In her three years as a wildland firefighter, Tara Waters had not seen a firenado incinerate a house like a nuclear-powered blast.
She prayed she never would again.
It wasn't her job to question whether the hand of God had hurled an apocalyptic firebrand, or whether the devil’s finger had whirled stormy air into a fire vortex, inhaling oxygen and exhaling acrid smoke. Her job was to fight the damn fire. The storm fueled it with seventy mile-per-hour winds and spit lightning into the forest like a dragon drunk with power.
Tara stood two blocks from the main road leading into a subdivision near the southern edge of Butte, Montana. She squinted at the flames engulfing the one-story home. Dry stands of lodgepole pine and Douglas fir trees lured the hungry flames. The sound of crackling branches and popping needles echoed as sweet-smelling pine, honeysuckle, and sagebrush blended into the sharp reek of burning timber.
She spotted movement on the front porch of the burning house. Her spine prickled.
An elderly man with a walker stumbled down the porch steps. No! He didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to outrun the charging flames blitzing through crown after crown of towering trees.
“Dammit, someone didn’t evacuate! Where’s the city fire department?” Tara shot a distressed glance at the only road leading into this neighborhood, then back at her boss, Jim Dolan.
Jim barked into his hand-held radio. “Missoula crew needs backup and fast. We can’t hold it away from the houses. We’ll lose the entire subdivision if we don’t get an engine in here now!”
A deep voice on his radio responded back.
Jim’s expression mirrored the dread clutching Tara’s chest. “They’ll get an engine here when they can free one up.”
“There’s no time! We have to get him now.” She lowered her goggles over her eyes. Flop sweat dripped down the lenses. Tara had never left anyone helpless and wasn’t about to start now.
“I’ll get him. I can do it.” She took off and sprinted toward the man. Legs, don’t fail me now.
“Tara!” her boss yelled. “Get the hell back here!”
Resin snapped and tree trunks burst as if dynamited. Pine needles glowed red and crackled. Brown smoke spun to black, as flames rushed at the besieged homeowner.
Intense heat bit through Tara's flame-resistant, Nomex shirt and pants, scorching her chest and legs. She floundered through tumbleweed, tripping on rocks, and weaving around torched lodgepole pine. She tugged her orange neckerchief over her nose, willing herself to reach this man.
She pushed harder, faster. Fifty yards left, almost there…twenty-five…I’ve got this.
Smoke billowed and she lost sight of him. She skidded to a halt, her eyes piercing the smoke, frantically searching. When the smoke thinned, she caught a glimpse of him collapsed on the ground. He raised an outstretched arm. He sees me!
A sudden wind gust lunged a wall of flame forward, pitching fireballs bigger than anything she’d ever seen. Flames danced in front of the porch and the imperiled man disappeared inside a blanket of orange. If he screamed, Tara couldn’t hear it. The fire robbed the air of sound except for its own tornadic roar. A scream lodged in her throat, searing it.
Somewhere, a nearby car gas tank exploded, causing her heart to stutter. She stumbled backward and hit the ground.
Tara choked back nausea as revulsion gripped her. Her body numbed despite the unforgiving heat. She could not will herself to stand. Her muscles wouldn’t work. Paralyzed, she sat on the ground, glued to the unburnt green, transfixed by smoke and flame.
“Get out of there!” yelled a nearby voice as something slammed against her. Strong arms locked around her abdomen, lifting her and dragging her back.
She struggled for a grip on the moment, trying to free herself from the vise grip. “Let go!”
“Wait till the flame front passes,” a deep voice pressed.
Internal hysteria seized her, and her breathing became sporadic and ragged. “I couldn’t get him—"
“Nothing you could do,” said the gruff voice. The arms restricting her released. A firefighter stepped around her and rested gloved hands on her shoulders. His once yellow shirt was sooty with grime, matching hers.
“Look at me.”
She locked onto the taller firefighter’s big blue eyes, an oasis in the orange and red chaos.
