January 1, 2011

January 1, 2011

Throughout Japan, loudspeakers mounted on top of long polls stand at ready, serving the country’s public address system…

On most days, the system’s job is streaming ‘music reminders’. At noon, lunch music rings out, watering mine and millions of other mouths. At five, children are musically reminded to come home. The sound is wistful and nostalgic, reminiscent of warm kitchens, hot soup, and Mom.

The speakers are also there for warnings should any of the various calamities known to visit the land of the rising sun choose to return. Tips on what to do if a major earthquake occurs are common. Near the coast, broadcasts regularly warn of tsunamis. With the approach of winter, fire becomes the dominant theme. In Tokyo, where the public address system is second to none on the planet, fire is such a concern that groups of men on the last two evenings of the year traditionally walk the neighborhood streets banging wood blocks together while yelling, “Hee no yoh jin!”  (“Be careful with fire.”) Considering most of the forty million or so people living in Tokyo, as do the vast majority living elsewhere in Japan, heat their homes via portable oil heaters that include live flames, well, you do the math.

Two days before the end of the year, my wife and young son traveled north to her family’s home for Oshogatsu, the several-day period during which Japanese celebrate the New Year. A couple hours after they left, a cold front swooped in and froze everything in its path, leaving me in a bear hug with our oil heater. Alone on New Year’s Eve, I battled the cold by sinking myself into the depths of a project. Around 10 pm, I became distantly aware of approaching sirens and rapidly spoken announcements on the loudspeakers. It took several seconds to sink in. Finally I jumped up from my laptop, donned some extra clothing, and headed outside for a look.

I walk two hundred feet down the small street our house is on, round the corner, and walk another fifty. Above me on my left a couple leans out a second-floor window, looking down at me. “Konbanwa” I say, wondering why anyone would open their window on such a cold night. Ten feet later, as I clear the house on the right, the answer slaps me across the face. A hundred yards away, a two-story house is engulfed in flames. I stand spellbound, immobilized by the sight. Flames are jutting from the windows.

Screams can be heard.

Wailing sirens continue pounding the night as I rush closer. A few firefighters are already on the scene carrying hose and pointing nozzles as if waiting for the water to show. By the time it does, the screams have ceased. I don’t know what to think. Then I remember my camera. I turn, dash home, grab it, and charge back. After snapping a few shots, I go home for good.

My body stings from the cold. I go to warm myself in the deep tub but discover the water isn’t working. Must be from the fire, I tell myself. I’m thinking my only option is to return to the oil heater when paranoia suddenly overwhelms me – What if the house catches on fire? What if a neighbor’s house catches on fire then spreads to ours? What would I do? The only answer I come up with is getting out of the house. But what about clothes? What about my laptop? What about…  I dash up the stairs and start packing emergency escape bags. Two hours into the New Year, I finish. I drag three full suitcases to a spot near the front door, roll out my futon, plug in the electric blanket, and sink into a chaotic, dream-filled sleep.

The first hint of New Year’s Day opens my eyes. I jump up and run to the front door. Sure enough, three suitcases greet me. It wasn’t a dream. Welcome to 2011.

I slice an apple, brew a cup of Joe, toss it all down, and head out. Blue skies and frost form the morning. I flash on LA… The Rose Parade, the Rose Bowl, Southern California sunshine and warmth. What the hell am I doing here?

My seven-year old son!

I walk the short distance to the night-before’s carnage. Blackened walls, a roof nearly gone; but the house still stands, barely. No one around; only me. I move closer. A ceramic piece close to the front gate catches my eye. It depicts a mother, a father, and two children. Was this their home?

I slowly walk around the house, holding my camera. It’s quiet, the nearest neighbor is 50 yards away, a luxury in a crowded country like Japan. In the back, an agricultural field awaits spring, and maybe the children who knew it as their yard.

Where are they?

In what was the driveway sits a badly burned oil heater. It looks to be the culprit, as if a firefighter dragged it to a spot for all to see. Then I flash on my oil heater. Did I turn it off?

