Still fighting 

The nature of fire has dramatically changed

It's time to move irrigation pipe. It's one of those things you have to do when you have a certain amount of land and enough water to irrigate it. My knees hurt as I walk each piece of pipe over to the next dry spot. Here in central Oregon, it's always a race with evaporation. The sun beats down hot as I hear that familiar sound overhead; it's a DC-7 air tanker flying to another wildfire.

I didn't always spend my summers moving irrigation pipe. I was a city kid growing up on the beaches of Southern California until I turned 18 and started fighting wildfires. At 19, my wife and I loaded up all our possessions in a Volkswagen bus and moved to north-central Washington.

It was 1978, and a new world lay before us. We had both ended up working for the Forest Service. We rented an old, five-bedroom farmhouse on the banks of the Entiat River for $185 a month. It was surrounded by massive black walnut trees and heated by a woodstove. I was fighting fire in the summer and doing whatever I could do in the winter to survive until the next summer. Some winters, I'd work at the local salmon hatchery. As the years passed, I worked as a fire lookout and served as a fire-prevention technician, while gaining more fire experience on hotshot, helitack, engine and fuels crews.

As the fire seasons grew longer, I began to work in strange places like Alaska, Kentucky and Georgia, and at increasingly high elevations in the Rocky Mountains. Then, my own Entiat Ranger District on the Wenatchee National Forest began to burn—as if it were one large wildfire jigsaw puzzle into which Mother Nature interlocked one blazing mosaic into another, year after year. I fought epic wildfires in Yellowstone, the Central Rockies of Colorado, the chaparral of Southern California, the deserts of the Great Basin and the Southwest. I was even sent to the eucalyptus forests of Australia to fight wildfire.

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Over a 30-year firefighting career, I had a front row seat from which to watch the changing climate, the encroachment of invasive species and the movement of people out into the urban interface. Those hard years included the terrible loss of fellow firefighters who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I can remember the times when I found myself in those wrong places. Like California's Pondosa Fire in 1977, when my engine company was nearly overrun by flame fronts coming at us from different directions. The loads of retardants dropped directly on us saved us that time, but not before we had seared the paint off the doors of our engine and received first-degree burns to our faces and arms. Then there was the Tyee Fire on the Wenatchee, where I found myself stuck on a bad road in thick smoke at mid-slope, with fire moving up from below. Unable to back down, I crept forward until I found clear air. I took a long, smoky, tortuous route out of there, moving through a blackened forest of falling rocks and smoking snags that fell constantly without warning.

Like most career wildland fire fighters, I relocated often. The small towns that were once quaint (and affordable) logging towns when I arrived became trendy tourist meccas with sky-high rents.

I lived in many places throughout the West. From Entiat to Roseburg to Prineville to Burns—all in Oregon—until I landed in Moab, Utah, where I served in the Bureau of Land Management as the district fire management officer. Moving and firefighting can be hard on families. It was on mine. But overall it was an amazing ride in which I saw the best and the worst of people and situations. Always, the work was challenging. The landscape in which I served was as inspirational as it was beautiful. I have lived the dream and then some.

The noisy old air tanker rumbles off into the Western sky, just to the right of Black Butte. I watch it as it disappears behind Mount Washington. My mind wanders back to a fire line in my past, when I watched an air tanker drop its load right on the mark. Soon it will be replaced by jet-powered aircraft. I lock the last piece of pipe into the hand line and crack open the valve. The water begins to flow and my battle with evaporation continues. Like fighting wildfires in the West, it's a job that requires determination—and good knees.

Mike Benefield is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Terrebonne, Ore.

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