At the age of 18, Gary Wolfram found himself alongside his foreman and a handful of California Department of Corrections inmates on work release, caught in the middle of the Burrows Valley wildfire, as manzanita bushes exploded around him.
“Your shirt could catch on fire, so we had to line up, and when the guy’s shirt in front of you caught on fire, you had to pat it out,” Wolfram said.
As the fire roared louder, a sound which Wolfram compared to standing next to a freeway, and dark smoke cut visibility to inches, one of the inmates asked: “Do you think they’ll write a ballad about us?”
The foreman of the crew, however, acted quickly on his training and burnt out an area for the crew to huddle into while the main fire burned over them, rendering the suggested ballad unnecessary.
For Wolfram, who spent six summers fighting fires in the foothills of California in his late teens and early twenties, this type of experience was just a part of the thrill.
“You didn’t get paid very much, but somebody is working at the grocery store, bagging groceries, and I am out getting trapped on fires,” he said. “We wanted there to be fires. If you were sitting at the station, and there wasn’t a fire, you could hardly wait for there to be a fire, because that was the fun of it.”
Wolfram, now a professor of political economy at Hillsdale College, has seen California burn since he was young. His father, Harold Wolfram, a range improvement specialist for the California Division of Forestry brought Gary along to controlled burns, which helps ranchers get rid of unwanted brush. In the summer after his high school graduation, Gary Wolfram went to work for the Forestry Division himself.
Harold Wolfram said he was pleased to see his son show interest in his life’s work, and although he knew the job was dangerous, he saw Gary Wolfram develop excellent leadership skills.
In his first summer fighting fires, Wolfram was a part of a station with two small trucks, and he said the season passed without any extraordinary happenings. In his second year, Wolfram joined a helitack crew, a helicopter unit which was designed to drop firefighters into the thick of the action. It was in the middle of this season that Wolfram found himself trapped by the Burrows Valley fire.
This wasn’t Wolfram’s only close call that year.
Mid-flight to a fire in the coastal mountains of California that 1969 fire season, Wolfram was sitting next to the other firefighter in his helitack unit when the drive shaft of the helicopter’s tail rotor snapped. As the helicopter lost air speed, the torque from the main blade sent the helicopter into a spin before it crashed into a field. Fortunately for all on board, according to Wolfram, the field was plowed, which allowed the skids of the aircraft to dig into the ground upon impact, preventing the bird from tipping over.
“That gets in your long-term memory,” Wolfram said. “I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, because the pilot had his [headset on], and then I could see something was going wrong.”
At first, Wolfram thought the pilot was going to bring to helicopter down for inspection, but as the ground approached, it became clear that wasn’t the case.
“As we got 50 or 60 feet off the ground, we were coming down faster than normal, and we started to turn…then we started really spinning, and then boom, we were down. It’s not like it takes 10 minutes,” Wolfram said. “And at 18, you aren’t thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to die,’ you just think, ‘this is pretty exciting.’”
Once the helicopter was on the ground, another fire truck came out to tote them off to another fire.
After his season on the helitack crew, Wolfram passed the test to be a firetruck driver, which put the then-20-year-old in charge of small crew. Wolfram spent the next four fire seasons as a driver, which he said posed challenges of its own.
In one of those seasons, Wolfram and his crew were called to a running grass fire, in which waist-level grass ignites, shooting flames several feet into the air. To get to the burned area where his crew could fight the fire safely from behind, Wolfram had to drive through the flames. Typically, one of the firemen on the truck would blast water on the fire in front of the truck, allowing safe passage. As the fire approached, however, the pump to the tank broke, leaving the crew no way to create an opening.
“We have this wall of flames coming at us, so I yelled at the firefighter to jump onto the running board,” Wolfram said. “So he jumps onto the running board and holds on, and I just slammed the gas down and we blasted through it.”
Once safely on the other side, with the cab filled with smoke and ashes, the crew fixed the pump and went to work putting out the fire.
“Those are the kinds of things you remember,” Wolfram said.
Near the end of each fire season, Wolfram returned to his studies, first as an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and then as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley.
According to Chuck Harris, who housed with Wolfram at Berkeley and spent his summers guiding groups in the High Sierra, several members of their circle spent their summers working adventurous jobs.
“We knew people working for the parks service, the forest service, and other people were doing firefighting stuff. We we’re all doing really, really fun stuff, and typically, in that group of people, in the outdoors,” he said. “It was fun to share those stories back and forth.”
In his time with the forestry division, Wolfram only suffered one major injury: A blast of water hit underlying hot coals beneath him, sending steam upward and giving him second-degree burns on his hands.
Aside from teaching, Wolfram said fighting fires — his only other job — gave him an appreciation for the power of wildfires, which he said can only be had from first-hand experience.
“You learn a lot about how mother nature is in charge of things. You have to wait for the weather to help you. You are not going to stop it on your own,” he said. “You can’t imagine, being in a spot where it pre-ignites, and it gets hot enough that certain fuels just explode. And if you get a 15 mph wind behind it, it can be burning three or four acres a second.”
Fighting foothill fires has changed substantially since the ’70s largely because of the amount of structural protection now involved, Wolfram said. In his six seasons, Wolfram said he only responded to one fire where his crew had to protect buildings or houses from the flames.
During his second year of graduate studies, Wolfram decided to bid farewell to firefighting.
“At some point you realize, ‘Do I want to be doing this when I’m 50?’” Wolfram said. “And I realized I would rather be a professor, and at some point you have to be a research assistant in the summer, so the one last fire season after my first year of graduate school was the end.”
Although Wolfram is over 40 years removed from fire fighting, he said when he visits stations in the summer with his father or sees a brush fire on TV, he still feels a familiar desire for the excitement.
“You see it and think, ‘Well that looks kind of fun,’” he said. “And in my head, I would still want to be doing it now.”