking about a hundred half-chickens. Everyone drank and ate and drank some more. We all went to the Ranger’s house after the party and we drank even more. Nobody wanted to let him go. The last thing I remember about that party is kissing the hand of the Ranger’s wife when I was introduced to her. It was very debonair for a firefighter, even a completely drunk firefighter.
The next year we got a new ranger. He was younger and more ambitious and more interested in regulations. We never left any beer cans on his desk and he never brought us a beer on the fire line either. It wasn’t worse, it just wasn’t the same.
I thought I’d share some of the things I learned as a firefighter that are a little unique and may not be common knowledge.
Stuff I learned as a firefighter:
1. Soil is what you plant things in and dirt is what you brush off your pants.
2. A spanner is a wrench for turning on a fire hydrant
3. Hydrants are marked on the street with a blue reflective bots dot.
4. Some gasses burn incredibly hot and invisible so it’s possible to walk into a burning cloud of gas in a building and never see it.
5. Our helmets left our ears uncovered so we would know when it was too hot to stay in a building.
6. When testing for heat, always check with the back of your hand.
7. Cow patties burn like charcoal.
8. There are rocks in the Sierra foothills that stick up and are called “tombstones” and which will slice open an engine tire.
9. Firefighters think they’re better than cops and cops think they’re better than firefighters.
10. Wild fires can move a lot faster than you can run.
11. Building permits are good things.
12. Lighting does weird and interesting things.
13. Phoscheck burns and it smells bad.
14. Large trees sound like thunder when they hit the ground.
15. Semi trucks used to have two stick shifts.
16. An overly ambitious firefighter was called a “red hot”
17. An aggressive fire was called a “major rager”
18. A pyromaniac was called a “match”
19. It’s possible to back a large engine into a garage using only the mirrors.
20. I could work for 24 hours or more without sleep.
21. Fried eggs are good.
22. Sharp tools are good.
23. A balloon filled with oxygen and acetylene when hit with a welding torch can explode loud enough to break windows. (my captain was teaching us how to weld)
24. Smoke is nasty stuff. It carries up poison oak oils, it carries tar, it can block out every bit of light in a house attic. It can make you cough up black stuff for days after a fire.
25. Fire is HOT and large fires are much hotter than you can imagine.
26. Always keep your fire engine filled with water, even when you’re dog tired. You never know where there will be a fire.
27. Only kiss the ranger’s wife’s hand at his retirement party or you’ll have to see him again.
28. Don’t cover cuts in your arm with an oily glove.
29. Cedar trees can burn right down into their roots.
30. A hot fire can burn the asphalt right off the road.
The end…I’ve stretched two fire seasons as far as they will go, hope you enjoyed some of it.