In 1975, Steffi Smith, twenty-five, journeys from Georgia to Oregon in search of a new life. There, a friend tells her about a unique way for her to make a living: joining a forestry services co-operative, whose members live a gypsy existence amid the mountains and rivers of the great Northwest. The rest follows.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


"S'GONNA BE a long, hot summer," announces Dan.

Steffi's not really listening. Dan has procured a quart of fresh cream from Omega Farm's cow for Steffi's birthday, and she's trying to dispose of it in one sitting. There are no cows in the quarry, and she's nuts about cream.

Dan goes on. "Some of us are thinking about putting together a fire crew; make a little money for the Valley. You want in?"

Oh. Work! Money. Pay attention. "Umm, sure."

"Have you done any bidding?"

"A little. But that's all acreage and spacing; how do you bid fires?"

"We're going to talk to Timberlands tomorrow and see what they want. Play it by ear. Come along, hm?"

Next day, Steffi finds herself sandwiched on a pickup's seat between Dan and a long, lanky, soft-spoken fellow with John Lennon glasses and a nice Roman nose.

"Carlo." he offers his hand. "Star crew, same as Dan."

"But this job is not Hoedags," explains Dan. "We're looking for mostly summer work for us farmers, so it'll just be a small company and we'll just bid work that's close to home. Call it Greenwood Workers Co-op."

"Workers," muses Steffi.

"Lot of old Wobblies up in here," offers Carlo.

They roll through Alderton and take the third mill entrance on the left.

The meeting room is just like the one in the Ranger station. There are windows with blinds along one wall, gray-enameled steel filing cabinets along the opposite wall, and a blackboard on the end wall. A handful of paunchy men in white shirts, sleeves rolled up, amble in. Steffi wonders if she's seen this many paunches and hairy arms in once place, ever.

"What we have in mind," say the paunches, "is we make one call, you can supply eight to fourteen bodies within two hours. We'll train. Hourly rate per body, time and a half, double time. We'll try not to have any days longer than sixteen hours."

"Is this shovels and McLeods mostly?" asks Carlo, who has been on fires before. Steffi hears "M'Clouds." She has no idea what that is.

"Well, it's good if you have those, and Pulaskis and a couple of saws. But it's mostly hose work from pumper trucks, mopping up after unit burns."

"Sounds good," says Dan. "But why us all of a sudden?"

"Well, we usually use crews made up of loggers -- out-of-work choker setters an' chasers -- but they tend to run off to Alaska fishing or whatever, and we can't get reliable numbers on the ground when the chopper's ready to drip."

One of the paunches looks at Steffi a bit sourly.

Uh hunh, another one thinks a girl can't work.

She pipes up. "Can we recess a few minutes, go out the parking lot, come back to you with a pre-bid? Subject to approval by our crew."

"Uhh, sure. Be our guests in the next room if you like."

Coffee there, too," says another.

The Greenwooders step through the door. Ugh, Styrofoam. And the coffee looks like it was brewed last week.

"Did I do that right?" asks Steffi. "I needed to look real to those guys."

"No, that was fine," says Dan. "Yes, we'll be able to interest people in anything we can get here."

Carlo takes a sip, makes a face, and puts his cup down. "Hose work is pretty easy. We can bond the company with my place and recapitalize at, say twenty-five percent. So, if we want, like, eight dollars an hour, tell Timberlands twelve."

"Can we guarantee the bodies in the crummy?" asks Steffi.

Dan answers. "Yes. Greenwood is used to using phone trees. What about we keep the crummy at your place, Carlo, because you're way upstream. They call me, I call the next name on the chart, and the eighth or tenth person or however many they want, less one, calls you?"

"I can do that," Carlo nods.

"I don't have a phone," Steffi points out, suddenly alarmed.

"We can just assume you're going, Right? Seeing as you're not a farmer."

No, but I kinda wish I was. "Cool. We tell, 'em what, then, twelve? And about saws, they cost. Sawyers with their own saws a better rate? We could pay out twelve for saw time? And what about drive time?"

"Sure, you tell 'em." Dan smiles.

They file back in.

The paunches look at Carlo, then Dan.

"We believe our people will do it for twelve an hour per head, plus saws at sixteen, plus miles," says Steffi.

There's a moment of surprised silence. Then a subtle shift in expression, as Timberlands meets the future head-on.

