In the course of one's life, there are defining moments that alter the way you look at the world and yourself. Mine happened a decade ago.
It began as I traveled with a handful of Forest Service officials along the winding, dusty road from the Mesa del Caballo Dude Fire camp to Walk Moore Canyon under the Mogollon Rim where the blaze was raging out of control.
The officials were headed into the inferno to evaluate the firefighting efforts. I was along as a reporter for the Roundup/Advisor, assigned to hook up with an Oregon-based firefighting crew for a first-hand look at the fire.
The ride into the blaze was a silent, morbid journey. We were all still reeling from the tragic deaths of six firefighters the day before. Five of those victims were volunteers from the Arizona State Prison at Perryville. The sixth was the state-employed supervisor 43-year-old Sandra Bachman.
The tension mounted as we neared the man-killing blaze that had turned the world's largest ponderosa pine forest into a sea of scorched tree skeletons. Peering out the window, I noticed several bright, blanket-like objects lying on the side of the gravel road. At first, I thought the objects were large pieces of discarded aluminum foil. But then, my mind flashed to the fire training I'd undergone several years earlier.
As part of the training, I'd learned to deploy an emergency fire shelter that every firefighter carries as part of his or her equipment. It's a last-gasp piece of protection firefighters use when they're about to be overcome by flames.
Reality set in. Those were fire shelters, the kind firefighters call "shake and bake." I wondered if they were the shelters the Perryville crew tried to deploy moments before being overcome by the wind-whipped firestorm. The driver brought the van to a crawl. All inside gazed stoically at the shelters, silently wondering if this was the spot where the dying firefighters took their last breaths.
It was as if we were at a cemetery a memorial for the firefighters who had perished while trying to stop what would later be called the most devastating fire since the Yellowstone disaster.
Only moments after leaving the grim scene we spotted the crew I was to join. Hopping out of the vehicle into a landscape that looked more like the moon than the Earth, I introduced myself to the crew chief a female firefighter who left no doubt she was in control.
"We've got about a mile walk. Go to the end of the line and don't get in our way," she scolded.
For several hours I tagged along with the team as it made its way into the smoldering, burned-out forest. As we neared the fringes of the blaze, the crew began cutting a clearing to try to slow the fire. Few words were exchanged. The firefighters, choked by smoke, only whispered worries that a mistake might cost them their lives.
As chain saws roared and axe-picks (polaskies) tugged at charred soil, I nervously eyed the horizon, hoping a firestorm wouldn't come roaring over the ridge to claim more lives. The Dude had transformed itself into a super-heated crown fire that traveled fast, and we all knew we were at the mercy of its power and fury.
Being a part of a fire crew wasn't unusual for me. Only a year earlier, I had reported on the Horton Creek Fire and was standing just a few hundred feet from Zuni firefighter Ernie Cachini when he was struck and killed by lightning. But there was something overwhelming about the Dude that made it different than any other fire I'd covered. It generated a feeling of helplessness not easily erased from memory.
Watching the firefighters go about their chores with what seemed like total disregard for their own lives and safety, I marveled at their courage. Few have the mettle to challenge an opponent as unpredictable, deadly and destructive as the Dude was that day.
I returned to the office to file my story, and while I was banging away at the keyboard, I realized those few hours I spent face-to-face with the Dude would remain with me forever.
With my story completed and my deadline met, a friend asked if I'd learned anything from the time I spent in the innards of the inferno.
That wasn't a difficult question to answer: Life is indeed a very large puzzle, and we are just one small piece.