Mario Villalobos


Homecoming, 2022

Something Adorable

  • Journal

Something unexpected happened today.

I was on my way out of the elementary school after having just helped a teacher with a technology problem, and a fourth grader saw me as he descended the stairs. “Hey Mario,” he says. “Our iPad’s aren’t working.”

“What’s wrong with them?”

“Me and Ashley can’t login. It says our passwords are wrong.”

“Okay,” I said. “Let me get to my computer and I’ll fix it.”

Resetting passwords is a normal part of my job, so I go to my computer, reset their passwords, and walk back toward the elementary school. I walk into the fourth grade classroom and let the teacher and kids know that I reset the passwords and all should be good. I also came into this classroom so I could ask the teacher to return a USB DVD drive I had let her borrow a few weeks before. I needed it to help solve the other teacher’s technology problem.

“Sure thing,” the teacher said, and she went toward her desk to retrieve it.

While she did this, one of the fourth graders was excitedly asking her teacher to ask me the questions they were talking about earlier. The teacher smiled and told them that if they had questions for me, now was the time to ask them.

I looked at the teacher quizzically, then back at the kids and said, “What questions? What’s going on?”

Some of the kids smiled and hid their faces, while others looked at me with their big, goofy grins. I had no idea what was going on, but I was very curious.

“C’mon,” the teacher said. “Now’s the time to ask Mario your questions.”

“What questions?” I asked again.

The teacher came back and gave me the DVD drive, and one of the kids asked me, “Is it true that you used to be a firefighter?”

Now I was the one smiling.

“Yeah, it’s true,” I said.

Then half the hands in the room went up in the air, all ready to ask me their questions.

“Is this okay?” I asked the teacher. She nodded her approval.

Some backstory: about a month ago, I had mentioned to this teacher that I used to be a wildland firefighter, something she didn’t know about me. My assumption is that she told her class this one day, and they all had questions they had wanted to ask me about it.

I picked on the shy girl that brought all this up in the first place.

“Were you ever scared?” she asked me.

I thought about it, and I said, “Yes, once. It was my third fire, and we were out on the mountain fighting this very tough fire, and we were still fighting it at around 8 or 9pm. Then, all of a sudden, the fire jumped the line we spent hours building, and the fire spread and burned over our only escape route. We then spent the next few hours lining the fire again, but by the time we finished, it was past midnight and everything was pitch black. We had no idea how to get back to our rigs, and all we had were our headlamps for light. Unfortunately, about half our crews (most of us were rookies) didn’t bring their headlamps or they weren’t working. It took us hours before we found our way back. That was the most scared I’ve ever been on a fire.”

I picked on someone else.

“What was the biggest fire you’ve ever been on?”

“The biggest fire I’ve ever been on was probably the Liberty Fire over by Arlee. It was tens of thousands of acres big, and it had hundreds of personnel on it.”

“How many fires have you ever fought?” another kid asked.

“Oh man, I don’t know. At least fifty, but probably more. At some point, they all become a blur.”

“Did you ever save any animals who were by the fire?”

I smiled and said, “No, I’ve never saved any animals out there. Animals are very smart, and they’re not going to stick around when their homes are on fire.”

And on it went for a good twenty minutes or so. It was the most unexpected and the most adorable thing I have ever been a part of.

At the end, as I walked out of the classroom, I must’ve had the silliest smile on my face because I ran into another teacher, and she asked me what my smile was about. So I told her. “You probably inspired a lot of future firefighters by answering their questions.”

“I didn’t think of that,” I said. And that made me feel proud.

The picture above is of this class during homecoming week earlier this year. Many of these kids have been the subject of some of my earlier kids these days posts. These kids are growing up so. damn. fast!

I’m so privileged to watch them grow up. Sometimes I really love my job.

  • Notes

ASMR fire sounds. This is the fire I wrote about here.

  • Notes

Careful not to stare at the flame too long lest you be caught up in its spell.

  • Notes

September 2017. Fires are sometimes located deep inside the forests and the mountain roads that lead to them are rocky and rough. I drove a Ford F-250 with five other firefighters when I blew this tire and didn’t know it. It was my first flat tire and a good memory.

