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How do you run from something that is relentless? How do you fight something you don't understand?
The Crouching Tiger
Fear is a strange emotion. It can give you an exhilarating, thrill-like high—such as riding a giant roller coaster or boldly sky-diving out of an airplane. It can help you and even save your life by putting you into a razor-sharp alert mind set and keeping you on edge—such as when you are piloting a plane through adverse conditions or desperately fighting a dangerous forest fire. But when there is no logical reason or justification for the fear and when there is no way to defeat the dark fear, it becomes horrifying and overwhelming.
I'm Johnny. I'm an ex-Marine pilot, and after two tours in Afghanistan, I thought nothing would scare me much. Now...after going North of the border and fighting the massive Fort McMurray fire in Alberta, Canada, I naturally thought I had seen the absolute worst case in forest fires. Now...
Now I find myself sleeping in my car like a homeless person. Hell, technically I am a homeless person. The only thing I have in the world now is my beat-up Chevy. Until I sort things out and find a new place, I have no place to crash. I have to figure out my next move soon. I know the thing is still stalking me, and my life is in danger. Do I try to run or do I try to face my fears. You see, when fear becomes horrifying and completely overwhelming, it follows you. It follows you and you can't shake it. When your head is full of horrors, fear interweaves itself into your life and dominates and haunts you like a hated, silent partner. I know I'm not making any sense. What happened to me doesn't make sense. I'm still trying to figure out the answers. How did I get into this mess?
I was full of confidence and determination when I piloted my National Guard Lockheed C-130 Hercules to the fire zone in the Southern California Los Padres National Forest. As we approached, I could see the rather small fire hadn't grown to be out of control yet. There was very little wind and thus the forest fire was moving very slowly. If we and the other aircraft air-dropped fire retardant along the edge of the forest fire, it was probable that the fire's progress would be stalled and would eventually burn out.
“If we succeed and stop the fire today, drinks are on me tonight,” I said to my copilot Frank.
“You're on, Johnny!” he said over the drone of the four Allison turboprop engines. I smiled. Frank wasn't very fit and liked food and drink.
When we got closer, I noticed something odd. Although the fire was relatively small, it seemed unusually intense. The flames rose higher than I had ever seen before. Like a war pilot on a bombing run, I aimed my air tanker at the edge of the fire, lowered altitude to 250 feet, and prepared to drop a half ton of fire retardant. Just as we began to drop our load, a tower of fire erupted from the blazes and reached up towards the plane. Like a giant arm of a huge living creature, the monstrous, orange appendage reached 300 feet up from the fire and enveloped our C-130. The sturdy ship shuddered and then flew back into clear air.
My relief at escaping the crazy fire arm turned into horror as the emergency lights lit up the board like a Christmas tree. Glancing out the window, I saw that engine number one, three and four were on fire. We immediately began to lose altitude. I increased power to the one good engine, but I knew we couldn't keep the C-130 in the air with only one engine. Frantically, I looked for a clear place to crash land, but all I saw in front of us was an endless sea of trees.
“This is going to be nasty,” I said to Frank.
The plane clipped the top of a tree on the left— jerked and fell to the left. Amid the terrible sounds of metal ripping apart we were violently tossed about as the plane tore a hole through the forest. After trees sheared off both wings, the large plane came to a halt. I looked out the side window and saw we were only fifteen feet from the ground.
“We have to jump down.” I said as I unbuckled myself and walked down the forward steps and opened the forward hatch-door. The tough guy in me made me jump without procrastination. The fall jolted me but I rolled on impact and was relieved that I wasn't hurt.
“Piece of cake,” I said trying to offer encouragement.
Frank jumped and dropped like a wounded duck. He yelped in pain on impact.
“I may have broken or sprained my ankle,” Frank said. “I gotta sit down and see if the pain passes.”
“Don't know if we can sit around,” I said as I looked behind me. The fire was quickly spreading into the area.
“How is the fire spreading to us when the wind is going the other way?” Frank protested. I didn't answer and pulled him up. I helped him hobble on one foot away from the fire. But after a couple of minutes, I saw to my horror the spreading fire was gaining on us.
“We have to run,” I said. We tried to move faster, but Frank stumbled and fell down hard. I pulled him up and we tried to run again. The crazy fire was almost on us now. I had never seen a fire move so fast. Then he screamed and fell again.
“My ankle is broken and I can't put any weight on it.“
I'm a big guy and I figured I might be able to carry Frank. But as I tried to pull him up the fire surrounded us. A knee-high line of fire shot along the ground, and Frank's flight jacket caught fire. He screamed as he tried to roll and put out the flames. But the ground all around him was now in flames. Before the fire could burn me up, I jumped through the knee-high fire and ran for several yards away from the fire. My jeans were on fire so I quickly rolled and put out the flames. Disgusted with myself for having to leave Frank, I stopped and looked back in amazement at the fast moving fire. Frank was no longer screaming and the place where I had left Frank was was completely ablaze.
