Walking Into Hell

Jeremy Murphy 

Jeremy, the recipient of the Ruth E. and Mary E. M. Smith Scholarship of the Community Foundation of Frederick County lives on Keysville Road. He is the son of Darlene and Greg Medbe. A senior at Penn State majoring in forestry, he has a summer internship with the National Park Service in Catoctin Mountain Park. We are pleased to publish his recollection of his first time fighting a forest fire. 

I just got a call at work in northern Maryland about fighting a fire in Virginia five hours ago, and now I have been sitting in a bus for the past three. It is a big luxury model bus with a TV and VCR, but they don’t seem to be working. Traveling south on a major interstate, we pass numerous mountains and pastures. Everything blends into one large mosaic as the constant up and down motion of the bus lulls the crew of about 20 people to sleep. 

The squad bosses and crew boss, however, are in a heated discussion. The men in the front keep asking the driver, “How much longer till we get there?” They are going over the group assignments to decide who is going to be in charge of a group of four and the other groups of five. There is constant arguing over what information is needed when we arrive at the ICC (incident command center).“ We need to know how big it is,” the crew boss says. “No, no, we need to know the terrain type we are going to be working in,” one of the squad bosses says. “All of this needs to be known before we hit the mountain,” the crew boss barks out. 

Everyone wears their protective clothing: a bright yellow long sleeve shirt, green pants that smell of some stomach-turning chemical, and big leather boots. My boots have never been broken in. They are still deep black in color without any scuffs on them. Everyone knows that I am a “virgin,” but I was going to lose my virginity in Purgatory —- the name of the fire in Virginia. It is my first fire and I am excited, unlike everyone else who has had time on the line. I am peering out the window at mountains I have never seen, and at how the road curves along its path. 

Then I see it. “USE CAUTION, thick smoke ahead.” The large sign flashes at me as the smell of smoke fills every empty space in my lungs. That smell distracts everyone from what they are doing. Some of them were sleeping, others reading books. We know that we are getting close. The bus goes down the off ramp into a small town, then through an intersection, and we turn left into a tiny school. Pickup trucks fill the parking lot with axes, shovels, hoses, water tanks, and food pouring out the tailgates like waterfalls. Large military hummers equipped with water cannons look like giant redwoods next to the pickups. 

There are bulldozers, helicopters, and trailers scattered about. The crew steps off the bus as the sun sets over the mountainside. We all look around trying to see the fire. The bus pulls away and as if the sun came up over the mountain again, light hits the crew. The fire is moving down the mountain directly behind us. Individual flames shoot 60 feet in the air as the trees turn into large torches. “That there is Hell. Right now you are standing in Purgatory,” our crew boss says to the group. “Get all your stuff together and get something to eat. 

We are walking into Hell tonight.” We not only walked into it, but also created our own small part of Hell. The crew has to set back fires to further control the fire before it spread passed are control line. The crew boss said, “ Everyone grab your tool, get plenty of water, and get ready for a hike.” All that went through my mind during the whole 2-mile hike up the mountain was what waited for me. Was the fire going to race towards me, or are we heading up the mountain to sit and waiting to see what happens next? Safety is a major concern, there is a lot of down time while on the fire line. 

As we got further and further up the mountain my nerves calmed and my hands stopped shaking. Soon, the crew boss stops and explains what we are going to do. “ We are going to set a backfire to help control this thing, and I know that no one here has had an experience doing it.” He gives specific details about how far and fast we are suppose to go, who will set the fire, and the proper ways to use a drip torch —- a large cylinder filled with a mixture of diesel fuel and kerosene. 

The torches end has a metal tip with a wick that stays on fire, so that when it is tipped over, the mixture pours out of it, and catches on fire. The one given to me is broken and every time that I lift it to stop the fire dripping, the torch shoots a five-foot flame that lasts for about a sec. I thought it was pretty cool so after a while I got used to using it and the flame that shot out didn’t bother me. The crew starts the fire next to a ten-foot wide line that a bulldozer cleared on the mountain. Things start out pretty slowly as the new fire starts and lookouts keep an eye on the main fire. 

After about three hours, and 300 yards of a fire lit, things start to get really hot. The backfire is doing what it is supposed to do, but the main fire moves more quickly than we predicted. It burns into a pine grove and starts to go up the trees. A crown fire starts in the grove and I can feel the heat hit me as pine trees start to turn into torches. I am 100 yards away from them. A large brush pile catches on fire then, the crew stops the backfiring operation and started to watch for spot fires which happen when embers are thrown into the air and land in the area that has not been burnt. The crew of 20 spreads out along the line and watches. 

I sit there and gaze at the fire going on in front of me. It dances back and forth and sways to the wind that it creates. I start to sweat, and the heat is so intense that I have to pull my goggles down and pull my facemask up. The temperature is 40 degrees, but with the fire burning next to me, I could have worn shorts and a t-shirt and felt comfortable. I sit there all night and into the next morning, with the crew boss constantly walking up and down the line and making sure his crew is ok. He must have walked about ten miles that night. In the morning, I see a fire whirl, which looks like a tornado, but only made up of fire. These only occur in a very hot, intense fire. 

It continues to grow and move towards me. I move back further, but the heat from it was so intense that it melts the plastic camera I have in my pocket. It starts to die back naturally, and the rest of the crew continue to watch for spot fires. I am so tired that it feels like my eyelids have turned to steel, and no matter how hard I try, I keep dozing off. We have been awake for more then 36 hours and working on the line for more then 24. We are finally relieved from duty, and we walk back down the mountain. All that is on my mind is sleep. I am finally leaving Hell, but I would be back at it for another 4 days. In the meantime it feels like I am walking through the gates of heaven as I make my way to the motel bed.