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The Most Dangerous Overtime Game

“That great, ominous landform over there is called Fire-trap Mountain. Undoubtedly, that’s where the lost spotfire had its origin,” Whitney said. “We could hardly see a spotfire in this thick smoke,” Wildfire Specialist, Ranger Mistfire, replied. “Well, aerial infrared reported a spot fire around here,” Whitney rejoined, “You volunteered to find it and monitor it. I miss the old days when overhead sent us out to suppress fires and not do this monitoring business. I don’t see the sense in babysitting wildfires. If you’re sent out, put ‘em out, I say. I fear you can’t get the same amount of hazard pay and overtime for monitoring as you can for wildfire suppression.” Ranger Mistfire stopped and looked hard at Whitney. “These aren’t the “good” old days. We make worthy, honest overtime now. Besides, fires belong in most forests and wildlands. They have an ecological role to do and it should be our province to make sure that they fulfill that role.” Whitney scoffed, “You know, Mistfire, you really don’t sound like any old firefighter I know. Well, Cheerio, Ranger Mistfire! I’m headed back to fire camp.”

Ranger followed along a tract in the brush until he came to immense cliffs. Then he thought he heard a short burst of a chainsaw. He also thought he smelled a spotfire burning. He peered over the cliff, resting his hand on a branch. Suddenly the branch gave way. Ranger toppled down the cliff gaining lethal speed until he carrened into a prickly pear patch. He sounded a few plaintive yelps but he knew no one would hear him. Unhurt except for thorn abrasions, Mistfire began the painful process of extracting himself from the prickly pears. When he finally freed himself from the patch, his clothes and boots were shredded and permeated with thorns. Ranger lost his radio, monitoring equipment, pulaski, pack, and all his clothes except a small piece of his shirt with the pocket containing his cellphone. Because no cell signal had appeared anywhere, it seemed useless. He tied the strip of his shirt into a loincloth.

Barefoot, he stumbled along until he discovered what looked like a violent scuffle on the ground. Nearby, scattered pay sheets and overtime diaries rested.  “Strange,” thought Ranger, “no firefighters would willingly give up their overtime logbooks.” Mistfire pressed on, following the tracks. Soon he came to a great wall tent, slyly camouflaged in the thick forest. He approached the entrance and inquired within. Out stepped the biggest firefighter Ranger had ever seen. The giant stood massive and strong but he would not respond to Mistfire’s words. Soon another man appeared with probing, piercing eyes, a clipped moustache, and perfectly quaffed hair. His fire clothes even looked professionally pressed. The gentleman gestured to the giant firefighter who crisply turned and marched off. “I apologize for my assistant Ivan, he’s a deaf-mute and can’t respond to you. Too much chainsaw noise and too much ascorbic smoke swallowed. My name is Generic Ripoff. It looks like you have had some trouble, dear man. Please come into my tent.” Mistfire preceded in and said, “My name is Ranger Mistfield. I’ve been searching for an obscure spotfire in this vicinity.“ “I know of you,” Ripoff said. “I’ve read your fire reports. I was interested to learn that your wildfires seem to grow tenfold when you manage them.” “My signature,” smiled Mistfire.

Ripoff studied Mistfire carefully. Then he said, “I’m a refugee from the old wildfire suppression days. So is Ivan. Hunting and killing these wildfire dragons has been my passion since I was a young man. I still live and breathe to fight fires. Here are some extra Nomex clothes. Also some firefighting gloves and boots. I suggest Whites or Danner’s Foresters. They’re the best for stomping out wildfires. Dress, please. And then we will have some dinner in the chow tent. As you can see, our spike camp is generously equipped because we are contractors, not government workers. But we will be lucratively compensated by the government,” Ripoff chortled. “We shall, no doubt, have further discussions during our excellent dinner.”

Ranger Mistfire gawked at the luxurious equipment and marveled at the strength and endurance of Ivan who must have packed it in. Ranger had never before put on new Nomex. At dinner, Ranger preferred the vegan repast whilst the others ate government-supplied steaks. Soon Generic Ripoff offered Mistfire a battered hip flask. “Care for some Cognac?” “I don’t mind if I do,” Ranger responded.

