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.
all started a long time ago, but insofar as I can understand,
it helps explain who I am and where I am going.
1987, Yellowstone burned. I watched it on TV with my father. He
leaned back in his rocking chair and looked over at me.
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
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.
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."
dad survived that fire. And naturally, upon hearing the story,
my young imagination went berserk. The heat! The exploding trees!
The harrowing adventure!
more could you want? What a dream job!
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
burns like brush with a good Santa Ana behind it,'" someone
told me. "Watch yourself."
I thought, "Man, this is going to be great. Things are going
to be blowing up everywhere. What a great story!"
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
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.
Mireles, Berkeley student and CDF firefighter
Photo by John Mireles