My ponytail has fallen loose from my battered plastic hard hat. It slaps rhythmically against my neck as I swing my Pulaski tool ax, chopping through roots to clear a fire line. We've been working for five days to contain this wildfire.
A grand old cedar leans heavily over us, raining down embers and sparks from its glowing branches. We identified it as the ignition point during our aerial survey. It was probably struck by lightning.
To get here, our crew had to cut off the fire's advance up the ridge. We scraped away all the vegetation to encircle the burned area with 24 inches of bare soil. Only scattered hotspots remain. But I can still feel heat from the ground through my boots.
As we work, the forest shadows deepen. The temperature drops. The humidity soars. Gradually, the fire is cooling. By the time we reach the cedar, it's past midnight. Our incident commander decides to knock off for a few hours before we try to cut down the dangerous tree. We spend the night spiked out inside the fireline, nestled in a burned-over hollow. I sleep
with my boots on, just in case.
Then, in the early hours of morning, we're awakened by the cedar exploding with a cascade of glowing sparks. It cracks under the immense weight of its upper body and lands like thunder, right next to us. The tree has fooled us all. It looked healthy from the ground, but it was hollow with age. As it burned on the outside, fire ate its way through the
central cavity, weakening the trunk. It smoldered in the dark until it burned right through the roots that held the tree upright.
None of us who stood, weak-kneed and shivering, could have guessed that the cedar concealed such a treacherous secret. It had come within inches of killing us all.
There is no more sleep after that. I kick apart pockets of glowing embers, beginning the mop-up process that won't end until we're certain the fire can't rekindle.
Finally, I can no longer smell smoke in the hot, dry air. We cold trail the burn area by hand, digging through mounded ash and seared earth for hotspots. I dig bare-handed, and the heat raises new blisters on my scarred fingertips. But I want to be certain that this time, the fire is completely out.
Commentator Rachel Smith is now a fire ecologist and a doctoral candidate at the Mortiz Lab at the University of California, Berkeley.