“You said you were a refugee from the old fire suppression days,” Ranger began the conversation. “Yes,” said Generic, “I worked under the heroic Wildfire Commander Putemout. You know, he was a staunch adherent to the golden ‘Ten am’ rule. Crush them all! Everywhere! Everytime! No concern with costs. No wildfire too remote. Bulldozers, airplanes, helicopters! Stomp them with military might! Oh, they were the good old days! I drink to their glorious return!”

“Putemout?” remembered Ranger, “he was notorious for nonchalantly ordering firefighters into jeopardy.” “That’s right!” an excited Generic cut in. “That’s the best way to advance and justify overtime.” “Well, in our current Global Warming era,” Ranger continued, “we simply don’t have the personnel, resources, and money to stop wildfires. The best we can do is try to be strategic in how, when, and where we take action. After the WUI becomes fire-permeable and the wildlands become fire-hardy, then perhaps we can safely, ethically, and ecologically herd wildfires into places where they can do some good. But as to old-timey fire suppression, I say good riddance to all that.”

“You can’t be serious,” Generic demeaningly demanded. “You who have such a long history with fire must know that our whole meaning as red-blooded firefighters is putting out wildfires. We cannot watch them like some sort of pathetic au pair. It’s our souls’ meaning we need to test. A test of courage and endurance. Personal pride and respect from powerful peers. Our wits and our will against wildfires.”

“I can’t agree with you, Generic Ripoff,” Ranger Mistfire opined. “Monitoring wildfires demands creative strength, ingenuity, and courage. It tests your mettle better than any suppression action I’ve been on. Wildfire remains necessary in the wildlands we encounter. Due to Climate Change, we can only now try to move them along, sort of shepherd them. Because wind and fuel moisture now control every tendril of our wildfire world, we have to be careful where we allow people. But we need to burn a lot more than we do.”

“I know. I’m a contractor. I run a wildland fire crew.” Generic cut in, “So agency bosses assigned me to do things like that. But they don’t have much control, so I still seek the practices of suppression because that gives me meaning. It’s something I live for, something that I grew up with, and something I need.”

“But you can’t put your crews in danger,” Ranger reprimanded.

“Oh, who cares? They’re just contract groundpounder scum. In one season — out another. And if they get in danger then that usually means more money for me.”

“You’re a cad, Ripoff! I’ll see that your attitude gets reported.”

Generic Ripoff smiled the quiet smile of one who has encountered such naive bleatings and ignored them with success. “We shall see,” Generic smirked. “I have connections to those within the deep state of wildlands fire agencies who plot the return of fire suppression. I am protected by them. You know the rules for spotfire work. When we contractors capture a spotfire, we get the overtime. We can work the fire as long as we decide is necessary. When you Wildfire Rangers patrol, you have limited hours, sometimes you’re not allowed the overtime. Neither you nor I have found the spot fire yet. And whoever shall find it first shall claim it. You can monitor it. But I will kill it. You cannot stop me when you are off the clock. And I’ll make a fortune on the overtime.” Ripoff chuckled, but his eyes pierced into Ranger betraying a deep abiding hatred. “Rest well, Ranger Mistfire, for tomorrow after I find that spotfire and tortured out of it my overtime game, it is dead out! Goodnight.” Then Ripoff left. Ranger contemplated all that had transpired for a while. But he was very tired so he laid down on the best air mattress available in the firefighting world and tried to get some sleep.

The following day Generic Ripoff and Ranger Mistfire traveled together for some distance, each taunting the other and sparring, wit on wit, about fire suppression versus fire monitoring. At last, Ripoff announced that it was break time now. He advised Mistfire that his crew and Ivan would sit down for a little while. As he was a sporting gentleman, Ripoff bragged, and obviously Mistfire had limited time on the clock, Ripoff advised him to go on and try to find the spotfire first — if he could. But, Ripoff warned, when he and his crew got there, and Mistfire hadn’t yet sufficiently mitigated the fire, Ripoff and his crew would ruthlessly put out the fire.

