This month has seen record numbers of wildfires. The rest of the UK had thick snow when the north west coast started burning, a prolonged dry spell has left the ground bone dry, couple this will the tradition of burning the heather to promote fresh grass growth for grazing and the annual silly season rapidly spiralled dangerously out of control. Last month I was a crew manager with the Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service, as of April the first a member of the new Scottish Fire and rescue service, eight brigades have become one. There was no time to reflect on the change or how it was going to work as we were straight in the deep end on the 1st with the beginning of two weeks solid call outs. As an employee of the Fire & rescue service I cannot blog or discuss many aspects of my work. But I’d like to share some photos from that frantic exhausting fortnight and some words about its impact personally.
I wish I could capture some of the sights I have seen, the camera only comes out in the quiet moments when I am taking a breather, the smell, the sound, the roar. Just when you think you’ve seen it all before, fire suprises, normally wild fires travel in a line, a fire front, some of the terrain this time it was scattered everywhere, orange sparks kicked up under feet, the whole world orange like hades, or some bad special effects on a cheesy action movie. Flickering reflections in wet bog. Mordor.
Tramping miles into the mountains, treks normally undertaken with serious walking gear, walking sticks and provisions, done at a racing page armed with radios & beaters. Scorched earth, everywhere blackened. Giving up on washing smoke out of hair eventually, running out of smoke free clothing, showering off black soot that had crept under several sweaty layers. Snatching 3, 4 , 5 hours sleep. Sleeping in the back of the fire engine as it raced through the night. Blue lights bouncing off blurred trees, moon followed sunset, sunrise, days blurred, nights blurred. Sleep pattern shifted, adrenalin needing no more than 5 hours a night. A forest fire raced towards us, creating a line of defence as trees exploded brown smoke roaring our direction, like a train racing to devour the trees in its path, seconds away before we could fight it back and stop it leaping a break, ash cinders falling for hundreds of yards, finally smoke engulfing and the battle was on, smoke turns to steam, orange to wet black, smouldering.
Fires burning back in on themselves, playing a race with the wind to get behind or upwind of the smoke, letting it race violently up hill to run in and catch it on the slower decent, working in a line, as a team methodical. One time hastily glancing over shoulder to acknowledge and assess risk of a herd of stressed and bewildered stags, not 40 feet away, advancing towards a fire front, then yelling for a hasty retreat as it roared and raised higher towards us, and the stags, together, running away. Palls of smoke engulfing roads, dim lights of stopped traffic as we fought to stop the flames crossing the road. The throb of the pumps, a snatched gulp of tepid water, a hastily snatched chocolate bar, blackened hands and faces later eating cold fish & chips from the back of the wagon. Washing down the kit, snatching moments to phone families, interupted, a quick hug from my dog, thoughts for those with spouses & young children at home, exhausted and abandoned.
It became impossible to relax, everything became firefighting and the gaps in between to eat, wash, sleep. Dishes piled up, cuboards became bare, the house cold and empty. watching a whole glen burning blankets of red and orange racing up rock faces, waiting for a helicopter to come and do what people could not, waiting for the smoke to subside enough so that we could go in underneath the water bombing and finish off straggling flames. Heart pumping, lungs rasping, muscles straining, fingers hacked and bleeding, blisters burst and callousing. While the helicopter danced the blackened glen in front of us- behind rose a giant mushroom cloud brown plume, and rumours of something really bad a few miles across the water.
Snatches of radio chatter from another fire bounced by strange atmospherics. Calmly facing the known in front of me, but fearful for the unknown fought by others, concern for all our colleagues in the same situation. as the moon rose, the orange glow and flickering lights lined the mountains in three directions. Team work, team building, team bonding, times of silence, times of banter, snatched tea breaks, eating a pot noodle with biro pens as chop sticks, stirring lumpy tea in a plastic cup with a stick , sneaking for a toilet break wrestling layers of fire kit and equipment off- behind a smoke screen, or rocks, or blacked bank of peat to hide from male colleagues. Then back to it ,attack and beat, running, walking, climbing, spraying, hosing, windinmg in and pulling out hose, pumping water, rolling dirty hoses, beating, poking, digging, fighting those last stubborn embers waiting for the wind to bring them to life again.
This went on for two weeks solid. Very hard to settle back into normal work, normal routine, normal life. I’d left my dog at my parents the whole time, he was getting stressed with me running out & leaving him & in and out the door, no play time. I didn’t have time to speak to my kids, and all my other projects and work went by the wayside. I’m still trying to adjust, its hard, in my head I hear the pager all the time, in my sleep I’m racing to find lost fire stations, missing fire kit, fire engine that’s gone awol, raging infernos. Its hard to shut off, on call all the time, I guess we get used to it, but after that fortnight the gears are all set too high again, normal day to day chatter and trivea just irritates.
Its hard to eat normally, I’m wolfing it down like It could be the last meal in a while. It hasn’t rained much yet, but the air is damper and the cold air is pressing down. that’s 4 quiet days so far, but it’s going to take a while to switch off, shut down, slow down, to be able to concentrate on other things, to feel calm and relaxed again, to go with the flow and be creative and good humoured- instead of tunnel vision sharp and focused, task orientated, decisive, bossy and pragmatic. It is pretty mad, the sights I’ve seen, People assume it is scary, or exciting, fire fighting, it is neither of those things for me, it is just focused. Sometimes when we have to race around with heavy equipment and hoses, my lungs bursting, I worry, self doubt creeps in that little voice that just wants to sit down and make it stop, thinks i’m too old, sweat pouring. Gasping for air, Just one more step, one more step, and its okay, we get through it.
I wish I could have filmed and photographed it, I wonder what sort of art work will come out one day as a result of the sights I‘ve seen? My subconsious is a strange anxious flame and smoke filled place.