When fire started up out of the canyon, they were already dead. Still, for minutes, they kept cutting fireline, Forest Service hotshots and smokejumpers working a halfass fire in the scrub oak and piñon country of north-central Colorado. They cut as though there were a future. But when fire boiled out of the canyon up Storm King Mountain at twenty miles per hour, fast enough to catch birds in flight, there was only the present. And then not that. It came with 250-foot flame lengths and the 1,800 degree heat of a crematorium.
In spikes, on a springy track, a world-class sprinter can reach twenty miles per hour in ideal conditions over one hundred yards. Sapped from hours of cutting line, churning uphill in boots and fire gear over rough ground at 7,000 feet, one hundred yards from the sanctuary of the ridgeline, it was not a winnable race for the premier firefighters the Forest Service puts on the line in the West every summer.
Forty years ago, on a fire called Schoolhouse in the San Bernardino National Forest of California, I peeled back with the rest of the Dalton Hotshots into the black–hot ash and brush embers — as fire came up the ridge like a freight train, incinerating all carbon-based life where we had been cutting line moments before.
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