Fieldwork is a multi-sensed thing. When anthropologists sit down and write ethnographies, we include what we saw and heard, smelled and tasted, felt in our bodies and our minds, as inseparable and confounding as these feelings are. My fieldwork includes going and fighting wildfires with prisoners. On many fires, we are miles away from the big flames, or we are on a fire that is nearly contained. These fires are fun and smoky and tiring, but manageable in the ethnographic sense-- I can whip out my phone and take notes, ask questions, et cetera. But when I go on the line with them to do an initial attack on a fire (meaning we see a giant wall of flames and work immediately to put it out), I am not writing, I am barely thinking of anything but breathing and watching for shifts in the wind. Even 10 minutes after I get off the fireline, when I try to scribble down what I saw, I forget to write certain things down because I've seen so much that it overwhelms me.
Over the course of fieldwork, after each fire when I sit achingly down in my car to write my initial musings, I have come up with a system to make at least some sense of my thoughts. In those swirling, manically penned fieldnotes, I first write a descriptive summary of the fire event, and then I break down what I remember by my senses: Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch. Finally, I add a "Body" category, which describes what I felt, not with my fingers and toes, but with my gut, what it was telling me. Fear. Thrill. Exhaustion. Things that emanate from within and through me. These are the hardest to explain but the most important in moving my writing forward.
Below is what I wrote about the fire this week. I've expanded on the summary a bit, fleshing out sentences to be full and flowing, but here is my fieldwork laid bare.
9 p.m., Wednesday, May 25
I was just on the Ridge fire, which ballooned from 80 to 2,000 acres right in front of us, running up and down the hills straight towards the center of a military base and its residents. It was a fire that some compared to disastrous ones, where firefighters lost their lives, because of how quickly it went from textbook containment to out-of-control. Upon arrival to the fire, when it was small but moving fast, we got out in front of the blaze, which was started on one of the base's gun ranges with a .50 caliber bullet. We saw it moving towards us fast, and we worked even faster with drip torches and water to burn backwards towards it, so that when the fire got to us, it would have nothing left in its reach to burn. We wrapped around it, burning the fuel on the ground and running multiple miles to put out spot fires. After about 6 hours, just when we thought we had boxed out the fire and its movement, a tiny ember from a torching mesquite tree jumped the line we had created through burning, because the winds had kicked up to 45 mph, at the hottest and driest part of the day. It happened right at the witching hour. When demons come out to play. The ember lit two blades of dry grass, then 10, then exponentially grew. It jumped the line and we watched it explode. There was a moment of shaky calm, standing on a hilltop watching the fire move swiftly towards the town, when we convened with Incident Command, laughed at how useless the last 6 hours were, and got our new orders. The crew was tasked to run straight towards the fire, to chase it like you'd chase a dog with a propensity to run, who you watched wiggle free from its collar right before your eyes. The crew battled the fire's right flank, another crew got its left. For an hour the crew of 23 men toiled, steady but swiftly, spaced evenly at the edge of the black, digging line, spraying hoses, beating the lapping flames with their tools. To no avail. They got called off the direct attack-- it was failing, and moving faster towards civilization. They got the order to run. Each crewmember had logged 6 hours already, with 10 miles of furious paced hiking on their feet, 90 pounds each on their backs, smoky ash coating their mouths and eyes and ears. They were ordered to run further than the fire had reached, and to make one last attempt to burn backwards into the wall of flames. And they did. They burned with abandon. Before the fire had jumped the line, our back-burn was methodical. Now it was all guns blazing. Drip torches met dry earth, the winds whipped up, and flames were carried back towards the main fire. The smoke plume quadrupled in size, as trees and brush and grass and animals unable to run went up in flames. This time the wind favored Man. You could hear the demon shrieking its goodbye. The intentional burn met the runaway one, and the fire ceased. 10 hours later, within hundreds of feet of the backyards of the community that relied on these crews, it was done.
I had never seen a wildfire event like this up close. Every fire is different, and interestingly, this fire was not even close to the most intense thing these crewmembers have seen. This was manageable, if not risky and exhausting. At all times, the experienced guys knew exactly what was happening. Could see it coming, could see where the fire would go, and knew what to do. For me, clearly inexperienced, it was like watching a movie where everyone else had been privy to a pre-screening, and throughout the day I relied on them repeating the dialogue they had already heard. I relied on them indeed. I mirrored their bodies and their attitude and their wisdom and strength. What I saw and heard and felt was both my own and not my own. I was fighting wildfire, but not alone. Fieldwork remolds you; you are plastic, you become enmeshed with others. On the fireline, when your fieldwork becomes a battle, this is especially true.