“The Fire” originally appeared at (the now defunct) Mojave Heart, March 2019.
Heading down 22 to Cedar City from Bryce Canyon, to catch I-15 down to Vegas, the boy driving, in brown khaki shorts and maroon UNLV hat, the girl in white shirts and a blue Sanders t-shirt in the passenger seat. After coming off the plateau, out of Cedar Breaks, the road switch-backed sharply again and again, with glimpses out onto the west desert, lodge pole pine trees thinning out, replaced by junipers.
The girl made a face. — Jesus, I think I’m going to be sick.
— You want me to stop?
— No, just take it easy on the turns.
— It’s ok.
The boy picked up his iPod and scrolled down.
— Josh! Watch the road!
He stopped scrolling long enough to make another turn, then hit the select button. Crunchy guitars blasted through the speakers.
— Josh, please, I don’t want to listen to Metallica.
— It’s Tool.
— Ok, sorry.
He hit pause and turned off the radio. She rolled down her window, took off her seatbelt, leaning out, breathing in. — Mm, smells nice!
— Cate! Put on your seatbelt! Come on!
— Josh, we’re going like ten miles an hour!
She ignored him. The road straightened as they got to the bottom of the canyon and followed a small river through shadier ponderosa pines. Sides of the canyon rising straight up, but as the canyon widened, more hills and bluffs, with pines and oak brush. Some of the cutbanks were pull-over areas next to the river. The girl breathed in again, still hanging out the window. — Man! Wonderful! Hey!
She sat down inside, pointing up. — There’s smoke up there.
He tried to look and drive at the same time.
— Pull over!
He did, and they both looked: A thin line of dark smoke drifting straight up before blowing east and disappearing in the wind. She looked at him, excited. — Can we get closer?
He put the car back in drive. — I’m not sure.
They went further down-canyon, around two curves, and she told him to pull over on the right side of the road. — It’s right up there!
He looked up through the windshield. — Yep. It’s right up there.
— Let’s go up!
— To the fire?
— Are you crazy?
— It’s not that far, I don’t think. It’s not as far up as Bryce Canyon was when we hiked out.
— That’s not what I’m talking about. It’s a fire.
She got of the car. — I know.
— Cate! Wait!
He got out and came around to her side of the car. She was shielding her eyes with one hand. — We could do that.
— Cate, why the hell would you want to?
She shrugged. — I don’t know. Because. I’ve always wanted to see one up close.
— But it’s dangerous.
She looked at him. — You’re the one that wanted to get outdoors.
— Yeah. Getting outdoors and having fun.
She started walking toward the trees. — Look, I’m just going to go up real quick. Wait here, ok?
— Cate, you’re wearing flip-flops.
She vanished into the trees. — So?
He followed after her, shaking his head. — Fuck!
The ground steep, thick junipers, oak scrub scratching their legs. He followed her white shorts. The ground at times rocky and stable, at other times more like sand, sliding down under their feet. When there were trees, they used the uphill sides of them as flatter areas to stand and step up. Sometimes they crawled on all fours, or pulled themselves up using branches.
— Cate, let’s go back!
— We’re almost there!
The ground flattened out a little, on a ridge, or a small mesa of ponderosas. They stopped, breathing heavy. Sweating. Dirt streaks on their bare legs. She looked uphill. — Do you hear voices?
He had his hands on his knees, leaning over. — Voices?
— Yeah, come on.
It did widen out into a mesa, with the brush thinning out under a grove off ponderosas. They smelled smoke.
— Oh my god, there are voices.
Stumbled out into an open area and there was the fire: An acre of black, putting up smoke everywhere. The brush and pine needles charred and ashy underneath some ponderosas, blackened a few feet up the trunks. Four men in dirty yellow long-sleeved shirts, green pants and black leather boots with orange hard-hats worked scattered around the area, carrying tools looking sort of like shovels and axes, but different.
Two of the men had been digging nearby, at the edge of the fire, and were just as surprised to see them.
— Holy shit, civilians!
The girl smiled. — Hi. Wow. Cool. I didn’t know anybody was up here.
The man who had spoken smiled, leaning on his tool. — How’d you get up here?
— We walked.
— Well, hiked.
The other firefighter yelled across the fire at the other two. — Hey Johnny! We got civilians!
The first one looked downhill from they’d come up. — Did you come up from the road?
— Yeah. Are you guys smokejumpers?
The first guy laughed, but the second one scowled. — No, those fucking pussies wouldn’t come to a fire like this. We’re helitack.
