by Wes Blalock
This story has never before been published.
Seven weeks as an actual Cary Valley National Park ranger and Birdie McLaren was still excited to be wearing the time-honored “green and gray” uniform, although today she wore firefighter clothing, protective yellow and green Nomex. She adjusted her tiny frame atop the all-terrain vehicle, pulling a load of boxed food and bottled water up an old Army-built access trail. Surrounded by hard thickets of chamise inclined toward the wildfire just over the ridge, and silver lupin whose violet blossoms welcomed summer, she skirted along the California side of the Sierra Nevadas, through woodlands filled with ghost pine and douglas fir. The landscape appeared beaten and morose after a long dry spell and an infestation of bark beetles that left the trees scarred and discolored. She couldn’t smell the pungent fragrances over the thick ash and smoke that swirled about the landscape, beneath an angry, orange sky, and she adjusted the scarf covering her face.
The Hacienda Fire rolled over the drought-stricken landscape, devouring the heavy, dry brush and stands of pine and oak like a swarm of locusts through a cornfield. Uncontained, it had scorched more than 31,000 acres of national park, national forest, and public and private properties so far. Hundreds of CalFire and National Park Service firefighters fought desperately to encircle the blaze and beat it into submission. She paused at the rim and stared in awe at the inferno stretching to the horizon. Flames whipped up into the sky above the towering trees and washed over the detritus below like a storm surge. She swept her long, black hair up under a green, boonie hat to keep it out of her eyes. She wore the boonie instead of her regulation Stetson because she wasn’t about to let the expensive, iconic hat smell like forest fire.
Against the backdrop of furious orange and yellow spires, black smoke, and burning evergreens, the silhouettes of firefighters filled the valley below, frantically cutting breaks and building backfires to divert the blaze into itself. Wildland fire engines, emergency crew transports, and bulldozers bustled about. The cacophony of the chainsaws, vehicle engines, and shouting, paled in comparison to the fire’s deafening roar. Birdie hiked up her gun belt and engaged the throttle, crossing the mountain’s spine and dropping down into the basin.
She scanned the backs of firefighters, the Nomex making them all indistinguishable, looking for someone in charge. She spotted a barrel-shaped man in his forties, shouting commands into a radio and wearing a red helmet, a CalFire Strike Team Leader. She parked the ATV and jogged his direction, glancing at the emblems on the helmet to get his rank correct.
“Captain Mendez?” she shouted above the din.
Mendez turned as he heard his name, but adjusted his gaze downward to see Birdie in her clean and tidy Nomex, bright wide smile against her olive skin, and twinkling almond eyes.
“Well, there,” he said, looking down at her. “Aren’t you a sight out here, all bright and shiny.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I have your lunch.”
“Then I sure am glad to see you.” He pointed at her pistol. “And I’m glad no one tried to steal our food.”
She gave him a lopsided grin. “I’d prefer to get around without it, but it’s part of my job. Where do you want me to drop it off?” She hesitated and her smile faltered. “The lunch, not the gun.”
Mendez laughed and directed her toward vehicles pulled away from the battle. A group of yellow-clad men and women waved for her and Birdie piloted the ATV up to them, hopping off, and unhooking her trailer.
In the distance, she could see CalFire airplanes swooping in and dropping loads of retardant.
“It’s all water and fertilizer. It’s called Slurry,” said a young, Hispanic man with powerful arms.
“How long have you guys been out here?” she asked him.
“Just since this morning. We took over for another crew,” he replied. Perhaps in his mid to late twenties, and not exceptionally tall, but he appeared solidly muscled beneath the damp T-shirt. Birdie flushed and her face went hot as she realized that he caught her staring. She pulled at the brim of her hat, trying to hide.
“We’ll be out here for fourteen days, living the hard life, then another crew takes over.” He smiled. “I’m Charles.”
“I’m Birdie,” she told him.
“Birdie?” he seemed unconvinced. “Is that a nickname or are you actually ninety-five years old?”
“Huittsuu.” She said, smiling like she had a secret.
“Who…we…sue…what?” Charles made a face.
