It was in Arizona, late 1980′s. I was a member of The Sierra Blue Cards assigned to Tuscon Arizona from Fresno California in a Greyhound bus, an 800 mile trip. Once there we laid out on the tarmac of Tuscon International Airport for deployment instructions.
We were assigned to a fire burning in the Rincon’s northeast of Tucson at approximately 8500 ft. elevation. We went to base camp and slept for the night anticipating a helicopter flight in the morning for our shift on the mountaintop.
The temperature at base camp was extreme, 109 degrees in the shade. We received our instructions and flew 11 miles to the fire. Our assignment was for 24 hours so we packed heavy with food and water. The day went well as the fire was more or less contained before we got there. We were sent there to mop up the remaining hot spots and keep the fire from crossing existing lines which had been put in the previous day.
We worked all day and except for my friend Kevin losing his helmet off a huge rock (he had to hike down a steep hill to retrieve it) it was uneventful. We continued working through most of the night with a couple of hours nap and began preparing for our flight back to base camp for rest and re-supply. That was when a storm approached.
We found out that an Arizona a summer monsoon is something to behold. The rain came down in buckets and the lightning struck down all around us. It rained for what seemed to be an hour straight. It literally washed any remaining hot spots off the hill. Scared by the lightening and soaking wet we hiked to the helispot and waited for our ride back to base. That’s when we got word that the storm that just hit us had started new fires on nearby mountains and we wouldn’t be getting a helicopter ride down after all. We were going to have to hike out.
We all acted nonchalant to this news and prepared ourselves and our gear for a long hike out. We started the hike mid morning and left the beautiful pine trees and soft duffy ground and soon realized that this would be no ordinary hike. After about a half an hour we started to feel a sharp increase in temperature as the shade of the pine trees was leaving us. The ground became harder and more rocky. We walked and walked trying to make steady progress so that the hike wouldn’t last all day. Some of the members of the crew began to feel tired due to the lack of sleep and ever increasing temperature of the approaching lower elevation. Crew members began running out of water and needed to take longer breaks to regain strength to continue hiking.
Snakes and other desert animals started to show themselves and we knew that this place was very different than where we were from. The pines were replaced by cactus and soon all of us were out of water. We hiked for close to 7 hours straight. This hike down the mountain took so long because it wasn’t just walking downhill. We went through many ups and downs, peaks and valleys. The hike was 11 miles all total but the worst mile was saved for the last. We walked the last mile across the Tuscon valley to base camp. It was brutal. Every man on our crew agreed that it was the worst hike that they had ever been on.
After a deserved shower I was very pleased to see my brother Mike and his wife who lived in Tuscon had come to visit me. I ate the great cookies his wife made for me and accepted the new socks my brother had brought. I couldn’t visit for long as I truly felt like I was near to falling asleep just sitting there talking.
I’ll never forget that hike realizing that today fire crews aren’t put in situations where there is a good possibility they could go down and possibly die from heat related emergencies. Many men came close on that day. It was a testament to true firefighter brotherhood in how we all shared our water with each other and looked after one another once we realized that this hike was different.
Note: Captain Morales is now retired and living in Arizona. As his brother I was priviledged to follow his eventful career. Now that he has time to reflect I hope to be able to post more stories from his amazing career.