“I can’t—can’t breathe…” She couldn’t inhale without coughing. Her mouth tasted like cinders and her stomach’s contents still wanted out. She hated her confusion, her lack of control.
The man lifted Tara’s filthy goggles onto her hardhat. He placed a firm hand under her arm to support her. “Look at me. Inhale…exhale...you’re going to be okay.”
She focused on the gritty face looking down at hers. “Shouldn’t have stopped me,” she croaked, planting her boots apart for stability.
“You were in danger. I had to get you out.”
“He was a dad…a grandpa…” she choked out, erupting into a coughing fit. The image of the man engulfed by flame had etched itself inside her head. She wanted to run screaming across the burnt black to erase it… because you never run into the green. You could die.
She almost had.
“He wasn’t yours to save.”
“Who are you, God? I can take care of myself.” She gritted her teeth and stepped back.
The stranger let go of her shoulders and opened a water canteen, holding it out to her. “Take a sip.”
“Thanks.” She gulped greedily, then splashed water on her face. Her heart still knocked from the turbo injection of adrenaline. “Sorry about the God comment,” she mumbled.
He gave her a dimpled smile. “No worries. You could have died with the homeowner. What’s your name?”
“Tara.” It came out angry and she didn’t care. She swayed, then steadied herself. She raised her hands in front of her and squeezed her eyes closed. “Give me a minute. Where’s the—where are we?” Don’t lose it. Not here, not now.
“In the black. Out of harm’s way.” He pushed his goggles up onto his hardhat, revealing white circles around the pools of blue. Ash and grit streaked his neck and clung to the stubble on his rugged face.
He snapped his fingers. “Tara, look at me. You’re safe. You’ll be okay.”
“But he isn’t.” She could hold back the tears, but not the tremor in her voice.
“You did what you could. Compartmentalize. Focus on the job.” His deep baritone offered her a lifeline. It steadied her.
“Working on it.” She eyed the flames moving away from them, her breathing still ragged.
He fixed his gaze on her and held it there. “Slow your breath. You’ll hyperventilate.”
She saw empathy in his eyes. “Okay, dammit. I am.” She sucked in smoke-tainted air and blew it out, battling for normalcy. There was nothing normal about seeing a person burn to death and failing to prevent it.
Jim made his way to them and peered at Tara. “You okay?”
“Yes.” No. She was still trying to figure how the fire reached the old man before she did. That was not supposed to happen.
Jim nodded at the firefighter. “O’Connor, thanks for helping out.”
O’Connor smiled at Tara’s boss. “Hey, Jim. Came around a building and saw her close to the flames.” He motioned at her. “She’s dazed, but okay.”
Jim spat on the ground. “She tried to get a homeowner out. Did you see him?”
“No, just saw her on the ground in front of the flames. She seemed to be in shock,” said O’Connor.
Tara snapped her brows together. “Hello, don’t talk about me like I’m not here.”
“Sorry, I’m explaining to your crew boss—”
“I can explain it myself, thanks.” She forced a quick smile.
Jim shot her a look and shifted his long-handled Pulaski axe to extend his hand to the firefighter. “Appreciate your helping out.”
O’Connor shook it. “No worries. Glad I was close enough to help. I’m sure you’ve heard this hellcat’s running and we’ve lost containment. The Incident Commander ordered crews to retreat. He’ll hit her hard from the air.”
Tara sized up his confident, easy manner. He’d brought calm to her storm. She was thankful, but words wouldn't form.
“Caught it on the radio. We’re moving out now.” Jim looked from O’Connor to Tara.
“I need to find my smokejumper crew,” said O’Connor. “Don’t envy you having to do an AAR for the line of duty death of the homeowner.”
“Yeah, I’ve done After Action Reviews. They aren’t fun, but necessary for lessons learned,” replied Jim.
“Our jump crew will be meeting with McGuire shortly,” said O’Connor. “I’ll inform him about the fatality unless you want to since a member of your crew was involved.”
Jim’s gray mustache became a straight line. “I’ll do it.”
Tara gave O’Connor a double take at the mention of her ex-fiancé, Travis McGuire, a smokejumper and the incident commander for this fire. So, O’Connor was a smokejumper. Of course he knew Travis.
“Smokejumpers are the superheroes of wildfire,” said Tara with a wry smile. “I’ve always thought part of your standard issue should be red capes with an “S” on your jump suits.”
O’Connor’s face softened into another dimpled smile. “You're back in action now.” He hoisted a chainsaw to his shoulder as if it were made of aluminum foil.
“I was never out of the action.” She squinted at him.
Few bested her at five feet, eleven inches. Despite the dirt and soot streaking his face, she noted a blue-eyed, movie star charm, accentuated by a lot of bright, white teeth.
O’Connor stared at her a moment. “I’m glad you’re all right. Remember your ten standard firefighting orders.” He turned to her boss. “Good to see you Jim.” He tugged his hardhat with thumb and forefinger as he strode off across the black.
“I’ll do that,” she hollered to his retreating backside. She rolled her eyes at his subtle reminder of the ten commandments of wildland firefighting she could recite forward and backward. She was well aware of the one she’d violated, attempting to save a life: Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.
“Hey, O’Connor, wait a minute.” Jim glanced at Tara before trotting after O’Connor for a private conversation. He gesticulated as he spoke, the way he always did, then pointed in her direction.
O’Connor looked back at her, nodding. Jim patted his shoulder and O’Connor lifted a hand to her and vanished into the smoke.
“What did you say to him?” She hadn't screwed up deciding to go after the trapped homeowner. She screwed up by not being fast enough.
“I thanked him for helping you.” Jim shot her a grim look. He took off his hard hat, revealing a tousled crop of silver. “Still okay? I know it’s a bummer.” Jim was stuck in a time warp from the 1970s, reminding Tara of her father.
She gave him a mechanical nod. She was anything but okay.
“I told you to fall back. You went anyway.” His steely gray eyes pierced her.
“A life was at stake—”
“Two lives were at stake, dammit!” shouted Jim, slamming his hard hat to the ground. He stared at it a moment, his mouth in a straight line. “We’ll talk later,” he muttered. He bent to pick up his hat and stomped off.
“Missoula Crew, retreat to the safety zone,” Jim called out, leading the crew at a fast clip. Everyone fell into single file, following him through the burnt black.
Shit. Tara blinked back the pressure building behind her eyes. No crying in firefighting, Dad always said. And by God she wouldn’t. She wasn’t weak.
Unfortunately, Tara knew the drill. Jim would place her on administrative leave, routine protocol for a line of duty death. She could be terminated for ignoring a direct order, despite the fact she’d risked her life to save another. Not only had she failed, she had landed in deep shit for trying.
She would do it again in a heartbeat.
Tara breathed relief when the crew reached the safety zone, a mile away on a hilltop road, where their vehicles were parked. A panoramic view of the fire stretched out before them. Unable to halt the destruction at the city’s edge, the twenty firefighters surveyed the four-story flames. The pristine, blue-green forest south of the city was now a sullied, smoking disaster. They stood with clenched jaws, surveying the battle they’d lost.
“Dammit!” Tara’s vision of the old man’s outstretched arm flooded into her psyche. Nausea pushed up. Her hand flew to her mouth as she willed her stomach contents to stay put.
Jim approached and offered her his canteen. “Have a sip. The fire devil was a freak event. It happens. You didn’t have time to get him out. It wasn’t your fault.” His brusque tone seemed apologetic, but still sliced her.
The water cooled her parched throat and dribbled down her chin as she gulped. She wiped the droplets away with the back of her gloved hand. “I had to try, Jim.”
“I know you did.”
“How do you know the smokejumper who pulled me back?”
“Ryan O’Connor, a friend of mine. I met him on a fire in Alaska.” Jim spat on the ground again. “He was doing recon for the incident commander when he saw your situation. Good thing he happened by.” Jim cleared his throat, shaking his head.
Her situation. So, this is how it would be labeled. She shouldn’t have had a situation. The homeowner should have evacuated. She shouldn’t have had to run into the fire. The smokejumper shouldn’t have had to drag her back out. Her thoughts muddied and she was too weary to sort them.
Jim backed up to address the Missoula crew. “Everyone load up and head back to camp.”
Tara’s good friend and crewmate, Katy, put an arm around her waist as they walked toward a transport van. “Wish I had a mirror. You look like a friggin’ zebra. Those auburn locks are singed.” Katy tugged a frayed tendril that escaped from Tara’s yellow hardhat.
“And you reek like burnt toast.” Tara gave her a half smile. She appreciated her friend’s attempt to lift her spirits.
“I’m sorry about what happened back there. Glad someone was close enough to help. You okay?” asked Katy.
“Define okay.” Tara shook her head. “I hate this job sometimes. Hell’s fury gorged on another victim. Fire doesn’t know the difference between trees, homes, or humans. It only robs. It only takes.” She stared at a dead tree stump, wanting to punch it. “What good are we if we can’t protect people? You don’t forget a death like that. Ever.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. No point going down that road,” said Katy.
Too late. She’d already gone down Guilt Street and hung a right on Failure Avenue.
Jim sunk into the driver’s seat and keyed his radio. “McGuire, this is Dolan. Missoula crew has fallen back to our safety zone. Recommend hitting Roosevelt Subdivision hard with mud drops. Air attack, do you copy?”
The air tanker pilot replied. “Incoming drop in two minutes.”
“Copy that,” radioed McGuire, sounding relieved.
The low rumble of her ex-fiancé’s voice gut punched Tara. She’d be married to Travis McGuire right now if he would have been faithful. His voice used to ping cupid arrows to her heart. Now, it made her want to level her drip torch and douse him with flame.
“Missoula crew clear for air drops. I’ll report back at zero seven hundred.” Jim let go of the talk button.
McGuire’s voice came back. “Weather’s calmed. We expect containment tonight.”
“Good deal. Catch you on the upside. Dolan clear.” Jim thrust his radio back in its holster on his waist belt. He glanced back at Tara in the rear seat.
She avoided eye contact. She’d gone against his orders and the homeowner died anyway. A shitty day by any standard; and she knew it was about to get worse.
Her stomach twisted, dreading which way the veritable Pulaski would fall.
The crew arrived at their permitted encampment on an alfalfa field, which led to rolling woodlands untainted by fire. The sun slipped below the timbered Rockies, shedding light on a scarlet sky.
Tara tugged her tent from its bag and shook it out, spreading it over freshly cut alfalfa. She inhaled the sweet aroma that cleansed her lungs after ingesting smoke all day.
Jim moseyed over and spoke in muted tones. “Listen…sorry I came down on you so hard.”
“Not saving the homeowner wasn’t in the cards.” She grimaced and swallowed. The dull ache in her chest became sharp pangs.
“You did what you thought you had to. But you went against my orders.” His jaw twitched.
Her muscles tensed. “I’ve never had a habit of not following orders. Please give me the benefit of the doubt.”
“Here's the thing. I’ve been thinking you need a break…to help you move on.” His stare bored into her soul. “You and I both know why you ran into that fire to save him.”
She stiffened, irritated that he knew her so well. “I have moved on.”
“The agency will advise administrative leave and counseling after the line of duty death today. Lord knows a reprimand or suspension won’t do a damn bit of good for you.”
She shook her head. “Sorry you think that I messed up, Jim. But the way I see it is I had no choice.” She stared at wispy layers of leftover smoke hovering over the Rockies.
“Off the record, I understand. But I think you should take the admin leave.”
“No. I need to keep working.” She waited for Jim to look at her.
Instead he said, “Alaska has requested resources. You're on the next flight out."
"No way! Not bumfuck middle of nowhere Alaska. Oh God..."
Tara forced back the tears at her goal that had just fallen out of reach.