Where There’s Smoke There’s Inspiration, a guest post by Iain Lawrence
One day too long ago to think about, I stood alone in a burning forest. There were flames all around me, roaring through the bushes, leaping in the trees. There was the worst heat I’d ever felt, and smoke so thick that I could hardly breathe.
I had chosen to be there.
I was working with the British Columbia Forest Service, fighting fires on the west coast of British Columbia as a summer job that lasted only a few weeks. But the experience inspired my new middle-grade novel Fire on Headless Mountain and became a part of the story.
Every novel I’ve written includes bits of me, and I doubt if there’s a writer anywhere who wouldn’t say the same thing. The threads that make up every story are strung with beads of truth.
That day in the Sooke Hills of Vancouver Island was my first day on the job, and the fire was the biggest that I saw that summer. I arrived in a crummy, an old truck that might have been an ambulance at one time, with benches on either side to carry firefighters and their gear. There was smoke pouring up across the sky, and a crackling rumble from the forest. A long line of young men and young women were scraping a narrow trench into the ground, the first guard against the fire. I expected to be put into the line with a shovel or a pick, but I was given a canvas hose to carry and led right past it, then on toward the fire.
I unrolled the hose between the trees, and when I reached the end I was very near to the fire, far closer to flames than I’d ever been before. But someone added another length of hose to mine and screwed a bronze nozzle to the end. Others started up a generator and a water pump, and the hose came alive like a long, gray snake, bulging from the ground as it filled.
I was given the nozzle and pretty simple instructions: aim the water at the flames. If the smoke got bad I could soak my T-shirt and pull it up over my nose. The evaporating water would give me oxygen to breathe. And then I was left alone.
The hose beat down the flames but couldn’t keep them back. Through clouds of steam and clouds of smoke, they glowed all shades of red. And before I was even aware of it, the fire was all around me.
I held my bit of ground until someone came to get me. A water bomber was on its way, and the firefighters were clearing out of its path. But we were too late, the fellow who’d come to get me and I. He hurried me out of the smoke to a rocky part of the hillside. A small plane passed right above us, low to the ground, with the bomber coming behind it.
“Get down,” said the fellow. “Get behind a bush.”
The bushes were tiny. But we huddled behind them and listened to the bomber growling closer. Heads down, huddled like turtles under the shells of our hard hats, we waited. Thousands of gallons of fire retardant fell around us like a heavy rain, splattering the trees and the bushes, splashing our backs as we hid there.
Before dark, the fire was out. We gathered the hoses and carried them back to the crummy. Everywhere, the ground was hot and steaming. But not every tree was burnt, and from somewhere close beside us came the chattering of a squirrel.
“Well, there’s one that made it,” said a firefighter.
I got only a small taste that summer of the job done by firefighters. I have endless admiration for the men and women who do it all the time. They’re among my heroes, and I hope that Fire on Headless Mountain shows in even a tiny way what amazing people they are.
Meet the author
Iain Lawrence once had a summer job fighting forest fires on Vancouver Island. He is the author of seventeen novels for young readers that have received such accolades as Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature and the California Young Readers Medal. Among the many books he has written are The Wreckers, Ghost Boy, Lord of the Nutcracker Men, The Skeleton Tree, and most recently Deadman’s Castle, which was a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection that School Library Journal described as “[a] great, suspenseful tale of terror for upper middle graders.” He lives in the Gulf Islands, British Columbia.
About Fire on Headless Mountain
Separated from his siblings in the midst of a dangerous forest fire, 11-year-old Virgil must find a way to survive using only his wits and the lessons his late mother taught him about the wilderness.
Virgil is making his older siblings trek to a mountain lake on a trip unlike any they’ve have taken before. They carry precious cargo: the ashes of their beloved mother, who asked that her remains be scattered at her favorite spot. But when a forest fire is sparked by a bolt of lightning at the exact moment when their van breaks down, the journey quickly turns to disaster.
While the oldest, Josh, is gone to find help, Virgil and his sister, Kaitlyn, spot fleeing animals and soon see flames flickering above the tree line. Once the sky begins to darken with the haze of burning timber, Virgil finds himself separated from his sister and left alone in the wilderness. He isn’t sure he can make it, but with the memory of his late mother, a science teacher, and all her lessons to guide him, he quickly learns that not everything has a perfect explanation and survival starts with letting go.
Fire on Headless Mountain showcases not only the overwhelming beauty and terrifying power of nature, but also the gift of memory when facing great emotional and physical trials. Lessons on ecosystems and fire safety are also seamlessly interwoven into this thrilling adventure tale.
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 08/23/2022
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
SLJ Blog Network