When Ben Rupert was called in to be a division supervisor on the Rim fire — which was one of the worst in California history, burning about 400 square miles of forest in and around Yosemite National Park — he did what he always does.
“I talk to the trees, and I talk to the fire,” he said. “I ask for direction on how to suppress it. I pray for the land to talk to me. I’m asking for Mother Earth to guide us. I pray for safety. I tell the earth I don’t mean any harm.”
It’s an unconventional approach, but it’s part of the tradition handed down to him through his Washoe and Paiute elders.
“It’s just the way I was taught,” he said.
Rupert, a Reno firefighter who lives in Carson City, arrived at the fire Sept. 3, just more than two weeks after it was ignited Aug. 17. He was assigned to oversee Division Zulu, trying to get a line around a 6-square-mile section at the head of the fire.
“Even though it was the smallest division, at the time I was there, it was the most complex because it had no containment lines,” Rupert said. “If the fire got past our lines, there was a very high risk the fire would have continued its devastation into the wilderness to the north.”
Rupert, 48, began each day with a meeting at 5:30 a.m. followed by a briefing at 6. By 9 a.m., he and his crew of about 200 firefighters from across the country had made the 90-minute drive from their incident command center in Tuolumne, Calif., to their division on the north zone of the fire. They typically left the fire line about 9 p.m., eating dinner at 10:30.
As a supervisor, Rupert then had administrative paperwork to fill out and wouldn’t get to bed until about midnight, when he’d sleep in the back of his car. He didn’t shower those 14 days.
“I went through two boxes of baby wipes,” he said. “I’ll just leave that to your imagination.”
But the long, dirty days, he said, are worth it.
“I look at it as a gift to be a firefighter and a gift to be lead in fire-suppression efforts,” he said. “I look at it as using a gift that’s been given to me.”
He spoke with members of the fire crews, many of whom also were Native American, about the importance of their job there.
“I met with my crews, and I explained to the value of the area we were protecting,” he said. “I explained to them about the Miwok Indians, and how they lived off the land.”
He identified resources the indigenous people used that still are a part of the landscape — choke cherry bushes, acorns, pine nuts, cedar trees.
While fighting the fire, a crew found an area with about 25 grinding rocks, traditionally used by the Miwok Indians to grind the shells off acorns to be made into a flour used to make acorn mush and acorn biscuits, common winter food staples.
“We were led to that site,” Rupert said. “I don’t know if the tribe even knows about that culture site. It’s not only about fire suppression, it’s about protecting the plants and protecting the land. All the plants, they all have a purpose. Everything out here has a purpose, I try to identify those kinds of things.”
While fire suppression is the goal, he said, his first priority is always the safety of the troops battling the blaze.
“These fires are so dangerous,” he said. “You just can’t predict what’s going to happen. That’s why I always ask for spiritual guidance.”
Decisions must be swift and direct, he said, like on Sept. 7 when he pulled everyone in his division off of the fire.
With temperatures at the highest they’d been since he took over and humidity at its lowest, an inversion lift moved in.
“An inversion lift is like a blow dryer,” he explained. “It’s got that warm wind. It kicks in and it pulls that smoke out all at once, and it brings the fire with it. It’s very quick. Everything aligned perfectly to have a perfect blow-up of a fire.”
When crews returned the following day, they found 50 spot fires that had jumped the line.
“Now we’re behind the fire,” Rupert said. “That’s when we have to re-evaluate and assess what’s happened. We have to re-secure our lines.”
By Sept. 14, they had their line contained. Complete containment of the fire is expected by Oct. 1.
“We were able to save a tremendous amount of forested land,” he said. “We were also able to protect the sacred land of the Miwoks.”
As he did in the beginning, Rupert also gathered his troops at the end of the end of their two weeks to thank them, shaking each firefighter’s hand.
“You’re only as good at the people you’re working with,” he said. “It’s the boots on the ground; that’s who’s getting it done. A huge success to Division Zulu was the assistance and supervision from several assistants. Two from the Fort Apache Tribe, one from the Alaska Fire Service and one from the U.S. Forest Service Modoc District. We all worked together to complete our mission.”
In his 27th year of firefighting, Rupert knows there are more fires to come.
“Fire is a natural part of the ecology,” he said. “You can use all these things to control fire, but you can never permanently extinguish fire.”
And he always gets something in return, such as the hollowed-out logs he found at a recent fire that he will use to make traditional drums, or cedar branches to fashion into rabbit sticks and the lifelong friendships he has formed.
“As long as your heart’s in the right place and you’re asking direction on how to take care of the land, you are given certain gifts out there.”
“I talk to the trees, and I talk to the fire. I ask for direction on how to suppress it. I pray for the land to talk to me. I’m asking for Mother Earth to guide us. I pray for safety. I tell the earth I don’t mean any harm.”