How a Firefighter Fed Two Overhead

By Letter Burn

Descarrega al Caprespre (2013) / By Josep Serra Tarragon


Petro and Lithe awoke to find themselves on the actual fireline. How they got there remained a mystery. Because they were overhead, they rarely left their fire camp wall tent. Even then, it was usually just to go to the dining tent. Still they didn’t know how they got on the actual smoking, smoldering  fireline far away from their wall tent in fire camp and it’s comforting, throbbing generators. They were fearful because they had only signed up for this fire to pad their coming pensions. But now they were in a strange environment with smoking, burned areas stretching downhill before them.

Being bureaucrats, they were only good at making rules and following protocol. And they were getting hungry. They couldn’t see a dining tent so they didn’t know what to eat. They at last decided that they should split up, look for food, and report back. But, alas, they didn’t know what direction was north, south, east, or west. They finally decided to march off in opposite directions around the fire’s perimeter. They only completed a few hundred yards before they were exhausted and frightened. When they returned, they acknowledged seeing some things that might have been food, but they didn’t know what to do with those strange little pouches in the boxes labeled MRE. So they left them alone. Now it was way pass doughnut break and they were getting very hungry.

Then they remembered that they were on a wildland fire so there must be lots of firefighters around. They had heard that, on fires, one could see firefighters everywhere, doing useful things, and sometimes following orders of the overhead. So they set out to find a lowly pouge firefighter. Soon they found one asleep under a tree. They grabbed him and said, “Wake up, you lazy bones, and get to work. We demand that you first get us something to eat.”

The pouge hopped up and soon came back with a box of MREs. He opened the little pouches with a knife that he kept on his belt and showed them how to heat and eat. Lithe and Petro were very pleased and soon their little pot bellies were full. They became eager to do their overhead work. They sat down, pulled out their smartphones, and thought over their overhead duties, which were to write reports and make up rules. Soon they cut and pasted a report that outlined an urgent need. They cited boilerplate gibberish about safety, so unaccountably vague and incoherent that it could shown to be violated or followed in any situation. Then they proclaimed a new rule that every pogue firefighter must bring a box of MREs, opened and heated, upon the request of an overhead. Petro concluded that he had promulgated a most excellent new rule. Accordingly, he recommended himself for a cash award.

It was becoming dark. The two bureaucrats feared the pouge might try to escape and leave them hungry and stranded. Hence, they commanded the pouge to make for them a very stout rope. The pouge set to work with strands of parachute cord and produced an ingenious rope. Consequently, the Overhead used this rope to tie the pouge to a tree. Then they went to sleep the best they could. After all, they were not in their wall tent or on their cots. It had been such a hard day that they could barely dream of their pensions.

The next morning when they awoke, the two bureaucrats saw the cord that had bound the pouge was now dangling a box of MREs from a tree. When the pouge returned from tending to the wildfire, he told the two officials that he had “bear-bagged” the MREs because wildfires attract lots of critters to its smoldering edges. Consequently, suspending food from a tree was the best way to keep the it from being scavenged. After commanding the pouge to produce a charming breakfast from a box of MREs, Petro on Litho set about to write more new rules. Forest animals poking around a fire’s edge didn’t seem right. After all, they vaguely recalled from the Disney movie “Bambi” that  wildfire terrifies forest creatures. So they wrote that in a report and made a new rule proclaiming that creatures shall NOT come near wildfires and MUST run away in terror.

They soon became weary of the precision and attention to detail that cut and paste required. They looked up and noticed that the pouge was busy scratching little paths in the soil with a ridiculous and laughable tool that seemed to combine an axe with a grub hoe. The pouge also moved flames around by placing burning embers near his cleared-away paths. The two bureaucrats quickly realized that the pouge needed esteemed guidance. Besides this nearby smoke annoyed them. So they made rules against starting small fires near big fires. They wrote rules against burning things and rules about not burning things. They wrote rules about piling, scraping, and cutting. They made rules about taking breaks and not getting paid. And rules about not working and getting paid.  Rules everywhere. The two bureaucrats were so clever that they made new rules that seemed so crazy that pouges couldn’t understand them. The more incoherent the better.

Petro insisted on using the voice typing app on his smartphone and smugly droned on in an imperious monotone. But Lithe had very quick thumbs and so he was able to anticipate what Petro was going to say. In this way he could beat Petro to the punch and expressed the same reports and the same new rules in superior and more vivid incoherence. Lithe’s speedy and dexterous thumbs exaggerated more undaunted and he could put in more quickly the necessary and promotion-promoting words such as “inclusiveness imperative,” “micro-aggressions,” and “hostile workplace.” But this was exhausting work for both of them. They soon yearned for the pouge to return from the fireline and fetch things for them.

The two bureaucrats learned some useful wildfire patois from the pouge. They reckoned it could enhance their careers and further augment their pensions. They believed they were destined to be Overhead due to their guile and cleverness. And they believed that the pouge would always be a pouge due to his love of hard work, his reflexive honesty, and his adulation of nature. They conspired to contort what they had learned from the pouge into rules establishing the opposite of what he meant. Soon they were able to promulgate more rules such as “Black line must be backed up with bulldozer line.” “All big snags must be immediately cut down.” “Bucket drops must be used to maximize helicopter flight hours.”  “He who orders the most retardant gets the biggest cash award.”

They also feared that the pouge was one of those bottom-up guys. He seemed a bit resistant, slightly insubordinate, and not sufficiently respectful to Overhead. When contacted by radio he vaguely acknowledged an order, but then ignored the command and did what he thought best. He fell back to a ridge top and burned-out when he was directly order to proceed into a box canyon and construct direct line. He used light-hand-on-the-land tactics when he had been commanded to emulate Sherman’s March to Atlanta. He even tried to reject retardant when he considered it unnecessary.

But they had a smattering of sympathy for the pouge. To them, he seemed a bit dim-witted, completely unsophisticated and thoroughly ignorant of the ways of the bureaucracy. When the pouge spoke of safety, he spoke in simple and clear terms of situational awareness, of immediate, present, and potential jeopardy instead of the complex, convoluted, and incoherent jargon of risk assessment and hazard dialogue. When the pouge spoke of concern for ecosystems, the two officials laughed and mocked him, explaining that showing utter disdain for ecology was the most direct route to promotions. When the pouge spoke of ethics, the two bureaucrats had no idea of what he was talking about.

The next day, the pouge had grown weary of trying to follow so many contradicting rules. So he tricked the two bureaucrats into following him down the fireline away from the pouge’s spike camp. The two Overhead reluctantly trudged down the fireline, cursing, grumbling, and complaining as they waddled. They were grateful for the frequent rest breaks when they could sit and fan their fat faces while the pouge improved the fireline or mopped-up potential hazards. Hours passed by. Where were the MREs? At long last the two bureaucrats could see the fire camp. They somehow summoned enough energy to scamper in as the pouge wrestled with yet another smoking root hole. They adored the throbbing generators. They joyously witnessed the vast line of overhead shuffling towards the dining tent. They eagerly dove into their wall tent, grabbed  their government-issued laptops, and rapturously gazed upon the growth of their pensions, blessed by this endless fire. They looked up at each other and smiled. Yes, they were indeed grateful to the industrious pouge. So they promulgated one last rule: “For every two hours that a lowly off-the-clock firefighter accompanies exalted overhead, the lowly firefighter shall receive one half hour of pay. But no overtime.” Rejoice, pouges, rejoice!