“Whoo-weet-soo. It means ‘Little Bird’,” Birdie told him. “The Paiute side of my family, my mom’s side, wanted me to have a Paiute name. My dad, who was white, just always called me ‘Birdie,’ and it stuck. It also helped on the first day of school whenever a new teacher would look at me with that weird expression. Yep, that’s the one.”
Charles smiled. “So, not Mexican, huh? My mom’s not going to like that.”
“Nope,” she explained. “Paiute and Scot. Probably unacceptable on several levels.”
“Well then, ‘Birdie’ it is.” He downed an entire bottle of water and grabbed another.
“And you’re ‘Charles?’ Not ‘Carlos’ or ‘Charlie’ or ‘Chaz?” she asked.
“Mom always called me ‘Charles,” he told her.
“I actually think you look like a ‘Chuck,’” she proclaimed.
“Chuck?“ He appeared taken aback, but considered for a moment. “I think I can live with that,” he told her.
She liked his easy attitude.
“Hey, why are these firefighters so young? It looks like most of them are still in high school,” she asked. “Most of the NPS firefighters I work with are, like, my Dad’s age.”
“Most of them are seasonal, working during the summer while going to school, so they tend to be young,” Chuck replied. “Many of them are right out of high school.”
“Oh,” Birdie said. “That makes sense. I’m a seasonal.”
“Are you going to be hanging around a while?” he asked.
“I’ve got another delivery to make,” she said, walking back to the ATV.
“How do I get hold of you later?” he called.
“Cary Valley Ranger Station. In the Village,” she glanced back. She climbed onto the quad and started the motor only to kill it as soon as she noticed the firefighters frozen in unison, tilting their heads towards the radios on their harnesses. Chief Mendez turned, searching, his face pale and stricken.
“Rodriguez! Calhoun!” he shouted.
Chuck and another man ran toward Mendez. Concerned, Birdie climbed down and rushed to follow.
“What’s happening?” she asked as she caught up to Chuck.
“Merced 20 is being overrun,” he replied.
Mendez pointed at his topographical map. “We’ve got a CalFire strike team cut off, right here.”
The radios squealed and a woman’s voice screamed, “They’re on fire! We need help right now! They’re burning!”
Mendez turned to Birdie. “Ranger, this is your park. Can you get my people to that hill?”
“Yes,” she shouted, a little louder than intended, the woman’s voice still ringing in her head.
“Okay, let’s go!” Mendez shouted.
Chuck said, “This way,” and she followed him to Engine 43. The four-wheel drive truck was tall, so she climbed using steps and handles. A young man ahead of her opened the door to the back seats and she tailed him in. She snagged the middle seat as a young woman in full, yellow Nomex jammed in beside her. At five feet two inches and 120 pounds, including gun belt and equipment, Birdie felt Lilliputian between the larger firefighters. Chuck appeared in the driver’s seat and hit the ignition.
“What’s the best way,” Chuck shouted over the sound of the motor and the conflagration outside.
“Up the ravine,” Birdie pointed over his shoulder.
The man riding shotgun, “Benson” on his shirt, grabbed the radio microphone. “Battalion Chief, this is Madera 43. We are en route to Merced 20’s last location.”
“Madera 43, this is Air Chief. We will be diverting air traffic to that location as well. Watch your step,”
Their transport jumped and lurched over the rocks and drove up the arroyo toward a wall of flame. Through the driver’s side window, she saw a white airplane with a red, diagonal stripe, in bright relief against the slate cliff face behind it. It turned in their direction, dipped toward the ground, and released a torrent of slurry before climbing back into the sky.
“Air Chief, this is Fresno Air 9. We made target, but saw no sign of Merced 20. It’s full firestorm down there.” The pilot’s voice was calm and steady, but a tremor of fear rippled through the people in the crew cab with her.
“Fresno Air 6, this is Air Chief. Make a drop on the same location. Let’s see if we can’t find our firefighters.”
The truck banged down off a granite slab and kicked back up the channel. Birdie leaned forward and pointed to an opening in the boulders off to the right. “Can your truck make it up that wash? The fire is blocking our way.”
“We’re moving away from target,” Benson said, frustrated.
