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, June 21, 2014

16



FIRE SEASON returns, and Steffi's on the landing with a dozen Greenwooders. Everyone has napped, passed around books, had lunch, passed around joints, gone over to the edge to watch the burn, and napped.

It's four in the afternoon before the white hats think the fire has died down enough to put out. Steffi's amazed at how dark it is; the column of smoke is over a mile high and blots out the sun. There are vermillion highlights on the undersides of the smoke billows -- reflection of the flames down on the mountainside.

Steffi grabs her inch hose and brass nozzle and runs down the fire trail fifty feet past Carlo, who hooks her into the inch-and-a half with a wye and signals her that water's coming. The canvas hose fills and she starts knocking down flames that have jumped the trail into some brush and an old duff stump. The stump doesn't want to go out. She stays with it, tearing away rotten wood with the high-pressure spray, till the truck runs out of water somewhere above.

Time to sit down and rest, till the truck comes back.

Carlo comes down the trail and hunkers down near her.

"They said next truck will be in twenty minutes. Hope so, 'cuz a lot of fire is still on the left of us and coming our way. Y'wanna, when the water comes, beat that down instead of excavating your stump any more."

"'K."

Carlo takes off his sweat-beaded glasses, wipes them with a bandanna. "Hot stuff." He puts them on, smiles, runs back uphill. He's out of sight before he's gone thirty feet.

The smoke is getting heavy; Steffi lies down looking for better air. It's some better but not a lot. She looks left. Flames. She looks right. More flames; the stump is at it again and so are its surroundings. Right on the trail she seems safe enough; the fuel in the area has already burned up pretty well. But the smoke is unreal!

There's some fairly loose bark duff nearby. Instinctively she takes off her hard hat, digs a small pit in it and buries her face. Ahh.

Air!

From time to time she pops up, checks to see if the fire is getting close enough to send her packing, to see if the smoke cloud, has shifted, and to see if water's coming down. The fourth try, she finds her hose distended and cool to the touch -- time to go to work, if there's enough air. She pulls her bandanna up over her nose, sets a wide spray and leaps up to attack the blaze reaching out for her from the unit.

Nope. Way too hot. So's she. She turns the nozzle on herself for a quick cool down. And then the water quits, way too soon.

"Stef!" Carlo is shouting from somewhere above. "The fire's burned through your hose! Grab your nozzle and come up out of there!"

Sounds like a good idea.


After sunset, one of the white hats wants Steffi to check out a smoke on the opposite hillside. In the same valley as the last burn, this unit is across from the some of the same old growth forest, and the trees there are if anything even bigger than those she'd seen before. And not owned by Timberlands. So it behooves Timberlands not to burn them up.

The white hat drives around the mountain road in a pickup, with Steffi as shotgun. He hands her an oblong metal box wrapped in a leather holster. "Run straight down the hill here about three hundred feet and circle round till you find it. Radio up when you do, and we'll bring a hose down to put it out."

"Yessir." She works her way down among the forest giants, some of which are lying down and have to be clambered over. It's cool here, with lots of sword ferns and viney maple: a north slope. With so much delicious dampness, she's surprised a spot fire got going.

Come to think of it, there doesn't seem to be one. Steffi has gone three hundred feet., sure. She ranges sidehill both ways, sniffing and looking. Nothing! Has the guy dropped her off in the right place?

Something big hisses down from the dark canopy and buries itself, like a spear, in the soft soil not twenty feet away. It's a burning tree branch! Not small, either.

Steffi looks up -- and up -- and up. Oh, my.

She unsnaps the holster at her waist and holds the radio to her head, button down and hard hat askew.

Static. "Sir, you might want to come see."

Static. "What d'ya mean?" Static.

"It's a tree on fire -- maybe about a hundred feet from the ground." Static.

"Not that high." Static.

"Old growth, sir." Static.

"All right, all right. Comin'." A moment of static, then silence.

Presently the white hat gleams in the gloom, and the paunch bobbles over a log and puffs to a halt beside her. The fire boss looks at the smoldering branch, then looks up. "Goddamighty, what a tree." He reaches for the radio.

"Gimme the saw crew with their longest bar, an' a water truck. Run a inch-an'-a-half line straight down from by my truck, with a inch tee and six sections of inch hose." He listens a moment to what sounds to Steffi like so much static, then looks at her. "You got your nozzle?"

"Yes, sir."

He stares off into space again, talking into the mouthpiece. "No, bring just one more." He looks at his watch. "while we're at it, everybody comes down get headlamps and two extra for me an' th' girl. And send somebody to Rosie's for about fifteen sandwiches and thirty sodas."

By the time the sawyers show up, dragging and carrying hose as well as their own gear, it's already time for headlamps. From the way they fling down the hoses, Steffi can feel their disdain for fire work in general and hippie fire crews in particular. She's suddenly glad the fire boss has stayed with her.

He hands her a lamp. "Leave yours off till you need it -- we could be here awhile."

The sawyers surround the tree and strategize over it. The thing is perfectly enormous, with a great bell shape at the roots and bark like fish scales.

"Spruce," says white hat. "They're gonna have to go way up to make their cut."

After some gesticulating, a young cutter cranks up the big Stihl. It has a forty-eight inch bar, less than half the distance through the tree. Steffi is just cutter enough to know there will be a number of cuts -- they will indeed be here awhile.

The saw whines vertically into a massive root, then horizontally. When the cuts almost meet, an older man steps forward, places an orange plastic wedge into the vertical cut, swings a reversed axe at it a few times, and knocks a fifty-pound chunk of the root away. It rolls down the mountain out of sight.

"They'll do the same over on the other side. These'll be the platforms they'll work from."

As this is going on, Steffi notices a shrunken, hunched old man with the others. He's been watching the canopy for more falling branches -- "widow-makers." As soon as both platforms are cut, he's helped onto one of them and the youngest man hands him the saw, still running. The middle-aged man positions himself behind the old man and grips him by his belt as he leans forward, slams the sharp dogs of the saw into the bark, and begins the cut.

Eventually the saw head is far enough around the downhill side of the tree that the younger man holds onto the geezer while he runs the saw -- otherwise he'd fall off the tree and roll down the mountain. When this cut is done, the performance is repeated with another cut to meet the first one in the classic "vee" -- to take a notch out of the tree and aim its fall downhill.

Now the two cuts must be made from the other side of the tree, and these two cuts must match the first two, a neat trick if you can do it. The old man, easily their most accurate faller, manages to line up the cuts passably, but now he's used up and the youngest man is anchored around the tree trunk by the middle-aged man, twice -- to deepen all four cuts into a tree more than twice the diameter of their saw's reach.

After about an hour they're happy enough with their notch to set the saw down and go to work hammering wedges -- one faller on one platform and one on the other, swinging axes.

The sound of the axes echoes back from the other side of the valley. Steffi looks out through a gap in the trees. It's a dark night, but the unit still has many spot fires in it, and the effect takes her breath away.

There are stars out, and the spot fires look enough like stars that it's disorienting -- there's no horizon; Steffi might as well be in outer space, with stars above her and below.

The sandwiches and pop come down, brought by Mervin in a canvas haversack. Steffi takes two turkey salads on wheat and two Dr. Peppers. She's done with them before Mervin has made the rounds.

He turns off his lamp. "How are they doing?" he asks, still trying to catch his breath.

"They're taking out the wedge from the notch; then they'll make the back cuts."

"I had no idea one tree could go so slow."

White Hat joins in. "The tree is two feet wider than the saw. They're having to beaver around in the cuts to get a workable hinge."

Mervin looks up; Steffi follows suit. The tree is darker than the night. "Is there even a fire up there?" he asks her.

"Well, it threw a burning stick at me."

The wedge of tree trunk finally snaps loose, slides out of the notch and crashes down the mountain.

"That thing weighed about as much as a car," says White Hat to no one in particular.

The sawyers take turns eating dinner and sharpening saw teeth, then regroup and tackle back cuts.

Another hour goes by, its theme music the roar and whine of the saw.

At last the fallers set the hot beast down, apply wedges to the back cut, and the night rings with the axes and their echoes for the third time.

"Got your hoses laid and hooked up?" asks White Hat.

Mervin stands up and snaps on his lamp. "I'll get 'em." He moves off upslope into the darkness.

After a few minutes, there's a thump as a hose end flails toward Steffi. She turns on her lamp and locates the coupling, nozzle in hand.

Suddenly the axes stop and the fallers' lamps turn and shine in several directions at once.

Steffi half expects to hear the ancient and romantic cry of "timber!" -- but hears only frenetic shouts of "there we go!" and "left, left! Get out of there!"

The night lights up. It's the top of the giant tree, swinging down through the night -- its fanned flames flaring up in a dozen places as it gathers speed.

Mature trees are swept from the path of the falling behemoth, shedding massive branches as they go. The Roman-candle spruce is clearing half an acre of mountainside in its death throes.

Mervin arrives at Steffi's side with his own hose and nozzle. She glances over at him; the toppling, torching spruce reflects back to her from his glasses like a glimpse into hell.

"Cheeses cripes all forking mighty," says Mervin softly. Or something like that.

The ground whumps beneath them as the spruce finds the creek bed far below and shudders to a halt.

White Hat checks his watch. "Two-thirty in the morning. 'K, y'all go put yah fire out."

As Steffi passes the big stump, she sees that the old sawyer is already on top of it, measuring his handiwork with a steel tape.

He sings out. "Nine and a half feet from bark to bark."