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An ex-hotshot crew member turns from fighting fires to writing about them

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Kevin Goodan was 18 when he first started fighting fires. He was raised in Montana on Native land and was part of the U.S. Forest Service. He's now captured some of the intensity of forest fires in a new collection of poems called "Spot Weather Forecast." And he told Noel King about his first encounter with fire.

KEVIN GOODAN: My grandfather was in charge of me when I was about 3 years old. And a farmer's hayfield caught on fire outside of Missoula, where he'd had a ranch. So he took me in his truck to go fight the fire, and he told me to stay in the truck. And I didn't because I wanted to be with my grandpa. And so I kind of got caught in the flames a little bit. And luckily, he heard me and, you know, came and saved me. But that was kind of my first real interaction with fire.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Kevin, if I'm reading this book right, it looks like your poems do not have titles, but I wonder if I could ask you to read parts of the poem that's on Page 27.

GOODAN: Sure. (Reading) Jet boats ferry us up the Salmon River as far as they can, and we clamber off, portion out gear to hike the 14 miles to the ignition site of a rolling 20,000-acre fire. We arrive sweating in the dark and sleep where we can in the dirt by the river. When we wake, we see poison ivy. Sixty men, three shot crews look at each other, wondering what will come of it and when. By the second day digging hot line, our arms begin to boil and blister. And the poison ivy is growing everywhere on the ground, around the trees, in the smoke. Our Nomex is saturated with the oils. Sweat smears the oils around - blisters on the face, blisters in the nose. Someone goes blind in the smoke, and we breathe it in. Lips blister. Tongues blister. Some can't swallow from blisters in the throat. On the fourth day, we are digging line and sloughing our skin.

KING: All right. That's excruciating, if you don't mind me using the word. And it makes me wonder a couple of things. In the way that people who have been in war zones, who have fought in war zones, often leave war zones behind and then try not to think of them again, this makes me wonder whether you would prefer not to be having these memories, but you do anyway, and so you write about them, or whether you're glad you still remember these experiences, which sound really, really brutal.

GOODAN: Well, some of them are. But in those moments of brutalness, there's also a kind of gallows humor amongst everyone that you're working with, which helps lighten the brutality a bit and makes it survivable. I didn't write this book until a long time after I finished fighting fires. Partly, it wasn't intentional, and I probably would have just let things slide away and not pay attention to fire any more. However, I saw some wet-plate images of fire, and I would write in response to them. And so, actually, it opened up language to me that allowed me to go back and kind of re-experience through those images what I had gone through on the hotshot crew.

KING: Even though we know climate change is making wildfire seasons worse, is there something that you think we should learn that fire teaches us?

GOODAN: Well, fire is part of a cycle. And, you know, we try to minimize that cycle. People like to move out into what's now called the urban interface, which is semi-rural with, you know, kind of a heavy fuel loading because people don't want to cut their trees and stuff around their house. They want to stay somewhat isolated from their neighbors and so on. And, you know, that creates this difficult situation where there's a heavy fuel loading in the forest. And at some point, it's going to burn. So if we could be more mindful about keeping the space around our houses clear or maybe not building houses at the top of a blind canyon or a box canyon - you know, if we took that into consideration - that fire is part of the landscape - then there wouldn't be as huge losses of houses and lives when the conflagrations do happen.

KING: Kevin Goodan - his new book of poems is called "Spot Weather Forecast," and it's out today. Kevin, thanks for your time.

GOODAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.