He picked up the microphone again. “Air Chief, we need to cut through the fire to reach the target. Can you assist?”
They stopped and watched as another broad, stout, propeller-driven Grumman swooped down between the massive cliff faces and dropped several hundred pounds of retardant into the flames, before pulling up and away.
“Air Chief, this is Fresno Air 6. Saw emergency shelters below, but not much moving around down there.”
“Air Chief, this is Tanker 913. Forest Service has asked us to switch to your channel. Can you use our help?”
Chuck turned to Birdie. “Can you give Tanker 913 start and finish coordinates?”
Birdie took the radio and looked at a map spread across her lap. She rattled off the longitude and latitude. “Tanker 913, swing out about a hundred yards to the South. The riverbed twists a bit.”
“We got it, Madera 43. We’ll be able to take it in a straight shot, but we’ll be coming in low and hot. Hold onto your hats.”
As Birdie returned the radio microphone, she looked around at the firefighters. Somber expressions on their sooty faces and thousand yard stares made them look like soldiers about to enter battle, in yellow helmets and fire shirts as they put their hands over their ears or pulled their helmets down lower over their heads. She thought that seemed odd but did the same.
She felt the sound as a distant throb that slowly gained purchase in her brain. The roar of the jet engines drowned out the fire and then the truck motor, and built to a crescendo of howling turbines as the airplane passed directly overhead, overwhelming all other noise. The DC-10 blotted out the sky and the plane dwarfed the vehicle in which they rode. She noticed the firefighters staring at her and she realized that she was screaming. The gigantic plane’s belly opened, and Birdie watched thousands of pounds of thick, wet slurry drop into the fire ahead of them. The liquid beat down and left a smoldering, crimson landscape, over two hundred yards wide and surrounded by a tempered, but unrelenting fire.
Chuck pushed the fire engine forward over the ash-coated terrain and down into the muck left behind by the tanker. The wheels spun until they found purchase and lurched forward. Birdie shouted directions leading them up the slope, out of the ravine, onto a ridge and back down a gully. The new panorama revealed scarred stone and earth, smoldering, blackened flora, and retardant oozing off the rocks. The tires slipped and the truck slid sideways as Chuck willed it across the gully toward the last known position of Merced 20.
“I see them,” Benson said, grimly.
Birdie had witnessed death in the park before. It’s hard not to in a park system where people mistakenly equate the word park with safety, then plunge off waterfalls, slip off trails, or take selfies at the horns of a bison. But this was different; these were professionals performing dangerous work, like herself, and she shuddered.
Scorched black and covered in slurry, the slope ahead of them appeared spattered with blood. Wisps of smoke and steam arose from several silver lumps near the crest. Nothing moved on the hillside as they drove forward except small flare-ups that appeared and disappeared randomly. Birdie saw the despairing looks on the faces around her. Merced 20’s emergency crew transport stood a few hundred feet away, blackened and charred. Thick, black smoke rose from it and it leaned precariously after the tires had exploded from the heat.
The trucks halted and firefighters spilled out, Birdie following, but hesitating as her boots hit the ground. She watched as they all rushed forward up the rise. Opening metallic shelters, they stopped, one by one. The anguish and heartache that showed on their faces told her all she needed to know. Despondent, they stood silent and motionless on the side of a hill, rescuers with no one to save.
As she stood there, heartsick, the remembered voice of an instructor at the Ranger Academy came to her and triggered a thought.
“Everyone come back. Try to backtrack in your own footsteps,” she shouted, waving her hands towards herself.
Slowly, dejectedly, the firefighters all made their way back to the trucks.
“We need to call someone,” Chuck told her, his voice shaking. “We need OSHA, the Sheriff’s Office…”
“I have jurisdiction here,” Birdie told him. “Cary Valley is exclusively federal jurisdiction. I’ll take care of it.”
Birdie hiked up her gun belt and went to work. She radioed for backup, ran caution tape to protect the scene, and then took Chuck aside and asked him to walk her through the hillside for an initial evaluation. Birdie led the way, her heavy boots baking in contact with the heated ground until she worried that her feet would be poached. She carefully scanned the ground in front of her until they stood before a little silver tent, the smell of burnt earth overwhelming her nose.
