Summer 2001
In the Green Chair
Three's charm
Alma Matters
Riff Ram
Purple Heart
Class Notes
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TCU Magazine "Purpectives"

Articles: Self-made woman

Memoirs of a girl in the oven

Smothering a red-eyed monster over summer vacation

By Sarah Jeanette Smith '03

I tasted the smoke curling into my lungs, I blinked as the dancing flames tried to snatch my eyelashes, and I felt my boots melt on the smoldering ground.

And then I looked at the guys around me -- a hippie boss and his recruits -- a redneck cowboy, a gangster, a macho snowboarder and an overweight father. And then there was me: the girl.

I had been hired as a summer wildland firefighter with the Forest Service, and this New Mexico wildfire was my first near-kabob experience.

For a split-second, I pondered the unknown impulse that caused me to strap on a pair of massive black boots and confront a flaming force that danced and sparked, daring me to challenge it. Then I heard the urgent yell of my crew boss, jerking my mind back to the char-grilling force.

Evan Sota was a seasoned firefighter, and his beady eyes were just the beginning of his intimidating presence. The hazel points seemed to detach from his face and drill right through me, exposing my naked inexperience beneath the green and yellow Nomex fire wear.

Evan's thick gray mustache fell over his mouth, and he seemed to enjoy the ambiguity of his hidden facial expressions. Long summers on the fire line had sculpted a man of solid muscle and big hands, and experience was even tied into the knot of the bandanna covering his bald head.

A sense of military formality gave order and precision to his mannerisms and instructions; he was the only person on the fire to have his last name monogrammed on his pack and shirt pocket. If there was anything Evan successfully conveyed to us, it was the sizzling uncertainty of the fire and our need to perform accordingly, with "aggressive caution."

Safety was always of utmost concern, and we were loaded down with hard hats, huge black boots, safety glasses, gloves and the most sacred object in the lives and deaths of firefighters: the fire shelter.

It could supposedly save your life if you could bury yourself under the taco-like shelter in less than 30 seconds. But if the fire got hotter than 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the aluminum laminate would melt, sealing your baked-potato fate. After practice in training, I was confident about the procedure, but I hoped that I wouldn't ever face the last-resort. Equipping us with one last encouraging comment, Evan squinted with serious emphasis and pronounced,

"This is the closest thing to war you'll see as a civilian. I want you to go out there and rock this oven!"

My crew's first order was to dig a "fire line" down a dry creek bottom, in order to connect with another crew coming to tie in the last corner. Surrounding the fire with a line of fresh dirt put a halt to the blazing furnace, and once the line was dug, it was only a matter of "mopping-up" and watching the flames slowly burn out.

We grabbed our Pulaskis -- the fire axe with a hoe opposite the blade. I lined up with my crew, and we fell into the staccato rhythm of chinking rocks and shoveling dirt. In hunched-over positions, we wore our packs at all times, even when nature called you to take a break.

Dehydration was a problem on the line, and the hot sun, hotter fire and dripping sweat made it necessary to carry at least a gallon of water. Not only did I look forward to the refreshing wetness on my lips, but I also guzzled the water to lighten my heavy pack.

I took a break after working for an hour, and Evan warned me that we might have to continue digging line until midnight. It was 10 a.m. I took another drink. I wasn't the only rookie on the crew; all the other guys were first-time forest firefighters, with the exception of one.

As the token cowboy of the group, Jake had endless stories of ropin' and ridin' across his father's ranch in Wyoming. Jake and I patrolled the fires during late nights, making coffee on the warm smoldering coals and sharing our own stories of college life.

Jake had a story about the time he got kicked out of college -- he and some buddies stole a pickup-load of fish from a hatchery and then scattered them all over campus -- and it was so good that we didn't care if it was a lie. His cowboy background made him the biggest gentleman on the crew, and I spent most of my time working on fires with him.

Jake was like a big brother to me; he was encouraging and strong when I needed him to be, made me laugh when tears were beginning to fall and stood ready to bash anyone who doubted I could "hang." As I leaned against the sloping creek-bed during the break, I remembered that frantic morning of loading gear into helicopters and then flying to the fire.

It was my first helicopter flight, my first fire and the first time that I didn't have the option of making a collect call home. The helicopter's low flying altitude intensified my anticipation, and the waxy pine smears below me looked almost close enough to touch.

The beautiful green shine of the untouched pine needles was in sharp contrast to the burned ruin of charred sticks, drifting smoke and billowing flames.

Fires were more than just burning wood, though. In training, I learned about fuel types, weather, the physics of falling trees, wind conditions and topography. Then I had to take the deciding "Pack Test," the endurance test of hiking three miles in less than 45 minutes carrying a pack loaded down with enough water to flood a small country.

Then there was "Chain Saw 101."

I didn't really meet the prerequisites for this class -- I was never a boy who chopped wood with Dad, and I had never used an axe, let alone a chain saw. But it was a great class, complete with a slide show and a step-by-step process for felling, limbing and bucking a tree.

The hardest thing for me to do, however, was simply starting the chain saw. I didn't have the upper body strength of the guys, so I was unable to stand up and pull the starter at the same time.

But I was determined to wield my new-found power to end photosynthesis, so I invented my own way of bending down so that I could use my whole body to pull the starter with one furious yank. From knowing nothing about a chain saw but the noise, I progressed to felling a tree 18 inches in diameter.

That was a great day -- I screamed and all the guys cheered when the tree came crashing down. As long as the fire was raging, it was not unusual to work 16 to 20 hours a day.

Sometimes we worked with intense action to quench a fire's roaring character, but other teasing fires demanded more patience. There were nights when we slept on the fire line, and took turns waking up every hour to check on a burning snag that was in danger of falling across the line. Layers of thick tape tried to remedy the blisters and annoying rub of my heavy black boots.

In a matter of four days, my painted toenails and soft, moisturized feet seemed to be an extension of the slashing and burning. My morning routine included talking to Evan while he massaged and bandaged my suffering feet. We discussed everything from Florida trailer parks to philosophy to the Civil War.

Whenever he took out the Band-Aids from his monogrammed first-aid pack, I saw a more compassionate, caring side of a man who had not yet been completely hardened by fire. Of the 95 people working at the fire, five were girls.

Most of the guys on the fire satisfied Evan's idea of the macho pyromaniac, or "23-year-old brain donor." This was a guy who lived only for beer, Copenhagen and the prospect of single-handedly smothering the blaze.

I always laughed at Evan's stories, but never really believed that such a mindless male creature existed. Then I met Dave. He was a tall kid from Colorado and, from outward appearances, looked like he and his hair came straight out of a rock band.

With his Pulaski, Dave would rip through burning wood like a maniac, and one time a chain saw almost severed his arm when he barged in front of the whirling destruction. He would attempt to lift heavy chunks of wood that should take two people to lift, his face turning into a grimace of bulging eyes and popping veins. Dave frequently tried to fill a silence with his own profound thoughts, but once spoken, they materialized as pure ignorance.

I couldn't count the number of times he asked me, "Have you seen the girl with the beer cart?" After we spent innumerable days on a fire, the Incident Commander -- the biggest of the fire bosses -- called the fire "under control."

Of course, the lightning that had caused the fire only seemed to strike in the middle of the wilderness, so fire crews were guaranteed to have a marathon hike back to civilization at the end of each fire. On one occasion, the nearest road was 16 miles away, so we packed our gear and left the dying wisps of smoke behind.

My crew guys trekked out at a pace that shouldn't be possible while carrying a heavy pack. I worked to keep up with them, running at times -- up mountains, down embankments -- and finally stopping near a dry lake for lunch. I sat down to eat with Jake and Evan, but when Dave saw me, he took a long drag of his cigarette and said, "Girl, you kept up with us? You're pretty damn burly."

Even though I thought Dave intended that to be a compliment to my endurance, I was furious. I finished the hike by myself.

At the end of the day, I was dead-tired, but at the same time, I was proud of the work that both united and separated me from the guys on my crew. It had been a never-ending summer of trying to act like a girl while working like a man. I didn't want any favors or easy jobs just because I had to work harder to keep up.

I wanted the guys to respect me, to laugh with me and to count on me. It wasn't easy. Sometimes it wasn't fun. But no matter how much my feet hurt, how thirsty I was or how badly I wanted to drench my hair in fruity conditioner, I loved working hard and being in the woods. It felt great because I was covered with layers of sticky sweat, black smoke, dried tears and the sense of accomplishment.

Part of me wanted to finish the hike that day with the fastest guys, but the girl inside of me pushed to redefine herself, not according to the guys' standards of what's right, or burly, but according to her own sense of who she was.

She didn't need to follow their lead to feel worthy.

That summer, the inferno raged and the smoke swirled, but the girl smothered the red-eyed monster.

Sarah Smith is an interior design sophomore from Silver City, N.M. She will work for the Forest Service in the Gila National Forest this summer.