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In Fire

by John Yohe


digging scraping cut and chop and rake

pulaskis macleods combis chingaderas 

wood and metal swinging in leather hands

down to mineral soil one foot wide

one step one stroke one step one stroke

a row of sweating bodies sweating

'asses and elbows ladies that's all I want to see!'

following chainsaws and their swath around

ash and flame and smoke of fire at night

orange glow in trees embers rising to stars

'how much farther?' 'three more chains!'

'how much farther now?' 'three more chains!'


set to choke and pull cord until it coughs

purring and vibrating and warming up

Stihl and Husqvarna orange chainsaws

first saw team takes the fire edge

two-cycle roar on brush—lower branches

ladder fuels to the forest crown pulled out

by swamper and thrown into the green

next team takes the next five feet et cetera

third and/or fourth team bucks logs into rounds

woodchips stick to sweaty faces and shirts

earplugs narrow down to throbbing heart and steps

spinning metal teeth and blue oil smoke


to cut a tree clear out the area

identify escape routes for you and swamper

make sure tank is full  'Down the hill!'

hold saw horizontally using handle as you sight

front cut one-third into lean bind

pull out come in forty-five degrees down—

pie cut pie wedge should pop out

clean the face while swamper looks for lean

or widowmakers pull the saw around back

one inch above front cut this is important

'Back cut!' even in unless you want to swing it

watch the kerf widen back off—'Falling!'


bringing fire with us torches to the ground

three humans in staggered rows

touching off the dead and down with diesel

holders a chain apart on the line

watching the green but really watching the black

embers and spots or just eating smoke

send more burners in deeper to create heat

sucking in fireline smoke and flame

light off poison oak and thick rat middens

which rats bolt out in dozens screeching

across the line smoldering bringing fire

chased and chopped in two with pulaski blades


walking thru ash and burning stumps and logs

sawyers cutting snags and hazard trees

no engines or pumps or even a creek nearby

scrape off black smoking scales with tool blade

take a swig from sooted govt issue water bottle

pucker lips and spray mist onto smoking wood

scoop dirt in gloved hands and pack on top

water turns to steam trapped in mud

forced down into cracks and holes and held

without air one chain in along the fire line

thirty-three feet Division A today

fourteen hours day seven of two-week run


a shower in fire camp after two weeks

of camping out walking through ash all day

digging dirt scraping wood laying hose

naked face and neck tan to red and burned

torso pale like a marble statue

feet as white except where red with blisters

black grime from top of calves to mid-thighs

hands and fingers cracked dry dirt nails

matted hairlocks from sweat under hardhat

clumps wash away w/all the black body ooze

leaving what looks like a rodent in the drain

putting on boots hands get dirty again


Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe has worked as a wildland firefighter, wilderness ranger and fire lookout. Best of the Net nominee x2. Notable Essay List for Best American Essays 2021, 2022 and 2023.


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