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Trials by Wildfire: In Search of the New Warrior Spirit

Peter M. Leschak
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 176
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.cttttbcc
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    Trials by Wildfire
    Book Description:

    In the classic genre of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire... Journey with Peter Leschak, wildland firefighter, as he explores the warrior spirit--a genderless code emphasizing personal integrity, responsibility, patience, will, commitment, and inner courage, forged through life’s “trials by fire.” Using his professional experiences fighting forest fires as a vivid metaphor for the warrior code, Peter weaves captivating tales of raging wildfires, the warm camaraderie and good-natured competition of a small town tavern packed with smokejumpers, the clarity of the night sky, the subtleties of an ancient Chinese board game--all offering profound lessons in the quest for a new warrior spirit. To each episode Peter brings the soul of a poet contemplating life in the face of death, as well as a professional firefighter’s delicious apprehension of hazardous operations and fascination with the seductive allure of a blazing inferno. Dip into these pages for a vicarious jolt of adrenaline. Or use Trials by Wildfire as a roadmap in your own search for life meaning. “Everyone faces a ‘twilight struggle’ sometime, an episode where there are few straight and level paths, no easy solutions, where allies and enemies dress in shades of gray, and double-edged swords are all that can be wielded.” from Trials by Wildfire Peter Leschak is a helitack crew leader and veteran firefighter with the US Forest Service and the State of Minnesota. When he’s not writing or fighting forest fires somewhere in the world, he teaches wildland firefighting and safety. Over 200 of Peter’s fascinating and frequently ironic essays have been published in national, regional, and professional periodicals including Harpers, The New York Times, Astronomy, Outdoor Life, Backpacker, Boundary Waters Journal, and National Fire and Rescue. Trials by Wildfire is his eighth book.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9993-3
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PROLOGUE WHISTLE
    (pp. 1-5)

    On a sweltering day in late February 1972, I volunteered for a search party. An old man had been missing for two days, and the authorities requested help. The east Texas woods were tangled and mean, and it seemed that every vine brandished thorns, every hollow sheltered venomous snakes. There were scorpions. I’ve tramped more congenial country.

    My buddy Ron and I were skirting the bank of a sluggish creek when he whistled. There was a screen of dense foliage between us and I said, “What is it?”

    He whistled again.

    “Yeah, what?”

    A pause.Then Ron’s voice cracked a reply,...

  4. CHAPTER ONE The Witness Post
    (pp. 6-13)

    I drew up a living will because of U Thant. A statement made by the former secretary general of the United Nations in the tense ambience of 1968 has hung with me like the memory of a dead puppy—warm and fuzzy riding a jagged glass edge.

    On Christmas Eve 1968 I slouched in one of my mother’s front-room chairs—I always thought of the furniture as hers—and stared at the Christmas tree in the far corner. It was past midnight; the rest of the family was asleep. I was seventeen years old and nurturing an adolescent sensation of...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The Fire Tower
    (pp. 14-21)

    On a parched, gusty afternoon in late May I jogged up the 126 wooden steps of the Side Lake fire tower. Almost immediately I spotted a gray-black puff of smoke surging out of the forest about ten miles to the south. The wind flattened it out of sight amidst the distant foliage, but I had a fix.

    I rushed down the steps, palms buffing smooth steel guardrails polished by thousands of human hands for over fifty years. Even in my haste to report a fire, I relished the moment when I breached the forest canopy, descending below the tree tops...

  6. CHAPTER THREE A Real Fight
    (pp. 22-33)

    On a gray afternoon in late December I slip into the fire hall and switch on the lights. Our three trucks—two yellow, one red—burst into radiance, chrome and brass winking in the swelling brightness of the fluorescent bulbs. This illumination of our “fleet” lifts me— it’s how I felt as a kid when we plugged in the Christmas tree lights. There isn’t a firefighter breathing who doesn’t warmly respond to the showy demeanor of a fire engine. Though these vehicles repose silently in their bays most of the time, they project an aura of power and capability—ever...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Reaching for Rigel
    (pp. 34-45)

    I’m a tall white male in America. I have a good vocabulary and graying sideburns. I project an aura of authority and competence. Strangers invariably assume I know what I’m doing. I’m deferred to. I’m a very dangerous individual.

    Because, despite my apparent endowments, I’m sometimes incompetent and out of my depth. Since it’s usually easy to get my way, and since I often intimidate people (whether I intend it or not), it’s also easy to blunder. Not enough people will say to me, “Hey, you’re wrong,” and stick to it, even when they’re right. Given that I’m regularly in...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Thirty Pounds
    (pp. 46-51)

    A column of smoke is like a crystal ball. Properly construed, it reveals your future. The color, density, size, and drift forebodes what’s burning and how enthusiastically, long before firefighters arrive on the scene.

