Ghosts of the Fireground
Although the great forest that once covered most of the country has been gerrymandered by civilization, vast expanses remain, much of it an enormous firetrap. Some part of the forest—old growth or new growth, suburban woodlands or untrod wilderness—burns every day. In the year 2000 alone, 92,000 wildfires scorched 7.4 million acres, mainly in the West, destroying 850 homes and killing 20 firefighters. One of the men on the lines that year was Peter Leschak, who captains a helicopter-borne fire crew for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Leschak and his team work the worst wildfires throughout Minnesota and in areas of the West and Canada as well. He loves it.
Much of his feeling for the work derives from the danger and the camaraderie among those who share it, what the author neatly calls "the spike of vitality and meaning" arising from shared hardship. One firefighter sums up the ethos: "It was a terrible ordeal, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything." Fear, Leschak says, is never far off, and fear is one of the reasons he pursues this work, seduced by "the dreadful/wonderful moments when fear makes you so alive you simply cannot die."
Many wildfire warriors do die, of course—some 700 since 1910. Leschak himself is no reckless thrill seeker. At 51, he is one of the country’s oldest active wildland firefighters, an experienced leader responsible for several others, a professional who swears by caution and thorough preparation. He applies a methodical approach even when he doesn’t have a clue what he’s getting into—as happened at a fast-moving fire in northwestern Montana in 2000:
"The spot fire burgeoned, lunging up-slope. Two more trees exploded. With what we had at that moment it was unstoppable. Just beyond the ridgeline above us was a long, sheer drop to dense forest. If the fire jumped into that, it might take hours for anyone to reach it on the ground." Luckily, this one didn’t jump, and Leschak and crew were able to halt it after only 25 acres had gone up in smoke.
Leschak intersperses his first-person narration with an account of the worst forest fire in North American history, a blaze centered on the little (pop. 2,000) lumber town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, that killed 1,200-plus people and torched 1,800 square miles in 1871. Coincidentally, it was the same day that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow ignited—or didn’t—the Great Chicago Fire.
Peshtigo’s fire swept out of the North Woods and smashed into the town like a hurricane of flames. The town was ablaze in minutes—schools, churches, businesses, barns, houses. Residents were quickly surrounded. One man cut his own throat and those of his children. Those who survived, led by a courageous priest named Father Peter Pernin, did so by leaping into the Peshtigo River and staying there through a terrifying night while burning trees and buildings toppled into the water around them.
"The sky was a writhing aurora of fire, as if the sun had exploded, its corona violently expanding to consume the earth," Leschak writes. "Everything organic was fuel....Hot air rose in a plume...perhaps to 30,000 feet or higher—generating a strong updraft that vacuumed surrounding flames into a rotating tornado of fire."
Leschak, who has spent most of his life as a forest firefighter, is also a gifted storyteller. He relays this tale with skill, passion and savvy, along with the disciplined professionalism of a man who has mastered more than one trade.