Firefighter-Author on Battling Colorado Blazes, Scandal

By Fred Turner
National Geographic Adventure
July 17, 2002
For the past 19 years, the fireground has been both a workplace and a
source of inspiration for wildland firefighter and author Peter M.
Leschak. His experience working dangerous—and
regenerative—blazes has provided the material for many of his eight
books, including his newest release, Ghosts of the Fireground,
excerpted in the August 2002 issue of Adventure. [Audio excerpts
of Leschak's book: href=""
target=_new">Go >>]

Leschack, 51, finds time to write about his profession during winters at his Side Lake, Minnesota home, where he lives with his wife. The latter seven months of the year he devotes to his other love—fire. Spring and fall, he serves on an engine crew in Side Lake, and in the summer, he transfers four hours north to the Grand Marais Helibase, where he commands a ten-member helicopter-borne initial-attack—or "helitack"—team.

When called into action, Leschak's crew flies to a fire and immediately engages it on the ground, while the pilot drops 320-gallon buckets of water on the inferno. This year, Leschak's helitack crew was dispatched to the Hayman Fire, where they spent 11 days in Colorado working the 138,000-acre blaze.

Here, Leschak takes time off from his work at Grand Marais Helibase, where he is often on-call 12 days at a time during the summer, to tackle questions about the Hayman fire, what it takes to be a wildland firefighter, and the fine line he walks between thrill and fear.

NG: Can you describe your helitack crew's experience at the Hayman Fire?

PL: My helicopter and crew acted in a support role—transporting cargo and troops, establishing helispots [helicopter landing areas], doing aerial recons, and dropping water.

How do you feel about people purposefully setting fires to obtain work?

Two instances of anything don't make a trend, but there is a history of firefighters starting fires, just as there are instances of cops dealing drugs and accountants cooking the books at major corporations.

How does this fire season compare to that of 2000, 2001?

It's too early to tell. Our service at the Hayman Fire was fairly routine, at least by our standards. But the fires in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico are as intense as they get.

How is fighting fires today different than it was 15 or 20 years ago?

Fifteen years ago I worked fires—and notice I don't say "fought" fires, I say "worked" fires—in Idaho's Salmon River Breaks, some of the most forbidding, rattlesnake-infested land on the continent. There were no structures at the time, but now there are people there with houses and it's become very complicated and very expensive to fight fires in these former "wilderness" areas. Yet if we wish to maintain forests, as opposed to tree plantations, then fire is an integral part of the natural life cycle. It's ironic that, after decades of successful fire suppression, we have to start lighting them again.

What is your opinion of planned fires?

We have become incredibly successful at removing fire from the landscape—too successful.

Part of what I hope to accomplish with my book is to give readers a better understanding of this very issue. Two years ago, when the West was burning like hell, my second in command and I happened to be listening to National Public Radio one morning, and when we heard that "five million acres [two million hectares] have been destroyed," we just groaned.

While it served a certain purpose, the Smokey Bear campaign has really distorted most people's view of fire in the forest. Most of us are city folks now and we don't have that direct relationship with the forest and see what happens after it burns. Fire of course can be very destructive, but in most cases, it's an act of renewal. It's what keeps the forest going. Now, in the last two decades, we have had to light "prescribed" fires, and it's a lot more complicated because there are people all over. We no longer call it a "controlled" fire, by the way—it's a bit ambitious and arrogant to say, "We're going to have a controlled fire."

How does a firefighter balance confidence and doubt, thrill and fear?

You can do everything perfectly and still die because there are so many variables over which you have no control. But quite often arrogance is a factor in some firefighter deaths. The firefighters who are in the greatest danger are not the rookies. Those you have to watch out for the most are the guys who've been out there for 10 or 15 years and, whether they consciously think it or not, figure they've seen it all, and can handle it. Then something unexpected happens and they get bit. On the other hand, if you're too cautious, if you're too conservative, that can be equally as dangerous.

What qualities do you look for when hiring a new team member?

I want him to be smart. It's nice if he can hike for 20 miles [32 kilometers] with 50 pounds [23 kilograms] on their back, but above all I want him to be smart, because that is going to carry us a lot further than anything else. You try and strike this balance between savoring the adventure, between being physically up for the adventure, and also having the distance to take a look at it and use your brain and say, "Wait a minute, that's going to get us killed or get somebody hurt."

How long does it take your crew to prepare?

From the time we get a call to the time we lift off we've got five minutes—about the time it takes to warm up the turbines on the helicopter.

How do you prepare mentally for a fire?

Ideally we're in a constant state of preparation. I also replay scenarios in my head and we always debrief after every incident—"Okay, what went right? What went wrong? And why?"

What gets sore when you are on the fire line?

It depends on the incident you're on, but smoke is always a factor—you're coughing a lot, you're blowing black snot. If you've ever been in a sauna, it's just this energy-sapping heat. You may have blisters on your feet, you may have a few minor burns, some abrasions, some scratches. I sometimes think of it as a particularly arduous camping trip, with smoke thrown in. It's very physically demanding and yet I'm in better shape in the winter than I am during fire season because fire season tends to slowly break you down.

What is appealing about this line of work?

With this job we literally don't know for certain where we'll be tomorrow. That's the part of the job that really appeals to me. And quite frankly, everybody who sticks with firefighting for any amount of time really has to enjoy fire, because there is a better way to make a buck. But we can't wait to go to the next fire. Whether it's Montana burning or Minnesota burning or Florida burning, for me, the fireground is a very familiar place. You couldn't call it a home in a conventional sense because it's not safe or secure or comfortable. But it is a favorite destination.

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