When the crack of thunder ripped us from sleep, our eyes scanned the darkness for one thing – the green light over our doorway. Ten breaths exhaled at once, as if we were a single organism. Lightning had not ignited a fire – at least not yet.
“Who’s in the watchtower tonight?” Bristlecone whispered from the top bunk, her voice sinking through the humid air.
“TickTock and Beaver.”
Like me and Bristlecone, they were Apprentice Guardians, learning to preserve the forest in the face of drought, beetles, and ever-rising temperatures. Tonight, they were charged with sounding First Alert, a mechanical horn loud enough to reach us from the top of the watchtower. Digital sensors, satellite relays, and continuous infrared monitoring were only so reliable in the face of tumbling mud avalanches and catastrophic firestorms, so the Forest Guardians devised layers of contingencies – from wind generators to an old-school gong to the racing hearts of ten Apprentice Guardians listening through the darkness for a horn.
I kept my eyes steady on the light and my ears trained on the sounds outside. With each breath in, I visualized black clouds blanketing the hillside with precious moisture, like Umma had taught me. With each breath out, I wished she was here to guide me through this night.
I tossed in the bed, heart racing too madly to sleep, but brain insisting that I rest while I still had time. Fire could keep us awake for days: pumping, sluicing, spraying; bushwhacking, bulldozing, barrier-laying; sheltering beneath fireshields and praying.
Earth willing, it wouldn’t. Earth willing, we’d dug enough fire breaks, thinned enough dead trees, stored enough water to drown the first embers. Earth willing, the trees that we guarded would live through this night so that tomorrow they could raise their needled boughs skyward, drawing down carbon dioxide and bathing us with their soft, oxygenated exhalations.
Earth willing, the saplings that I had nurtured from seed would survive the night.
Please keep the flames away from Quadrant 57, I whispered. Umma would frown at me if she caught me wishing for my own saplings’ safety above those of all the other Guardians. But I couldn’t help but love them, even as I tried to erase my prayer with another, one for the protection of all the trees. I flipped over on my mattress, again.
“Metrix?” Bristlecone whispered into the small gap between the bedframe and the wall. I couldn’t see her, even pressing the side of my head against the rough concrete, so I wedged my fingers between the edge of her mattress and the wall and found hers reaching back.
“I’m scared,” she whispered.
Then Bristlecone squeezed my fingers, my wrist aching where it was shoved against the metal of the bedframe. “I heard the horn,” she said. “I heard it.”
I snapped my head toward the doorway. The light glowed red.
Ten pairs of feet hit the bunkhouse floor at once. We pulled on our fireproof suits, cooled by our own perspiration and lightweight enough to make small movements possible. But this thin layer of fabric would be the only thing standing between wildfire and the meat of my own body. My stomach lurched.
Bristlecone leaned her head against mine, singing the Guardian anthem softly into my ear. “We are the flood that will douse the flame.”
“We will protect the forest,” I sang with her. Drawing a deep breath, I pulled on my boots, tucked my helmet in the crook of my arm, and followed the others outside.
A blanket of low thunderclouds had trapped the ashy smoke in a thick haze that distorted the night around us. Tugging on our helmets, Bristlecone and I trudged shoulder-to-shoulder toward the crackling glow that burnished the horizon. Every now and then she shivered. Fear? Anticipation? The adrenaline coursing through my own bloodstream made me want to sprint toward the frontlines, but Umma had taught me that the secret to flipping the compost pile wasn’t speed. It was the appropriate application of tool to task.
“What about our trees?” Bristlecone whispered into our private channel. “I would give myself to protect them.”
“No martyrs, Bristlecone. You know the teaching: it is easier to plant a new seed than to temper a new Guardian.” When Bristlecone opened her mouth to protest, I grasped her upper arm firmly in the place where the Guardian’s Pledge would soon be tattooed. “You must live for the trees, not die for them.” She placed her hand over mine and nodded.
We reached the break, dropping our packs to the ground. The faintest glow from the valley ahead signaled the fire’s location. The most seasoned apprentice, Axis, pulled a VR headset from her pack, connecting it to a monitor drone that would help her finesse the best route through the rough terrain for those of us on foot. With an authoritative hand gesture, she deployed the first firehose, carried by a line of hovering drones that quickly snaked up the hillside. In their wake, the frontline crew sprang into action, trekking along the course that Axis plotted and then fed into their headsets.
