Student Journal: summer dispatches from the field Wildland firefighter: A young writer at the front

About the project
Profile of Students
Additional info

The Dispatches

1- Training to fight the hellfires of summer

2- A draining hike and a hard-core introduction

3- Establishing a "wetline," encountering a cactus, and going nose to nose with the nozzleman



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Profile of Matt Mireles
Editor's note: Matt Mireles, an undergrad in Berkeley's Interdisciplinary Studies program, will be filing regular dispatches from the field this summer. This is Matt's first report.

This all started a long time ago, but insofar as I can understand, it helps explain who I am and where I am going.

In 1987, Yellowstone burned. I watched it on TV with my father. He leaned back in his rocking chair and looked over at me.

"You know, son," he said, "one time back in '46 I had to run for my life from a forest fire." My father was born in 1929. "I was at the local bar when the ranger came in. He said, 'You're coming with me one way or another — either to fight a fire or to jail.' So into the truck I went. They gave us shovels and axes and sent us to the fire line. We were all in jeans and t-shirts and tennis shoes.

"I was bitter cold at night — near freezing — and they gave us only a blanket to sleep on. We slept next to the fire for warmth. After lunch sometime that next day, there was a strange, sudden calm. Next thing you know, the wind shifted. The fire came straight at us. We dropped everything and ran. The heat baked my face and my neck. Oh God, it was so hot.

"I ran like I'd never run before. Trees were exploding all around me and thick, black smoke filled the forest. Then, out of nowhere, I came upon a clearing. We were safe there, but the fire jumped over us. Great big balls of fire exploded overhead. The flames were over a hundred feet in the air. And the noise — it sounded like a freight train was bearing down us."

My dad survived that fire. And naturally, upon hearing the story, my young imagination went berserk. The heat! The exploding trees! The harrowing adventure! …

What more could you want? What a dream job!

As I got older, I thought of it less and less — just another one of Dad's amazing stories. Other dreams and professional aspirations occupied me and I became a student a UC Berkeley. And then, the thought of fighting fire emerged again.

During the spring of 2000, I ditched Berkeley for a semester to work as an emergency medical technician in south Los Angeles County, running 911 calls in an ambulance. Getting ready for work one day, I saw that my partner was wearing a "BLM Fire" t-shirt. I asked him about it, and he told me that he had worked the last 10 seasons as a firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management in Northern California.

"Seasons?" I asked.

Yes, seasons. The federal government, he explained, hires firefighters every summer to fight wildfires. And when the summer, or fire season, is over, they get laid off. The work is popular with college students, he noted.

Oh really, I thought to myself, and kept it in mind when I returned to school that fall. The fires in Montana and elsewhere that year piqued my interest, as they had many years earlier.

So come the summer of 2001, I got myself a job fighting fire in Montana. While the people and the cultural experience were great, the fire season was slow. I fought three fires in three months.

This summer, having a little better idea of how the system worked, I looked for jobs in southern California, the infamous land of Santa Ana winds and volatile chaparral. And landed a job as a wildland firefighter stationed in San Diego County.

"Nothing burns like brush with a good Santa Ana behind it,'" someone told me. "Watch yourself."

And I thought, "Man, this is going to be great. Things are going to be blowing up everywhere. What a great story!"

You see, somewhere along the line, I decided to become a writer. At UC Berkeley, my classes are preparing me to be a professional storyteller, a paid version of my dad using the written word rather than the spoken. Unfortunately, Berkeley doesn't offer an adventure journalism major. Instead, I landed in the invent-a-major department, known formally as Interdisciplinary Studies. I picked "narrative journalism."

Now it is 2002. I am 21 years old, and I have just a handful of journalism classes under my belt. The TV is off, my father has abandoned his rocking chair, and the stories are about to become my own.

—Matt Mireles

Matt Mireles Matt Mireles, Berkeley student and CDF firefighter
Photo by John Mireles



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