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Where There’s Smoke…

by Geoff Hart

A hot, dry breeze teased at my hair, then fell silent as I gazed out across the lake from the old fire tower’s observation deck. I’d set the kids to refurbish the tower earlier that summer, and they’d grown sufficiently bored from inaction that this time, they’d only complained for practice.

It was dry enough after three weeks without rain that a decent-sized fire was a real possibility, and even the newbies could sense it. But even from this height there was nothing to see beyond the sweep of forest extending to each horizon. Most of the past two decades, Mac had probably been up here himself with a flask of Dalmore, doing much the same thing I was doing, figuring maybe he’d spot something the satellites had missed—something he claimed the satellites had no way of seeing in the first place. I closed my eyes and tried to feel that something, but I’d only felt it once before, and didn’t feel it this time.

With my eyes shut, I felt a moment of disorientation, as if the world were moving beneath me, and the cliché briefly amused me before I opened my eyes and realized the world really was moving; the old tower was swaying gently, sun-grayed timbers creaking piteously against the newer wood we’d bolted atop it to restore some of the structure’s former strength. I opened my eyes, but the motionless treetops and the sweat still beading on my brow confirmed the lack of any wind to speak of. The tower’s swaying meant I wasn’t going to be alone much longer. I sighed, and brought myself back to the present.

“You’re not supposed to be up here, Tom.” Through the open trap door, Holly’s voice was outright mocking, and knowing her as well as I did despite our relatively short acquaintance, I’d have bet she was enjoying the irony of breaking the rules herself to remind me of my sin.

“Girl, if I can make the rules, I can sure as hell break them. So I won’t tell anyone ’bout you if you won’t blow the whistle on me. Deal?”

“Deal. Anyway, who’d I turn you in to?” She pulled herself smoothly all the way up into the tower, not the least bit winded by her climb. I’d been that young once.

“Good point. Is it too late to renege on my part of the deal?” I enjoyed her answering smile and the sweat-soaked tanktop she was wearing, finding another reason to wish I were younger, or that I’d been safely married long enough not to be worrying about such thoughts. She wasn’t exactly a kid—none of them were, despite the way I teased them—but there were too many years between us for me to do more than appreciate the view and the smell of fresh sweat.

“Not a chance. So what are you doing up here? Catching some quality time away from the newbies?”

I shook my head. “Wouldn’t work; they always seem to find me." I shot her a significant glare. "Nope, I’m watching for fires.”

“No shit? Don’t they have, like, satellites to do that?”

I smiled mirthlessly. “Yeah, they do. And you’d think that would be enough, wouldn’t you?”

“That’s what they claimed in Basic. You’ve got a better line?” The silence stretched long enough for the laughter to leave her eyes and become concern. “Tom?”

“Sorry... just remembering. To be honest, I’m not sure. Most days I buy the party line just like you do... but I’ve seen things...”

She furrowed her brow, unsure whether I was pulling her leg. She settled for the conservative approach. “Buy you a beer...?”

I wiped the sweat from my brow. “Heh. You’re awfully generous with my beer, youngster. But I’ve had worse offers. Me first?”

She grimaced, but the smile was back in her eyes. “You want a look up my dress, gramps, just ask.”

I returned her smile. “Fine. You go first.”

“Tough choice... I’d almost rather have you watch my ass!” She grabbed the top of the ladder with strong, calloused hands and dropped through the trap door with a recklessness that stopped me in my tracks. I took a good, firm grip on the ladder, feeling the swaying of the tower in my gut, then followed her, climbing considerably more cautiously.

***

Back at the camp, we seated ourselves in a corner of the common room, letting the air conditioner’s breath lick the sweat from our brows and sipping our first beers. Good Canadian micro-brew, flown in over the border the last time the boys from Bombardier dropped in to update the electronics on the CL-615s. At the far end of the room, Bill and Adam were watching something on the vid that featured explosions and gunfire; no idea where the others were. With the forecasts claiming another week or so of peace, they’d probably gone fishing, but I’d still give them hell if I found no itinerary in my office and someone hadn't checked out a radio. Holly sat comfortably on the far end of the couch from me, legs curled up beneath her, a stubby, brown bottle swinging from one hand. She shivered and pulled a stained afghan some long-forgotten fire fighter had abandoned here around her shoulders.

“So spill the beans. Why’re you risking life and limb in that decrepit old tower—feeling the need to commune with another old soul?”

“Laugh while you can. I was your age once.”

“Yeah, back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Quit treading water.”

“Sure you want to know?” I took a slow sip and savored the chill bitterness. “Okay. Let’s start with ‘there are things under Heaven and in the Earth not dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.’ ”

She smiled. “You should quote Dead White Males with more respect, boss—the least you could do is get the wording right. What’s Hamlet got to do with it?”

I saluted with my bottle. Point, hers. “Sometimes we need reminding the world’s not as simple as we’d have it be.”

“Do tell.”

“I would, if you’d only stop interrupting.” She raised her bottle and toasted in return. Point, mine. “Ever heard of James Alexander MacDonald?”

“Should I have?”

“Mac was my predecessor, though he didn’t predecease me fighting a fire.” I thought about it for a moment, shrugged, went on. “He was from the old school, old enough to have fought fires pretty much barehanded. When he started out, there were no satellites, no portable radios, and not much of anything you didn’t power with your own sweat. He stuck it out 'til all those things were available to us, and unlike some, he embraced the tech and made it part of his toolkit. But he was still an old-fashioned, superstitious man, and when he’d gotten himself outside a few ounces of scotch, he used to tell these stories...”

“This is where the ghost story comes in, right?” I must’ve flinched, ’cause she sat up straight, looking almost apologetic.

Yes, if you listened to Mac; no, if you listen to me—at least, most days.” I sipped at my beer, the chill spreading through my head and making my sinuses ache. “What can you tell me about the fire of ’93?”

She bought some time with another long sip of her beer. “The one where those eight smoke-eaters ran the wrong way and got toasted?”

“That’s the one, and you should speak of dead white males—and females—with more respect. A nasty business, and yes, we do tell you about it to plant the fear of God in your soul. You need to know that you can fuck up too, and all the hi-tech in the world isn’t gonna save you if you panic and run the wrong way. So how about the fire of ’18?”

This time, she didn’t hesitate. “That’s the one you’re always telling us about, just down the road from the ’93 fire; you need to get some new stories.” Then the light came on. “Oh! That MacDonald!”

“Yeah, that Mac. He was the fire boss. And the fire caught us on the exact same site as the ’93 fire—I checked the GIS, afterwards—and the only reason we didn’t lose another eight was that Mac kept everyone calm. Everyone except me.”

Her eyes widened for a moment before she brought that smug, invulnerable look back onto her face. “Y’know boss, I always suspected you were a wuss deep down.”

I shook my head. “Holly, I was the one who went back in and pulled out Mac.”

Something in my voice caught her, and she took a long pull of her beer before sitting up straighter and sobering again. It added a lot of years to her face. “You never said that before. Sorry, Tom.”

I drained my beer, and set the bottle on the floor. “Near as we could figure, the fire started from some asshole tourist flinging a lit butt out the window of his camper. Odds were it would have been lightning most other times, but it was the height of the summer heat, just like today but less humid, and there hadn’t been even a hint of rain for weeks. So you can imagine, the tourists were out in droves. Most were just passing through; there’d been logging in the area, and nobody was much interested in stopping to admire the view. Anyway, I checked the records afterwards, and the lightning detectors never showed anything.

“You can probably imagine what it looked like—think of the prescribed burn we had you kids put out for practice last summer, that low arc of fire creeping leisurely towards you across the bleached grass that’d invaded the clearcuts and growing wider and wilder as it moved on towards the foothills a few miles from the highway. Just your basic grass fire, nothing unusual for the local ecology, and if it hadn’t have been for the drought, it would’ve probably burned itself out when it reached the treeline and that would have been the end of it. Of course, there’d been logging, so that wasn’t the end of it.”

I licked my lips, looking regretfully at my empty bottle, and she passed me hers, eyes more intent than the last time I’d told her stories. “The same lodgepole pine’s growing there now, and we still manage those stands for fire so the foresters have their job security and we get the tax dollars that bought you that beer. Thanks, by the way. Simple equation: you let the fires burn out the old growth, and before you know it, you’ve got doghair pine stands thicker than when you started. Of course, ol’ Mama Nature gets almighty pissed whenever we think we’ve got her figured out, and some fires just plain fool you. That’s why we oldtimers still watch with our eyes.”

I passed her back the bottle. “This fire did just what you’d expect: it convected right up the first of the hills like a runner giving that starting kick that gets you out front and wins you a race if you’re not up against someone with a better finishing kick. Right into the logging slash, enough to get its second wind. Back at the base, there was just the gentlest breeze, and we were sitting around in the shade, wishin’ we had a generator and enough fuel to make it worth our while to smuggle in an air conditioner. You kids today are spoiled.”

I paused, awaiting a riposte, and cocked an eyebrow when she remained quiet, an odd look on her face. “I imagine the animals had figured what was up by then, and if there’d been any campers around, they’d have been wondering at the increase in furry photo opps. But the Parks Service’d already closed the campgrounds downwind once the fire danger rating peaked. Not even a ranger around to watch the excitement.

“Even then, we’d already mothballed the fire towers and come to rely on more objective means, like the ESA satellite that first spotted the fire and alerted Central. You know the drill: the alarms are going off, the dispatchers are putting away their porn and popping up the stochastic models, and the GIS guys are doing whatever it is GIS guys do while everyone else is working. We still use the grandchildren of those original Canadian Forest Service models, by the way. I can see the dispatchers concentrating, looking at each other across the room through the glowing amber envelopes forming in the holos, and promptly putting through the call.

“It’d been a quiet summer, and we’d been expecting Central’s call for a couple days, all the while honing our shovels ’til you could damn near shave with them and honing our axes until we did shave with 'em, rechecking the patches on the old hoses that we’d already checked well enough the first dozen times, and breaking down and reassembling the pumps.”

“Some things never change,” Adam snorted, and I twitched, not having noticed him join us. He handed us each another beer, and started in on his own, his gaze switching back and forth between Holly and me.

“We’d pretty much had enough of waiting by then, and we lit out like the Brass Rail’d announced a two-for-one special on draft and lap dances. Mac didn’t have to say a word; we’d done the drill so many times he just stood there, smiling smugly and watching. About the time I was climbing into a copter, busting my hump under all that antique gear, the fire’d begun climbing into the lower branches of the scrawny trees left in the wake of the logging, boosted up there by that ground fire that was still reaching greedily towards the treeline, licking its lips. I love those pines, but with all the damn resins in the bark, you might just as well soak ’em down with gasoline when it gets hot and dry. If the fire hadn’t already begun crowning by the time we were in the air, it didn’t waste any time waiting.

“It was already past the point where we were going to be able to put the fire out, not that any one of us had a suspicion of this just yet, but we still had a decent chance of delaying the fire long enough for some rain or maybe even turning it inwards to feed on itself until it starved to death. So we strapped in aboard the copters, listening to the updates over our headsets and waiting for the telemetry to kick in and give us visual, smiling at each other and beginning to feel the adrenaline-sickness. We knew we were in for a fight.”

“Wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Adam commented, flexing a biceps thick as my thigh and earning a glare from Holly. I ignored him and continued.

“The first of the CL-515s were already airborne and dropping their loads on the advancing flame front. Our pilot—damned if I can remember who it was now!—slewed us sideways hard enough to bang my helmet against the window: ‘Have a look to port, ladies and ladies!’ We bent our necks and watched one of those gorgeous, big yellow birds make its run, sweeping across the view as slowly as a brown pelican landing, graceful for all the tons of water in its belly. We watched the wall of water fall, the plane surging upward as it shook itself free of the water, and took a collective deep breath. There weren’t enough of them or us to actually extinguish the fire, but they’d slow the fire long enough for us to divert it. Say what you will about Canadian tech, back then those old planes were state-of-the-art for initial attack.

“You’re spoiled nowadays, what with the VTOLs, but back then, helicopters were the only game in town, and damned unsteady they were at the best of times. Our pilot angled in around the front of the advancing fire, the lot of us rubbernecking and jostling each other to get a view of what we’d be facing. The deep thrum of the blades was pounding in my chest like a second heart, strong enough to drown out my own heartbeat. There were already a few small firewhirls forming, and I got my head banged hard against the window again watching them.”

I took another sip of my beer, and watched the two youngsters lean forward to better hear me. “You could see the convection cells dancing like dervishes—dust devils on steroids, but bigger and growing hotter fast. Even through the windows, you could feel the heat beating on your face, and here and there, flaming branches were bouncing up and down like grasshoppers; one or two even unfurled their wings and fled upwards, crashing back to earth yards downwind, sending up tiny smoke pillars.

“We swung in past the flame front, gusts of wind and the pilot’s corrections on the stick tossing the copter around like a luffing sail, and came to what passed for a halt about 30 feet up in the air, landing skids just about scraping the treetops. There was no way to miss the LZ, what with the GPS and the brilliant orange swaths of fire retardant on the uphill slope between us and the fire, blowing all over the place like a neon blizzard in the propwash. I locked my filter into place beneath the visor, clipped onto the line, and waited for Mac to clear me. He gave each of us a slow once-over, tugging our harnesses hard enough to leave bruises, then nodded and thumbed us over to the door, serious as an undertaker now we were on the job. You kids didn’t do a copter drop in Basic, but it’s nothing like VTOL; we didn’t use winches, and had to rappel down after we’d lowered our packs on the same ropes we’d be descending. You duck your head as you step out the hatch, that instinctual reflex that tells you sure as shit you’re going to lose your helmet and the brains that are supposed to be under it if you step out with your head too high. Then you fall out backwards, letting the rope slide through your gloves, under your butt, and over your shoulder, bouncing all over the place and spinning in circles from the propwash and the bucking of the copter, hoping you’re not coming down with a tree in a straight line between your butt and the ground.”

“Ouch! That’s gotta smart!” Adam chimed in. Holly threw a pillow at him, which he ducked with the ease of long practice.

“Believe it. It’s bad enough dropping through the branches. When we touched down, we stepped out of the way so they wouldn’t drop the lines on us; you couldn’t risk a line hanging up and bringing down the copter. Once Mac was down, the pilot banked away, flipping sideways just long enough to show us his thumbs-up and remind us who had the plum job that day. The filters kept out most of the dust, but damn! those old engines smelled bad. I watched that lunatic accelerate away from us through a gap in the trees, dropping downhill like one of those skipping stones Adam’s always pitching into the lake, and caroming off the fire just as hard, gone to fetch more teams to cover our flanks. I’d raised my visor for a better look, squinting against the last of the dust, when Mac came up behind me and gave me a good, hard kick in the butt to remind me I was here on government time.”

“Adam’s right: some things never do change.” Bill had come to join us, rubbing his backside and remembering some of my own ungentle reminders.

“We dropped enough trees between us and the fire to make room for the copters to touch down later, since you really don’t want to be rappelling back up through those trees with a fire tugging at your boots.”

“You can’t rappel up, unless you’ve got Jumars! Did you have them back then?”

“I don’t think that was his point, Bill.”

I smiled at Holly and raised my beer in thanks. “After we’d built our escape hatch, we moved back uphill to cross over the crest and head into the stand where the CL-515s had been unloading. They’d come in low enough to knock down much of the timber, and it was like pickup sticks there, chicots everywhere waiting to fall on you. Small timber, sure, but enough to give you a good knock on the head if you weren’t careful. Even then, you could feel the heat, like entering a room with a crackling fire after a nice long walk in the snow, and you could hear the fire far off, mumbling along its way and crunching on the bones of the trees. Mac’s voice broke in over the earphones: ‘Drop your visors, kids, we’ve got a briefing to get through.’ So we watched the heads-up display while Mac highlighted the key landmarks in our part of the front, outlining the main fire breaks and safe zones and plotting them against the anticipated spread of the fire. He finished up by reminding us that if the fire got past us, it was going to burn for a good long while and make a run downwind for Whitefish and Columbia Falls.

“When he was done, I lifted my visor, ’cause it got damned hot under those old helmets and the old displays were crappy lo-res stuff that hurt your eyes if you watched too long, and set to work. We dropped any standing timber with chainsaws and bucked the stems into smaller sections, hauled those sections back with pulp hooks and hand winches to create gaps, hacked through the root mat with shovels, and tossed up mineral soil into the gaps. We had almost as much nervous energy as you kids have—though I don’t think anyone ever actually had that much energy in my day,” I nodded towards Adam, who’d begun fidgeting back and forth while he listened, and exchanged a knowing grin with the other two. “If the copters got back in time after dumping the other crews, we’d even have water to feed our pumps and help us beat down any flames that managed to sneak across the gaps. Basically, we had more than we ever needed to beat something as primitive as a stupid damned fire: satellites and fancy computer models to tell us where the fire was heading, headsets and visors to show us where everyone was and how the fire was progressing, aircraft that could drop tons of water and fire-retardant chemicals on and ahead of the fire, and the lightest, most powerful pumps early-21st-century technology could produce.

“One weapon we didn’t have: Central wouldn’t let us set backfires, ’cause the wind blowing towards us from the fire was strengthening but still erratic, and it’s awfully damned embarrassing to get chased out of the field by your own backfire. But they did promise us something almost as good: dozers to widen the gap, if those cranky old Sikorskis could get off the ground in time to drop them—and if the fire would let those slow, awkward beasts get close enough to be of any use.

“On the other side of the hilltop, the fire only had enough thermal energy to cook most of the state and part of the Dakotas if we let it. We were just shy of a fair fight, and nobody pretended otherwise, but we were there anyway ’cause we knew we were better than any fire. Buddy of mine in Montreal who grew some truly fine hydroponic weed swore the only reason we were there was that all the smoke we’d inhaled was the poor man's high. I haven’t smoked a joint in longer than you lot’ve been alive, so I can’t say, but you all know the high you get after a few days on a fire. It’s not just the lack of sleep.”

I sipped again at my beer, remembering that feeling. “We were working in a doghair pine stand that’d risen from the ashes of the last fire that passed through—that was the one I was telling Holly about, the one that killed those eight smoke-eaters back in ’93. The trees really were thick as the hair on a dog’s back, and too small to harvest; peckerwood, the foresters call them. Many were small enough we didn’t even have to buck them before we could drag ’em downhill. The muddy footing created by the water bombers was slick andtreacherous, and the heat from the fire was already making the air uncomfortably humid.

“You know fires aren’t like us: they run upslope and stagger downhill, right? Not this time. Mac called a break and gathered us together in the cleared area. ‘We’ve got a weird one this time, kids. It’s taking its own sweet time moving uphill. Central can’t figure it out worth a damn, and they’re blaming the satellites. I’ve done visual recon, and the telemetry’s fine, but they won't buy it.’ We all laughed, relishing Mac’s smile, and settled down as he began speaking again. ‘Have a look at your displays, and let’s update the plan of attack—and if you’re having any problems with your telemetry, sing out; we’ve got spares and we won't have time to use them later.’

“I watched with only half my attention as Mac sketched in the cleared zone in bright green and overlaid a dashed red line to show what we had left to accomplish. Most of my attention was on the fire, though. The fire’s boundary was uncomfortably close, and not nearly as ragged as you’d expect; two arms had begun reaching around the lower flanks of our range of hills, and that would have worried me if it hadn’t been so damned fascinating. And either my headset was beginning to crap out or the grandmother of all firewhirls was building in the middle of the display. Better safe than sorry, so I got myself a new unit once the lecture was over. The telemetry stayed fuzzy, but the updated fallback positions were clear, the other teams on the display were closing those openings on our flanks, and it looked like we still had plenty of time before the fire could flank us. I raised my visor and had another look around, and I could see the wall of smoke from the fire rising into the sky, sparks shooting through it big enough at this distance to be tree-length torches.

“I wanted to get into it again, hand to hand, and see whether we were going to quit first or force the fire to its knees. The adrenaline was still going strong, but I was too tired to feel the nausea. The fire had squatted too long down below us, giving us the time we needed, and I knew we were going to beat it this time.

“So we threw ourselves at the fire again, sweating like marathoners and dragging trees downslope as fast as we could without following them downhill. When you paused to catch your breath and suck down some lukewarm Gatorade, you could hear the roar of the flames drawing nearer. You kids haven’t been that close to a big one yet, so you don’t know what it feels like when the fire’s beating at your ears louder than the chainsaws. Once, when I’d stopped for a break, I popped the visor down over my eyes for an update, and it was clear the fire had changed its mind and started to run. That same fuzzy patch at its center had risen even higher into the sky; I raised the visor again, and all I could see was a curtain of smoke that hung overhead like a breaking wave, orange and yellow shooting through it like August heat lightning.

“The water bombers rushed overhead again to douse the fuels we hadn’t reached, low enough to deafen us even over the rest of the din. At that height, the water hit like a freight train each time, and you could hear the trees snapping like Holly cracking her knuckles. Mac’s voice came over the headsets, urging us on a bit breathlessly as he walked the perimeter—ran, more like—and kept an eye on things. We bent our backs to the job, no time left to look around and track the progress of the fire, confident Mac would pull us out if it got too close. Things still seemed fine, even after we lost Central's telemetry; it wasn’t supposed to happen, but we’d been warned that the new equipment might break down if the static electricity generated by those swirling winds above the fire got strong enough. It wasn’t reassuring by any means, but we'd drilled without the equipment too. Whenever we rotated out of the fire break to rest and refill our canteens, a few of us climbed back up the hill to act as spotters and give Mac a break.

“You had to be there to understand what it looked like, what with the top of that black wall of smoke rising high enough your neck hurt if you tried to spot its top and the orange fire nailing its feet to the ground.”

“We’ve seen the pictures,” Adam remarked, lips quirking into one of his superior smiles.

“Pictures aren’t real; this took your breath away. Even so, it was awe, not fear; I was too young to be worried until Mac joined us atop the hill, raised his own visor, and started swearing—though at that distance, you couldn’t hear a word. Pity; that man swore like a poet. Even then, I didn’t waste time worrying until he clapped down the visor again and sounded the recall, voice barely comprehensible over the static. We gathered just below the crest of the hill, and Mac took a hasty straw poll: ‘You all know we’ve lost our link with Central. It’s probably only temporary, but don’t let’s get cocky. If they don’t re-establish contact soon, they’ll send in the copters, but we’ve also got the option of asking for helivac right away—assuming we can punch a signal through all that interference.’ I remember his proud smile when we laughed in his face and told him where he could stick his helivac. You know the feeling: ‘Fuck the tech—other men and women had fought fires to a standstill more than a century ago without toys, and we’re stronger and smarter.’ Of course, the water bombers and helicopters had stopped passing overhead, and I guess that should have warned us—but we were just too pumped to be thinking of such things.

“So we went back to work, sweat soaking through our helmet liners and sluicing into our eyes faster than the heat could dry it out. We’d finished the Gatorade and made a pretty good dent in our water supply, but we kept busy rehydrating between trips downslope. Part of me kept expecting to feel the Sikorski drumbeat in my chest and to watch the D8s drop down from their bellies on cables, like great friendly spiders. I could hear the clank of the dozers’ tracks and smell the hot diesel, but that turned out to be wishful thinking; the only drumming in my chest was the voice of the fire. The water and the dozers never arrived, and the link with Central never came back online. Still, Mac kept circulating, calmly congratulating us on the progress we’d made and telling us we’d be here until the heat melted the marshmallows in our lunchpacks, ‘and even then, we’ll stick it out long enough to make smores’.

“There came a time when the spotters warned us, barely audible above the static, that we weren’t going to win this one. Even behind the sheltering bulk of the mountain, gusts of hot wind had begun reaching us, whipping over the crest and filling our faces with ash; it’d gotten bad enough that we kept the visors down all the time now despite the heat, and had swapped the filters for respirators. Mac toured our line, warning us in person it was time to get to the pickup point; he’d heard no confirmation any more than the rest of us had, but the drill was clear and we knew that after this much time without contact, they had to be already on the way. There was no sign of them on the heads-up display—in fact, there was fuck all to see other than our own transponders now that the link with Central was dead—so I popped up my visor for a moment, squinting skyward against the swirling ash and dust, eyes dry from the heat. There they were, dark flecks against the darker sky, the winds tossing them around like milkweed seeds. I watched them whip overhead and careen downwards, moving fast enough they must have bent landing struts when they hit. My heart was pounding, and I was staring through the murk to be sure they were safely down. Fact is, the way those cowboys flew, pretty much the only place they’re safe is on the ground!

“I slammed down the visor again, grateful for the protection, not much liking the way the light from the flames was dancing on the underbelly of the blackness looming across the sky above us. I didn’t spend much time watching, though, ’cause it wasn’t going to be much longer before the turbulence got too strong for the copters. I could feel the increasingly hot air licking at me as it rushed over the crest and swept down on us, baking the sweat off my face and doing its damnedest to fog the visor, and a light rain of sparks had begun falling, smoldering where it landed on our fireproofs.

“Mac’s second recall rang in my ears, the emergency signal punching cleanly through the static, so I shouldered my tools and headed for the pickup at a jog. I would have spat on the ground, my last contribution to stopping the fire, but my mouth was too dry and full of ash despite the respirator, and the mask would have gotten in the way. It’d been a good fight, and one that, all kidding aside, we’d known we had a good chance of losing. So we’d pull back and regroup until Central plotted us another line of attack on the fire, then come back in a day and try again.

“I lost that confidence when the recall became the high-pitched scream that said someone was in trouble. I was still half deaf from the roar of the flames—they were loud enough now to overwhelm the beat of the choppers, but not that alarm.”

Bill smiled. “Tell me about it. Did you know they did a Fourrier on a baby’s cries and picked the most annoying, impossible-to-ignore frequencies for the mayday?”

“Kind of like that music you kids play. But who’s telling this story anyway? I whacked the visor hard to clear the display, and focused in past the fuzz. There—Mac was down, doing his final sweep behind us to make sure nobody got left behind, and I was closest. So I shouted into the continuing static that I was going to recover him. I didn’t hesitate for a second beyond what I needed to gauge the distance and azimuth. I guess I figured I had plenty of time and stamina left to reach him before the fire did and still make it back to the LZ. So I headed deeper into the heat, dropping my tools as I ran to lighten the load.

“I found him just out of sight of the choppers, lying where he’d been downed by a chunk of fiery debris that must have weighed a couple hundred pounds. He wasn’t going to be getting out on his own, that was damn sure. I skidded to a halt beside him, squatted, panting, and lifted with my legs, heaving the burning branch off him, the flames painful even through gloves. But the branch rolled, and I took a second to assess his injuries, ’cause you don’t risk making a spinal injury worse, even with a fire that big breathing down your neck. In hindsight, I should’ve just grabbed him and run like hell. His back looked safe, near as my inexpert assessment could tell, but the debris had torn his jacket, and I could see blackened flesh, some of it oozing blood and plasma; he had at least one third-degree burn, and his shallow breathing told me he’d probably fractured ribs—pray God it wasn’t a tension pneumo. He was far enough gone, and probably shocky, that he wasn’t going to feel anything when I lifted him.

“I knew I’d screwed up big-time when a wave of superheated air rushing ahead of the fire staggered me, sweeping dust and ashes under the visor and into my eyes and gluing the lashes to my sweating face. A second wave followed, tossing me the other way and baking the grime into a mask tight enough to hurt when I grimaced. Praying he’d forgive me if I’d guessed wrong and crippled him, I grabbed Mac, grunted, and heaved him up onto my shoulders. Then I ran for it, legs buckling from dehydration and the dead weight; the damned Scot was big enough to have given Adam there a fair wrestle. With the ashes swirling around, I couldn’t see the pickup point any more, and the visor was out, so I pointed my feet downslope and let gravity carry me in the right direction; with any luck, I figured, I'd hear the copters when I got close. So I staggered onwards, and just about then a gap opened in the smoke and ash, and I saw the last copter lift off, thrown sideways at a frightening angle by the wind and only missing the treetops thanks to the steepness of the slope that fell away beneath it.

“Part of me knew it was too late; a fire that strong would sweep across the LZ and firebreak like it wasn’t even there. But that didn’t mean I was going to sit still and wait. Nobody’d ever accused me of being a quitter, and nobody was going to do it afterwards—one way or another—so I took a deep breath and got myself going again. I made it into the first of the standing trees downslope, skipping over the fallen stems and sliding down the mud, and I tell you true, I was scared shitless, maybe even literally. I remember bouncing off a tree, losing my balance, and pinwheeling around to crash to a stop against another tree, barely managing to wrench myself around so that Mac wasn’t between me and the tree. Then everything brightened and for the first time that morning, I saw my shadow as the fire surged overhead. I was sure my eyebrows were singeing, and I could feel the heat hammering against my skin like I was naked, baking out streams of sweat that failed to cool me as they evaporated.

“This wasn’t one of those baby fires you can survive by crawling under your fire blanket, wrapping it tight around you, closing your eyes, and letting the flames run past, the way you do in Basic. Those last-resort shelters they gave us were never intended to hold off the kind of heat we were facing. Even if they had been, I’d only have time to get Mac into his before the fire caught us. So I stood there, and it was like watching the lake come up to hit you in the gut when you’ve jumped from the bluff and misjudged your rotation by about half a turn. In the seconds before the fire hit, I stood there, frozen. Even with the visor at maximum opacity, I had to squint against the heat and light, but I could’ve sworn I saw something moving, silhouetted amidst the maelstrom, a giant humanoid form etched in flame, black eyes darker than Hell during a brown-out, and as unmistakably female as Holly.”

Adam laughed weakly, almost breaking the mood, but I ignored him. “I met those eyes as the heat wrapped ever more tightly around me, and they would’ve stopped me in my tracks even if the tree hadn’t already done that. I was sure I could feel my skin crisping, nerve endings gone before the pain could be fully appreciated, but there’s no way I could have drawn air that hot into my lungs; must've been shock and exhaustion messing with my head. Yet some part of me wouldn’t quit even then, and I straightened up and shrugged Mac back onto my shoulders, standing facing whatever it was I’d seen, wanting to die on my feet.

“There came a sudden stunning stillness, like when you’re boxing and you see that final punch coming that’s gonna put you down for the count. I half-saw that awful face smile, mouth even darker than those eyes, and the roar of the flames rang like thunderous laughter in my ears. Then she swept an arm skyward, and I felt myself hurled upwards and engulfed by the black cloud overhead. I remember gasping at the sudden chill, and wanting to get a better look at that thing, which goes to show how stupid you can be when you’re that close to meeting your maker.

“But stranger even than that, I remember feeling no heat from the flames that caressed my body, that cradled me as I turned end over end high in the air and began a descent so rapid it tore the breath from my scalded lungs, the respirator lost somewhere far behind. Then the ground blurred as I decelerated, those flames depositing me so gently on the ground I never felt the impact. I mustered enough consciousness to raise my head, squinting my eyes so hard that my eyebrows would have met in the middle if I’d still had eyebrows. I guess I’d lost my helmet too sometime during that flight, and the flames had taken a souvenir. In my peripheral vision, I could see Mac lying a short distance off, unmoving, but there was something else. Ebon eyes met mine from amidst that overhanging cloud, the flames from her body charring the ground between us but leaving us unharmed. Then she leaned forward and winked at me, her spicy-sulfurous perfume washing over me, and with crackling laughter like flames eating resinous wood, she fled up into the sky to rejoin her fire.”

Holly’s eyes were wide. “Wow.”

Adam shook his head just a little too quickly. “You’re telling us the fire was alive? That’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it?”

I shook my head, and took a long pull at my beer. The long story’d dried my throat, I guess. “More than a bit of a stretch. Just between you and me, I think we were hallucinating. You get enough heat, enough fear, and too little oxygen...”

“You mean someone else saw it too?”

“Mac. A long time ago, before most of you lot were still a gleam in your parents’ eyes. He told me while we were in the hospital.”

“He survived the fall?” Bill’s face was sober, his voice incredulous.

“We both did, God knows how. He was out and he stayed out for most of a day even once they got us back to the hospital and rehydrated. I was still semiconscious, and I remember replaying the images in my mind, watching whatever it was I’d seen dancing amidst the flames like a martial artist doing competition-level kata. I couldn’t take my eyes off it even after the paramedics caught up with me.”

“This is just one of those ‘scare the newbies’ stories you like to tell us, right? They found you before you both died of exposure or shock?” Adam’s face had gone back to its familiar, irreverent expression, but I’d seen something else in his eyes for an instant.

