THE HELICOPTER CIRCLES THE FIRE in the Sky Lakes Wilderness area of Oregon. The “spotter” on board identifies a break in the trees where firefighters can rappel down. With the side doors open, the roar of the helicopter rotors and the howling wind makes conversation impossible. The crew uses hand signals to alert Sarah Berns ’98 and her fellow rappellers that it’s almost time to climb out onto the skids. At that moment, a sudden downdraft causes the helicopter to sink faster than the dangling ropes, threatening a catastrophic entanglement in the rotors. Fortunately, the spotter sees what is happening and quickly cuts the ropes. The helicopter accelerates, the crisis is over.
Later in the day, the crew successfully rappels into Sky Lakes Wilderness. That night at supper, one of the team comments, “We almost died out there.”
“Yep,” replies Berns, with a nod and a smile. For her, this is work, not heroism.
Berns fights fires for the U.S. Forest Service from May to November, fire season in the West. Based in the tiny town of Twisp, Washington, she ranges through Nevada, Texas, Oregon, California, and Montana. As a rappeller, she belongs to an elite group of initial-attack firefighters that tries to hit fires hard and fast before they blaze out of control. She is on the frontlines of some of the West’s biggest fires and loves it. Rarely afraid, she feels confident she can manage whatever nature hurls her way. Always at the back of her mind, though, is the knowledge that “you’re never in control of fire, and there are so many variables that conditions can change rapidly.” A poor decision in this line of work can be fatal.
“Fighting fires is dangerous, dirty, exhausting work,” she says. Flames can leap 200 feet over the tree canopy or swallow the forest floor, consuming thousands of acres of wilderness and often coming dangerously close to towns and homes. The smell, the noise, the smoke and heat are relentless. At times, the heat is so intense it can singe the eyebrows of a firefighter standing well away from the blaze. Firefighters frequently have to back away from the flames because the high temperatures make breathing impossible.
“You never know how fire will behave,” Berns says. “You have to try to predict what a fire will do, react appropriately, and be sure you always have an escape route. Firefighters understand that ten percent of the time they’re going to be wrong and that a good firefighter has a backup plan if the original prediction is inaccurate.”
Fire moves faster uphill, faster than any human can run, so it’s always important to be on the downhill side. Given the right terrain and fuel conditions, a change in wind can cause a fire to blow up out of control and race through thousands of acres. Flames can climb into the treetops and be swept along by winds in what is known as a “crown fire.” In 1967 a crown fire in Idaho released the energy equivalent of a Hiroshima-size atomic bomb every ten minutes.
A tragic reminder of the unpredictability of forest fires occurred in July 2001 during a blowup at the Thirtymile Fire in the North Cascade Range. The heat was so intense that four firefighters died from inhaling superheated air long before any flames reached them, even though they had sought refuge in their heat-resistant shelters.
Mindful of the risk, she looks for clues to fire behavior in the clouds, the winds, relative humidity, air temperature, the amount of fuel available to the fire, approaching storms, downdrafts, drought conditions, and the pitch of the terrain. Strength will get you through the ordeal of fighting a fire, but brains will save your life.
Offhandedly, Berns says, “I’m not what you’d call a big person.” She is five feet, five inches tall, 130 pounds. The 85-pound pack with which she hikes is 65 percent of her body weight. But don’t be fooled by this seeming lack of brawny strength; she passes rigorous physical tests year after year.
When Berns first applied to become a rappeller, she was turned down because she was “too small and didn’t have enough fire experience.” But she was confident she could meet the physical requirements: seven pull-ups, 25 push-ups in 60 seconds, 35 sit-ups in 60 seconds, a 1.5-mile run in 11 minutes or less, and three separate “pack tests.” These require covering specific distances within an allotted amount of time with a set pack weight on your back. The first test is a three-mile walk in 45 minutes carrying a 45-pound pack. The second is two miles in one hour with an 85-pound pack. Both are on flat terrain. The third consists of the “real thing”: hiking out of a fire scene over rough terrain with an 85-pound pack.
The four-week training program includes learning about the aerodynamics of helicopter flight and how to gear up for a rappel. Trainees start their rappelling practice on the low tower, followed by the 150-foot high tower and, finally, from a helicopter. “Training focuses on smoothly exiting the aircraft and leaving the skids swiftly and carefully—not hitting your head!” says Berns. Each trainee has to practice two rappels from a helicopter at 50 feet, two at 100 feet, and several from over 200 feet before qualifying.
For Berns, the training was strenuous. The only woman in her rookie class, she worked hard to keep pace. She worried about the technical aspects of rappelling, because it’s “a precise process that must be done correctly to avoid injury,” and she found the 85-pound pack test a major challenge. In the end, however, she felt as competent physically and mentally as the other rookies, outperforming some of them at certain tasks, but not others. “I never held up the group or felt I was picking up the end of the pack,” she says. “I felt proud to be the only rookie girl, and the other rookies were very supportive.
“The most challenging part,” she adds, “was being competitive with a bunch of highly fit guys—I have found men to be very competitive.”