You’d think I’d remember.

When I was eighteen, I spent a summer and a fall working as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. The crew I signed with was called the Dalton Hotshots. Stationed east of LA above Glendora in Angeles National Forest, Dalton was a regional crew, meaning they fought fires within Angeles or any other national forest in the western United States. I remember my first fire like it was yesterday. It was July and the fire was near Cajon Pass, off the freeway to Las Vegas, not far from San Bernardino. Brush fires in Southern California are serious business and this was the first of what would be a particularly difficult fire season.

Arriving on the scene we could see small planes called bird dogs leading World War II vintage bombers to hot spots in the fire area. Bright red fire trucks line the side of the road waiting for instructions. Several green Forest Service tankers, each with helmeted crewmen sitting atop, are making their way up the fire road, possibly planning a tanker stand. The fire is jumping the road and our first order is to cross the highway and put it out anyway possible. There are five of us who’d never been on an actual fire and we stay close as we run along.

The moment we reach the far side of the road, the summer wind shifts, swallowing us in thick smoke. Blind, I drop to my knees, wrestling with the bandanna around my neck, trying to get it up and over my nose. But I can’t breathe so I just keep going down, finally burying my face in the sand. I lay there for what seems a lifetime, not moving, positive I am about to die. When the wind shifts again, the smoke clears. Coughing and rubbing my eyes, I slowly rise to my feet. A hand grabs my shoulder. “Are you okay?” A voice asks. I turn around. It’s Sid Newman, our foreman. “Yeah,” I mutter.

“We’re going in,” Sid says to all of us. “Follow me.”

He heads back across the highway. We follow along, trying to keep up, our helmets banging our heads, our fire tools hanging from our hands. The rest of the crew is waiting, staring at us, smiling. They’re experienced, we’re not. They know we just got our first taste.

Within five minutes I’m in a line of orange-helmeted firefighters heading up the mountain side, going deep to confront the beast. An hour later, we’re at the top of a ridge, looking across a canyon at flames incinerating everything in their path. Apparently, our crew is part of a bigger plan because instead of heading over to tackle the fire Sid hollers, “Take a break. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.”

I don’t smoke so I just take a few swigs from my canteen. Only we the new people are carrying the Government Issue U.S. Forest Service canteens. Everyone else has several US Army canteens around their mid-sections hanging on a military belt connected to a shoulder harness. Obviously, they know things we don’t. My canteen is already less than half-full.

Leaning back, my eyes briefly take in the late afternoon sun dancing on the ridge across the canyon, three hundred yards above the fire. Suddenly, a bird dog, its nose skyward, flies up from the far side of the ridge then slides down the hill toward the flames. A scream is making its way to my mouth when a glistening silver B-29 bomber, following the precise route of the small plane, shoots up then down the ridge, depositing its load of reddish fire retardant onto the spot marked by the bird dog’s wagging wings, before raising its nose, gunning its four engines, and soaring away. It all happens at what seems to be no more than a football field from where I sit, freezing me to the ground, leaving my accelerating heart to fend for itself. I look over at my fellow hotshots. Most of them are standing and cheering like they’re the bench for a team who just scored. Like me, however, the other new guys just stare at where the bomber went, as if they witnessed a close encounter.

“Gather up,” Sid hollers. “Let’s move out.”

Two minutes later, the Dalton Hotshots are snaking their way to the fire – Camp Superintendent Chuck Hartley, Foreman Sid Newman, Line Bosses Jack Pittman and Jorge Luna, chain-saw point man, Mike Cole, four brush hooks, four Pulaski’s, four shovels, and four McCloud’s. Hotshots think they’re pretty hot stuff, but that’s not why they’re called hotshots. The name comes from their skill at removing fuel along the flank of an advancing fire head. The theory being, if fuel, in this case heavy brush, is removed from the path of a fire, the fire stops. In an organized assault on a raging fire, there’s another hotshot crew cutting and removing brush from the flank on the other side of the head.