    That’s why my expectations shifted into a higher gear when I glimpsed the smoke from the Duckling Fire. The column was viscid, burgeoning, and pitch black. It had been reported as “a fire in the woods” by the citizen who dialed 911, but that seemed wrong. Not only was the forest soggy, but such wicked smoke was more characteristic of burning petrochemicals: asphalt shingles, plastic pipes,...

  9. CHAPTER SIX An Evening at the Triangle
    (pp. 52-60)

    My boss and I sauntered away from the helicopter pad, Forest Service fire packs slung over our shoulders and flight helmets cradled in our arms. I joked that it was the high point of the mission—we were lions, cool and photogenic, backlit by a westering Idaho sun.

    “Yeah,” he added, deadpan, “just like a beer commercial.”

    We laughed happily, a touch giddy after our first wildfire dispatch of a wet, tedious season. We hadn’t even reached the fire—a smoky, half-acre spot near Lightning Creek. We were enroute when the incident commander (IC) requested that we land at a...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN The Best of Mistakes
    (pp. 61-70)

    For most, life is only rarely as dramatic as a parachute jump or a helicopter flight to a fire. But everyday challenges, often surging from our own emotional centers, are usually more difficult to master. One of my chronic, mundane struggles was exposed by the lure of an esoteric board game.

    During a blustery silver dusk in November 1995,I skated with friends on the lake outside their back door. A sheet of fresh snow unfurled the illusion of gliding across an ivory plain. Heads down and arms pumping, we skated for a half-mile against a stiff west wind, then turned...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Epicedium
    (pp. 71-75)

    In June 1996 my Minnesota fire crew was dispatched to northwest Ontario, where over two-hundred fires were ignited in a matter of hours, chiefly by lightning. Canadian fire crews were quickly deployed and fully tapped, and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources requested our help.

    There’s an exalted psychological zone familiar to wildland firefighters involved in “project fires,” the long, brutish campaigns that often unfold far from home. As a veteran of many such operations, I've been privileged to reach a lofty plane of blissful fatigue several times.

    It’s a grade of weariness more potent than vigor, a sublime, mind-altering...

  12. CHAPTER NINE Their Eyes, Their Lives
    (pp. 76-84)

    Did the stark contrast of chalk on blackboard adjust my vision? I don’t know. But when I turned to face the class I truly witnessed their eyes for the first time—like seventy pairs of tiny sparks. That, and the fact that my illustrated anecdote had jolted them. The sparks were bright. Some mouths were ajar. No one was dozing.

    Vitality radiates from human eyes. When pupils are intent and engaged, a steely feedback loop of enthusiasm courses from optic nerve to optic nerve, fusing a nexus between teacher and students. It’s a satisfying moment for all.

    I felt privileged...

  13. CHAPTER TEN Totem
    (pp. 85-88)

    A red squirrel dashed out of some goldenrod by the side of the road and directly beneath the left front tire of my truck. If I hadn’t seen the flash of fur and tail, I wouldn’t have noticed the subtle thump that signified its death.

    I checked the rearview mirror and saw the squirrel lying near the centerline, twitching. Damn. I slowed, preparing to back up and at least finish it off. But before I stopped, and less than ten seconds after the hit, a raven swooped out of an aspen tree just ahead and to the left. A witness....

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN The Gunflint Circle
    (pp. 89-152)

    We are expendable. The hierarchy would vehemently disagree, but every time I climb into a helicopter I know it’s true.

    I love helicopters. I love the foreground. I am willing and able, and I lust for dispatch. But I cannot deny the craziness that pits us against flames, sky, and the risk of early death. And what for? Often very little; to “save” trees and brush, to quench fires that need to burn as desperately as lungs crave breath. Who are we to kill nature’s desire for rebirth? Who are we to shatter the cycles of thunderbolts and benevolent drought?...

  15. CHAPTER TWELVE The Fire Triangle
    (pp. 153-164)

    Helicopter Nine-Five-Whiskey banked out of swirling smoke and leveled out forty feet over the bog. I saw the rotor disk stabilize in the airflow, like a whirling gear clutched to a shaft. A red fiftyfive-gallon drum of napalm dangled beneath the Jet Ranger, cradled in the cables of a helitorch.

    The ship accelerated, aiming for us, and in a moment flaming globs of alumagel spewed from the torch, arcing aft and plopping into mats of leatherleaf and tall grass. Bursts of flame quickly merged into a wave of fire surging north across the bog.

    I was perched on a J-7...

  16. CHAPTER THIRTEEN WHIP
    (pp. 165-168)

    I was never much of a brawler. My last bona fide fight was at age twelve or thirteen, a brief backyard tussle with a buddy. There was no clear victor, and I don’t recall thecasus belli.

    But prowess in hand-to-hand combat was highly prized on Minnesota’s Iron Range, and I admired (and feared) those boys who could fight. The faces of rivals and enemies were meant to be havocked. Split lips, bloodied noses, loosened teeth, black eyes were badges of honor—for both winner and loser. There must always be both: victor and vanquished. I learned that the hard...