Rekindling Old Flames

by Amy on October 1, 2010

There’s nothing tougher than being tempted by a former addiction you’ve given up and walked away from. I know exactly how recovered addicts feel now, although I could easily go back to mine and it wouldn’t be harmful to me or those close to me. It’s just something I wish I could go back and do.

Wednesday I was confronted with an old addiction I never thought would bother me to walk away from until I was close enough to get back into it: helitack and wildland firefighting. While out checking cows in my Jeep on a Forest Service road, I came to a clearing and saw a column of smoke billowing out of the trees to the southwest. Once I hit the gravel county road, I pulled off at a spot directly in line with the smoke. I got out of the Jeep and hurried toward the smoke with my dog Pepper close behind.

Without an aerial view, following smoke above the tree line is like walking toward an oasis. The source of the smoke is always farther than it appears. Headed straight west from where I parked my Jeep on the road, I hustled up and down two hills, crossed a Forest Service road, and found the fire located next to a barely visible road on top of a hill about a mile from where I parked. The fire was roughly a tenth of an acre; burning slow and flames low to ground but spreading.

Blurry due to being winded!

All the old familiar elements were there and came rushing back at me: flames flickered and creeped around cherry red coals; the charred ground smoldered quietly and only the sound of pine needles crackling as they burned filled the air, making my adrenalin spike. It all took me back eighteen years to initial attack days: the hurried hike with Pulaski in hand, heat coming from the sun and the fire, and sweating profusely. What was hardest on me was the aroma of dry branches, pine needles, and earth burning. It’s a scent that makes me crave my old job with intensity.

Being the first crew to arrive on a fire was always a huge competition and I couldn’t help but relive an old sense of victory when I got there and no one else had arrived yet. I wanted in the worst way to stay right there and start digging line until a relief crew showed up but I knew from past experience it would be smarter to go back and get help on its way, especially since I didn’t have a fire tool or anything even close to it with me.

As much as I wanted a way to get out of leaving and get to work, I turned around and ran most of the way back to the Jeep and planned to drive to the closest neighbor and call the fire in. By the time I got to the first fence, Black Hills Helitack was circling the fire. While it circled I imagined a crew member calling in the township and range and estimated size of the fire before landing.

Getting the bambi bucket ready

I caught whiffs of jet fuel in the helicopter’s rotor wash once the helicopter landed near the road and just like it used to when I was around a helicopterrunning , the sound made my adrenalin surge. Doors came off, gear was unloaded, and the bambi bucket was hooked on to fill up in a nearby dam to drop on the fire.

It was hard to watch someone else do what I used to do from the road and even harder for me to leave. I would’ve gladly cut a line and worked the sweat out of me as pay, but knew that there was too much red tape to make it possible.

Like any addiction probably is, it’s hard for others to understand what it feels like to be faced with it after not being around it for a long time unless they’ve experienced it. I could easily see myself going back to that life but I’m not sure how my family would handle it. It was the thought of a family that I walked away to begin with.

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