Letters From the West

Mathes shares the secrets of the firefighter fraternity

mathesI spent more time this fire season on the ground talking to regular firefighters than I had for a few years.

The work is hard, long, grueling, often tedious and sometimes dangerous. That danger was broadcast once again to the nation by the deaths of 19 firefighters earlier this summer trying to save Yarnell, Arizona.

It came home when Boise smokejumper Mark T. Urban died during in September when his chute didn’t open. There was a kind of poetry in the words of his fellow firefighters as they remembered his quiet leadership, his mandolin playing, his river-running and his smile.

Their also was the recognition in the 600 people who turned out to remember him that the wildland firefighting fraternity is one of the closest-knit tribes in American society. If you want to understand them and you couldn’t make the ceremony the best way is in the words of poet-firefighter Jerry Mathes II.

Mathes’ book “Ahead of the Flaming Front,” shows the reader what it like to cut a fire line with a Pulaski on an August afternoon as the humidity drops, the smoke turns dark and the fire builds. He puts you on a helicopter ready to jump out and rappel with 85 pounds of equipment on your back,

Mathes remembers close calls, poor decisions, conflicts between agencies and great conversations “in a gritty cocoon of dried sweat and drift smoke” in places like Hayfork, Washington, Rebel Creek, Nevada and Krassel Idaho along the South Fork of the Salmon River.

Mathes fought fires for 14 seasons from Idaho to the Mexico border and also wrote a book of poetry and taught writing at the University of Idaho and Antarctica. “Ahead of the Flaming Front” is his tale of life and death along the fire lines at a time when fires were growing fiercer and agencies were struggling to balance the need to manage fire, safety and the public.

Mathes will read from his book Thursday at the Rediscovered Bookshop in Boise at 6 p.m. It’s published by Idaho’s own Caxton Press.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Letters from the West