The Honey Bee Fire
2012 by Steven Hunley
And then there were the fires. The fires
were no joke. On a Sunday, on a visiting Sunday, Dude was getting
ready for a visit. So were the other men. All the inmates were in a
good mood, every one of them. Extra laughter was heard around camp
Moreno and extra smiles graced most faces. Many looked forward to
seeing girlfriends, or lovers, or wives, same thing. Dude was sure to
see his old man who would drive up from San Diego and was satisfied
The day was hot and a typical summer Sunday. A
light breeze was coming from the south-east over the brown dry hills.
Dude watched as great white cumulus clouds built up over the
mountains in the distance to the east. The clouds were mighty and
fierce in their size and their whiteness, unusually fierce.
when the alarm went off. There would be no visits today.
men had been trained what to do. They put down their girly magazines
and perfumed love letters imprinted with lip-print kisses and ran to
the dorms. They put on their work clothes and socks and boots.
Buckling their web belts and filling their canteens was next. Tying
their kerchiefs around their necks, they put on their yellow helmets
and something else that they never wore when just practicing
cutting line. This was the real-deal. It was their yellow no-max, a
flame-retardant suit. I don’t say flame-proof you understand,
flame retardant. These men knew the difference.
into the buses and looked out the windows to see where they would go.
For some it was their first fire. Others talked among themselves
nervously. No one dared talk to the ranger in charge. The ranger
sat and studied a map unfolded on his lap. He must know the land at
all costs. He saw there were no roads were they were going.
men of course just looked out the windows and said nothing. Other men
had nothing to say. Still others that said nothing were lost in
thought. But most men talked.
The bus drove on and on winding
its way up the mountain. Finally they were so close there was the
smell of acrid smoke in the air. Soot, black soot was in the air too.
Some men in the bus began to talk of what they would do to this fire.
Others spoke in a hush of what it might do to them. The men who never
spoke were silent or lost in prayer and would cross themselves when
they thought the other men weren’t looking.
The bus left the
paved road and onto dirt. The sun began to dim. Not because it was
late, because of the thick smoke, the now impenetrable smoke.
the bus stopped.
The men got out. The air was thick with smoke
and hard to breath. It began to barbeque their lungs. Many men took
their canteens and soaked their kerchiefs in the water and folded
them over their noses to make breathing easier. It seemed like a good
idea so Dude did the same. Dude had learned to do what the old-timer
survivors did to survive.
Two more rangers with smuged
uniforms approached their ranger from out of nowhere and told him
what was needed.
They pointed to the place where the smoke was
thickest. Dude looked over. It was dark. Darkness in the middle of
day. When he turned to see where the sun was, it was still on the
horizon but its bright yellow had changed to pumpkin, a
jack-o-lantern glowing dangerously orange, no longer comforting
The ranger gave his orders and the men
“Come with me,” he said.
They lined up as
they had been trained to line up. First there were the men with the
axes, then the men with the Pulaskis, then the men with the Mclouds,
then the men at the end with their shovels. The criminals were good
strong men and willing and would do the job required. They followed
him into the smoke.
Then they saw the fire. Over their eyes
they could have used the goggles they gave them in camp. Plastic
goggles. But they were scratched with use. Seeing through the
scratches and the smoke was impossible. No men wore them even though
their eyes stung and watered. If you wore the goggles you weren’t
man, therefore no men wore the goggles.
“Start here,” said
the ranger, pointing up the hill, “and keep working till you get
It was a simple task cutting brush, simple but
hard. The hill was a big hill, maybe two thousand feet.There was fire
on the hill and the men knew it. They could see its traces. It leapt
before them like a fiery dancer.
