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Lucky advances down a steep ridge, the firs torching, hot orange declarations. We hike along a shallow firebreak of bare soil. Fire hoses snake through the dirt. To our left, thick green stands. To the right, a smoking expanse, like something shelled by artillery. Flames a few feet high snarl and hiss in the wind. Smoke swallows us, burning our eyes and plugging our throats. When it clears, I see Barrett hacking at a fire that has jumped the line, smothering it with dirt. Then he stops and stares at the forest below. Four, five, a dozen new pools of flame blink in the smoke.

"I think we've lost it," he says. The wet cough. He takes a radio call and his face falls. That damn wind.

"I think it's gone across the river."

We retreat, following the hoses out. In places they are burned through, nicked arteries spurting water. We drift in and out of heavy smoke. I lose Barrett, glimpse him, lose him again. When we finally emerge, word comes that a crew has found and killed the fire across the river.

A few hours later Barrett sits cross-legged on a large boulder, a radio in each hand, hands resting on his knees. Still as a monk. No new fires have sprouted on the other side, and his firefighters have retaken the fire line. The turns of fortune. It might easily have gone the other way.

A helicopter passes, its orange bucket sailing overhead like a comet, mist trailing behind. Justin Bone, one of Barrett's lieutenants, watches it go and shakes his head. "We're spending millions on 1,500 acres," he says. "How many city fire departments would that pay for? They might as well be pouring dollars on the fire."

Like Barrett, Bone loves his job. And he shares with many others the belief that trying to fight all fires is a loser's game. Bone favors an alternative strategy called "wildland fire use," in which some wildfires are monitored but allowed to burn, gradually thinning the forests and clearing out fuel. It is not a new approach. Native Americans burned forests and grasslands to create game habitat and clear fields. Many plant species benefit from a periodic purging. Bone stabs a finger toward the forest, heavy with ponderosa pine. With their thick, tough bark, the trees can survive all but the most severe burns. Other pines require fire for reproduction; their seed cones are coated in a waxy resin that must be melted off by heat to free the seeds. As fire burns dead wood and live plants, it also releases nutrients into the soil. This is crucial in arid zones, where decomposition without fire would take decades. Not all fires can be left to run their course, but the ecological argument behind the idea is compelling.

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