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Big Chief SOB

Grizzlies, Drugs, & Flames: The Life of a Wildfire Crew Boss

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Fighting wildfires is a tough business. Surprisingly, Oregon's private contract companies contribute over 90% of the wild land firefighters in the US, employing more than 6,000 people. Typical contractors farm out 15 to 20 person crews, and record nearly a million miles per year. For every $10 paid to employees, the companies charge the government about $30.

According to veteran firefighter Vernon Other Bull (Chief to his friends), today's forest-fire fighters are more akin to the Dirty Dozen than Smokey the Bear. For these hotshots, says Chief, it's not about protecting the forests; it's about money. These men and women work excruciatingly long hours under extremely dangerous conditions. Some of them die.

At 39, Chief is a big, hard-drinking, tough-living man. I recently spoke with him in between jobs, to learn what it takes to drop into hellfire.

What's your job like?

I'm a crew boss, an SOB: Single Resource Boss. That's what they call it out there in the contract world. It's tough, but good hard work. I think everybody should try it at least once so they can get a taste of it. It's only dangerous if you make it dangerous. To relax, I listen to my heavy metal out there. I love it. Every morning: Grim Reaper, Helloween, HammerFall.

Are wildland firefighters different than city firefighters?

We're definitely a different deal. They're trained for structures. City firefighters, I'm not knocking them, but they're not trained to do what we do. You need endurance. There's a lot of walk-in, hike-in, working, sweating, shit like that. You carry a lot of weight, a lot of water. It's no picnic out there, but it's fun for me.

What was your first fire?

I've been doing this since 1988. That was my first fire. Yellowstone. I worked 21 days with three days off, (went) back in for 21 more days. Big money back then. It was really astounding. I was in it for a buck, but I soon got into the job it became more and more appealing to me. The best training happens out in the field instead of the classroom stuff. You need hands-on training.

How safe are firefighters?

In the contract world? About 50% safe. They just throw people in there. Like, when I worked for this one company, they were supposed to be one of the most respectable companies around. But shit, they got busted smoking weed. Then, I guess later they got busted for drinking (laughs). ButÉ if you can do it and get away with it, you know?

So, it is dangerous?

Yes. Especially going out on the line hungover. There are so many things you could do wrong. The first thing for me is safety. But, I've seen a lot of bullshit going on out there that should have been avoided.

See, it's not just the fire that can kill you. Trees, they can easily snap and fall and hit you. You've got rocks, bears, snakes, moose, and elk. I saw a cougar stalking us in Montana back in '94. He was following us. I've seen a grizzly walk right next to the flames.

I always carry a lot of protective equipment when I'm up thereÉ Pepper spray, I carry a big Bowie knife and a chainsaw. I always carry fusies (flares). If I get attacked I'll start it up and hit 'em in the eye.

Last year a guy got hit by lightning; it struck about 50 feet away and threw him about 20 feet. I thought he was dead... shit! I turned to him and said, "You all right?" He said, "All right."

How often do you see the rules being broken on contractor crews?

About every day. But like I say, when they're smoking weed out there, you know, I don't mind. I just don't want you bowling up all day. But I let 'em do it. I say, "Hey, I don't know nothing. You get caught, you get caught."

You're able to "sign off" people who you think have enough experience to be promoted. How seriously do the contractors take your recommendations?

About three years ago, I remember only signing off on one. The next year they were all crew bosses! A bunch of people only had two years of firefighting. It took me six years to become a crew boss. An established time limit would help. You should have a lot of years on a fire before you even consider being a crew boss.

Have you ever been bribed by a crew member that wanted to get on the crew boss fast track?

Ohhhh, yeah. This one guy actually wanted me to sign off on his task book, and he was going to give me $2,500. I could have, too. That's a lot of money. I didn't, though, and he was promoted anyway.

Why did you refuse?

Because I couldn't live with myself if something happened. And the next year, it happened. He deployed, which means pulling the (fire retardant) shelter over you. He told his crew to deploy, while these other two crews walked by them to the safety zone. So they actually waited for the fire to get to them. Burned a couple of them, I guess. He got 'em hurt. He got 'em burned.

The use of non-English-speaking firefighters is on the rise. Does a lack of communication ever effect your ability to work safely?

That's one of the bad things. You've got to learn to speak English. I took a lot of Hispanic crews out and could hardly understand them. I mean, they're bringing up people from Mexico, they say, "All right. How'd you do on your pack test [a required competency assessment]?" They say, "Well, I didn't take it." Then they say, "Well, yeah you did."

How do you tell them the fire is coming if they don't understand English?

Shit, I hit 'em in the head, and kick 'em in the ass and say, "Let's get the fuck out! Follow me!"

Tell me about the money.

Nobody's in it for trying to save the forest. They're all in it for the money. The people that hired me, they bought me. They gave me everything I needed. A big fat advance, a phone, a place to stay, a house next to the office. Being a crew boss, you get a lot of perks. That's what it's all about.

How reliable are the reasons given when firefighters are injured or killed?

Usually, I can tell what happened. Like the people that got killed at the Thirty Mile Fire [2001, four fatalities, six injuries]. Unfortunately, that was a rookie mistake. They were trying to run. The crew boss ran after them, tried to stop them. They tried to deploy by climbing up on the rocks, but when a fire hits, the fumes come up from underneath. That's what killed them.

What's your position on President Bush wanting crews to go in and clean up the forests to prevent wild fires? Will that hurt the environment?

Actually, it helps. You get a lot of dead kill, bug kill, stuff like that. Burning it makes it healthier. They should have been doing that for a long time. That's what prescribed burning is all about.

There's so much trash out there. I've seen it, and it's ugly. You can see a forest that's so green, and with all that trash and shit out there it just keeps burning, burning, burning.

Are people doing drugs and screwing out there?

Oh, yeah! (laughs) I had my lady come out there last Friday. I'm the Chief. I can do anything!

Lot of crazy stuff goes on. One time we were in Plains, Montana. We were on standby at their ranger district. Me and a couple other guys went to a barÉ wound up partying all night. Took a little drugs up thereÉ the whole crew went to the bowling alley and drank while on standby. That was stupid.

But most people fighting fires are pretty dedicated. I was pretty dedicated, but seeing all the corruption, I just want to go back to working for the Federal now. That's going to be a lot different. I'm going to have a lot of well-trained people who are certified.

But no matter where you go, there are temptations that follow the job. You have all that money and shit, and when you're not sitting around doing nothing, there's a lot of mischief to get intoÉ buy a bunch of drugs, alcohol.

I was just out there on the last couple days of a fire saying, "All right! We're going to party!" Got an eight-ball soon as we got back. It was like, BAM! Up for five or six days. It's crazy. But what can I say? It's a fire world out there.

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