The strange heat waves that came off the flames made the fire appear to be breathing as if it were alive. No, I came to a horrible realization. This weird fire really was alive. It deliberately knocked our plane out of the sky and chased us. I hypnotically stared at the fire thing with a mixture of amazement, fascination and raw fear. The thing was crouching down like a hungry orange tiger, watching me, assessing me and ready to pounce, ready to kill.
I screamed and turned and ran from the fire thing—tearing through trees and brush. Glancing behind me, I saw the fire following me—quickly burning through the brush and trees. It wanted to finish me off. How could it be following me? The wind was blowing the other way! Glancing behind me again, I saw that the thing was gaining.
In a panic, I almost tripped over a tree root and almost fell. A pricker bush scraped my face. To my left, I saw a pond. Not believing my good luck, I plunged into the safe haven of the cool, clear water. Quickly rushing to deeper water, I ducked my head and shoulders underwater. Looking up, a wave of orange fire above me rushed over the pond surface.
I was out of breath from running, but I grabbed hold of some weeds at the pond bottom and forced myself to stay underwater. I was terrified of surfacing and facing the fire thing. Finally my oxygen-starved body couldn't stand it anymore and I was about to inhale water. I pushed up and sucked fresh air into my tortured lungs.
Frantically looking turned around for where the fire was, I saw to my relief, the flames were in the trees 50 yards back and moving away. Either the fire thing had lost track of me because it lost my scent when I was underwater or it couldn't be bothered with me and wanted to go on destroying the forest.
Not knowing where I was going, I started to jog through the brush away from the fire. I didn't care where I was going as long as it was away from the thing. Soon I was several miles away and I sat down on a rock to rest. I ran my hand through my short dark hair. I was miles away and I should have felt safe, but because I was dealing with something I didn't understand, I felt a lingering fear and something deep inside of me told me it wasn't over.
Box of Matches
Two hours later, I got lucky and a helicopter spotted me. They lowered a harness and pulled me out of the woods. I told them I was from the air tanker that crashed, but I didn't tell them about the arm of fire that pulled us down. I didn't know who would believe that.
It was late and I was dead tired when I finally got home. I live in an upstairs apartment close to my National Guard airbase which is south of San Jose. Trying to keep water off my fire burns, I took a quick shower. Then I grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and sat on the well-worn couch and I tried to make sense of what had just happened. This fire was an actual living thing. I resolved to quit my job the next day. I was really spooked, and I couldn't see myself fighting forest fires again. I was pretty sure the National Guard could reassign me.
I was so tired that I only made it half-way through the beer before drifting into a blessed sleep on the couch. I dreamed I was back in my air tanker circling a forest fire looking for a good place to drop my load of fire retardant. Frank was on the ground running from the fire. Somehow I could hear him desperately calling for my help. I could smell the smoke of the fire. Wanting to save my friend, I tried to drop the retardant in the space between Frank and the fire. But when I got close enough to make a drop, flames leaped up forcing me to turn the plane away. I banked the plane for another pass, and smoke filled the cabin.
Smoke. There was smoke. I awoke to the choking smell of smoke everywhere. The apartment building was on fire! I jumped up and checked the apartment door with my hand. The heat on the other side of the door was a telltale sign that the fire was in the apartment hall, and opening the door would be suicide. The growing fear within me told me it was the fire thing. Retreating back into my small kitchen, I opened the back door and hurried down the back steps.
Once I was safely on the side lawn, I looked back at the apartment building. It was almost completely in flames. A fire truck was already in the street and a team of firemen were expertly and efficiently dashing around to set up hoses. I stared in awe watching as the flames quickly spread. A fireman came up to me and asked me if I was OK.
“Yeah, I'm OK,” I said. “There is a family of three and a retired woman on the first floor.”
“We got em out. Anyone else on the second floor?”
“Then we got everybody out.” he said as he turned his attention to the blaze. “That apartment building went up like a box of matches. Never saw a fire spread so quickly before. I wonder what started it.”
I nodded. But I was pretty sure that somehow the fire thing started the fire. This fire spread way too quickly to be a normal fire. Ether the thing wanted to kill me because I knew it was alive or it knew it missed it's mark with me and simply wanted to finish me off.
After two hours, the firemen had the fire completely out and the building I called home was reduced to a smoldering rubble. I walked slowly to the parking lot and sat in my car. My beat-up Chevy was the only possession of mine the fire hadn't burned up. What I really needed to do was figure out what to do about the fire thing. I wondered if I could run from the thing. I wondered if I should face my fears and go back to fighting forest fires. I closed my eyes and hoped my pathetic situation would look better in the morning.
