Playground in the Fire 

People questioned my motives when I became a smokejumper again. They said I had a death wish, or that somehow by going into battle against the big Pacific Northwest forest fires, I was still trying to put out the flames of the burning car in which my sons Jake (age three), Billy (five), and Frank Jr. (seven) had died. But they were wrong. I didn't have a death wish; and although I would have died to bring my sons back, I didn't need to lash out against implacable forces. It just happened that, alone and unable to sleep and thirty-eight years old, I realized I wanted to fight fires again.

The season was almost over when I joined back up, but before it ended, I would jump into three fires.

The first, in late August, began with a lightning strike on the western slope of Whisperpine Mountain, which sits in the shadow of Mt. St. Helena. Not one of the other men bumping around in the plane's hold was older than twenty-eight. We jumped below the Whisperpine fire and began to establish a fireline. The summit was rocky and bare, so we hoped the fire would keep climbing and burn itself out. Winds were light. Smokejumping isn't a crew-based tactic like regular firefighting; because of terrain and limited manpower, jumpers often go about their tasks solo. I headed up the mountain alone to gauge the fire's speed and distance.

The boys' deaths had dulled my ability to feel fear. From the fire's edge, I watched the live pines burn slowly. Then I was startled to see something moving around in the flames, unmistakably alive.

It was a little boy.

He was six or seven, brown-haired, wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt and velcro sneakers. He danced back and forth playing some game, leaping from log to log, untouched by the fire. At home in it.

Then he froze. Cinders gusted around him. He turned and, calmly, waved hello. I waved back, and his face lit up-like he was surprised I could see him. Then, remembering something, he scrunched his brow in thought. He pointed to the west, up the mountain diagonally. Then he turned and sprinted uphill, chasing the heart of the fire.

Bewildered, I climbed higher and moved west around the edge of the blaze, where I found what the boy must have been pointing toward-a dry stream bed filled with dead, potentially incendiary undergrowth right in the path of the widening blaze. I radioed the others, and we scrambled to set up a fireline in time. The line held. The fire never reached the stream bed.

I thought afterward about the boy in the fire. He'd been so carefree, playing his game in the swirling heat. A ghost, or a hallucination.

* * *

At the beginning of September, we jumped into the second fire, which was eating its way across Castle Valley from the west, driving the flames toward the base of Mt. Allison.

About an hour after we jumped, I saw the boy again. A jumper named Javez was with me. We were moving around the fire to trap it from the north when I glimpsed human movement in the flames and stopped. It was him again — and there were others with him! A boy in overalls, a girl with a bow in her hair. They were swinging sticks at each other like swords as burning branches fell around them. It was as if inside the fire, a cool, untroubled world existed.

Then the boy turned and saw me. The others did, too. They waved. The kind of wave people give at the beach, a why aren't you coming in the water? wave. But, as I said, I didn't have a death wish.

"Hey!" I roared. "Hey, come here!" Beckoning.

Javez looked where I was looking. He didn't seem to see anything. "Who's there?" he yelled, alarmed. "Hendricks follow us?" Hendricks was the youngest.

The boy shrugged apologetically. And I understood: Just like I couldn't enter the fire to meet them, they couldn't step out of it.

"I was wrong," I told Javez. "Keep moving."

We fought the Castle Valley fire for three days. Again and again I saw the children — dashing lighthearted among the hulks of burning trees, lost in their games. Sometimes I was sure I was hallucinating.

In the weeks after Castle Valley, their images stayed with me. Playing and laughing among hot winds, inside storms of ash and cinder. It felt tragic — I believed they were trapped in the fire, forced to follow it. Did they ever age? Could they ever get free? When one fire died out, did they cease to exist, then return to life in a new one?

* * *

The third fire, the one at Harrow Gulch, started small. Like Whisperpine, it had begun with lightning. We landed on the north side of the Gulch and moved down through sparse woods and tall dry grass toward the creek at the bottom. The fire was on the south side; this way we could fight it from below, trap it between the river and the dry bluffs above.

But something happened just after we started up the south side. The wind turned. The blaze came back down at us. We turned back toward the creek, moving fast because if the flames jumped it, the fire would be chasing us uphill on the north side. We could feel a ferocious heat behind us as we started up the north side. I fell a few steps behind. I looked back and saw the fire jump the creek. It started rolling up the north side like water. The trees and high grass were crisp and with grim clarity I foresaw a blow-up — the thing that happens when wind and heat and topography come together to stoke a fire so hot it ignites the oxygen and becomes a fast, fatal tornado of heat. You can't outrun a blow-up. There was only one thing to do — the thing every jumper is afraid he'll have to do one day. I screamed at the others to come back, but they kept going. They weren't going to beat the fire to the top. I took out the cigarette lighter I carried and I set the dry grass all around me on fire. I stepped out of the circle and watched the grass burn fast and hot. The flames spread outward from the circle but I stepped back inside it and lay face-down in the ashes.

Downhill, I heard a sudden satanic roar, like a blast furnace turning on: It was the blow-up, happening now.

I saw a churning wall of heat and the treetops curled. The front-line flames rolled overhead in a gale of burning wind, ate the trees, incinerated the grass. Except for where I lay, in the ashes of my fire.

Like a breaking wave, a blow-up rolls in and chews everything up and then it's gone. I lifted my head. The forest around me was crackling, burning — I was in the fire — but the inferno of the blow-up had passed me by. Close to the earth, I could breathe.

Little crunching footsteps approached me. There he was — the little brown-haired boy. Coming up the hill, making a chugga-chugga-chugga noise like a train. He saw me and stopped. I blinked sweat out of my eyes. He smiled. Then a freckled boy came up, kicking the ashes, and stood beside him. A little girl in a yellow sundress was next.

I looked at them. "Who are you?" I croaked. They looked at me. "You can't leave the fire, can you?" I said. They cocked their heads as if they didn't understand the question. They weren't smiling anymore.

"Are you trapped in the fire?" I said.

The freckled boy stared at me. "We're not trapped anywhere," he said. "We make the fire."

And the girl in the yellow dress said, "We tell the fire where to go."

And the brown-haired boy said, "We love the fire."

Then they ran upward, after it.

Nick Antosca is the author of the novels Midnight Picnic (Word Riot Press, 2009) and Fires (Impetus Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Nerve, Short Fiction, The New York Sun, Identity Theory, The Barcelona Review, The Antietam Review, The Huffington Post, Hustler, and elsewhere. He lives in New York and was born in New Orleans.


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