It’s 9:00 pm and the phone rings. “I don’t want to alarm you”, she says, “but J.D. hasn’t come home, yet. I figured 9:00 was the time to think about panicking.”
My biggest boy (who’s now an adult, but still my boy) has a one hour drive, partly through some windy back-roads in mountainous terrain, to get to the US Forest Service station he works at. From there, his crew drives another 90 minutes up even more windy roads in even more mountainous areas. And then at the end of the day, they have to drive back down all those roads. Why all of this? Because he and his crew mates are forest firefighters, and those tend not to happen in the most accessible places.
My son should have been home two hours before my daughter-in-law called. I could hear her trying to be calm, but I know both she and I were equally worried. The biggest fear was that there had been some sort of car accident. Amber had tried calling his phone, but it was going straight to voice mail. Cell phone reception is pretty sketchy in some of the places he travels through, but it wasn’t certain if that was the reason.
At the same time, we also knew that there was the possibility that his crew had been called to a fire. When that happens, you just go. There may not be time or opportunity to get in contact with family to let them know. He had texted earlier in the day that there had been some reports of smoke in the area, but wasn’t sure if they were going to be called in.
(Take a close look in the video and picture above that I took on the way up to the fire station. Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is visible from the road even though it is several miles away! The dead trees are the remnants of the French Fire that happened several years ago. They were actually a silvery-white color and very pretty despite the damage.)
I fortunately know people I can contact personally that work with the California Highway Patrol as well as the U.S. Forest Service. So that was the first thing I did, and sure enough, it turns out his crew had been called out to a small (thankfully) lightning strike fire. About 15 minutes after I was able to call Amber back, a series of pictures started to come in text messages showing a very excited J.D. at his first fire of the season. It had been his first chance to contact us. He was home by the next morning.
Not all those who have done this job in the past have gotten that opportunity to return home. Over the last few days, the Forest Service Facebook page has been posting tributes to the various anniversaries of times where groups of firefighters perished, the vast majority young men and women like my son. All we can do is hope that he will keep coming home.