Bristlecone and I followed, activating the fireshields staked into the ground at the foot of each large tree. As we jogged up the narrow trail through the forest toward our positions along the firehose, the shielding tech unfurled, wrapping itself around the trunks in a protective embrace.
The line of drones stopped, dropping the hose to the ground before retreating to await further instruction. Bristlecone and I scrambled to our designated positions to steady ourselves against the forthcoming surge of water. The inside of my helmet chimed an alert, and I gripped the hose tightly. Moments later, water throbbed through the ring of my arms.
Drawing a deep breath through the humid funk of my respirator, I forced myself to recall the rich smell of freshly watered humus, the bright green hope of newly spouted seeds, the quiet wisdom of Umma. Sink your roots into this moment. Become one organism with your fellow guardians. Soon the immediacy of the fight stripped away any lingering questions about the direction of the wind, the speed of the fire, and the fate of Quadrant 57. There was just this unit of guardians, the pulsing water, and the flames before us.
My shoulders were screaming with pain when the next wave of guardians finally arrived. An unfamiliar voice rasped through the earpiece of my helmet as a broad-shouldered man dug his heels into the slope before bear-hugging the hose. “Water break.” The logo on the back of his jumpsuit announced him as a Ponderosa Guardian, four watchtowers away from us at Lodgepole. Thank spark and ash for fresh reinforcements.
Back at the firebreak, I was assigned to load blaster drones with flame retardant chemicals. After filling each, I released them into the updraft like birds of prey sent to hunt hotspots just outside the burn zone. Axis worked next to me, coordinating efforts from her VR helmet with hand gestures that set drones flying and cued teams for position changes.
I waited for a pause in her movements. “Smaller?” I asked. It was hard to tell between the steam and the smoke.
Axis nodded. “Nearing containment. Earth willing, we got here in time.”
“Is Quadrant 57 safe?” Worry for my saplings seeped into my larynx, thinning my voice.
“Hush,” Axis said, waving me off. “Busy.”
I smarted beneath her rebuke, heard Umma’s voice in it.
“Team A, return to the hoseline,” came the command through my headset. I sent the last of my blaster drones up the hillside, then trudged after them, jumpsuit gray with ash and shoulders protesting the mere thought of picking up the hose again.
But we'd forced the wildfire back, the blackened terrain offering no new fodder behind it. A burst of hope refueled my aching muscles as I found my spot and hoisted.
“Come on, Guardians!” cried Axis over our headsets. “You are the flood that douses the flame!”
“We are the flood!” we sang-shouted back at her, throwing our weight into the hose as we inched closer to the weakening inferno.
Long minutes. Trembling muscles. The refrain of The Guardian’s Anthem on repeat in my head. We are the flood, we are the flood, we are the flood. At last, a rush of steam hissed with no fiery crackle beneath it. Cries of relief filled my helmet. The main fire was out.
“Please switch off your mikes while I read out the affected grids.” Axis’s voice wavered, then she coughed, a sound I knew was more strain than smoke.
I pressed my eyes shut, waiting. Earth willing. Earth willing.
The throbbing of my heartbeat deafened me as I sank to the ground, my post-adrenaline legs buckling at last. Immobility was probably for the best, because the urge to run to Quadrant 57 tugged at me. I knew that hotspots still flared and there was work to be done, so I tried to remember the tasks that I was supposed to be doing and wasn’t. Couldn’t.
Then Bristlecone was there, her voice steady in my ear. “Remember the pledge,” she said.
I had pledged to put the welfare of the trees above my own. I had promised to protect my fellow guardians. I would not weaken my unit like a pine bark beetle sapping life from a tree, by giving up in the face of this setback. With love, forests heal, Umma had told us. Love and water.
Bristlecone stood and offered me a hand up. I let her tug me upright and wrap a strong arm around my waist until my legs could bear my weight again. I followed her back down the hillside, counting my footsteps. I faltered at 57.
In the silence that followed, Bristlecone’s microphone crackled to life. As Bristlecone sang our anthem, our footsteps fell into rhythm, but my voice was still locked in my throat by ash and grief. My heart had split open like the cone of the lodgepole pine, rent by fire. But from within that, the seeds which would bring new life could emerge. I rubbed the place on my arm where I would soon tattoo my allegiance to the Forest Guardians and joined my scratchy voice to hers.
We are the fire that opens the cone. We are the rain that wakes the seed. We are the dirt that feeds new growth. We are the flood that douses the flame.
With each breath that fills our lungs With each step that rings the Earth We will protect the forest. Protect, protect, protect.
© Kimberly Christensen