By Spc. Adeline WitherspoonFebruary 8, 2018
DIAMOND LAKE, Ore.-It was the end of the world and here I was with nothing but a tent and a flashlight as the Oregon sky cracked open above me. The night stretched out before me, endless and unforgiving. What had It felt like to be warm? I could no longer remember. Rain battered against my paltry vinyl shelter like machine gun fire, and above me, the trees shrieked and moaned. For all I knew I was the last one left alive as the forces of nature battled above me like malcontented gods of old.
Or that's what it felt like anyway.
It was the end of September, 2017, on the shores of Diamond Lake, Ore. Winter had come early to the Cascade Mountain Range, and with it, the cold temperatures and snow that-we hoped-would help temper the wild fires that had been raging through the Umpqua National Forest during an especially active fire season.
Back at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., the apocalyptic sun seen rising over Tacoma had been a constant reminder of the devastation affecting our neighbors, just a few counties away, many of whom were forced to evacuate, leaving behind their homes and businesses.
Approximately 200 Soldiers from JBLM, assigned to 23rd Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division-along with assets from the brigade's 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, "Tomahawks"-had deployed as part of "Task Force Spearhead." The Soldiers joined forces with others already out battling the blazes at the request of the National Interagency Fire Center, the agency in charge of organizing the nations fire fighting response resources.
The Soldiers, most of them fresh-faced junior enlisted, worked side-by-side with more experienced fire fighting personnel, most of whom had been fighting fires long before they had been born, and regarded the rookies with weary exasperation.
For all of us, it was a fulfilling experience; a chance to break away from the monotony of garrison life and finally use our training to make a difference for the people out there.
There is an atmosphere of shared goodwill that develops from working towards a common goal, no matter who you are or where you came from. The fire crews, like the Soldiers, know how to "embrace the suck."
"My father was a fire fighter," explains Eric Coughran, a fire captain from Kern County Fire Department, Calif. "He always used to say the badge doesn't make you a bigger man. It's just a piece of metal. We're all men and you need to treat other people with the same respect and dignity you'd want to be treated with."
Many of the fire fighters themselves were former service members-now farmers and family men living in middle America-who still yearned for the camaraderie that comes from facing a shared danger and sought a way to continue serving their communities.
"I'm always going to be a husband," said Coughran. "I'm always going to be a father. But I'm not always going to be a fire fighter, so I know what's most important."
Land use agreements are struck between fire crews and landowners so that camps can be pitched in cow pastures and unused camp grounds. Soldiers and crews rest their heads comfortably each night, blissfully unaware of the freshly-baked cow patties a few feet away, just waiting to be discovered during a late-night trip to the port-a-potty.
The fire camps are the hub of all operations. Crews occupy them for months at a time, so efforts are made to make the camps as hospitable as possible. Fire personnel have access to everything from hot showers, to laundry facilities.
After the morning briefing we loaded our gear in to a truck, driven by British expatriate Sean Collins, a public information officer and fire captain from California Interagency Incident Management Team 4, and 17-year veteran of the British Fire Service.
Collins, with the attitude of an exiled British rocker, was the master of ceremonies for all interactions between the fire camps and the surrounding communities. Very little happened in the camps or towns that he didn't know about.
"My goal will always be to get you home in the same condition you showed up to work, and I'm very good at my job," he assured me.
As part of the safety requirements, we exchanged our regular duty uniforms for blouses and trousers of green and yellow cotton. The idea was, that in the unfortunate circumstances one was to catch fire, the material would burn away rather than damage the skin in the way synthetic material would.
It was easy to pick out the new Soldiers from their more seasoned civilian counterparts, whose tops had lost their cheerful lemon-yellow brightness in favor of a more distinguished mustardy grime.
The Devil's Canyon Hand Crew, an all-veteran fire fighting team based out of Worland, Wyo., were one of those more experienced groups. Responsible for supervising and training the crews of novice Soldiers, the hand crew had traveled to JBLM to deliver the essential training and information the Soldiers would need to combat the fires and stay safe. Once they are all trained up, the Soldiers are qualified to serve as the equivalent of Type 2 Wild Land Firefighters. These skills would be helpful should the Soldiers one day apply to be hand crew members.
