IN HEAT

Keith Meulheim: firefighter by day, male model by night.

He’s got Blue Steel pretty much down, and Magnum is in the works. He’s really really ridiculously good looking but I’m pretty sure he’s not staring at his reflection in puddles or asking any gods, “Who am I?” He’s no weak sauce Derek Zoolander. He’s badass.

I met Keith when I investigated the situation at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, where crews battling The Panther Fire that recently burned more than 6,000 acres in Butte Meadows were staged. I introduced myself to Keith’s crew: a strike team from Sonoma County that Cal Fire pulled together from a variety of local agencies.

Strike teams are comprised of one pickup truck, five fire engines, and a crew of blazeblasters that are gathered from agencies within a specific region. The logistics are stunning. Because fire season doesn’t normally begin in late April or early May, Cal Fire was just beginning to draw on their seasonal hires and put together crews. The pickings were already slim due to the early fires in Southern California, and the deployment of crews required to fight them. So, what to do when an early fire rages in Northern California, you’re understaffed, and conditions are perfect for an outrageously agro burn: high winds, warm weather, dry year? Bring in the strike teams. Bring in the men and women from city and wildfire agencies who are available. The ones willing to battle. Put them all together and hope they get along. Send reinforcements.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes an entire community to battle a fire. The rows of engines and hoards of men and women who talked and joked, drank bad coffee, and tried to refuel their tired bodies in the Silver Dollar parking lot are part of a culture, a community, a people. Dan Weaver from Susanville said, “You see people you’ve known for years [out on the fire line]. You may not see them until next fire season, but when you do, it’s like, ‘Hey!’ and you reconnect.”

Aside from male-model Meulheimer, firefighters are mostly bashful, mountain types. When my camera came out, they ducked out like Smurfs running from Gargamel. It’s understandable. They have something in common: the do-gooders of the forest who are used to being in nature, and who build a tight-knit community between themselves don’t want to be gawked at by the public.

But they were curious about me. I mean, who shows up at fire camp in kelly-lime green skinny jeans and an oversized vintage men’s London Fog v-neck sweater that I may or may not have fallen asleep in the night before and then rolled out of bed still wearing? Well, I do. It’s about the mileage you can get out of a single outfit. It also has to do with the activities I engaged in the previous night. And, even though the debate over the actual color of my jeans continues, they served as a fantastic ice-breaker. “What is she wearing?” is a better question than, “Who is this bitch?”

Because we mountain types are drawn to one another (it’s the faint smell of sagebrush embedded in our cells) I stumbled into a group of firefighters that were from Susanville – the town I grew up in. After talking for a while, I realized I was staring at a slightly older, mustached version of a kid I knew in high school. Good ol’ Lassen High. And good ol’ Leon Myers.

I learned that my hometown is evolving: The Pioneer (a slutty old dive bar) has become a brewery. Watch out Sierra Nevada, the Pio ain’t the Pio anymore. The firefighters said the food is pretty good, but I was warned to stay away from the fish and chips because: runs.

One firefighter named Matt, who was part of the Susanville crew, was particularly excited to tell me about how their engine became stuck in the mud. Because the weather shifted gears from hot and windy to cold and rainy so quickly, many crews found themselves struggling to keep their large fire engines from embedding themselves permanently in the Nor Cal landscape. This was the first time Matt experienced that kind of a situation. His mud cherry was popped. He was really happy about it. When he told me his boots were caked with mud, too, a guy on his crew interjected, “We ran him through the carwash down the road.”

They’re so cute together. These men and their endearing personal jabs. Crews who become a family of sorts. But it’s not just a sausage party. There are some ladies in the bunch, as well. The captain of a strike team from Alameda County insisted that the woman on his crew was the prototype of a female firefighter – the one all other female firefighters should be modeled after. “She’s the best female firefighter we have,” he said, and she smiled and nodded with appreciation. “She’ll have to be perfect till the day she retires (to get any respect). We (men) can put on a hundred pounds and say whatever we want. She’ll have to stay in peak physical condition for years.” So, yeah, there’s a lot of pressure for women out there. Kudos to the ones who love what they do, and help protect our wild lands.

I have personally experienced the other side of fire season. For most men who protect our forests, there are women at home, holding down the fort, raising children, and keeping things in order. I was married to a firefighter, and here’s an excerpt from the short memoir I wrote about that period of my life:

“…Deep down, he wanted to become a chef, but working at Country Kitchen sucked the life out of his dream. He put up his pans to become a firefighter. I cried all summer. I was pregnant again; he was gallivanting mountainside with a scruffy chin and a Pulaski (a hybrid axe and hoe used in firefighting) while I watched news reports about the death of firefighters whose names had not been released. I tried not to worry.”

Firefighters might be a bit shy, but they certainly look official in their uniforms. They hold their Pulaskis dear. They do good work with their hoses.  The Panther Fire, which burned more than 6,000 acres in Butte Meadows was concerning for a number of reasons. For one, The Panther pounced early. As far as fire seasons go, late April and early May are not usually ripe for blazes.

Fun Facts:

Dan Weaver likes people who work on fire lines. He just doesn’t get along with anyone in normal society.

Keith Meulheim is not really a male model. He’s just growing his hair out, so his crew is giving him loads of shit about being too sexy for his shirt. His fire shirt, that is.

Female Firefighters must stay perfect until the day they retire. Science. Yeah, science that chauvinism still runs rampant. Pssht.

Mud is bad for fire engines.

If you get your picture in the newspaper, you have to buy your whole crew ice cream. This also happens to new guys. If you’re new, you just have to buy the crew stuff. It’s light hazing. And they’re all in love with each other by the end of the season anyway.

Fire crews sometimes sleep in large trailers that get pulled by semi trucks and their bunks go three-high. Other times, they sleep in tents. Sometimes they just sleep on the ground. Rogue style.

Arsonists are seldom caught, however, about 51 percent of the time, serial arsonists are caught. So…your chances aren’t too shabby…

Sancho is the man who takes care of firefighters wives and girlfriends when the fire crews are out working hard. They asked me if I had a Sancho when I was married to a firefighter. I didn’t. I was a very faithful wife.

We got really lucky on thePanther Fire. If the 50 mph winds and high heat had continued, it would have been a much worse situation. But, the way life sometimes provides, the rain came just in time.

Heat rises. Don’t disappoint Smoky Bear. Keep your fire-starting in check.

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Jen Cartier misses Chico! However, she has taken to the great beyond (er...The Bay Area) to be some kind of chocolate maven while simultaneously figuring out how the hell to navigate her long-ass work commute, and still kick ass at raising three munchkins, loving one soon-to-be husband, and keeping one rascally Brittany Spaniel in the damned yard. She loves Nutella, red wine, and American Spirits. She takes her dog along on runs to wear him out (sometimes he shits in someone else's yard - bonus!) and also to balance her own general consumption of all the fine tasty things life offers, ciggys included. Follow her blog at riceflourmemoirs.com