Summer 1987, somewhere in the hills of western Oregon, I stand on my assigned slope. Up here, there are only two measures of time: a tree’s life and the setting sun. At the bottom of the hill there’s a tree line – a far off forest of fir like a wall. When he dropped me here, the foreman said I could break for lunch when the water ran out. He adds that the water will run out if the truck doesn’t come and I pray that the truck is too busy to get back to me.
The sun is hot behind a thin layer of clouds. Not overcast, these clouds magnify the heat, and the light. The earth is scorched, black, smoldering. It soaks up the sun and flares up when I expose a hot spot to the air. That’s when I douse the spot until the cinders are cool enough to touch.
The entire hillside had been cleared and burnt. The fear that employs me is that one of these hot spots will flare up, or burrow through the live forest’s roots – it can really do that – and if it does, it burns down the whole damn forest.
If it did catch, it might’ve been a flare up, or it could have been a natural fire, part of the process. Possibly, but not likely, it was a sixteen-year-old slash burner on mop up duty trying to catch a smoke break in the shade of the tree line.