Colorful anecdotes and informative lore crackle through this entertaining though unfocused memoir of fighting forest fires.
Smith, a sometime firefighter and lookout at Arizona’s Tonto National Forest and other sites, has nearly five decades of scanning horizons and battling blazes under his belt. He revisits his experiences in a meandering text with the feel of a scrapbook that includes journal entries, news clippings, emails from friends, and photos of his comrades flailing at lurid flames, along with more polished personal reminiscences and essay fragments. When pieced together, the ingredients of this somewhat disorganized book give a vivid picture of the life of a firefighter, from the equipment—“piss bags” work better than “flappers” as water-delivery devices—to the mac-and-cheese meals, barracks camaraderie and safety protocols. (“Taking a nap near the fire line” is dangerous.) Along the way, the book gives the history of the National Forest Service and of local figures, from crotchety prospectors to a female stagecoach robber. The author throws his own rollicking shaggy dog stories into the mix, from the trials of policing potheads and nudists at campgrounds and the antics of an ornery pack mule named Killer to the time he had to chase and extinguish a burning bunny that threatened to spread a fire. He also contemplates the romance of the lonely fire sentinel, perched in a cramped tower searching for smoke plumes, his life divided between days of torpid summer heat and moments of terror during lightning storms that send eerie blue orbs of electricity rolling through his cabin. Smith sometimes waxes poetic, with results that can be off-key when he sniffs “the smell of timelessness” but evocative and absorbing when he surveys smoldering white ash or a red-tailed hawk hovering motionless on a mountain breeze. He’s a born raconteur whose vigorous, engaging prose, keen eye for detail and ironic sense of humor illuminate some of nature’s more dramatic menaces, and the firefighters who confront them, without descending into melodrama.
This jumble of recollections and facts tends to go wherever the wind blows, but it still serves up intriguing, well-told scenes.