Robert Ayres '01

Fire Factor

By H. Jay Burns

Robert Ayres ’01 fights summer wildfires in Utah. In his line of work, sometimes it does take someone gettingkilled before things change.

“Every couple of years a big incident leads to changes,” says Ayres, a squad boss for the Salt Lake County Fire Department’s Wildland Division.

Ayres describes an Idaho wildfire last July that killed two firefighters. They had rappelled from a helicopter onto a ridgeline. When the fire below advanced suddenly, the pair called for a helicopter pickup. But smoke prevented the rescue, and the fire, with flames flashing 50 feet high, overtook the men.

The subsequent investigation turned up myriad errors by the U.S. Forest Service. “L-C-E-S,” Ayres recites. “You need a Lookout in place to see the whole fire, good Communication, an Escape route, and a Safety zone.” Forcing the firefighters to rely on a helicopter for escape was a deadly blunder, and investigators have urged the service to overhaul how it trains fire managers.

And the fire’s surprising speed up the ridge? A drought had turned certain bushes into explosive fuel. After the tragedy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a safety alert for “extreme fire behavior” where these plants grow.

The federal government spends more than $1 billion each year fighting fires on its lands. Though Ayres is a $12-an-hour county employee, he indirectly pulls in some federal money due to cooperative fire agreements among federal, state, and local jurisdictions. When Ayres fought a fire in central Idaho (ending one workday with a memorable dip in a hot spring), the Salt Lake County auditor still signed his paycheck. “The county sends a bill to the state — deciding a billing rate to, ideally, make money off the suppression — and the state sends a bill to the organization fiscally responsible for the fire,” Ayres says.

Which is often the federal government. “Everyone has an eye on the federal government’s deep pockets,” Ayres says. “It’s kind of pessimistic to look at wildland fire suppression as a business instead of a humanitarian service, but it always seems to boil down to money.”

For Ayres, who grew up outside Philadelphia, the fire department’s annual open house was a highlight ranking right behind Christmas morning. “The coolest part was the finale, when they’d light a fake building on fire,” he recalls. “Then the fire trucks, parked around the corner, would come flying in with their sirens on and put it out.”

In 2003, Ayres logged 1,450 firefighting hours between June and October. That’s an average of 72 hours per week and up to, but not exceeding, 16 hours a day. (Workday hour limits were imposed after a 2001 fire in Washington killed four fatigued firefighters.)

Many firefighting hours are “unbelievably boring,” Ayres admits. When he’s removing brush to create a dirt fire line, he wonders, “What am I doing digging a hole in the desert of Utah?” But then there’s the moment “when a fire is big, hot, and close by, when decisions may result in containment or death. Time seems to stand still.”

Indeed, fighting wildfires beats waiting tables as a summer job for the outdoor-loving, bungie-jumping, extreme-sports crowd. Ayres, an Outing Club veteran who led AESOP trips three years, fits the profile. A favorite Bates memory is kayak surfing on the coast: “One year a hurricane had passed by, and we went out to find big waves.”

Machismo and relentless competition are also part of the wildfire culture, Ayres says. At a fire site, “it’s a big deal to show that you’re ready to work,” he says. “It’s a race to see who can get to breakfast first, who’s out to the fire line first. In the afternoon, it’s who gets back to the truck last. People play all sorts of little games to be busy another 15 minutes.”