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Seeing the good side of the fire

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SPANISH FORK — He was in a Walmart, in his work clothes, picking up supplies, when a woman approached him.

“Are you here for the fire?” she asked.

“Uh, yes, but I’m not doing much, I’m fire support,” he answered. “I’m a water tender.”

“Well, whatever you’re doing, you’re helping,” she said. “I just wanted to say thanks. Thank you so much for coming!”

In the awful fire season of 2018, as 100,000 acres burn in the mountains above Spanish Fork, dislocating people and livestock and closing roads and threatening towns and blocking out the sun, Randy Anderson is seeing the opposite of devastation.

“People are so grateful,” he says, choking up slightly as he says it. “I mean, it’s really been something to see how much people are going out of their way to be nice. Their homes are threatened, they’re being dislocated, and they want to say thanks.”

Bear in mind, Anderson didn’t come here for pats on the back. Anderson came for the pay.

“I signed on to make money, I have to be truthful. That’s why I’m here,” he says. “It pays really well” — at least double what he’d make if he was driving his semi, which is what he’d be doing otherwise.

A friend owns Kit Contracting, a company based in Idaho that contracts with the government to supply trucks, dozers, graders, trailers and other heavy equipment to disasters like the one going on here. Anderson has his commercial driver's license and was asked if he’d like to drive one of the big water trucks that are so essential in situations like this.

He said sure, and all summer and now into the fall he’s been behind the wheel, never very close to the front lines and always surrounded by water. There are worse places from which to fight a fire.

Handmade signs like this one in the canteen where firefighters eat are ubiquitous around Spanish Fork.

Handmade signs like this one in the canteen where firefighters eat are ubiquitous around Spanish Fork.

Lee Benson

He’s worked four different fires so far. The first was in Council, Idaho; the second in Kremmling, Colorado; the third in Ely, Nevada; and now, here.

They’ve all been similar, in his view, but they’ve also all been different. The big difference here is the constant outpouring of public support. There are thank-you signs all over town. Cards made by schoolkids are hung up in the eating areas. Volunteers show up to serve meals and bring homemade cookies and snacks.

“The gratitude has been extraordinary. I’ve never been to a fire where there are cookies and gum set out for anybody to take,” Anderson says. “This is from those getting burned out. It just blew me away.”

Even if the extra food is overkill.

“The people obviously want to help, and they don’t know exactly how, so they bring food,” he says. “But it’s hard to out-supply the government. They feed us so well, way more than we can eat.” Anderson pats his stomach. “I bet I’ve put on 20 pounds this summer.”

That’s another thing that has impressed him during his season of seeing firefighting up close: the government, believe it or not.

“They do a remarkable job,” he says. “Everything has to come together to make something like this work, and it works. The logistics are something to see.”

On this day, he was spraying water on a new dirt road the people in charge had cut into a hayfield where hundreds more firefighters will pitch their tents and camp.

At night, firefighters sleep in their tent cities. By day they attack the fire.

At night, firefighters sleep in their tent cities. By day they attack the fire.

Lee Benson

Nothing is left to chance, Anderson says, “The organization is remarkable.”

Then there are the firefighters. His tent (which he refers to as “My Holiday Inn”) is right next to theirs. He watches them file in from a long day of fighting fires, sleeps next to them in pitch quiet at night, sees them up at dawn to do it again.

“I have the utmost admiration for these men and women,” he says. “I see what they do. They hike these mountains, in really tough, sometimes dangerous terrain, and they’re tireless at it. They do it over and over. How do you do that?”

This job has been an eye-opener for him, he says, in completely unexpected ways.

Driving his water truck, he’s spent the past four months embedded in disaster — and seen human beings doing their best.