The Dark Void
When the sun came up, I felt like crap. I managed to sleep only a few hours more in my car. How do the homeless people manage to sleep in their cars? My back was killing me and worse, I still wasn't sure what I should do. I called my Guard base and told them my apartment burned down and I had to take care of a few things. I wasn't lying.
I drove to the local breakfast diner and ordered eggs and toast, no butter. While I was waiting, I had an idea. Several years ago, while in a bar, I got into an emotional conversation with a fireman by the name of Gary Gage. As we both made a living fighting fires, and there were no pretty women to talk to in the dive, we spent the entire evening swapping well-worn fire stories. After about an hour of entertaining anecdotes, his face turned serious and he told me of when he and another fireman were in a burning building and he had seen the fire come alive. At the time, I thought he had drunken too much beer.
When the waitress brought me my breakfast, I was annoyed to see that the toast was burned. How fitting. As I attempted to page through the Internet on my little phone searching for a name that I barely remembered and eat my breakfast at the same time, I managed to spill hot coffee on my hand. The hot coffee almost seriously burned me. How fitting. However I did obtain a phone number and address for a Gary Gage. I ate half the breakfast and quickly left.
I drove like a maniac and was at Gage's door 20 minutes later. I know I should have called first, but what I wanted to talk about was not something I could talk about on the phone. I was in luck as it was his day off and he was home. By some fluke, he remembered me from that night in the bar. He was married now and his young wife had just left for her job. We were alone and he invited me in and offered me a coffee. We sat around his small kitchen table drinking burnt-tasting coffee.
“You said you were once in a burning building and faced a fire that you thought was alive,” I said.
“I usually don't talk about it. People don't believe me,” he said sipping his coffee.
“I believe you. Yesterday I faced the same type of thing in a forest fire. The thing reached up with an arm of fire and knocked our plane out of the air. Then it chased my copilot and me. The only reason I'm still alive is that I dove into a pond. How on earth did you escape?”
Gage took a long drink from his coffee and spoke. “My partner Steve had the lead and was carrying the fire hose nozzle. I was behind him holding the hose. I will never be able to prove this. But at one point, the fire looked like it was crouching down and watching us like a predator looks at prey. Then it leaped out at us completely surrounding us in flames. Jim saved us both. He said that he aimed the hose directly at what he said was the heart of the monster. Then the flames disappeared, and the fire monster was dead. We were only covered in flames for a few seconds.”
“How did he know it was the heart of the thing and what does this heart look like?”
“I don't know. I was behind him and didn't see it.”
“Do you know where your partner is so I can ask him?”
A brief look of pain clouded Gage's face and he was silent for a few seconds. “Steve was never the same after the incident. We both went to the hospital. When we got out, he quit the fire department. Then a year later, he committed suicide by running his car in a garage.”
“Be careful,” he said pulling back the arms on his long-sleeved shirt revealing horrible, disfiguring burn scars on his arms. “The monster burned through my rubber suit. I think it was going for my arms to get me to drop the hose. This monster is vicious. Keep in mind it is also intelligent. Be real careful.”
I thanked the man and drove to a fireman supply store. I picked up two specialty items maxing out my credit card. Then I tried to locate another apartment that had an opening. Because I'm not the type of guy that needs a fancy, upscale place to stay, I found a dump on the first try. On my last stop, I picked up some new clothes from a cheap department store and a greasy pizza from a local pizza place. That night, I slept on the floor of my new place and didn't sleep well. I half expected the new apartment to catch fire too.
The next morning I was in a grim mood while driving to the airbase. I was looking for a parking place in the lot when I saw smoke coming out from the hood. Pulling to the side of the lot, I popped the hood and was dismayed to find a grease fire on the engine. I quickly put out the fire with my portable auto fire extinguisher. The old Chevy had too much grease on the engine, but the car wasn't overheating. I knew it was the thing. The thing was still out there somewhere trying to start fires and trying to burn me to a crisp.
Leaving the car in the parking lot, I picked up my pack and walked to the airfield. The forest fire in Los Padres National Forest was still blazing and I was sure we would get a call to help out again.
While in the pilot's room, I met my new co-pilot, Tom. We made some small talk for several minutes. Then he said he wanted to take a cigarette break outside before the morning briefing. I don't smoke, but I followed him outside. I wanted to express to him how serious I was about fighting this fire. I told him about the crash two days ago and tried to relay how personal it was to me to stop this fire. I'm not too good with words, and I didn't tell him that a fire thing was after me so I'm not sure I got through to him.
As he finished his cigarette and turned to go back inside, he casually tossed the butt on the sidewalk. Then I saw it. The butt was out and lying on the concrete. Yet a very thin, unnatural line of fire stretched out from the butt into several dried leaves on the lawn. The leaves started to spark and catch fire. I immediately stomped on the leaves and cigarette butt with my combat boots. Tom had his back to me and missed the incident. I followed him inside knowing the thing was determined to start fires and snuff me. I became more determined to snuff the thing.
