The Honey Bee Fire


Steven Hunley


© Copyright 2012 by Steven Hunley


Photo of fire fighters with a forest fire in background.

And then there were the fires. The fires were no joke. On a Sunday, on a visiting Sunday, Dude was getting ready for a visit. So were the other men. All the inmates were in a good mood, every one of them. Extra laughter was heard around camp Moreno and extra smiles graced most faces. Many looked forward to seeing girlfriends, or lovers, or wives, same thing. Dude was sure to see his old man who would drive up from San Diego and was satisfied with this.

The day was hot and a typical summer Sunday. A light breeze was coming from the south-east over the brown dry hills. Dude watched as great white cumulus clouds built up over the mountains in the distance to the east. The clouds were mighty and fierce in their size and their whiteness, unusually fierce.
That’s when the alarm went off. There would be no visits today.

The men had been trained what to do. They put down their girly magazines and perfumed love letters imprinted with lip-print kisses and ran to the dorms. They put on their work clothes and socks and boots. Buckling their web belts and filling their canteens was next. Tying their kerchiefs around their necks, they put on their yellow helmets and something else that they never wore when just practicing cutting line. This was the real-deal. It was their yellow no-max, a flame-retardant suit. I don’t say flame-proof you understand, just flame retardant. These men knew the difference.

They loaded into the buses and looked out the windows to see where they would go. For some it was their first fire. Others talked among themselves nervously. No one dared talk to the ranger in charge. The ranger sat and studied a map unfolded on his lap. He must know the land at all costs. He saw there were no roads were they were going.

Some men of course just looked out the windows and said nothing. Other men had nothing to say. Still others that said nothing were lost in thought. But most men talked.

The bus drove on and on winding its way up the mountain. Finally they were so close there was the smell of acrid smoke in the air. Soot, black soot was in the air too. Some men in the bus began to talk of what they would do to this fire. Others spoke in a hush of what it might do to them. The men who never spoke were silent or lost in prayer and would cross themselves when they thought the other men weren’t looking.

The bus left the paved road and onto dirt. The sun began to dim. Not because it was late, because of the thick smoke, the now impenetrable smoke.

Then the bus stopped.

The men got out. The air was thick with smoke and hard to breath. It began to barbeque their lungs. Many men took their canteens and soaked their kerchiefs in the water and folded them over their noses to make breathing easier. It seemed like a good idea so Dude did the same. Dude had learned to do what the old-timer survivors did to survive.

Two more rangers with smuged uniforms approached their ranger from out of nowhere and told him what was needed.

They pointed to the place where the smoke was thickest. Dude looked over. It was dark. Darkness in the middle of day. When he turned to see where the sun was, it was still on the horizon but its bright yellow had changed to pumpkin, a jack-o-lantern glowing dangerously orange, no longer comforting kitchen-yellow.

The ranger gave his orders and the men followed.

“Come with me,” he said.

They lined up as they had been trained to line up. First there were the men with the axes, then the men with the Pulaskis, then the men with the Mclouds, then the men at the end with their shovels. The criminals were good strong men and willing and would do the job required. They followed him into the smoke.

Then they saw the fire. Over their eyes they could have used the goggles they gave them in camp. Plastic goggles. But they were scratched with use. Seeing through the scratches and the smoke was impossible. No men wore them even though their eyes stung and watered. If you wore the goggles you weren’t a man, therefore no men wore the goggles.

“Start here,” said the ranger, pointing up the hill, “and keep working till you get to there.”

It was a simple task cutting brush, simple but hard. The hill was a big hill, maybe two thousand feet.There was fire on the hill and the men knew it. They could see its traces. It leapt before them like a fiery dancer.

They knew if they cut line, and if the line was clean enough and wide enough, that it might save them from the fire. There was no water, the no-maxes were useless, and they all knew it. Running was useless. So they began to cut line.