“All our firefighters carry these small emergency shelters,” he told her. “If they become trapped, they deploy the shelter, climb inside, and try to stay low to the ground, wrapped in these heat deflecting layers of silica, aluminum, and fiberglass.” He paused. “But they don’t work in all situations.”
Her throat tightened and her stomach threatened to heave. Her lip quivered, and she fought back the tears and nausea. Another ranger once told her there will always be time to cry at home.
“It was too hot,” he said. As they inspected each silver capsule, they discovered a horror inside. The acrid scent of cooked human flesh and the images of charred bodies etched into her brain. But even so, she made notes.
“This model is discontinued,” he added quizzically. He showed her the brand name which was different than the others. “This one is only rated at 300 degrees before the adhesive breaks down. CalFire only issues out shelters rated at 500 degrees. I don’t even know how he would’ve gotten one of these.”
“Would he have known that it was inadequate when he used it?” Birdie asked.
Chuck examined the tent as best he could without disturbing the occupant. “It looks like the older shelter was packed into a newer cover. He wouldn’t have known until he opened it up. By then it was too late.”
“Well,” she said, “It didn’t make any difference for the others, and they were using the proper shelters.”
“Help!” They heard a woman’s voice and ran toward it, climbing over the top of the ridge and down into a gulch on the other side. They found her at the bottom of a gully, a dry runoff drain of bare earth, struggling free from her emergency shelter.
“Look, no combustible material around her,” Chuck said as the two rushed to her side, explaining how she may have survived.
“Is everyone up there okay?” asked the young woman, maybe eighteen, with dark red hair and pale skin covered in sun borne freckles. Her hair was disheveled and her eyes were red and teary.
“Are you hurt anywhere?” Chuck asked her. “What’s your name?”
“Mattie. Mattie Chambers. I think I’m okay.” She wiped sweat from her brow. “Is the rest of my team, okay? They’re on the other side of the hill.”
“Let’s just get you to the engine,” Birdie told her while glancing over at Chuck.
He shook his head and knitted his eyebrows.
Birdie put her face directly in front of Mattie’s. “Okay, Mattie. We’re going to take you back to the others. I want you to just keep looking ahead. Don’t look down.”
They picked their way through the ravaged landscape but Mattie planted her feet, silently counting the canopies. She froze up and her eyes rolled back into her head. Birdie saw what was coming, but Chuck was the one who caught Mattie before she fell into the still superheated earth. Mattie stared past them with a dazed and uncomprehending expression.
“Just pick her up and let’s get her out of here,” Birdie said.
Chuck flung her over his shoulder, carrying her the rest of the way to the vehicles. Mattie sobbed as Chuck assigned two firefighters to care for her.
With Mattie secured, Birdie and Chuck surveyed the rest of the tents. Fresno Air 3 made a pass above them, dropping slurry on a peninsula of fire that reached toward their crime scene and additional trucks of firefighters drove up. Amid the scramble of firefighters keeping the fire at bay, Birdie and Chuck counted ten lives lost, lives dedicated to protecting others. Chuck pointed out a second discontinued shelter.
Birdie directed everyone to stay outside the perimeter of her potential crime scene while Chuck updated the Battalion Chief. She busied herself with learning about the members of Merced 20, their names and ages and anything that might be of importance. Over an hour later, helicopters from the Naval Air Station at Lemoore arrived with supplies and personnel, distributing food and water and setting up tents and tables. The Cary Valley National Park helicopter, an old Vietnam War era machine, popped up over the burning horizon and touched down nearby, looking out of place among the modern Navy Seahawks. Two law enforcement rangers hopped out and Birdie recognized both, feeling a wave of relief knowing she no longer commanded the scene.
Supervising Ranger Mark Reed, a tall, lanky man, with an angular face, looked like the sheriff in a western movie, with his weathered expression and kind eyes, but he was a by-the-book lawman, who could face off with the baddest of the bad and walk away a winner. He adjusted his Stetson before he sauntered toward her, favoring his left leg. Ranger lore had it that he engaged in a gunfight with a group of traffickers at the border, all alone, shooting several and corralling the rest, but took a round in the knee, which changed his career forever. At least that was the current story. All Birdie knew for sure was that no one dared ask Reed what actually happened. Rita Chandler, one of Birdie’s trainers, followed him off the chopper.
