Thumbs Up and Still Breathing
Jerry D. Mathes’ second nonfiction book, Ahead of the Flaming Front, depicts the day –to-day life of a wildland firefighter. With a poet’s sense of language, Mathes shows himself as a rookie gaining knowledge and experience as he rises through the ranks.
Mathes mainly works for Krassel Heli-Rappellers, a fire crew that works out of the Payette National Forest in Idaho. As part of the Heli-Rappellers, he not only flies to remote fires and rappels out of a helicopter, but he also performs a variety of jobs, including being a part of hand crews, working as a sawyer, and being sent out to fill in other crews throughout the West and even down to the Mexican border. Although the landscape and environment change, the danger and physical routine of working on a fire does not.
Mathes introduces us to a range of characters throughout the chapters, perhaps too many to keep track of, but what emerges are two things: the importance of camaraderie in fire fighting and portraits of the women and men who pursue this hazardous, sometimes tedious job.
The tragedies of past firefighters are woven throughout the book as both a tale of caution and a rationale for the paperwork and many rules and regulations, but Mathes rages against the bureaucracy that he believes sometimes prevents firefighters from acting efficiently. The book was already in publication before the Yarnell disaster of last summer, but once Mathes becomes an instructor, the most important thing he instills in his rookies is the right to refuse an assignment where risks are not mitigated.
Occasionally the language verges on sentimental, and the proofreading errors distract from what is otherwise a fascinating read. One conversation gets at the heart of the book: Mathes and a fellow fire fighter, Flegal, are fishing while waiting by a river to be picked up. As the helicopter approaches, Flegal says, “It’s still good times, bro.”
Mathes responds “I gave him a thumbs up. ‘As long as we’re still breathing.’”
Originally appeared in High Country News