"Deal," says the head paunch, cautiously extending a hairy arm. "Hope to hear from ya sometime tomorrow."

Steffi shakes on her first contract.

Training day, the thermometer decides to zip up to a hundred and five degrees.

Just to add a little, you know, realism. Those who, for example, aren't carrying enough drinking water learn a little bit about that.

There are eighteen trainees, a third of them from Omega Farm. Not everyone is experienced in woods work, but even those who aren't at least know which end of an axe is which, and all are willing to follow instructions. Unlike tree planting, at a fire you can't always wait to get a vote on what must be decided, so Carlo is elected crew leader from the start. He's working with the paunchy guy that leads the training. First lesson: when it's this hot out, protect yourself. Work slowly, drink a lot, and from time to time spray yourself with your hose.

Steffi learns the tools of her new trade. The drip torch is carried along and pours a kerosene-scented flame on dry brush, good for setting slash burns or backfires. The hazel hoe has a curved three-foot handle like the hoedag, only stouter, and a heavy hoe blade for gouging at duff and dirt. The Pulaski is a combined axe and hoe, especially useful around tree roots. The McLeod is a rake with a tall, wide blade, straight-edged on one side and toothed on the other, good for raking through coals and duff. The one-and-a-half-inch hose runs from the truck to the brass wye, which is coupled to a couple of one-inch hoses, each ending in a brass nozzle.

She learns to bring Vibram-soled boots instead of caulks -- caulks transfer heat to the soles of one's feet. She'll get a wide-brim hard hat instead of the cap-style plastic one she's been using. She'll wear a bandanna in case the smoke turns and she needs an impromptu mask. There will be two water canteens and a canteen cover stuffed with lunch suspended from her web belt.

A small portion of the unit they're on has been lit off with drip torches for the training. After the flames die down, the crew spreads out with hoses, wyes and nozzles and learns to trace burning roots with the water pressure from their nozzles.

It's like playing with mud pies. Everyone loves it.

Ritzy is nestled under the firs at the south end of the quarry again. During fire season, Steffi keeps half an ear cocked, in the mornings, for the crummy. It's a used eighteen-passenger yellow Weyerhauser bus with an air brake, and the yelp it makes coming to a stop means a day's work somewhere. Steffi's saw, boots, helmet and canteens are already stuffed into the tool locker; all she has to do is grab lunch and run down in the pre-dawn light to the half-asleep crew. Sometimes Carlo, at the wheel, is half asleep too, his day having started an hour earlier, so Steffi takes the wheel, releases the brake, and heads out, getting her directions from Dan as she goes.

Today, they're going to Reedsport, up the Umpqua, into the Smith River watershed.

Much of this area is covered with a uniform green blanket of young fir trees, having suffered a massive forest fire a couple of decades earlier. Steffi remembers a book by a local housewife, all about a family's adventures daffodil farming on the Umpqua; the author had witnessed the huge fire and her description of it topping the ridge and threatening her small town had impressed the young reader deeply.

The unit is a clear-cut in a a rare patch of old growth. Across the creek in the drainage is the rest of the old growth, trees so big they run five or ten to the acre, with branches the size of most trees. In the darkness beneath that forest, Steffi can see mature big-leaf maples, dwarfed by the old-growth firs. The big-leafs are the undergrowth.

The helicopter is late, so everyone gets to lounge around. It's by the hour, a novelty to many Greenwooders after years of piece work, and they're reveling in it.

Steffi's brought with her a text on koans, so she pulls it out to read awhile in the shade.

Mervin, a farmer from Greenwood, settles nearby. For awhile, his mustache flutters in the breeze from his snores, but as the sun reaches his legs and starts to bake them, he sits up, rubs his eyes and looks over at Steffi.

"What's that?"

"A book of koans."

"You're a collector? My dad was all about stamps. Crazy."

"No, koans. Zen Buddhist stuff. The teachers used to say illogical things to fry their students' habits of thought and get them going in new directions."

"Oh. One hand!"

"Yes, that sort of thing."

"Well, that's crazy too. What one are ya on right now?"

"A monk gets permission to go live in the canyon. He's down there a couple of years, and then one of the cooks goes to see if he's okay."

"That's it?"

"No, it's long one. He asks the hermit how it's going, and the hermit says, 'because the ravine is deep, I have a long handle for my water dipper.'"