“Birdie,” Reed shouted over the roar of the helicopter. “What do we have? Is this a criminal investigation or do we hold the scene for OSHA?”
“Not OSHA jurisdiction,” she told him. “Something’s not right. Lucia Estrada, Spencer Ryan, both nineteen, had substandard, discontinued emergency shelters.” She paused. “Not that it made any difference,” she added sadly.
“Wait,” Reed stopped her. “Two substandard shelters? How did that happen?”
She shook her head. “Someone put old shelters into new covers and they were issued to these two.”
“Okay, I’m going to start with the survivor,” Reed turned to walk toward the trucks, but stopped and turned. “You just completed the seasonal law enforcement training, correct?”
“Yep,” Birdie answered.
“Go with Rita. Pay attention to what she does.” He paused and turned back to her again. “And lose the non-regulation hat.”
Birdie reached up and touched the brim of the hat, remembering, then gave him a thumbs up as she walked over to Rita and greeted her.
“How did you end up out here?” Rita slapped a regulation ball cap on her head and tucked some stray hairs underneath it.
“I was just delivering lunch and everything went to hell,” Birdie said, hands waving in the air.
Rita shook her head and tsked, “Trouble follows you like a lost puppy. We dropped off another ranger to take over your ATV.”
She watched as Rita took photographs, made notes, and drew diagrams on a small sketch pad. At the bottom of the gulch, near where they found Mattie, Rita and Birdie examined the burn pattern where the flames climbed the slope, away from Mattie and over the crest of the hill toward the rest of Merced 20. About forty yards away, a drip torch used by firefighters to start back burns and controlled fires lay extinguished in the shrubs. Rita showed her how to collect and package the torch as evidence. Birdie stepped back to examine the scene and ran down the details in her head like a checklist. When she finished, the idea that formed caused her stomach to drop and fill with butterflies.
“Oh no,” escaped her mouth. With dread washing over her, she approached Rita. “Is there a way for us to find out who issued the shelters to Lucia and Spencer?”
Rita considered for a moment. “Let’s make a call. There’s a Battalion Chief running their internal investigation. I touched base with him before we came out here.” They returned to Rita’s equipment bag, and the senior ranger grabbed a satellite phone which she held up for Birdie to see. “This thing cost me three months salary, but it was totally worth it.”
She punched in a number.
“Chief, this is Ranger Chandler. I’m at the Merced 20 location,” she paused, listening to the person on the other end of the line. “Yes. I’m very sorry for your loss,” Rita paused again. “Yes. Do you have the name of the person who checked out this team’s equipment?” She paused and raised her eyebrows, wrinkling her forehead and nodding. “Thanks. That should help.”
Rita hung up the phone and put it back in her bag. “You knew.”
“I didn’t want to,” Birdie sighed. “I’ll tell Mark.”
She walked over to Mark, who was listening intently to Mattie Chambers retelling her story. Birdie pulled Mark aside and whispered to him. He asked her some questions and she responded, then stepped away.
Sitting down in front of Mattie, Mark looked at her squarely for a moment, then asked, “So, Mattie, one more time. Can you take me through what happened today?”
Mattie took a deep breath to compose herself. “We were working a fire break on the hill, but the fire moved too fast. We weren’t going to finish in time,” she said, as though reciting something she had read.
Reed made notes, then looked back up. “So they were cutting the firebreak on the windward side of the hill?” he confirmed.
“Yes.” Mattie responded.
“And you were on the lee side of the hill,” he said, more a statement than a question.
“Yes, I was running some tools back to the transport,” she said.
“Oh, what tools?” he asked.
Mattie paused. “Um, some shovels.”
“Anything else?” Mark asked, while looking down at his notes.
“No,” she shook her head.
Mark pulled another sheet from his notes and looked at it. “How about a drip torch?”
“Oh, yeah. There was a drip torch,” Mattie remembered.