  • Notes

Summer of 2015. We were staged in a valley a few miles from the fire while we watched the lightning storm roll in and light up the sky. Many fires are started by lightning strikes, and this one was no different. It doesn’t take much to burn thousands of acres.

  • Notes

I didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a firefighter, but when I moved to Montana, I was penniless and in debt. I moved to Montana to start over, to reinvent myself, and to grow up. I wouldn’t be the man I am today without that experience. I’m grateful for all of it.

  • Notes

I think the thing I’m most grateful for during my time as a firefighter are all the places and things I got to see.

From beautiful sunsets in very remote parts of Montana.

To helicopters dropping buckets of water mere feet from me and onto blazing fires.

And bison roaming the land.

  • Notes
“I'll hold your hose for you.”

There’s a yellow pack the veterans make most rookies wear that’s colloquially known as a piss pump. It’s a backpack that’s filled up with about 5-8 gallons of water that’s worn over the regular pack everyone must carry. Connected to it was a long nozzle that, when pumped, sprayed water. The pressure wasn’t great, but it did enough to cool some areas down. Other times we made the rookies carry hoses and fittings and other gear that added extra weight to their pack and thus made the day a bit longer. I was a rookie once, and I went through this. It was fun.

Most of the time we loaded the gear onto the massive dozers that sometimes patrolled the fire with us. They had longer and more powerful hoses and a massive tank full of water. They were also loud and they made quick work of anything in their way. Firefighting didn’t scare me but the thought of driving one of these machines did. It only made sense that the drivers who drove them were crazy.

I guess you have to be a bit crazy to intentionally run toward a fire instead of away from it, though.

  • Notes
Fighting fire with fire

When you can’t kiss the black, whether because the fire is on inaccessible terrain or it’s raging too wildly to send firefighters to fight it or for another reason, you do the smart thing and fight the fire with more fire.

More than anything, firefighting is a team sport. On every fire I’ve ever fought, we always had helicopters flying over the fire. The pilot and co-pilot survey the fire and then relay their report to logistics; logistics drafts a plan of attack with the Incident Commander who then radios the plan to the division boss; the division boss then contacts the crew boss with the plan and their orders; the crew boss tells his crew the plan, and finally, the crew executes the plan.

Sometimes the plan means building line on a very calm and unburnt part of the forest. We build line to prepare for the controlled burn later. The purpose of the controlled burn is to cut off any potential fuel source for the yet uncontrolled fire. We dictate the size of the fire at this point, and it’s one of the funnest part of firefighting for me.

Fires are spontaneous and wild. I can only imagine the same feeling I got when I did my first controlled burn was the same one primitive man had when they finally controlled fire in prehistoric times. It’s such a rush.

What I wish modern Americans understood is that controlled burns are one of the best ways to make sure our fire seasons aren’t as bad as they have been. We can control the severity of fire season with controlled burns during the off-season. But the reason we don’t is because controlled burns, just like uncontrolled ones, produce smoke and soot. People, I guess, don’t like smoke and soot. So we don’t fight fires with fire, even though I think it’s one of the smartest things we can do as a species.

But we elected a reality television star for president, so what do I know.

  • Notes
“Kiss the black.”

When you’re building line, you’re taught to dig as close to the black as possible. The black means the burnt areas on the ground. A burnt area can’t re-burn, so it’s also the place you’re told to go if you need a safe place to go in case the fire rages out of control. You want to “kiss the black” because you want to give an active fire as little fuel as possible. As a wildland firefighter, building line is one of the things you do the most. It’s what helps contain the fire, and it’s what helps end fires.

What people don’t understand about forest fires is that they’re natural. Forests have to burn. They have to burn to get rid of all the dead trees and vegetation littering the ground; they have to burn because many species of trees depend on fires to reproduce; they have to burn so our forests can be healthy.

One of the reasons why our fire seasons have been so bad these past couple of years—other than climate change—is because our forests have gone years and years without controlled burns. Indigenous Americans know this and they have maintained their forests this way for generations. But modern Americans don’t.

And that pisses me off.

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