First, they train you how to die in a forest fire, how to wrap yourself in a thin aluminized shelter and pray as the head of a fire barrels over you like a train. They say you could survive the flesh melting off your bones: suffocation from the heat is what would kill you. You learn from hotshot veterans, grizzled fire chiefs who used to chase smoke through the Santa Ana winds out West. In one week, they teach you the names of strange tools, about the chain of command, how to hack fire line in brush and navigate the burn. You watch videos about disasters to analyze changes in weather, surprise flare-ups, crews swallowed whole among the sharp teeth of mountains. Then they send you out to the forest to wait.
That summer, the air itself is like tinder. You and your crew stay busy gathering corroded tin cans in the forest, mopping up prescribed burns. You learn how to stuff yourself into pants made for a man’s slim hips, squat and piss in fields of invasive species, hoping the men will look the other way. You watch them to gauge how much to speak, how loudly to laugh. You talk shit, chew tobacco, smoke cigarettes. But still: out in the field you must carry your own blood wrapped in plastic; tampons collect like poppies in the bottom of your pack. You are not as much of a machine as you wish to be. When the call comes you forget your goggles in the rush.
Fire, like a wild animal, has body parts—head, flank, heel—and innate behaviors. It races uphill, backs into the wind, settles when the dew point rises at night. It can burrow deep into cracks in stone and lurk hot in the peat all winter, emerging from hibernation in spring to set the brush ablaze. You learn how to tame it in pieces, to prioritize. With a partner, subdue the flames first, douse them with the weak trickle from your bladder bag. Chase snaking tongues of smoke coiled in arterial root-beds. Watch overhead for snags, behind for spot fires, underfoot for heat-hewn tunnels in the loam. With the others, you become a mechanism that beats back the beast before it can spread.
Near dusk, you walk slow in the red pine-needled dirt, toe the line between black and rust, before and after. You cross paths with your crew, exchanging words now quiet after the heat of the day. You are all covered in the same soot, you all bend under the same exhaustion. In that state you start to notice things. Ash so light the pressure of your boot explodes it airborne like a collapsing star. You open your mouth to dissolve it on your tongue; you transubstantiate the fire’s aftermath, you swallow the forest’s god. In the years after, your bones are never quite right. They’ll tell you your lips sear like embers, your thighs move like flame; that there is a place in your ribs where something is thrashing and hot, like a creature driven mad by hunger. You learn how to love its restlessness. You learn to live inside its heat.
Emily Wick’s essays and poems have appeared in Broad, BuzzFeed Ideas, and The Legendary, among other publications. She currently lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Follow her on Twitter at @wickinson.