“When did you see that they were in trouble?” Mark asked.
“The fire had cut around behind them, and they didn’t see it. I warned them that the fire was coming and called for help on the radio,” Mattie said, adding emphasis on how she tried to prevent tragedy.
“Did everyone have an emergency shelter?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, assuredly.
“How can you be certain?” he asked.
“I issued the equipment. I made sure that everyone had a fire shelter,” she said with confidence.
“Even Spencer and Lucia?” Reed asked.
Mattie’s breath caught, her face flushed and her eyes widened.
“So, what made you decide to kill them all?” Reed asked, maintaining his calm demeanor.
“I didn’t,” she whispered. “I didn’t. They had time to get to their shelters. I made sure they had time.”
“You waited until they were at the top of the hill. You drew the fire to them with the drip torch. You set it at the bottom of the hill so that it would trap them. You watched them get into their shelters and then you called for help. You murdered them.” Reed maintained his level, calm demeanor.
“No one was supposed to die except…” Mattie caught herself.
“Except Lucia Estrada and Spencer Ryan.” Mark finished her sentence.
Mattie’s face darkened and her eyes narrowed. Birdie watched as Mark and Mattie stared at each other across the table, the young woman’s emotions seeming to simmer beneath the surface.
“We were supposed to get married,” Mattie said through clenched teeth, her face changing like she had pulled off a mask. “She stole him from me. I’ve known Spencer since high school and she thought she could just swoop in and steal him right from under my nose. And they didn’t see it coming, they thought I didn’t notice them sneaking off or the little looks they gave each other.” Spittle flew from her lips and even Mark was taken aback by her venom. “Well I showed her, I showed them both.”
As the handcuffs fastened around her wrists, Mattie stared straight ahead, expressionless. Mark pulled her gently from the table and away from the firefighters for transport to the ranger station. Birdie looked up and saw that Chuck stood nearby and had heard Mattie’s words.
“Are you going to be okay?” she asked him.
“I don’t even know what to say or how to feel.” His face was hollow and drawn. “We depend on each other out here. You have to know that the person beside you is watching your back.”
She reached up and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”
“Will I see you again?” he asked.
“Yes, you will,” Birdie said and turned away as Rita motioned her to get on the helicopter.
Birdie climbed in across from Mattie and looked at the youthful face of an eighteen-year-old mass murderer as she sat strapped in the seat. When they took off, Mattie stared out the door and into space. Tears suddenly rolled freely down her cheeks and her face scrunched up as a howl poured from her mouth. Without the ability to move her hands, long strings of snot hung from her nose and smears of slurry dropped from her hair. Birdie’s eyes never left her for the twenty minute ride back to the Cary Valley Ranger Station.
Rita took Mattie from the helicopter and told Birdie to wait. The pilot turned off the power and jumped out onto the landing pad. Birdie sat, not knowing what to do, the helicopter perched silently on the tarmac. Rita reappeared in the doorway.
“You have about fifteen minutes before the pilot goes back out again. Just come in and help catalog evidence and organize statements when you finish,” she said while gently squeezing Birdie’s arm. Then she slid the door shut.
Birdie sat in the dark and unhooked herself from the seat. She thought about the ten dead firefighters. Her throat tightened, her chest heaved, her lip quivered, and she felt the tears well in her eyes. This time she allowed herself to cry. It was a soft shedding of tears at first, but once it started flowing, it could not be stopped. Her tears clouded her vision and wet her face as they fell to the floor of the helicopter. Her brain swarmed with images of burned and scorched bodies, hiding in their emergency shelters, praying that the ever-increasing heat would abate. She imagined their pain and fear and the grief it would bring their families. Finally, she cried for the tragic decision made by an angry young woman that took ten lives, the lives of people she was supposed to protect.
After several minutes, Birdie wiped her face with her sleeves, sniffling a little to clear her nose. She opened the door to the helicopter and climbed down, wiping at her Nomex, which had become rumpled and stained with soot and slurry and snot. She removed her Boonie hat and tucked it into her back pocket as she walked purposefully to the ranger station to get back to work. She was, after all, a ranger now.
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