Many of the forest fires raging in the West this summer are not far from places I know—outside of Twisp and Omak and Okanogan near Lake Chelan in Washington State; Clark Fork near Lake Pend d’Oreille in the Idaho Panhandle; and other fires in Oregon.
I remember fires from lightning raging across Rattlesnake Mountain when I was a child. They never approached close to home, but the smell of smoke wafted into town and lingered for days. The black hillsides reminded us of nature’s power until plant life grew the following year. Sometimes it took several years for the scars to vanish.
As I watch the news reports this summer, particularly when I hear of firefighters dying, I think of my father. It’s not just because he also died this past year, though perhaps that is a factor. It’s because fire-fighting was a part of his personal story. Had he died fighting fires as a youth, like the young men did this past week in Washington State, I would not be here.
My father spent his summers during college fighting forest fires in Idaho. The money was better than any other job he could get, and he relished the freedom of living away from his parents and working outdoors.
I think this picture was taken during one of those Idaho summers between 1952 and 1954. He was a skinny guy in those years. The hard physical labor must have built him some muscles, though they’re not particularly evident in this picture.
My father told a few stories about his Idaho summers. None of the stories I remember involved him getting close to flames, though I think he did on occasion. His stories gave me the impression that most of his time was spent hacking through weeds and brush to build fire breaks, not in the dangerous heat and flames we see on television.
My father developed a life-long hatred of weeds. When my brother and I were in grade school, he assigned us the summer chore of pulling weeds out of our backyard gardens—a different flower bed each weekday morning. My brother had an hour of duty each day. I got off with only thirty minutes, if I spent the other thirty minutes practicing the piano. My musical abilities improved rapidly.
Some days during his summers in Idaho, my father’s job was to repair equipment. One day he had to work on the camp’s Jeep. They didn’t have a car lift in the forestry camp, so the Jeep was driven onto planks over a pit, then the men worked underneath it. Apparently, the planks were not very secure, and it was fortunate that the Jeep did not crush the mechanics below. According to my father, the foreman did a lot of cussing when he discovered the rickety set up.
My father’s goal with his summer employment was to earn enough money to cover his college tuition and books for the following school year, and he succeeded. (Of course, he told me frequently that his annual tuition at the University of Washington was $600 in those days—less than books alone would be today.)
For his room and board during college, my father traded off between living and home and living at the fraternity house. When he lived at home, he didn’t pay rent, but what young college man wants to live with his parents? After a quarter, he was usually chomping at the bit to leave.
At the fraternity house, he worked as a short-order cook in the kitchen to cover his living expenses. That’s where he learned to baste eggs and make such yummy pancakes! But after a quarter there, he was ready for the easier life at home.
It’s hard for me to believe my father was ever a 19- to 21-year-old college student facing danger, whether the danger came from fire or from falling Jeeps. I was born before he was 23, just a few years after his fire-fighting summers. He always seemed cautious to me, even when I was a young child. Maybe that was just the face he showed his daughter. Maybe it was the maturity of becoming a parent.
All these memories run through my head as I listen to the evening news. I mourn the deaths of the young firefighters as well as my father’s death. I regret the destruction of some beautiful parts of the nation. And I remember my own small connections to the newsworthy events of the moment.
What recent news stories have hit you close to home?