About three years ago, I went on my first wildfire. I had just recently became a certified firefighter, and I finally got sent out on a two-week deployment. Without being too specific, let’s just say the fire was deep in North-Central Idaho. It had immensely steep mountains and ultra-dense forest. I didn’t really have any idea of what to expect. You always hear about wildfires on the news, but it wasn’t anything like what actually happens.
I expected to show up and be seen as a hero. It turns out the area I went to was very, very familiar with wildfires. Over decades, many of the locals actually grew to hate the firefighters and federal government. Many locals felt that the government was exploiting the fires for money, so they purposefully would take a long time fighting the fires. One city nearby blames the government for allowing a fire to burn down more than 50 homes.
The first day we were told to stay away from the locals because they would often approach as friendly, but then become confrontational, even violent. On our way to the fire lines, there were signs hung on trees saying things like: “Turn back now.” Or “Hope u burn in hell.” Needless to say it was a little unsettling. We continued for a few days without issue.
A few days later we got assigned to new area. We had a rather large engine with lots of water and supplies, so we normally just patrolled the fire borders to make sure the fire didn’t jump the defensive lines. One day an old man comes driving up on his ATV and starts asking questions about the fire. He informed us that he was a nearby resident and just wanted to be updated. We told him the general information about the fire. He thanked us, and was about to drive away when he turned around. He told us not to go up Red Leaf Road, as “ol’ Joe” lived up there and hated firefighters.
A day later, we got placed on structure protection. We were to go home to home and help prepare them because the fire was coming dangerously close. We then went to our assigned house. We actually waited outside the gate for a few minutes to get a little game plan going. Here is a picture I took where you can see the thick smoke and thick woods.
We drove up to the house to find a man waiting with a gun on his lap. We carefully approached him, it was the man from the ATV earlier. Apparently some people dressed as firefighters came to his house earlier demanding his evacuation. He left his home, but the people were fake firefighters and had robbed him while he was gone. Luckily we had a massive truck to help prove our legitimacy, so he kindly put away his gun.
We helped him prep his house. As we did, he told us all these stories about ol’ Joe, who lived at the very top of the lane. He said Joe was a big time conspiracy theorist who had probably hundreds of guns and was famous for his hate for the government.
I know it sounds straight out of a movie: some old anti-government guy living in the mountains with tons of guns, but it was all true. Ol’ Joe was secretive, even among his neighbors. Nobody really knew exactly who he was. He said neighbors only really spoke to him in passing on the narrow dirt roads. They just knew he was shooting guns all day, and always preaching about his hate for the government.
A few days later we were fighting on the front lines. Each area has a commander who is in charge. Before we went out for the day, our commander briefed us. He actually mentioned ol’ Joe and said that nobody was to go near his property. He also told us about our evacuation point for if the fire were to get out of control. It happened to be a nearby rock quarry.
I was out digging some fire line when a loud tone went out over the radio and all units in the area were asked to evacuate to the quarry. After arriving we were told someone spotted a new fire forming below everyone on the main fire line (including me). This is especially dangerous because fire moves uphill very quickly. It was also so smokey, that we could barely see 30 feet in front of us. A fire could easily surround you without you knowing.
We waited for an hour or so before the commander asked for a volunteer engine to go scout the new fire start. An engine crew that we had befriended volunteered, and shortly after departed. We then waited for what felt like two or three hours. Finally the volunteer engine crew came back.
They briefed the commander, and then came back toward my crew. Ricky, a crew member I befriended, hopped out of the truck with a sickly look on his face. He was pale, and almost seemed frail as he stepped out. I asked him what was up. He said when they found the new fire. It was just outside a large clearing. They got out to investigate and found a freshly cut trail with footprints in the mud.
They looked around further and could easily see that it had been started with a long line of gasoline. Someone had been in there recently. A large line of gas was poured so that it would surround the fire crews above(again including myself), and catching them off guard. They quickly hopped back in their engine and hauled ass back to the quarry.
It wasn’t ever be proven, but everyone was sure that it was ol’ Joe in a failed attempt to burn us 20+ firefighters alive. Thankfully a very keen firefighter had noticed a small orange glow below him through the heavy smoke. Had he not spotted it in time, the narrow and steep roads needed to escape would have likely been cut off. The gasoline lines were very carefully placed to cut off our escape.
I was scarred for a long time afterwards. There is something extremely unsettling knowing that someone was plotting your death, especially when you are completely unaware. Was Joe watching me? Was he hidden in the woods nearby waiting for his plan to unfold? Luckily I left a few days later, never to return, and hopefully never to meet ol’ Joe.