EXCERPT: SUMMER OF FIRE
Black smoke billowed from the roof vents. At any second, the flames would burst through, adding their heat to the already shimmering summer sky. Wood shingle, Clare Chance thought in disgust, a four-story Houston firetrap. She drew a breath of thick humidity and prepared for that walk on the edge . . . where fire enticed with unearthly beauty, even as it destroyed.
Fellow firefighter Frank Wallace, over forty, but fighting trim, gripped her shoulder. "Back me up on the hose." Although he squinted against the midday glare, his mustachioed grin showed his irrepressible enthusiasm.
"Right behind you," Clare agreed. In full turnouts and an air pack, she ignored the sultry heat and the wail of sirens as more alarms were called. Helping Frank drag the hose between gawking by-standers and shocked apartment residents, she reflected that the toughest part of the job was watching lives inexorably changed.
A commotion broke out as a young Asian woman, reed thin in torn jeans, made a break from the two civilians holding her. She dashed toward the nearest building entry crying, "My baby!"
* * *
At the third floor and starting blindly toward four, Clare felt the smoke grow hotter. She crouched below the deadly heat and told herself that she could breathe. Positive pressure prevented fumes from leaking into her mask, and the dehydrated air cooled as it decompressed.
In, out, slow . . .
Isolation pressed in with the superheated atmosphere. She couldn't shake the feeling that Frank had left her, belied by his tugging on the hose. At times like these, she had to keep her head on straight. No giving in to claustrophobia and no thought of turning back.
If you misguessed the dragon in the darkness, you would pay with your life.
Fourth floor hall, and Clare went onto hands and knees. Darkness and disorientation complete, she concentrated on keeping the hose in line and her breathing steady. The worst humiliation was if she sucked her tank dry and had to make an ignominious exit.
Ahead, Frank cracked the nozzle for a bare second. Heat slammed down as the spray upset the thermocline. He hit the valve again. A glimpse of not quite midnight winked from the shadows, now there and then gone. Clare ground her teeth and her chest tightened as they approached 4-G.
The door stood ajar. A good omen, she hoped, as she and Frank accepted its invitation and crawled inside.
Drapes and couches blazed, giving off toxic gases that made her glad for filtered air. The ceiling sheetrock was burned away, revealing the space beneath the roof where storage boxes blazed. Did they contain old clothes and junk, or precious family heirlooms from Southeast Asia, belonging to the young woman who waited below?
A thousand degrees from above drove Clare and Frank onto their stomachs. While hot water rained onto shag carpet, she inched along, one gloved hand feeling the way and the other on the hose. If you let go of your lifeline, you could lose orientation, the sure first step to a mayday situation.
Through the drop-spattered mask, there was no sign of life in the living room and nothing that looked like a crib or playpen. Clare looked toward a door that must lead to a bedroom, but flames licked at the frame and walls. No haven there. Sick with the possibility of failure, she dragged herself toward Frank. She had not yet told a mother that her child had died in a fire.
If hell existed, this must be its antechamber. Frank lay ahead of her, directing the hose. By the tugs, she felt him move forward, risking the dragon backing around and coming down with searing breath. Clare found herself staring at the constantly changing colors of combustion, unable to resist the inferno's splendor. Her love-hate relationship with fire hurt most at times like these.
An ominous rumble began, the vibration resonating in her chest as though the dragon cleared its throat. Cold horror cut the heat.
Through the steam cloud from the power cone, she caught a shifting in the rafters, a barely perceptible sideways slide. She couldn't grab Frank's collar to warn him, couldn't do a thing except scream his name into the maelstrom.
One moment, Clare was crawling toward him. The next, he disappeared in a shower of light.
Yellowstone National Park
July 25, 1988
Steve Haywood looked out the helicopter window into hell.
Great tongues of orange flame leaped through the crowns of lodgepole pines, then reached another two hundred feet into the white-hot sky.
"Swing over Grant Village," he ordered pilot Chris Deering through their headphones, wishing he were anywhere but in the air. Although this recon flight over Yellowstone's raging forest fires was important, Steve had already decided that for him it was a terrible idea. He wiped the sweat at his temples, right where the gray had started last year.
Steve watched Deering peer out at the boiling smoke through his Ray Ban Aviators, noting the sunburst of lines around the pilot's coffee-brown eyes. As he gauged the faint smile playing at the corners of the taut mouth, Steve realized that Deering was actually enjoying this.
He knew the type. All over the mountain west, wherever choppers were flown, there were guys in military-style flight suits with winged patches on their shoulders that proclaimed Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association.
He'd come to Yellowstone for the peace it afforded, not to wind up in a war zone.
Deering fiddled with the radio and was unable to raise West Yellowstone Airport, as had been the case for about five minutes. He banked the Bell 206 into a steep turn and Steve looked straight down into leaping flames.
It wasn't the fire that had him on edge, but the flying. His decision to do recon had been one of those grand defiant gestures; he hadn't wanted to tell his boss Shad Dugan that he was unwilling to get back on the horse that had thrown him.
Turbulence seized the chopper. Steve's stomach clenched as they plunged earthward and then rebounded. Reaching for a handhold, he saw that his palm left a damp print on his green fire-retardant trousers. In the three years he'd been a park biologist he'd successfully stayed out of aircraft, preferring to visit the backcountry via the serenity of horseback. If only he were on a remote trail right now, breathing clean air instead of eating smoke from thousands of torching trees.
Deering took them lower into even rougher air.
Yellowstone National Park
September 4, 1998
Clare looked at the sun, half-hidden behind a pall of smoke, and checked her watch. Nearly six p.m., surprising, for the temperature was climbing.
She took a long draught of lukewarm water from her belt canteen and continued to monitor the backfire. It attacked a downed log with sharp teeth of flame. This part of the woods was full of fallen trees that had died from an invasion of pine bark beetles.
Travis groused, "I don't like the looks of this."
In the same moment, the skin on the back of Clare's neck prickled. Much as she hated to admit it, she agreed. It was the quiet, the dead zone where not even the air stirred. Fifty years ago the stories of calm before a blowup had been mythology, but science had corroborated that the dragon held its breath . . . just before it seared the land.
The wind began to pick up. First a puff and then a blow, it brought the acrid smell of singed duff. Atop the near ridge, the main body of the Hellroaring torched a dead tree into a hundred-foot tower of flame.
"This was supposed to be safe." Travis licked his lips.
Clare did not reply. This wasn't like Black Saturday, with nearly hurricane force winds, but she didn't like it. The ground fire rose from a height of one to three feet. Over the ridge crest a steady roar mounted.
A sharp stab went through her at the memory of her dream. The one where Frank had led her to the ridge in time to join him in fiery death.
A falling cinder kindled a spot fire almost at their feet. Billy Jakes, a carrot-topped soldier with bright blue eyes, broke from the line and shoveled dirt. More embers swirled, landing on clothes and smouldering out on the fire retardant Nomex.
"Let's get out of here," Clare decided.
Travis was in full retreat. "If anything happens to these guys, you got us into this."
* * *
The impulse to run seized her. It showed on every face as heat reached them.
Steve gripped her arm. "Out of time." He reached for the belt pouch that contained his "shake and bake."
Dear God, not those flimsy things.
Steve pulled out a wad of silver foil.
Just this morning, she had shown the troops the use of their shelters. Now she waved her arms and shouted for them to clear a spot. It seemed impossible that the tiny tents could keep out the wall of flame that raced toward them.
The soldiers spread out uncertainly, shrugging off their packs. Clare wished she could coach each of them through this. Unfortunately, she was forced to dump her pack and begin clearing a place where she might save her own skin.
While she worked, she noticed that Steve was close to her side, his head down as he dug with a shovel he'd pulled from the bed of his pickup.
A sudden gust thinned the smoke. The troops scraped away at anything that could burn. Clare looked at the Hellroaring and worked faster. Sweat poured down her sides.
A rain of embers caught the dry grass in a dozen places. She leaped to stamp out one small fire, and then another.
The troops fumbled at their belts for their shelter pouches and shook out the pitifully inadequate looking covers. Silver foil whipped as they struggled to control all four corners.
Steve whirled to put out another spot fire with his shovel. Clare put a hand on his arm. "Here it comes."
She stared at the blazing trees for a moment, transfixed. Then she reached for her shelter.
A look of horror spread over the face of her most enthusiastic pupil. Private Billy Jakes hardly looked older than Devon, with freckles and those blue eyes like her daughter's. The wind enlarged a great rent in his shelter, splitting it down the middle.
Glowing embers fell faster. Burning branches blew into the road. Without stopping to think, Clare tore the shelter from Billy's hands and let it blow away like a billowing sail. She reached for her own and pressed it into his hands.
The fire swept through the treetops a hundred feet away, pillars of orange, red and purple. Searing heat blasted Clare's face and the grass at her feet burst into flame.
In the same moment, a tongue of flame roiled out of the woods and licked at the foil mounds where the soldiers had already pulled their shelters over them on the ground. Hands that had been reaching to tuck in flaps retracted inside the balls that looked like baking potatoes wrapped and ready for the oven.
Clare met Steve's eyes.