The Wildness of Fire
Bradford Goshorn is a ceremonial fire tender and also an active member of a ‘wildland hot-shot crew,’ working to suppress the wildfires in Oregon and Northern California. In this article he responds to questions posed by a member of ONE: Do you see fire as a being?
Absolutely. Fire is sensitive to our thoughts, words and actions, just as any human being is. Around ceremonial fires I have noticed the fire completely change, just from my having a different thought pattern.
There was a wildfire in the Santa Cruz Mountains a few years back that defied fire science. On my friend’s property was a peace pole with prayers for world peace written in several languages. This pole was in the middle of a nob cone pine forest with thick manzanita as a partial understory. The fire completely burnt everything for miles: houses, whole trees, structures. Nothing was standing except this peace pole, with no burns or damage whatsoever. There were burning logs all around the standing pole. To me, the fire knew of all the prayers that were said at the peace pole, and did not harm it. I see fire as a highly intelligent being.
How do you communicate with this Being?
Communication begins with respect and gratitude for the place fire has in this world. The conversation begins in the heart. It is customary in many North American traditions to make offerings to the fire. These could be of tobacco, cedar, tree saps. These are the three I use the most.
Just like with any being, we can talk to the fire; I believe it enjoys our company and conversation. I feel it is always necessary to be sure and listen well to the fire. It is a great elder. I believe it is important to listen when elders are speaking.
In working with the fire in a ceremonial way, what is your role?
The role of a fire tender begins long before the actual ceremony. It begins by harvesting wood. Each type of ceremony takes different kinds of wood, some short, some long; wood species makes a difference too. Some ceremonies have the fire going for a few hours, others all night or even for several days. The role of the fire tender is to continuously maintain connection with the fire. The primary focus is to keep the fire burning in the desired format for the particular ceremony. It is a good place to learn. In some North American tribes it was customary for a person to work a sweat lodge fire for four years before ever entering the lodge.
With what attitude do you approach fire?
With great respect. Nearly every ceremony begins with fire. It is a great elder that holds ancient wisdom. A close relative and medicine man once told me, “The fire is the true shaman, we just relay the message.”
There are times when I am so humbled by fire all I can do is put my head down and say thank you. It is difficult at these times to even look at the fire. I come to the fire wanting to learn and better myself. I see my relationship with fire as similar to human relationships. It takes time to gain trust and open up to one another. And when the connection is made, it takes continuous nurturing.
How and why did you start firefighting?
It began by wanting to build my relationship with the fire. I have been working with ceremony for about five years, which really is not long at all. And I live for being in the wilderness backpacking. So wildland fire work became a blend of the two passions. I have been doing forestry work and have been a certified arborist for a number of years. I had a long working relationship with trees and the forest. An essential component to the life of the forest is fire.
It is an amazing job being on a wildland hotshot crew. There are not many in the country, and we are blessed to work where few humans ever set foot.
What is your attitude toward fire during the fire-fighting?
It is a ceremony. I approach the fire humbly and with great respect. I do my best to make an offering to the wildfire at least once a day. If we are in a good place within ourselves, a wildfire can show us amazing beauty and offer great insight. Just as in any ceremony, there is something to learn around any fire. Here there is a high level of wildness. I feel humans could use more of this wildness and rawness of life. It gives me a deeper appreciation for life when I am in these kinds of situations.
How can you avoid seeing fire as an enemy? Or do you?
In the first fire class I ever took, they said that fire is our enemy. I told my internal fire, right away, that this is not true. When I arrived at home I lit a fire and made offerings to it, explaining I would never be fire’s enemy or work with it in a fighting way. I try not to use the word firefighter. Fire suppression makes me feel better. It does not seem like a good idea to be an enemy with any aspect of Mother Nature. She is beautiful and brutal all in the same moment: something I have no interest in calling my enemy. Fire is an elder, a teacher, a protector and a dear friend.
What is the prevailing attitude of firefighters?
The majority of folks who are into wildfire suppression are there for the money. It is an extremely physically demanding job. Normal days are 16 hours a day. Many days we work 24-36 hours straight, with a 50 lb pack on the whole time. It’s difficult work, which pays well.
There are some people in the Forest Service who see the need for fire in the forest. We do a good amount of forest management and prescribed fires when not on wildfires. A good number of people also acknowledge that fire is a wild creature, and have some level of respect for the fire.
What are some ways fire teaches us and serves us—beyond the obvious keeping us warm and cooking food?
Fire brings people together--around a ceremonial fire, campfire or wildfire. Communities unite and help one another when a wildfire is in their area. Friendship is made and laughs are had around campfires. Culture and tradition is made or maintained around ceremonial fires. Stories are remembered and songs are sung. With this unity we are able to move into a more trusting environment with one another.
How can we be of service to the fire?
I believe service begins with gratitude. I offer thanks to the lightning beings who brought first fire to the land. Also by paying our respect to the trees and sacred wood—for fire needs something to feed upon. I make offerings to the trees standing and those that have laid down before preparing any wood for a ceremonial fire.
It seems there may be some social fears of fire, especially in a wildfire setting. Fire is an essential component to a healthy forest. Allowing for wildfire and safely implementing prescribed fires is a great service to fire and to a healthy forest.
Lovingly tending to a fire seems to be the greatest service--treating fire with the same tenderness and respect as we do with those we love.
How do you think we as humans can best harmonize with the element of fire?
It seems humans want control of all that surrounds them. This is true with our relationship with fire. Many times there is an illusion of control over fire if it is in a ring, barbecue or contained pit. Even in a wildfire setting, there is a “control line” around the fire. The need for control comes from a place of fear.
Fire can do much more than we sometimes think. I saw a sweat lodge fire burn for a good 24 hours after the last piece of wood was placed on it. This fire was sprayed with a hose for at least 10 minutes—not a usual practice, but it was a dry summer day. And still a day later it was extremely hot. I believe the best way to harmonize with fire is to humble ourselves and have great respect.
How can fire teach us to live in a more balanced way?
Fire is excellent at cleaning. This may be in the forest or in the depths of a person. Fire can be very destructive, which can create healthy openings for new growth. Trees need carbon to grow, which is a product of fire. Pathogens, fungi, blights, and other tree diseases are cleaned by a good forest fire. This is a form of balance. We can acknowledge the unhealthy aspects of ourselves and allow those places to be cleaned by the fire, which in turn provides the fertile soil for the places we want to nurture.
A thick and dense forest is unhealthy and unbalanced. There is little to no room for wildlife. This is similar to us humans. When we are balanced and healthy there is openness, space for movement within our internal canopy.