— What’s helitack?
— We flew here in a helicopter and rappelled down. Like, from ropes.
— Oh. Wow. Cool.
The boy looked at her. — We should go now.
Johnny walked across the black and gave them a wave. He was a little older, with long brown hair and a beard. — Howdy folks.
The fourth guy started up a chainsaw, cutting brush out along the other side of the fire.
The boy put his hands to his ears. — Jesus Christ that’s loud!
They had to yell over the saw. Johnny asked her how they got up again, and when she asked, explained how they ‘cut line’ around the fire, down to dirt, so the fire couldn’t spread.
On the uphill part of the fire, they heard crackling and spitting, even over the chainsaw, and a patch of oak flared up. Flames five feet high. The boy swore and ran downhill, but stopped when no one followed. The first two firefighters laughed. The girl stared at the flames. — Wow, that’s so fucking cool!
Johnny smiled. — It’ll do that, especially when it’s got some slope. Or wind.
— How did it start?
He pointed to the nearest ponderosa. — Lightning strike. See that bare strip zig-zagging up the trunk? That’s where the lightning went up. Or down. I forget which way it goes.
— Wow. Can we stay and watch?
The boy had come back. — Cate, no. We should go.
Johnny looked at him a second, then down at her feet. — I mean, I shouldn’t, ’cause of safety, but if you stay right here, on the flat part, and stay out of the way of the tools, then ok.
He looked over the fires, where another bush flared up. — If something really bad happens, go into the middle of the black. But nothing’ll happen.
She nodded. — Ok.
The other two had gone back to digging, occasionally looking over at her and smiling and saying stuff to each other. The boy say down on a log, leaning on his knees, occasionally watching the action, but mostly staring at the ground. The girl continued to stand, walking back and forth, watching the men. Johnny had gone back to help the guy with the chainsaw, but then he listened to his radio, said something back, and came back to the two of them. — You’re going to have to fall back a little! Our helicopter’s coming in with a bucket!
They backed off with the first two firefighters, hearing the helicopter rotors. Johnny went to the top part of the fire, where the flames were the most active, looking up and talking into his radio. They could hear him on the other radios: — Ok, top part of the fire, north side. Where the open flame is. I got a visual on you. Keep heading straight. Slow. Slow.
Cate stood behind a tree, holding it, while Josh held her from behind. The helicopter roared slowly over the trees, huge orange bucket bulging with water hanging on a cable.
Josh tried to pull her down into a crouch. — Holy shit!
Cate laughed. — Woo hoo!
The helicopter hovered right over the fire, rotors whipping trees and blowing ash up into a cloud. The bottom of the bucket collapsed, water pouring out and down onto the fire edge and the flames, dousing them, smoke and steam and ash and mud spraying everywhere. Waterdrops of out even to where they stood.
The helicopter pulled up and away, gone in seconds, leaving sounds of water dripping and running in mudash. The men cheered and over the radio they heard Johnny: — Good shot Patrick! Load and return please!
The girl grinned at the boy. — Isn’t this fucking cool?!
The boy had been holding his hands over his ears again. — Can we go now please?
— Josh, what’s your problem?!
— Cate, we’ve seen the fire, ok?
— Are you scared?
— No, I’m not scared. I just would rather be somewhere where we might not get burned, or cut up by a chainsaw, or have a helicopter crash on us.
The firefighters had gone back to digging and cutting, but were looking at them, laughing.
— Josh, this is cool! Live! For once! Live! We’ll never get to see something like this again.
— I am living! Cate, we’re just in the way. This is dangerous.
— They said it’s ok if we stay.
— If you stay. They just like having you here to look at.
— Are you crazy? You’re jealous!
— I’m not jealous.
— Yes you are!
He held up his hands. — Fine. Fuck it. I’m leaving.
She glared. — Fine. Leave.
— I want you to come with me.
They stared at each other a second. Then he turned around, threw up his hands, and started walking back downhill. — Fine!
He didn’t hike down so much as slide, sometimes on his feet, sometimes on his butt, through pine needles and loose dirt. He heard the helicopter come in again, once half-way down, and just at the car. Back up the hill only a light white smoke just at the treetops. He stood there a while, then got in the car and turned on his iPod, putting his feet up on the open door. An occasional car passed, up-canyon or down. He got back out of the car and crossed the road, going over to the river. He found an old log next to the bank and sat down, staring at the water. He turned and looked back up at the smoke.