They knew if they cut line,
and if the line was clean enough and wide enough, that it might save
them from the fire. There was no water, the no-maxes were useless,
and they all knew it. Running was useless. So they began to cut
The men at the head of the line stepped into the brush
first. Swinging their axes, swinging their Pulaskis, they cut the
first of the line. Each one had 6 inches or more. The bushes and
small trees, the Manzanita and chaparral, began to fall. The men with
Mclouds followed along and cut another 6 inches each, the man behind
him six inches and so on. The men in the rear scraped what was left,
leaving only the mineral soil behind. If it was just mineral soil it
wouldn’t burn. That’s what the ranger called it in
The line got wider and longer, and the men
extended it as they climbed up the mountain. Maybe you would call it
a mountain. Whatever it was, no matter how big or how stubborn it
was, they cut it and scraped it and dug it till only mineral soil
remained. Sometime they were close to the fire, sometimes too close
for comfort. If the brush they cut was burning, it was thrown back
into the fire. Never was it thrown into the green brush on their
“Never throw into the green,” is what they'd been
If they did it would start that green brush burning
and they would be surrounded. They didn’t want that, so
toss the burning brush to the left at all costs. A mistake from right
to left could cost them their lives, so the men were careful.
Sweating and cutting and cursing and scraping they worked their way
up the hill, one step, or six inches at a time, one step forward, six
inches to the side. Cinders were falling like raindrops of fire.
Black smoke billowed. Some men suffered spasms of coughing. Others
would take a second and drink from their canteens or splash water on
their faces blackened by work, but only a second, as the line had to
keep moving. It was marvelously deadly and dangerous work.
had never seen anything like it. The team depended on each other. All
of these criminals doing dangerous work. He had never seen men work
so hard together, almost as if their lives depended upon it. Maybe
because they did.
When they took a break and he was leaning on
his Pulaski he saw the main part of the fire down below. It extended
for hundreds of yards. Although the brush was only six or eight feet
high the flames ranged higher, sometimes ten feet, sometimes twice
that. Jack could be nibble but in reality there was no way you could
Sometimes they stepped over a burnt carcass. Most
were rabbits but sometimes there was a deer. Some of the bodies were
black and still burning. Other creatures would lie dead, overcome by
smoke. The men had no time to think of dead burning bodies. Dead
burning bodies made no difference to them. They wanted to live so
they kept extending and widening the line.
There was no way you
get around the flames and Dude knew the wind was driving the
direction of the fire, he could feel it driving the flames, and that
if the wind changed there was no way you could out-run it either.
Nobody could. Then he remembered what the ranger said on day during a
“There’s no more dangerous job in the state of
Now he knew why.
They started that
afternoon. When they stopped at two o’clock in the morning they
were at the top of the hill. The men fell exhausted wherever they
were and slept, between rocks and boulders or wherever they could
find an open spot. A rock for your pillow, some dirt for your bed.
For this work the State of California paid them ninety-nine cents a
day. You can understand when I say that on that mountain top,
surrounded by ten thousand acres of burnt brush, now snoring with
faces blackened with soot, every one of them believed he had earned
at least one dollar.
They all fell asleep and dreamt the same
dream. The dream was of the fine steak and eggs they would eat that
morning when they came down from the mountain. In California when you
fight a fire they feed you real good. So the men dreamt of steak and
The Forestry Department names all their fires. They
named this one the Honey Bee Fire. It was named this because a man
was smoking wild honey bees out of a tree to steal their honey. When
a bee stung him on his hand, he dropped the smoker and it started the
fire. One bee, one man, one sting…then ten thousand
acres… then a troop of criminal-clowns in black-face on top of
mountain sleeping like ballerinas in singed tutus, exhausted after
dancing the Firebird.
The payment for their performance?
Ninety-nine cents. It was some kind of bad joke.
there were the fires. The fires were no joke.
I posted this again because there are
fires in northern California at this moment (Summer 2012) threatening
of mine. An retired fire-fighter there was talking to his mother
yesterday and admitted that the inmate fire-fighters did an
incredible job. I thought they had axed the program long ago, since
the true events of this story took place around 1978-79, and it, the
program, (according to the internet) had been abandoned. Know, inmate
fire-fighters, that my prayers are with you, and I appreciate the
work you're all doing. It's a tough job that few 'normal' citizens
and the media are aware of. The official fire-fighters and
Department of Forestry know the important role you play, and they're
the ones that count when you're out there cutting line.
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Steven's Story List and Biography
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