Rowdy Muir doesn't need a day planner or a BlackBerry to know exactly where he was last July 9 (Kanosh, Utah) or the July 9 before that (Reno, Nev.).
You name a big wildfire, and chances are, he was there, coordinating firefighting crews and delivering television sound bites with his trademark charm: "Safety zone? What safety zone? The only fire safety zone is in the Wal-Mart parking lot."
With his platter-size belt buckle, pointed cowboy boots and a baseball cap that rarely leaves his head, Rowdy is as familiar at a wildfire as a preacher at a church picnic.
As a fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service in Manila, Daggett County, Rowdy has been in hundreds of the West's hot spots in 23 years. But there's one wildfire in particular that stands out in his memory. Ask him where he was exactly 20 years ago, and his eyes light up like Roman candles.
In 1988, Rowdy spent more than two months with a hotshot crew as a sawyer, knocking down pine trees on the front lines of the famous Yellowstone fire.
There have since been bigger fires (such as the one in the Boise National Forest last year), "but Yellowstone will always stand out," says Rowdy, now 49. "Looking at the park on fire flying in, you just knew you weren't coming home for a while. Back then, 1.4 million acres was a whole lot of fire."
Eager to reminisce about battling the blaze that was started by lightning two decades ago this summer, Rowdy recently took time for a Free Lunch chat before leaving Utah to teach a firefighting class in Roanoke, Va.
At Yellowstone, he initially fought flames near Old Faithful, then was sent to a remote "spike" camp to help dig a fire line to contain one of the largest of the park's 248 fires.
"Spike camp was the way to go we slept on the ground in our sleeping bags and had our food flown in," he says. "No shower for a week, but that's OK." He grins. "We weren't there to smell nice, we were there to fight a fire."
Using a pulaski to chop down ponderosa and lodgepole pines in the fire's path, Rowdy worked 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for almost two months. "It was on the Yellowstone fire that I saw my first $1,000 check," he recalls. "That helped make up for the days away from my family."
While trying to control the fire's radius, he was awestruck by the sight of lodgepoles exploding, spewing fireballs over a 10-mile radius. "One tree in particular needed so much oxygen to sustain its crown fire that it uprooted all the trees next to it just sucked them up like a tornado," he says. "I'd never seen anything like it."
The Yellowstone blaze was among the most frustrating he'd battled, says Rowdy, "because there was so much confusion about what was supposed to burn naturally and what we were supposed to suppress. I'm not sure anybody in charge knew what we were supposed to accomplish."Today, though, when he takes his family on camping trips to the nation's oldest national park, he is thrilled by the new greenery that has sprouted from the ashes in the last 20 years. "It's inspiring," says Rowdy, "to see so much beauty where there was nothing but black."
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