From “Hellroaring,” which appeared in the July 1989 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
The first thing we did was build a bridge over Slough Creek, a pristine trout stream in the northern reaches of Yellowstone National Park. I felt strange—digging and hammering in a wilderness area, spanning water that’s been protected since 1872, fighting wildfire.
The job is unglamorous and often brutal. The fundamental activity of a western fire crew is building “handline.” A handline is a narrow trail ripped out of the forest floor with hand tools. The common tactic for stopping a big fire is to create a handline ahead of the flames and then start a “back-burn,” sending a fire to meet the oncoming blaze and thus establishing a charred buffer zone. The saying goes: “Make it black and you don’t come back.”
At Slough Creek, we were facing a fire named Hellroaring, after a stream in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of southern Montana, where the “man-caused” blaze, as it was called, had started two weeks before. It had now spread over 30,000 acres and was eating into Yellowstone from the north. It was windy and the fire was making a “run,” gobbling up forest at the rate of ten chains per hour (one chain equals sixty-six feet) along a one-mile front. Just before sunset it began to rain—not water but thousands of black pine needles. They settled over camp like an evil harbinger. The northern horizon was suffused with a deep red glow, as if we were perched near the rim of a seething caldera. Now and again the color intensified, and we could hear the roar of our enemy. I was happy to have the creek between us and the fire, but that night I had a bizarre dream about being overrun by a herd of flaming bison.
There were five crews in camp, and soon after dawn we all tramped across the bridge toward the fire. A full crew has twenty members, so our “strike team” was theoretically a hundred firefighters strong, but most had sustained casualties. Given the terrain and the action, I was surprised half of us weren’t gone. Pain is a constant on the fire line, and over the course of our twenty-three-day tour, I suffered a hyperextended knee, a twisted back, two minor burns, a bruised thigh, one day of smoke headaches, a day and a half of diarrhea, a blistered thumb, and twenty-three days of sinus blockage. I felt better than most, though, especially the wretches with raw, blistered feet.
Still, as we crossed Slough Creek, our crew was in good psychological shape. We’d had the rare opportunity the week before to help build and hold the line that stopped a big western fire—a 5,000-acre blaze that burned across the Snake River from the Grand Tetons. Facing exploding fir trees a hundred feet high, we’d scrambled around in a blizzard of sparks and embers, snuffing them out in our gloves before they could ignite fresh blazes behind us. I hadn’t been that scared for years.
Beyond Slough we hiked uphill for a mile and a half. At one point I was startled to see a huge buffalo staring at us a scant twenty yards away. (I was gratified to note he wasn’t on fire.) Near the crest of a wooded ridge, with a meadow at our backs, we started building handline. For nine hours we slashed through the wilderness, the rumble of Hellroaring growing ominously louder as we advanced. It was bull work, a muscle-wearing, mind-taxing endurance run.
We had line scouts out ahead and lookouts posted at critical points, and late in the day they all agreed our work was futile. We had one and a half miles of line in, but the strike team leader decided we’d be overrun before we could finish. The fire was moving too fast, and another blaze was expected to close in. The day’s mission was for naught. Most of us laughed—a tad bitterly to be sure—for such is the nature of fighting these fires. The proposed line had been a gamble, an aggressive attempt to save more forest. But the fire—now less than a mile away and a steady roar in our ears—had outmaneuvered us. We withdrew to Slough Creek. Instead of a fire line, Yellowstone had another hiking trail.