A headfire is a fire which is burning with the wind, or uphill. These fires are charactarized by extreme heat and fast movement. These are the hardest type of fire to extinguish, and the type usually involved in damaging wildfires. In a prescribed burn, you almost never want to have a headfire as it is extremely hard to control, and produces a lot of smoke. These fires are almost impossible to fight by ground teams because getting in front of them is suicide. Generally they are attacked by first attacking the flanking fire, then moving in on the sides. Or, firebreaks and backfires can be used far beyond its front.
The field was full of Star Thistle and Medusa Head, bobbing in the warm south breeze. Nothing was left of the bunchgrasses and small herbs that once filled the area, the newly adapted weeds had crowded them out, to the point that even grazing the land was impossible. These plants were almost impossible to remove, and were slowly taking over all the grasslands of California. They stood up to everything concerned people could throw at them… everything except the primal force of fire.
Jepson Vash didn't know anything about bunchgrasses. He didn't even know what Medusa-Head looked like. All that he really knew was that there was nothing that seemed more right to him than a fire sweeping an area clean. He didn't leave the confines of the city very often, but when he did, it was usually for a burn. No one knew where he went to except for his only real friend, Daria Ifurita. No one knew why he always came back smelling like smoke and diesel fuel. But then again, when he went to punk shows and shoved himself in between people to yell at the bands on stage, it didn't really matter.
The field of Medusa-Head had been plowed around, in order to keep the fire from spreading into neighboring areas. It wasn't much of an issue, because the only structure that could be seen was an old shack where the tools were kept, a ways to the south. Since the wind was blowing out of the south, it wouldn't be an issue. The sky was clear except a distant thunderstorm to the northeast, surrounded by a shroud of dusty hot air. A match dropped in the northern corner of the field and suddenly, the grasses were flickering and crackling with heat. As the fire explored nearby grasses and began its slow trek against the wind, Daria dipped her driptorch into the fire and started laying fireline. Jepson Vash was standing behind her holding a hose attatched to a tank, towed by an old beat up tractor. He was ready to spray any flames that strayed from their intended target. The fire crackled and grew taller as it reached the edge of the thick Medusa-Head area. The day was hot and the fuel was dry, but as long as the fire was fighting the wind it would not be a problem.
The burning went on in a somewhat uninteresting way until a soft rustle in the grass told Jepson and Daria immediately that the wind was shifting. In a single fluid motion, Daria jumped over the still-small fireline into the black smoldering area in its wake. The wind shift was temporary, but enough to throw the fire forward in 15 feet of inferno and twirl it up into a cylinder of swirling orange. Then the wind died off again and the fire sank down to its normal size. Jepson didn't think much of it and continued watching the up-wind side of the fire. It was then that he noticed the dusty hue to the air to the north, below the storm. He wondered about it, but didn't spend too much time thinking about it. The thunderstorms never made it into the valley this time of year. Their team began laying fireline perpendicular to the wind, sending a flanking fire across the field a half-acre at a time. The field was about half burned, and behind the fire soft wisps of smoke flagged the still-hot areas. For some reason, Jepson was looking off at the field when he noticed some of the streamers turn in midair, and double back on themselves. It took him a second to realize what was happening. 'Oh fuck', he muttered softly, but loud enough that Daria heard him. She looked up and immediately began hastily laying more fireline, in order to seal off the upwind side of the fire.
The wind continued to build, to the point that it picked up a wall of ash, and whipped some of the smoking embers into flame. In seconds it reached the fireline. The reaction was immediate. The fire immediately changed in tone from a soft crackle to a roa. The whole half mile long line of fire immediately began tearing off to the south. In seconds, it was surrounding Jepson and the tractor. He suddenly realized that he didn't know where Daria was, and was filled with a wave of panic. Frantically, he dove towards the fire, dousing it with water and hoping he could stop it from consuming the tractor. For a few seconds the fire seemed to tower over his head and swoop back down on the other side. He couldn't breathe in the smoke, and the heat burned his exposed skin, but he forced himself to keep moving. The fire slowly began receeding, but so did the level of water in the tank. By the time Jepson chased the fire into the plowed firebreak, he had to practically stand in the fire to allow the water to reach it. The fire quickly died off and he frantically looked around for Daria. As it turned out, she had anticipated the whole thing and was standing in the black, with a strange look on her face. Jepson looked down and realized that the base of his fire-proof Kevlar suit had melted a little around his feet. After he had a second to compose his thoughts he realized that he had been scared. He had been scared for his life for the first time in years. It was the kind of thing you don't realize until it's over, because at the time it was happening he was too scared to think about it.
When the fire had slammed up against the firebreak, not all of it had stopped. The wind had thrown some of the fire across a few hundred yards to the east, and it continued on, riding the gust of wind towards the little shack. When the line hit the shack, it was immediately engulfed in flames. The fire moved on but the shack remained burning, spouting sparks into the air. After a few moments, it collapsed. The damage was minimal since the tools were all currently in use by the firefighters. But it was still a loss. After passing the shack the fire slammed into a wet area of rushes and stopped. Finding no dry fuel, the flames simply withered and died, and only a wave of smoke remained to define the gust of wind. All that was left was the soft plumes of smoke in the field, and an area of low flames defining where the shack had been.
Jepson was given the job of going to the remains of the shack with a shovel and spreading the embers out to die. He left Daria for a few moments dousing some smouldering Medusa-Head near the south end of the field. He began spreading apart the timbers when he heard a soft, high-pitched sound. At first, he thought it was a bird feasting on roasted grasshoppers in the field, but after following the sound he realized it came from the ground near the shack. Walking slowly towards the noise he found a soft mound of waning life trying to move through the ashes. From what he could tell, it was a young kitten. Looking down, he picked it up gently in his hands. It was so small it didn't even fill up his cupped hands. It was still hot from the fire and was slowly, painfully dying. