In the Line of Fire

updated 09/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

KEN HOST EASES HIS BELL 206 L3 helicopter up along the western side of Sunset Lookout, in the Boise National Forest. Once clear of the 7,500-foot peak, he is treated to a vast and stunning sight: hundreds of square miles of southern Idaho engulfed by fire. A palette of color—pink, gray, brown, black, magenta—spreads across the canyons and ridges; parts of the mountainside are charred and smoldering. Thousands of feet below, stands of Douglas fir are ablaze. A great blond blanket of smoke obscures the eastern horizon. Though 24 firefighters have died this summer in the western inferno, the sight of the Rabbit Creek blaze below is, to the hovering pilot, somehow less terrifying than eerily beautiful. "Is this the best job in the world?" asks Host, 48, a U.S. Department of Energy pilot from Fort Collins, Colo., whose job includes tracking the fire, dropping flame-retardant slurry on it and evacuating emergency victims. "Yep. It's as good as it gets."

Host is not unlike thousands of other men and women who have come from all over the country to battle the western blazes this summer. With more than a month yet to go in this year's fire season, they may be exhausted and unable to purge the smell of smoke from their clothes and hair, but their desperation to leave the line of fire alternates with an exhilaration in their work. "My wife says I'm one of the last of the dragon slayers," says Host's commander Wayne Eddy, 51, proudly. And this fire, he adds, is one tenacious beast. "We keep flanking it, trying to pinch it off at the head," he says. "You never take a fire this big head-on. That's death—that's toast. But the longer you let it go, the more it changes direction on you. Fire is nothing if not unpredictable."

This summer the only sure thing that can be said about the fires raging through the West is that they are burning bigger, longer and hotter than any in recent memory, a result of decades of fire-suppression policy combined with windy weather and eight years of drought. To date over 58,000 fires have destroyed some 3 million acres in the West—a territory four times the size of Rhode Island. Last week 17 major wildfires were raging in Utah, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and California. "This is probably, in terms of breadth and length, the most demanding fire season in the 29-year history of the National Interagency Fire Center," says Rodger Vorce, co-commander of the Boise, Idaho, agency that, like Mission Control for NASA, is the nerve center of the entire fire-fighting operation. Since June 6, Vorce, his co-commander Woody Williams and their colleagues have kept the NIFC running full throttle 24 hours a day, seven days a week, rounding up and dispatching crews and supplies across the West. But even this weary professional understands the enemy. "It's just fire," he points out. "It's part of the natural cycle."

In Idaho the Rabbit Creek blaze is the most active of the fires that have blackened more than 288,000 acres across the state. Sparked by lightning in the mountains 30 miles northeast of Boise on July 28, it has already destroyed more than 100,000 acres in America's national forests. Though rain last week has helped the cause, this blaze, which now covers some 240 square miles and may cost roughly $150 million in lost timber, will probably not be completely extinguished until the first snows arrive in mid-October. Until then, the 2,000 men and women who have been fighting Rabbit Creek—from planes, from helicopters and on the ground—are not ready to give up. It does get in your blood," says Wayne Eddy, echoing comments made by most of his fellow fighters of the flame. "You become enthusiastic about coming out here and slaying that dragon."

Not all the firefighters are hard-core parks and wildlife employees. This is the second summer that Laura Farnsworth, 28, a Manhattan paralegal, has exchanged her pumps and business suits for logging boots, fire-resistant pants and a yellow, flame-retardant shirt. And she has gone straight to the front lines. One of two women in the Pleasant Valley, Ariz., Hotshots—an aggressive, 20-member fire-fighting unit that does the initial attack on the fire—Farnsworth was just looking for a little excitement when she heard about the job from a friend, sent in an application and passed a physical endurance test that included running, push-ups and sit-ups. "All the people at the firm where I work," she says, "are jealous that I'm out fighting fires." And of the excitement she found. "I've been in some ticklish situations," she says. "But the scariest thing isn't the fire. Every once in a while, when it heats up, boulders will explode and come rolling down the mountain at you. It's a big rush."

On Sat., Aug. 27, Farnsworth gets out of her sleeping bag at the Idaho City base camp, 18 miles away, at 4:30 a.m. to pull duty at the bottom of a ridge at Willow Creek, at the northwestern edge of the fire. Until she crawls back into her tent after a 30-hour double shift, she will be mopping up after a "burnout"—when Hotshot crews deliberately set a fire in order to deprive an oncoming blaze of fuel. She and fellow Hotshot Tom Foster, 35, have been assigned to keep an eye on charred trees that are still on fire.

Like every other firefighter this summer, Farnsworth and Foster cannot help but think of the tragedy on Storm King Mountain in Colorado, where 14 people, including nine members of the Prineville, Ore., Hotshots died on July 6, when the wind changed direction and created an instant inferno [PEOPLE, July 25]. "It's always in the back of your mind," says Foster, a construction worker from Macon, Ga. "But in a bad situation you have to trust each other. I'd trust Laura with my life."

In addition to the "shake and bake" (a tent-shaped Mylar fire shelter that a user gets under only in the most dire of emergencies) she carries in a pouch strapped to her tool belt, Farnsworth puts her faith in a lucky charm she wears—a silver necklace, black from two summers of soot. When she can, she steals a moment to write home to her parents on a pad she keeps tucked in her fireproof shirt. "I keep telling them that what I'm doing is fun and out-doorsy and isn't dangerous," she says, picking up her shovel to put out a small fire a few feet away. "Do you think they'll buy it?"

It isn't excitement that draws Farlan Ghahate close to the fire; it is his humility in the face of nature. As he watches the flames lapping at the ponderosa pines and Douglas firs above and below him, Ghahate, 29, a Native American who is a member of the Zuni 47 fire-fighting crew from Zuni Pueblo in northwestern New Mexico, sprays anything he can find that is still green with water from a tanker at the top of the mountain. "As a boy I was taught that trees are like people," he explains. "It's sad to see a tree that has survived so many years suddenly leave this life."

Every morning at sunrise, Ghahate and the other 19 members of his unit say a prayer and toss a handful of corn-meal on the ground before beginning their 14-hour shift. "The prayer is for safety," he explains, "and the cornmeal is to pay respect to the trees, in case you have to cut one down." A landscaper in Gallup, N.Mex., and on his ninth summer with the Zuni crew, Ghahate has seen his wife, Georgia, and his two children, Cherissia, 5, and Farley, 3, only a few days this summer, but he says his family understands how important the work is to him. Still, he admits, "this fire is probably the most dangerous I've been on—the whole forest could go up any minute, and you're right in the middle." He takes a swig from his canteen and squints into the stinging smoke. "I was taught to respect the land," he says, "but now I have an even greater respect for the fire."

As well he might. Two days later the fire is still raging along Willow Creek, and 20 Sawtooth, Idaho, Hotshots are urgently trying to cut a new fire-containment line up the slope. Tony Davis, 32, in his third season with the Hotshots, has been logging 80-hour weeks all summer, spending July in the Capitan district of the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico before being called in on the Rabbit Creek fires. As the Hotshots, some wielding chain saws, others with Pulaskis (a hand tool with a pick on one end, an ax on the other), hack their way up the trail, Davis admits he's exhausted. "It's been a gnarly season," he says. "We're living on four to five hours of sleep a night. It drags on you, man."

The Hotshots get paid $8 an hour plus overtime, plus a 25-percent hazardous-duty bonus, so by the end of his three-month stint, Davis should pocket some $12,000. But for Davis, who works at a Sun Valley ski resort during the winter, the thrill is not in the money. He thrives on the danger and adventure of the work—particularly when he sets a fire for a burnout or fells trees to keep the flames from spreading. "It's one of life's greater experiences," he confesses. "It's kind of a taboo. I think we all like a little action on the line."

Davis's girlfriend Stephanie Nelson, 23, is also a third-year Sawtooth Hotshot, one of two women in the crew, and she too is an adrenaline junkie. Nelson, who grew up in Parkdale, Ore., and graduated from the University of Puget Sound, has lost 16 pounds this season. But, she says, "I get to experience things that other people have no idea about." Davis, for one, appreciates her toughness. "She's the first girl I've ever met who could keep up with me," he says. "And she's good and upbeat. I'd hate to be without her."

Above the buzz of the Hotshots' chain saws and the roar of the flames are the sounds of their air support. As many as seven helicopters and four C-130 military cargo planes fly back and forth dumping fire-retardant slurry—a gooey mixture of fertilizer, water, a gelling agent and pink dye that leaves bright lines across the landscape to show which areas have already been hit. The C-130s—with names like "Mrs. Dowsefire" and "Forest Dump" painted on their fuselages—can unload 3,000 gallons of slurry at once, painting a stripe a quarter-mile long and 60 feet wide.

But though the pilots do not come close to the flames, this is dangerous work. As soon as they drop their pay loads, the planes become drastically unbalanced; hot air can suck even a C-130 into the fire, and some of the dead gray trees blend in with the smoke, leading to terrifying near-misses. "Every pilot is thinking all the time, 'How do I get out of this if I have to?' " says Lt. Col. Clyde Doheney, 47, of the Air National Guard in Point Mugu, Calif. Doheney went to law school after he quit the Air Force in 1973 but joined the National Guard when he got bored of doing corporate law. On a busy day he may fly as many as 8 to 10 hours of continuous missions, going back and forth between the fire and the airport in Boise to get more slurry. But Doheney takes a modest view of his role in the war. "This is like the cavalry," he says. "We come from far away, make our strike and leave. The guys who are really doing the work are out there in the dirt, sucking smoke all day long."

At the end of a day fighting the Rabbit Creek blaze, the crews all make their way, via trucks and school buses, back to the base camp at Idaho City. The 10-acre camp, at a National Forest Service maintenance facility, has 800 tents, a bank of four pay phones, a commissary and a shower trailer. But the most popular spot is the mess tent, where kitchen crews are working 12-hour shifts. At a typical breakfast, says Mark Frandsen, 37, who manages Blagg's Food Services and has worked seven fire sites in two months, the troops will run through 2,160 eggs, 375 pounds of bacon and sausage, 3,000 slices of toast, 800 pounds of Idaho potatoes and 200 gallons of coffee. And though Frandsen has not seen his three children in 62 days, he says, "I'm not alone. There's lots of people who are missing their kids' first day of school or a birthday. We're all united in our cause: get the fire put out, so we can go home."

To many of the men and women fighting the Rabbit Creek blaze, home seems a long way off. They find themselves repeating a version of the same mantra: "Only a few more weeks to go." But as the forests go through their natural cycles of destruction and rebirth, many of these same firefighters will be back on the lines again next summer. "Some days you may have a tough day, and you whine, but you stick with it," Tony Davis explains. "And in the winter you forget all the hateful stuff and remember the cool stuff, and it keeps sucking you back in."


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