“Of course. We each still had our transponders, and once we were out of the firestorm, we showed up brighter than the fire on their screens. Guys like you and me, we’re replaceable, but it takes a lot of years to grow a Mac, and they must’ve wanted him back bad.”

“So they found you.” Bill shot Adam a pitying look, then turned his gaze back on me.

“Yup. I was still staring up at the sky, too drawn to the show even to roll over and see whether Mac was still alive, when the copter slashed down between me and the fire, cutting off the view. The first paramedic ran past on his way to Mac. The second one grabbed me.

“ ‘Damned if you two didn’t come crashing down out of nowhere like Dorothy and Toto!’ he said, and stuck his face between me and the sky, obscuring the dance. ‘Don’t move. You fell a helluva long distance, son.’ I felt him snapping the cervical collar shut around my neck, then he left me, off to help with Mac. I lay there and watched Her, and ashes were raining down around me and I could feel the heat growing strong again. Then he was back. ‘Fire’s changing directions too unpredictably; we’ve got to get you out of here now.’ He shoved a backboard under me, and the two of them damn near threw me into the copter, slamming the door behind them. We took off so hard I would’ve sworn I left my balls behind on the ground, and we banked hard enough to throw the paramedic against the door. I’d have joined him if it hadn’t been for the straps.

“The copter banked again, the glow of the flames reflecting on the ceiling, and the heat washed over me. Then we leveled out, and the paramedic staggered back to me, planting an elbow in my gut before he could prop himself against something and rip open my jacket with the cutdown knife. I felt the sting of the IV entering a vein, and the deliciously cool flow of liquid. Then he slapped a mask over my face, damn near breaking my nose as a gust caught the copter again and flung it sideways and upward, the rotors shrieking like they were about to rip free. I took a deep breath and waited for the pain, but it never came; there was more than oxygen in the mix, and thank God for modern broad-spectrum anesthetics. I started relaxing, and as the copter leveled out, the glow from the fire finally faded. I tried to look out the nearest window, desperate for one last glimpse, but I couldn’t turn my head with the collar on, and when I tried, I could feel how badly scalded my skin was.”

Ouch.”

“Yeah, ‘ouch’. Damnit, Adam, do you ever believe anything you haven’t seen with your own eyes? Check the damned hospital records if you don’t believe me. Boot up the PC and I’ll let you into the personnel files.”

“As if I need you to hack those files!”

I smiled at him, and made a mental note to change the passwords.

“So what happened to Mac?” Holly had forgotten her beer, and unnoticed, it’d tipped over and begun spilling on the couch. Not the first time that had happened here, judging by the fossilized stains.

“Tough old bugger had a handful of cracked ribs, a few second-degree burns, and one real bad one. But he survived it. After they discharged me, we had lots of time to talk in the burn ward while he recovered, and once I’d gotten the details straight in my head, I told him what I’d seen. I guess I was hoping he’d just laugh and call me a fool, but he didn’t. He got this look in his eyes, went real quiet, and after a while, he just nodded his head and changed the subject. I couldn’t get him to say what he’d seen, but by the next day, when I came back to visit, he’d signed the papers.”

“He just up and quit?”

“Adam, there are some things a smart man doesn’t tempt twice, and I guess whatever it was that happened to us, it was Mac’s cue that it was time to make a lifestyle change.”

“And what about you?” Holly whispered.

“Well, I never did claim to be as smart as Mac, did I? The more time goes by, the more I keep thinking it was just a particularly pretty light show, and an overactive imagination reminding me how small we are in the face of a really big fire. But there’s a part of me that keeps hoping I’ll see something to convince me I wasn’t just imagining things...”

Adam snorted and headed back to a vid. Bill gave me a disappointed look, then turned and joined his friend. I turned to Holly, and on her face, I saw that same, slightly wide-eyed, distant gaze I’d once seen in a picture of me Mac’d taken on a fire. She smiled absently, and I rose, staggering a bit from the beer. I patted her shoulder as I moved past her to put the empties in the kitchen, remembering Hamlet’s speech and guessing I’d have company up in the fire tower tomorrow.

Author's notes

At an early age, I remember being charmed by a t-shirt entitled "Last great act of defiance". It portrayed a battered and singed night, clearly overmatched by the huge flame-belching dragon that was swooping down on him, but still raising a stiff middle finger in defiance of his nemesis. I always wanted to use that image in a story, and after spending a few years working with the fire guys at the Canadian Forest Service and learning more than I'd ever expected to about forest fire behavior, found my opportunity.

The science should be basically pretty robust, barring any slips on my part and a few liberties for dramatic purposes. The conclusion? Well, it would be nice if 'twere so, Horatio, but...

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