…is what the locals at the cafe long table are discussing. The story goes:

Tumbleweeds, like a drifting and bouncing army, rolled across the desert. Without warning, they’d swap ends and charge off in a different direction. Moments later, they’re bound for yet another destination.

Long shadows pointed eastward that summer afternoon. Tiny, micro-thunderstorms marched across the sky, matching and mirroring tumbleweeds on the ground. Rain bucketed in isolated strips, no wider than a football field. Everywhere else, dry lightning pounded the parched range.

Central Fire Dispatch was an agitated hornet’s nest. As night fell, they made the call:

“You’ve got two smoke sightings on the other side of the creek,” the fire boss heard on the phone.

First wildfire responders are the partisans of the high desert. For them, it’s about the community and neighbors helping neighbors. They have skin in the game when they stand between their family and friends and crackling flames on the range.

“You need to work tomorrow,” the fire boss said to his nineteen year old stepson, as they ran out the door to a semi-truck sized water pumper, “are you sure you want to go?”

“Yes, I do,” the stepson said from the passenger seat.

“This is going to be a long night,” the fire boss muttered, concentrating on the road.

Quickly, steadily they made their way on a back road along a ridge, tracking two fires by the shifting glow, deep in the distance. One fire was burning high on the east slope of a juniper and sage covered ridge. A rancher had seen the original lightning strike in his winter grazing range from his house, just over a mile away.

When the fire boss arrived, they consulted.

If the fire was allowed to cross the ridge toward the rancher’s house and hay fields, it’d be long, hard fight in rugged terrain. They felt their best option was to hold it on the high ground until bulldozers arrived.

The fire boss returned to the pumper truck cab and his stepson scrambled up onto the deck with the water tanks. At the same time, the rancher’s son joined the parade on his ATV to assess the situation from close range.

Crossing the valley and over the ridge, they watched as the wind-driven fire raced parallel to them through the sage and rabbit brush about a hundred and fifty yards away.

Night-blinded by the bright fire, they missed seeing another micro-thunderstorm bobbing through the sky toward their ridge. Once again, the wind changed direction—right at them!!!

Between one breath and the next, the flames gusted higher than the pumper truck roof. Before their next breath, the fire was on them.

There was no place to run or hide.

“GET DOWN!!!” the fireboss bellowed at his stepson, as he turned his pumper truck directly into the howling inferno.

The rancher’s son, still astride his ATV, saw the fire blow up in their direction. He got low and sucked his vehicle in tight behind the pumper truck’s bumper. Together, they drove for their lives—failure wasn’t an option.

Three breaths later, the trio won free into the already-burnt black zone.

When it was safe, the fire boss stopped the pumper truck to assess his stepson’s injuries. He had second and third degree burns over almost a third of his body—serious, but not life threatening.

Limping the pumper-truck, with flat-tire, back to the rancher’s house, he phoned for medical assistance to fly his injured stepson to a big-city hospital burn unit.

Then he went back to work helping contain the fire until reinforcements arrived.

Before the night was over, volunteer firefighters had close calls, almost losing three different houses. Better than 12,000 acres—almost nineteen square miles—of range went up in smoke.

As things turned out, it was a…very…long night.

So, that’s what the cafe locals are talking about. The conversation creates a question:

How do they express their gratitude to people who put themselves in harms way while protecting their community? No one at the table has any easy or quick answers, except to say….

“THANK YOU…OUR HOUSES AND FAMILIES ARE STILL HERE BECAUSE OF YOUR SACRIFICE….YOU’RE APPRECIATED!!!”

Sleep well all, we’ll talk again…..

Author’s note:

The stepson spent three weeks in the hospital and recovered from his burns. He returned to college classes last winter and plans on helping his community with wildfires this year.

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