"For us guys on the ground, one day we were on a fire in Colorado, and the next thing we knew, we were headed to Washington state to train Soldiers," said newest crew member Bryan Nealy. "It was kinda weird because I have been out of the Military for so long, I forgot about some of the little things that make the military unique. The biggest difference between us is probably confidence and age. Most of the guys on the crew are older than the Soldiers we worked with, and with their experience, they are a lot more confident in what they are doing."
Nealy, who spent four years as a combat camera production specialist with the United States Marine Corps, now works for the Wyoming State Office of the Bureau of Land Management producing media documenting the conservation of America's public lands. In addition to his fire fighting gear, Nealy carries his camera so he can capture the action from the front lines.
"I wanted to work with [the hand crew] so I could create a video project about them in which I could bring some public attention to the guys and their mission," he said.
All the members of the crew, aside from Nealy himself, sport the same uniform: dark sunglasses, full beards, and tan forearms covered in lean, ropey muscle. The crew members keep to themselves, and prefer to take their breaks undisturbed in the privacy of the tree line.
Zane Willert, one of the hand crew's more gregarious members, is more mountain goat than man. When not fighting the flames during wild fire season, the 23-year-old veteran is a cattle rancher back home in Wyoming.
"That's the nicest line I've ever seen," he exclaimed, flashing a crooked grin, like an old-timey prospector who's just spotted an especially fine vein of gold. "It's real straight and I bet nothing's going to get past that. You guy's are doing one heck of a job."
Willert's enthusiasm is contagious, and though the days were long and the work hard, morale around camp was high.
"Working with Devil's Canyon is challenging and fulfilling," said Nealy. "They operate a tight ship, and every man on the crew is expected to do his job and carry his weight. It's pretty similar to the Military, and the crew has to function as one to be successful."
Part of that weight involved carrying packs weighing anything from 35 to 45 pounds, and battling the steep, unrelenting terrain.
Each morning the Soldiers would rise with the sun-clothing damp, joints stiff and fingers aching with cold-carrying their supply packs like weary hermit crabs to the waiting buses.
At night the Soldiers would return and spend their free hours gathered around camp fires, over which a few ambitious specialists had rigged a complicated tarp system between the trees to keep out the rain.
During the endless evenings, the Soldiers swapped stories with the hand crews about their shared Military experiences, and the families waiting back home.
"I just got engaged and this is the second anniversary I've missed," laments a medic from Boston. "She's mad but she understands. It's all part of the job."
"You think that's bad?," says a fire fighter. "I just bought a brand new truck-a really nice one-and I've only got to drive it once. Maybe twice."
On further consideration he admits that that might not be quite as bad. But he still wasn't happy about it.
No matter where they call home, the men find they speak a common tongue in a foreign land.
"Me and my guys all have a picture of our families hanging on the wall," says Coughran, speaking about his crew back home. "I make all of the new recruits hang up a picture of their families-significant others-whatever. I call them the innocent bystanders. When you make a bad call, it's not just another guy who's gonna get hurt, it's them. Their families belong to all of us."
When morning finally comes, the mountainside, choked with smoke, disappears and finds itself again as the forest unfolds before it, half-dressed in the first light of dawn. The sun, though we can't yet see it, reveals valleys burned to dust, the innards of old growth trees laid bare and bleaching like exposed bone. Boulders, abandoned millions of years ago by glaciers making their lonely pilgrimage across the ancient landscape, lie like beached whales; helpless monoliths trapped between the trees.
Oblivious to it all, the fire camp began to show signs of life, it's inhabitants emerging from their tents after a long hibernation.
It was impossible to imagine that two naturally occurring forces-the forests and the world that bore them-could work in such devastating opposition to one another, and that between those two forces, stood the men who made their living trying to master them.
There's talk that as the weather begins to cool, it might at last be time to pack up camp and head home. And besides, more rain is always just beyond the horizon.