Robert Barrett, the U.S. Forest Service firefighter in charge of battling Lucky on the ground, commands his men and women in a voice raspy from years spent sucking smoke. He is 46, slight and strong, with an easy grin and a scrub-brush goatee. He tours the fire on foot and in his pickup, divining its mood.
"Fire is cool," Barrett says. "It's cool trying to figure it out, seeing what you can do about it. It's a mental exercise. You never know what it's gonna do."
Stones ping off the truck as Barrett steers down a road that is little more than a welt of dirt between ravines. His guitar, stashed beneath the seat, twangs in its case. He coughs often in long, wet runs. The heat and storms of smoke and dust have not dulled the thrill of a good burn. "I love my job. It keeps me out of jail." A fireman's joke. Lucky has burned now for about a week. Each day Barrett wakes before dawn and makes coffee on the tailgate of his truck, thinking about his next move, and the fire's countermove. At night, most fires here "lay down," burning slower under wetter, cooler air and the suffocating lid of their own smoke. Because of this, firefighters occasionally attack fires at night, but it is dangerous work. More commonly, they exploit fire's drowsiness in the early morning. By late morning the air generally warms and dries, and wind begins feeding the flames. At Lucky, the relative humidity can drop from 30 percent to 15 percent in a few hours. The day slides into the burning hours, when fire thrives.
More than anything, Barrett wants to keep Lucky from leaping a small river into a chunk of forest where trees stand dense and dry. He knows that Lucky, like any wildfire, has the potential to rage out of control in the span of an afternoon. He also faces another problem, one that greatly complicates wildland firefighting today. If the fire jumps the river, houses and ranches lie in its path. Since the end of World War II, people have streamed into the West, injecting houses and roads and towns into places they never existed before. In the 1990s, eight million new homes sprouted along the borders of parks and forests, where fires regularly start. The government spends exorbitantly attempting to defend property in these areas. Formally this is known as the wildland-urban interface. Some firefighters call it the stupid zone.
Just before noon on a Monday, Barrett sends another crew in to backburn. It begins well. The scent of gasoline, flares popping. The teakettle whistle of combusting wood. But just after 1 p.m., the wind shifts. The fire bends back on itself, toward vast sweeps of trees, ready fuel. The wind shift could undo a week of work, or worse. Excited voices call over the radio. Barrett tugs on his backpack to hike the fire's edge and sense it for himself. He grabs a Pulaski, the combination ax and adze that firefighters use to chop, cut, and scrape.