Ranger, miffed as he strode away, wondered why Generic Ripoff decided that he could change the evolution of wildland fire management. But Ranger knew that communication from Fire Trap Mountain was awful and, due to poor communication, Ripoff could justify total suppression of the spotfire. He would also claim a fistful of time sheets amply festooned with hazard pay and long hours of overtime. Ranger began to rack his mind over ways to slow down Ripoff. Hiking up over a small knoll he got an idea. Ranger quickly whittled a dozen sharpened stakes from tree branches around him. He then jammed them together to make a long pole. He lashed his cellphone to the top. His cellphone had seemed useless with no cell service here. But that fact became the essence of his trick. He had an app on his phone that could mimic cell tower signals. Anyone possessing a cellphone in the vicinity would be alerted. He had used such phantom cell tower signals to distract overhead or trick them into following him to a place where they could be useful.

After cleverly hiding the fake cell tower signal in one tree, Mistfire went some distance and hid himself in another tree to observe. Soon Generic Ripoff and his crew trotted up the knoll, determined to find the spotfire. Suddenly, the crew whipped out their cell phones and started muttering to one another. They walked in circles and consulted each other about where they got the strongest signal. They distractedly anticipated Facebook posts and cat videos. Ripoff barked out orders to cease and desist but to no avail. The crew ignored him and stumbled about, searching out the best signals. At last in perfect frustration, Ripoff shouted out to the mountains, “Mistfire I know you’re watching and enjoying this debacle. You’ve ruined my crew. Now they are even more useless. But mark my words. Ivan and I will find that fire and we will bury it!” Off huffed Ripoff. Ivan, who had no interest in smartphones, lumbered behind.

The exhausted Mistfire vowed he would not lose out to Ripoff. Stealthily he climbed out of the tree and tried to out flank Ripoff. Ranger needed to delay Ripoff by whatever means necessary. Mistfire’s efforts eschewed concerns about gaining generous overtime and its princely fortune. Instead, he strived to assist wildfire in fulfilling its ecological role in the great untrammeled wildlands. But it also meant a hefty overtime log sheet. Soon Mistfire came across debris piles from an old abandoned fire lookout tower. This gave him a McGyver-like idea. He set to work quickly erecting a small shed from the rusty roof tins and timbers. He made three signs. On a  large one, he wrote, “Fire Camp Commissary.” The second large sign said, “Hot meals served all day. Free soda pop for firefighters!” For the third smaller sign, he hastily wrote, “Back in a minute!” Again Mistfire hid himself in a tree to observe.

When Generic Ripoff and Ivan came upon the shack, Ivan read the signs and began a happy little dance. He made gestures to Ripoff of eagerly eating and drinking. Generic saw through the ruse immediately and with gestures he implored Ivan to please come away. But Ivan was too happy, dancing his excited little dances, waiting for his hot food and free soda pop. Ivan whirled like a Dervish and happily ripped up trees and energetically danced them into an frenzied conga line. Mesmerized by the thought that the proprietor would return in a minute, Ivan wasn’t going anywhere for hours. A thoroughly defeated Generic looked at his maps for awhile then started a slow walk back to his spike camp. Meanwhile, Mistfire had silently shimmied down the tree and inadvertently found the spotfire some distance away. Ranger’s stalwart skill prevented the smoldering fire from flaring up and signaling Generic.

Later that night, Ranger Mistfire came back to the spike camp and found Generic Ripoff alone, resting in his wall tent.  “You’ve done well, Ranger Mistfire,” said Generic Ripoff. “But I assure you, one of us will sleep here on this extraordinarily comfortable and expensive Outdoor Equipment cot and excellent air mattress, packed up here by Ivan, and tomorrow turn in over time sheets worth a fortune fit for a King. And the other shall have nothing! On guard, Mistfire!”

He had never turned in, at any Fire Camp Finance and Records tent, a better overtime sheet, Ranger Mistfire decided.