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Book excerpt: ‘Trail Dogs and Firefighters: A Memoir from the Burning West’

An inside look at the intense world of trail “dogging” and wildland firefighting


The following excerpt is from “Trail Dogs and Firefighters: A Memoir from the Burning West,” Chapter 8, “Turkey Ridge Fire,” and describes the author’s first experience fighting a fast-moving wildfire in the mountains of Wyoming. This first-hand account describes the dangerous and difficult conditions wildland firefighters face on a daily basis as well as their reliance on training, teamwork and a little bit of luck.

By Robert J. (Bob) Roller

Turkey Ridge Fire
(July 16-17, 2006; 42°22’7.30”N, 110°29’58.96”W)

“Fire! Fire! Fire! Get up! Get up! Get up!” Rick, the lead firefighter from the Big Piney (WY) Forest Service fire engine, shouted as he stood in the doorway of my bunkhouse bedroom. “Get your crap. There is a fire near LaBarge, and we are headed there this morning.”

This was not how I planned my weekend to go, but I wasn’t complaining. I fell out of bed. “Got it,” is what came out of my mouth. What remained in my head was, Holy cow! I get to be a firefighter. What do now? This would be a pivotal moment in my life, to be sure. It was a Sunday morning, and I was alone in the bunkhouse. My older brother Bill who I worked with on the district doing trail improvement work had taken off earlier that morning to go boating with his college buddies at a lake somewhere I’d never been, and Blaine, the third member of our trail crew was who knows where. I didn’t know what permission or authorization I needed, so I left awkward voicemail messages for both Bill and our boss Teresa telling them Rick said I was supposed to go with him to the fire. I was relieved when nobody answered the phone because I was terrified that either one of them might tell me I couldn’t go, and voicemail allowed me to pass blame if either got angry that I had ditched my regular job to go fight a fire.

I had my green fire pack, tent, and red bag already packed. They were untouched since I finished fire school in Pinedale a month earlier, and both were already packed for a short-notice deployment, which Bill had warned us was likely to happen. It took ten minutes to get dressed and have my gear ready. About that time Blaine walked into the bunkhouse, and his reaction to the news was like my own. Within an hour we were riding three abreast in a work truck headed south to LaBarge.

I had had one previous experience with LaBarge. The town was little more than a sign and a few roadside houses on a desolate desert highway, but the local bar hosted LaBarge Beach Days that the Big Piney crew all attended one Saturday. Surprisingly, LaBarge, Wyoming is the sand volleyball capital of the inter-mountain west. We got our butts kicked by the local ranchers, but at least it gave us something to do.

Today was different. We got to LaBarge and turned off the highway and onto a smaller paved road then onto a gravel Forest Service road. It was a hot and dry July day, so there was no thermal inversion trapping the smoke near the ground, but I could smell the fire well before we arrived.

Wildfire smell different than other types of fire. It’s not the noxious, chemically tainted smell of house fires, but it’s not a campfire smell either. As we approached the staging area up Turkey Creek, I had my first hint of this aroma. It’s not just a mix of burnt wood and smoky burnt leaves; it’s the smell of charred dirt superheated by flame and the rocks that burst from the heat. It’s an acidic smell of willow bushes and trees steam-cooked from firehose water sprayed on advancing flames. There is nothing else like it. (Ten years later I was driving through Big Sur, California with my wife while a fire ranged in a canyon several miles away. I got get a whiff of the smoke snaking down the mountain, and it instantly transport me to that pickup headed up Turkey Creek Road).

The command post was small and chaotic. A few local fire guys from Kemmerer, WY I didn’t know were running the show, but they had only been here since the previous evening. The fire blew up on them near dusk the night before, and that’s when they called us for help. That was all I heard as I grabbed my pack and made ready for whatever needed done. It only took a minute. Blaine and I were hastily put together with a few other folks I recognized from fire school, and we were tasked to dig a line around a pocket of fire that was threatening to jump across a road and burn a new part of the forest.

The task seemed easy enough. We marched 200 yards up an old logging road and spotted an isolated pocket of fire with a 60-foot diameter near the edge of the road, and the five of us got to work. We had no firehoses or water of course, so we dug a containment fireline around it. We trained for this. The soil and vegetation on the forest floor was easy to cut a line through, but we had problems with the smoke. In training, we hadn’t been exposed to real conditions, and the act of digging a fireline put my face directly above the smoky earth and burning pine needles. It was awful. I had a face full of smoke and burning eyes. And I had no idea what to do. I tried the safety goggles I kept in my pack. This didn’t work. My eyes still burned so badly I could barely see what I was doing. I tried covering my face with the bandanna I had stashed in the hip-pocket of my fire pants. This just made me look like a cartoon bank robber. Enough already, I told myself. I’ll just deal with it.

About the Author

Robert J. (Bob) Roller is is a certified emergency manager, a nationally registered paramedic, and a civilian graduate of the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. Roller was the vice president of Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department, where he has served as a firefighter, paramedic, and special operations swiftwater rescue technician, and he has also served on three mid-Atlantic mountain-rescue teams, including one he co-founded. Roller frequently authors academic articles describing his work as a disaster response emergency manager and has taught emergency management and homeland security courses domestically and abroad.

‘Trail Dogs and Firefighters: A Memoir from the Burning West’
© August 2022