Don Rogers: A guide to life on fire
The end’s a good place to begin with the “The Supe’s Handbook: Leadership Lessons from America’s Hotshot Crews.”
My first boss in wildfire, prone to giving pop quizzes my rookie season on an engine, gets the last word, calling this ultimate marathon of misery the best job in the world.
The preface is by a supe I almost went to work for when he started a new crew. The cover photo is of my foreman, Stan Stewart, in his classic, withering “what do you think you’re doing” look he all too often shot at me long before he became a supe himself.
My supe — Mark Linane, The Supe to us — turns up throughout this book of knowledge from fire’s old men of the sea, these deities leading the most seasoned crews of their kind. I was stunned to find so many names I knew, though it’s been nearly 40 years since my last season on the LP Hotshots out of Santa Barbara.
The author, Angie Tom, 10 years a hotshot herself, collected the wit and wisdom of 35 of the best of the best who have led these crews. Think oral history here, Studs Terkel if you’re old enough.
There is wisdom, and plenty of wit, but for me the real value lies in the interviews. Their stories and observations in their own words. Their personalities leaking out through the pages.
LEARNING BY LORE
Tom gives that first boss, J.W. Allendorf, the first bite too, in the epigraph: “It takes some pretty twisted individuals to want to go out there. You spend $300 for a pair of boots to get you there, sweat your friggin’ ass off in horrible friggin’ terrain, and then go out and physically torment yourself and put yourself at risk. …”
The fit was perfect for a Vietnam recon vet who found himself adrift back home. In the lore of the crew I later joined, combat never scared J.W. so much as a Southern California brush fire that blew up.
But it also was perfect for me, a young man between wars who didn’t know his limits, overawed at the thought of endless hours beating dirt and dodging flame. Could I hang? Dare try?
“Crowbar,” that’s how I knew Tony Escobar, acknowledges in the preface the privations as glue binding a breed and assesses the book not so much as a “how-to” guide as “how I did it” — that is, not checklists and key steps to success, but stories we learn from as well as savor into our own old age.
Like J.W., Crowbar was the subject of some of those stories, well told by his childhood friend named in the book, “Killer” (Tony Duprey), a key mentor who taught me to take his place as lead P, hallowed position among the beaters of dirt, those salt-rimed and smoke-soured grunts at the hard core of this work. No one else could possibly care, but I took it serious.
Tom curates the superintendents’ stories into sections, breaking their answers to her questions into digestible bites for easy reading as well as comparison. They joke. They gripe. Some might pontificate just a bit. Certainly they have a lot of different ideas. But it’s plain: They all took their jobs serious, too, especially concerning the welfare and safety of their grunts.
The ones I know, well, they sound like them in person. I can hear them again as I read, remembering before the gray crept into their hair, more weight around my own middle. All those backcountry campfires while building trails before the season, over beer, during downtime on assignments, on the road. Lots of laughter. Lots to think about.
The Tahoe Hotshots — Hobart in my time — show up in the person of Rusty Witwer (supe 1979-95), who lives today in Alta Sierra, I’m told. I don’t know him, but I know I saw him engaging on the line back then with Linane in that bluff-and-bull style we understood as conversation. The supes had a connection with each other that we couldn’t fully appreciate, though their “conversations” inevitably cracked us up.
For instance, the word “kids.” It shows up throughout the book, across the interviews. These old goats repeatedly refer to the ranks like me and my crewmates as their kids. Who knew?
This shouldn’t be so surprising, though. If the veterans were big brothers, Supe was a father figure to generations of us … kids. We went on to become supes and chiefs ourselves, not to mention doctors, lawyers, professors, a dirtbag journalist or two. If we didn’t find our limits, we certainly blew right past whatever we imagined they might be.
There’s a spirit here, a flame as well as their “how I did it” lore for future leaders in fire and I think everywhere else.
For the vast majority of us, the best job in the world lasted only a handful of years, five for me. Newlywed and wintering in a new town after my last season on the crew, I saw an ad in the local paper seeking a reporter. I beat dirt and lit fire for a living. I couldn’t type. Dare try?
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-477-4299
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