Ruth Nolan, a former wildland firefighter, is a writer and professor of English and creative writing at College of the Desert. She's the author of Ruby Mountain (poetry, Finishing Line Press) and her short story, “Palimpsest”published in LA Fiction: Southland Writing by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press), received an Honorable Mention in Sequestrum Magazine’s 2016 Editor’s Reprint contest and was also nominated for a 2016 PEN Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She won a 2017 California Writers Residency Award and is a 2018 recipient of a Bread Loaf Environmental Writers residency. Ruth serves on the advisory board for Poets & Writers West, is editor of No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday Books) and co-editor of Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California(Scarlet Tanager, 2018). She holds her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside and is a single mother of a young adult daughter and grandmother of three. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s the most unraveled and well-paying jobs I’ve had, fighting fires in far-flung, fiery
wilderness areas all the way from the San Bernardino National Forest to the Panamint
Mountains near Death Valley, the Southern Sierra close to Yosemite, the San Gabriels
looming above L.A.
Most of the time, I was the only woman on the crew, cutting fireline and sucking down
smoke, and after a fire had laid down across ravaged meadows and once-forested slopes
we couldn’t recognize anymore, our job was far from done.
We hiked in baked-potato- hot, foot-deep ashes that blew eerily in the wind like shed snake
skins. to finish off dying wildfires by stirring and cooling and spraying little jolts of
steamy water from the fat bags we carried on our backs, which sloshed like heavy
We struggled to keep pace in the slowed-down underbelly of burned-up things in
cherished, if little known, Golden State geographies with lonely names: Rattlesnake
Mountain, Horse Thief Spring, Last Chance Range, Toro Peak.
Above us, the whispered remains of familiar forest trees, lurking black and tall and jagged,
stripped of the dignity of their given names: Jeffrey Pines, Ponderosas, Western Sequoias,
California Black Oaks. At our feet, the complete bequeathing of the ladder fuels:
Manzanita. Western Juniper. Coyote Brush. Poison Oak.
We could never be sure the fire was completely out, so we stirred ash, and sifted through
what had been scorched, covering every spot of ground, satisfied to watch each unearthed
ember spark hot and red then whoosh unto its puffy last breath.
This is what I remember most vividly from my firefighting days: the mopping up of what
the flames left behind. The knitting together of forsaken topographies. Making sure to put
the last of the fire to bed.
That, and I remember how often I’ve been asked why I left behind the aprons of
domesticity to sharpen shovels and flirt with flames, bury cindered roots, risk my life in a
place of stillborn things.
(c)2018 Ruth Nolan