"That is deep, Stef." But Mervin is chuckling. His own area of interest is the restoration of Farmall Cubs.

The air throbs with the passage of helicopter blades.

Everyone drops whatever they're doing or not doing and drifts over to the edge of the landing.

There it is, looming over the young firs two ridges away, coming their way. Its paint job is orange and tan, vaguely like that of Little Bird. It heads for the other landing, half a mile away, and alights there, straddling a long silvery tank that's been offloaded from a flatbed.

"That's the drip torch," says a paunchy white hat nearby. "Not kerosene and diesel, like a hand torch, though. It's Lum-i-gel."

"Lummy-what?" asks someone.

"Napalm, basically. With aluminum powder in it. Makes a nice, fast burn all across the unit. He's running so late, though, we might be here all night."

The Greenwood crew, having with them only lunch, furrow their brows at this.

"Oh, not to worry, we'll getcha sandwiches and soda for dinner an' bring 'em to ya if it comes to that."

Presently, the chopper seems satisfied with the disposition of its burden and it takes off, torch smoking. Like a massive hummingbird it darts this way and that, pausing from time to time, not to sip nectar but to release bright orange globules of flame that splatter on stumps and spall amidst the piled and dried detritus of last year's logging show.

Flames run together and leap, first unbelievably high, then unbelievably higher. A mature tree that, for whatever reason, had been been left behind on a point of rock, sways in the winds created by the heat, then erupts like a Roman candle.

"Cheeses," says a farmer.

There's not much else to say. The cloud of smoke and steam that forms, superheated from within, rises through the early afternoon into cooler air, where it spreads into the mushroom shape familiar to Steffi from sixteen-millimeter films, shown in her childhood's classrooms, concerning "her friend, the atom."

She remembers a poem she's read about Hiroshima -- a father tells his son about his mother, how happy she was in that morning's light, reaching for a blooming cherry branch...

...and you were never born.

"What?" asks Mervin.

"Said that out loud?"

"Uhh, yeah."

"It's complicated."


The crew is sent down to the unit's right-hand fire trail to prevent flames spreading into the woods there. Steffi grabs her favorite nozzle and a section of one-inch and runs down along the trail, hopping over logs left behind by the loggers or cleared by the trail crew. She stops and looks back as Mervin comes behind her, fifty feet away. He has a one-inch hose looped in rolls over his shoulder and is dragging the inch-and-a-half. He sets the layout, threading a wye onto the end of the inch-and-a-half, throwing down his one-inch, coupling Steffi's line to the wye and then his, and moving off to his left toward the fire.

They're waiting for water.

The thump of the helicopter's blades is returning to the unit. Surprised, the crew looks up. It's slowing down as it nears them, with the guttering torch clearly visible, swinging underneath.

Gee, that's awfully close. No, right overhead.

What's he doing?

Orange globules appear, falling directly toward Steffi!

She drops the nozzle and runs along a log right through the nearby flames toward a tall, smoldering root wad. Nothing, so far as she can tell, has hit her. Surely, with the aluminum powder in full combustion, made tacky by the jellied gasoline, she'd not only know, but it might be one of the last things she would know. Pausing in the shelter of the root wad, Steffi looks up -- okay, the chopper is not directly overhead. It's still spilling fire. The flaming goop is landing in a streak right up the hill, much like a line of machine gun bullets hitting water.

Mervin has taken shelter underneath a large log suspended across two stumps. The fiery Lum-i-gel actually hits the log right above him, setting the bark aflame.

Crew members have scattered all over the hill, cursing.

"What was that about?" asks Steffi.

Mervin scrambles away from his burning shelter, checking his clothing for burns as he goes. "I dunno, but I'm gonna go find out. When the water comes down, go over the layout for leaks."

"O-okay." Steffi's knees are beginning to shake. She can see the hose bulging already. She checks over the line, finds that none of it has burned in the drop, and begins pursuing hot spots in the slash.

A long, hot and dry hour later, Mervin returns and picks up his nozzle.

Steffi wanders over. "Well?"

"I got there just as they were putting the torch on the trailer. I asked the pilot why he came back, he said he thought the edge wasn't burning hot enough and he'd hit it one more time."

"I take it they failed to tell him we were already down there."

"I guess. Anyway, I told him, and he said, and I quote, 'well, one hippie more or less, big deal.'"