She eventually developed enough expertise to become a helispot manager, who directs the loading of helicopters with gear and crews. The job requires enormous precision because if a helicopter is overloaded, it cannot lift off. Berns must know roughly how much weight each helicopter can carry relative to temperature and elevation, and she must ensure the safety of large groups of people in heat, dust, fire, and wind. She must also ensure the helispot fits the specific type of helicopter that will be landing.
In July of 2000 Berns and five colleagues rappelled into an unpopulated desert area of northern Nevada to fight a sagebrush fire. When she rappels, she carries 45 pounds of gear and is fully suited. Her pack holds a headlamp, four quarts of water, food, “fusies” (a type of flare), and a fire shelter designed to withstand temperatures of up to 475 degrees. If a firefighter needs this, something has gone wrong.
The helicopter drops heavy tools in a cardboard box, including a pulaski, a combination of an axe and a hoe that is used for digging and chopping; a hoe; and a shovel. Depending on the size of the fire, the rappel crews consist of between four and 20 members and can stay on site as long as 36 hours. There is rarely time for sleep and often time enough for only a few snacks—and if the terrain is rough, they hike out to where a helicopter can pick them up. On the “pack out,” the crew carries the pulaski, hoe, shovel, and their rappel ropes. The pack can weigh as much as 85 pounds, and the hike out can be five miles.
Terrain, however, was not the problem in Nevada. Sagebrush fires are fundamentally different from timber fires. The dry sagebrush contains a resin that explodes like gasoline; the fire moves so rapidly and is so hot it is a significant danger to firefighters.
So when Berns and her fellow rappellers rappelled in and began digging fire lines around the edges of the fire, they made very sure the wind was blowing away from them. The air temperature was 100 degrees, not including the heat from the fire. She felt as though she were in a kitchen on a 100-degree day, with her head in the oven. The intense heat singed off hairs on her knuckles as she quickly retreated from the leading edge of the fire. Other firefighters fell back with their eyebrows smoking.
They dug quickly. Firefighting requires a lot of grunt work; she frequently digs trenches for 12 hours straight. In timber fires she cuts trees using a chainsaw, clears brush, and starts new fires with a drip torch in the fire breaks, hoping they don’t get out of control. She puts down up to three miles of hose from pumper trucks refilled with water by tender trucks at the other end. She digs fire lines with crews of 20 including a saw team, which mans the chainsaws, and swampers who clear the debris after it’s been cut. Fire lines must be cleared down to mineral soil to eliminate combustible material that may feed the fire.
Berns works in an overwhelmingly male-dominated occupation where size and strength can be significant assets. Her first three summers she worked on an all-male hand crew. These crews, referred to as “ground pounders,” are where all firefighters begin, and they involve pure physical labor: clearing brush, felling trees, digging firelines. “My approach to working with men,” she says, “is to work and train as hard as they do, be every bit as competent, not ask for special favors, and never whine.” By the end of her first summer, crew members were close friends and Berns was “just one of the gang.”
When she became a crew boss, however, she was apprehensive about giving orders to men—and she wasn’t sure they were going to follow them. Her first crew consisted of 18 men and two women. “It was a learning experience, leading so many men and making decisions in the company of so many older men. But learning to balance egos and fight fire safely and aggressively go hand in hand. The outcome was far better than I expected.”
Now she is the experienced one, often responsible for the safety of her 20-person crew. She makes critical decisions about what the fire will do and how the crew should respond. In this work sometimes just seconds separate survival from death. She and others who are responsible for lives think about incidents such as the 1994 blowup at Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, which claimed the lives of 14 firefighters. The order to drop their equipment and run from a racing wall of fire came too late.
But on this day the sagebrush fire begins to yield before the skill she and others are applying. There is no brush with death, no six o’clock news drama, and that’s the point—firefighting is a job to be executed with intelligence and training needed to prevent disasters. Her work will go on into the night with digging fire lines, but she and her team have been successful. As the sun goes down, a full moon rises over the desert, casting a brilliant light over a surreal, beautiful scene. She loves the West, the “special beauty of the wilderness—even on fire.”
In November, after the fire season, Berns has returned to her hometown of Wayland, Massachusetts. Raging forest fires seem unreal on this warm day in a comfortable Boston suburb. She talks about the brutally hard physical work in a casual manner. To her, 15-hour days for 21 days straight and sleeping in dirty tents in “spike camps” that are close to the fire and provide no more than the bare necessities of life (showers and hot meals not included) are just part of the job. A film major, she is working on a documentary about wildland fires with scenes she shot herself using a digital video camera. Fires and film are closely related, in her view. She uses scenario-playing and scene visualization tools she learned from film professor Jeanine Basinger to fight fires. A good firefighter has the ability to ask, What if the fire does this? to see the range of possibilities and to be ready should they occur.
By the start of summer she had succeeded in her next challenge: becoming a smokejumper. These airborne firefighters parachute out of airplanes into remote areas, carrying 110 pounds on their backs, and they “can’t wait for the next fire call,” says the U.S. Forest Service. She trained at the same school used by Army Special Forces and is now based in Grangeville, Idaho. Berns knows the work will be ferociously difficult and the physical demands will be intense. She won’t forget, though, that “the brain is a powerful muscle.”