During the morning briefing, we and other teams discussed the third day of the persistent forest fire. Our stone-faced CO said in one more day, the fire would be threatening a residential area. He assigned all teams best spot to target the fire. Breaking out of the meeting, I grabbed my pack, which had two special items and Tom and I jogged to our C-130 air tanker. I stashed my pack in the cargo area of the big plane. Tom was already buckled in and ready to go when I got to the cabin.
“What's in the pack?” he said as he gave me a confused look.
“A good luck charm,” I said as I buckled in and fired up the engines.
As we approached the fire zone, I could see that the forest fire had grown bigger, but was still intense with flames towering high in the air. I increased altitude to 500 feet.
“Aren't we a little high?” said Tom.
When we were directly above the fire, the thing tried to reach up for us with an arm of fire. Ignoring the fiery appendage, I released the fire retardant over the fire. Circling around, I could see the retardant had no effect on the intense blaze. The thing was relentless. It had to be stopped.
“Take control and keep circling the fire for about five minutes,” I said as I unbuckled myself and reached for the cabin door.
“Sure. Where are you going?”
“Keep circling the fire for about five minutes.”
“Sure. What are you doing?”
I didn't answer and shuffled quickly to the cargo section of the large plane. I strapped on a parachute and then buckled my new fireproof pack to the front of my body. As I opened the rear side door-hatch of the air tanker and I looked down on the fire, I got an almost uncontrollable desire to shut the door, and run back to the control cabin and pilot the plane away at maximum speed.
“No,” I thought. “I have to face my fears. God help me”
The rear hatch of the C-130 is a great place to parachute from. The tail of the plane is mounted high and it is impossible jump and get wiped out by the tail surfaces. I dove out of the plane and immediately pulled the ripcord. Aiming the chute for the charred burned area, I succeeded in landing without getting stuck in trees and immediately ditched my chute and opened my pack. I knew I didn't have much time. The thing must have seen me and was probably hungry.
Inside my pack was a new silver permex fire suit. I quickly pulled it on. I had just gotten the head gear and self- contained breathing apparatus on when knee-high flames surrounded me. There was no wind and no natural explanation why the fire moved back into a charred area. With the fire suit protecting me, I grabbed my pack. The fire around me was now shoulder high. Ignoring my mounting fear, I began to walk in the direction that the fire came from. Now the flames were completely covering me and the intense heat coming from outside the suit made me dizzy and weak. I shook my head in amazement. The suit was built to withstand 2000 F, and most forest fires had a temperature of less than half that. This was no ordinary fire. There was no doubt that this was the thing.
I continued to walk to where I thought the heart of the fire would be. I had to get to the heart soon or it would be all over. After several dizzy minutes of walking directly into the thing, I came to what appeared to be a dark black wall or void in the middle of the fire. Not completely sure that the heat was making me see things, I concluded it must be the dark heart of the beast. Gingerly walking towards the strange dark void, I pulled a fire grenade out of my fireproof pack.
The size of a soccer ball, the state of the art fire grenade was no ordinary fire extinguishing device. The fire bomb worked by having the fire burn through the device's combustible potassium, which produced a fire suppressing aerosol mist. The mist didn't reduce the oxygen levels, but the fire is extinguished because the ultra-fine particles in the mist interfere with the flame's free radicals. I was gambling my life that a large fire grenade would kill the thing if you hit it in the heart.
I pulled the pin and threw the bomb into the black void. After 10 seconds, there was a small explosion and an immediate change in the fire's intensity. The black void in front of me faded to gray. Gradually I began to see daylight peeking in from above. The hellish orange blazes around me collapsed and suddenly I found myself standing in the daylight.
I smiled and I looked around. The once raging forest fire was no longer a roaring blaze, but had been reduced to a series of disjointed brush fires. Three or four more drops of fire retardant would put out the fire now. More importantly, the fire thing was dead.
Drenched in sweat and completely exhausted from the heat and the ordeal, I pulled the fire suit off and threw it over my shoulder. I began to walk in the general direction of a mountain dirt road that I was pretty sure I spotted 20 minutes earlier. It was about a 10-mile hike through brush, but I didn't care. I figured I could probably hit the mountain road before nightfall.
Was I still scared? Was I overjoyed? I couldn't tell. From my deep mixed emotions, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The thing was dead. However I wondered if there were more fire things. I wondered if the nightmare would ever be over. I wondered if I would ever be truly free from the fear of the thing. I wondered if I would be looking behind me for the rest of my life. See—sometimes when fear becomes horrifying and completely overwhelming, it follows you.
micheledutcher - I have a friend who is a park ranger and spends time fighting fires in the American Southwest. I liked the crouching part the best. Lots of great details.
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