We hit the fire with the ferocity of an infantry platoon attacking an enemy emplacement. I’m rapidly swinging my brush hook, cutting through six-inch trunks of scrub oak and manzanita like slabs of butter, tossing the corpses into the unburned side. There’s no stopping, just swing, grab, and toss. Then do it again, and again, and again. Former marine, Jack Pittman, my line boss, is yelling as if he’s atop a buckboard racing up a steep hill, extracting every ounce of strength from his team of horses.

A bird dog waggles a hundred feet above. “Hit the dirt!” Pittman screams. I dive as the B-29 roars overhead. Bam, a direct hit of Bentonite covers me. I rise to my feet, wiping off as much of the fire retardant as I can, then return to cutting and tossing brush.

It takes two hours to hook-up with the crew coming up the other flank. Like us, they’re mostly kids fresh out of high school. These guys are from Las Padres National Forest. No one says much as we move past. I nod, tossing out a few, “How ya doing?” There’s no time for celebrating. We only stopped one of the fire heads, and there’s several. Like the mythological Lernaean Hydra, they’ll keep popping up until the beast is dead.

We break by climbing to the top of a nearby ridge. It’s now pitch dark, everyone’s got the light on their helmet switched on, reminiscent of coal miners; except we’re going up instead of down. At the ridge top we stop and most everybody hits the ground. I’ve been out of water for I don’t know how long. My throat is parched, my body won’t sweat, and it’s still before midnight. I sense we’ll be out all night. I don’t want to think about it. Within seconds, I’m deep asleep.

I’m woken by the sound of voices. I look over at several hotshots playing with something in the dirt. I push my self up and walk over to see what’s going on. Sudden buzzing causes me to jump back. A rattlesnake the shots have been teasing is just inches away. All I can figure is he’s too scared to strike. My heart is threatening to rip through my chest when a brush hook appears and expertly decapitates the serpent. I race back to my sleep spot wondering what the hell I’m doing here.

Throughout the night, we fight the fire wherever and whenever we can. Mad charges up hillsides, cutting and tossing brush, hikes, deep sleep, another battle. Sometimes, we stop at a high point from where we can gaze onto the battlefield. Other hotshot crews, lights on their helmets giving away their location, are working along a flank or hiking to a ridge top.

When the sun finally comes up, I’m able to see what the darkness has hidden. It’s like a scene from a Pacific Island after a battle between Japanese and American forces… Destruction is everywhere. I’ll forever have an image of Sid Newman atop a burnt hilltop pleading to a passing helicopter for water by pointing his finger to his open mouth.

We arrive in the fire camp around lunchtime. First, we stampede the water truck. Never has water, or anything else, tasted so good. Then we line for chow. Eggs, steaks, fried potatoes cover my plate and I wolf it down like it is my first and last meal. I come up for air, looking up and down the table. We are firefighters, even us new guys, and I feel the pride. We fought together, faced death together, and survived. Bad dudes…

The Dalton Hotshots!

*  *  *  *  *

Of course I remembered to shut the oil heater off.

After my wife returned, bits and pieces of what happened on New Year’s Eve filtered in. A family with children did indeed live in the house that burned. The good news is they all got out okay. It was the oil heater I saw in the driveway that caused the fire. Apparently, when it was refilled, the cap wasn’t properly tightened down, oil seeped out, and a fire ensued. It sounds so preventable. Nevertheless, it seems everyday since New Years I’ve heard sirens. It’s hard to imagine they’re all rushing to houses on fire. But then again, if it’s as simple as not tightening a cap, well, you gotta figure there’s gonna be a lot of fires this winter. I think I’ll keep my escape bags by the front door. Sure, my wife will whine every time she goes in or out but, hey, fires happen. As long as we survive, have a few things to wear, and a laptop, we’ll figure something out.

D. B. Guidinger © All Rights Reserved 2011