The men at the head of the line stepped into the brush first. Swinging their axes, swinging their Pulaskis, they cut the first of the line. Each one had 6 inches or more. The bushes and small trees, the Manzanita and chaparral, began to fall. The men with Mclouds followed along and cut another 6 inches each, the man behind him six inches and so on. The men in the rear scraped what was left, leaving only the mineral soil behind. If it was just mineral soil it wouldn’t burn. That’s what the ranger called it in training, mineral soil.

The line got wider and longer, and the men extended it as they climbed up the mountain. Maybe you would call it a mountain. Whatever it was, no matter how big or how stubborn it was, they cut it and scraped it and dug it till only mineral soil remained. Sometime they were close to the fire, sometimes too close for comfort. If the brush they cut was burning, it was thrown back into the fire. Never was it thrown into the green brush on their right.

“Never throw into the green,” is what they'd been warned.

If they did it would start that green brush burning and they would be surrounded. They didn’t want that, so they’d toss the burning brush to the left at all costs. A mistake from right to left could cost them their lives, so the men were careful. Sweating and cutting and cursing and scraping they worked their way up the hill, one step, or six inches at a time, one step forward, six inches to the side. Cinders were falling like raindrops of fire. Black smoke billowed. Some men suffered spasms of coughing. Others would take a second and drink from their canteens or splash water on their faces blackened by work, but only a second, as the line had to keep moving. It was marvelously deadly and dangerous work.

Dude had never seen anything like it. The team depended on each other. All of these criminals doing dangerous work. He had never seen men work so hard together, almost as if their lives depended upon it. Maybe because they did.

When they took a break and he was leaning on his Pulaski he saw the main part of the fire down below. It extended for hundreds of yards. Although the brush was only six or eight feet high the flames ranged higher, sometimes ten feet, sometimes twice that. Jack could be nibble but in reality there was no way you could jump over.

Sometimes they stepped over a burnt carcass. Most were rabbits but sometimes there was a deer. Some of the bodies were black and still burning. Other creatures would lie dead, overcome by smoke. The men had no time to think of dead burning bodies. Dead burning bodies made no difference to them. They wanted to live so they kept extending and widening the line.
There was no way you get around the flames and Dude knew the wind was driving the direction of the fire, he could feel it driving the flames, and that if the wind changed there was no way you could out-run it either. Nobody could. Then he remembered what the ranger said on day during a break.

“There’s no more dangerous job in the state of California.”

Now he knew why.

They started that afternoon. When they stopped at two o’clock in the morning they were at the top of the hill. The men fell exhausted wherever they were and slept, between rocks and boulders or wherever they could find an open spot. A rock for your pillow, some dirt for your bed. For this work the State of California paid them ninety-nine cents a day. You can understand when I say that on that mountain top, surrounded by ten thousand acres of burnt brush, now snoring with faces blackened with soot, every one of them believed he had earned at least one dollar.

They all fell asleep and dreamt the same dream. The dream was of the fine steak and eggs they would eat that morning when they came down from the mountain. In California when you fight a fire they feed you real good. So the men dreamt of steak and eggs.

The Forestry Department names all their fires. They named this one the Honey Bee Fire. It was named this because a man was smoking wild honey bees out of a tree to steal their honey. When a bee stung him on his hand, he dropped the smoker and it started the fire. One bee, one man, one sting…then ten thousand burnt-blackened acres… then a troop of criminal-clowns in black-face on top of the mountain sleeping like ballerinas in singed tutus, exhausted after dancing the Firebird.

The payment for their performance? Ninety-nine cents. It was some kind of bad joke.

And then there were the fires. The fires were no joke.

I posted this again because there are fires in northern California at this moment (Summer 2012) threatening some friends of mine. An retired fire-fighter there was talking to his mother yesterday and admitted that the inmate fire-fighters did an incredible job. I thought they had axed the program long ago, since the true events of this story took place around 1978-79, and it, the program, (according to the internet) had been abandoned. Know, inmate fire-fighters, that my prayers are with you, and I appreciate the work you're all doing. It's a tough job that few 'normal' citizens and the media are aware of. The official fire-fighters and Department of Forestry know the important role you play, and they're the ones that count when you're out there cutting line.

Contact Steven

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Steven's Story List and Biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher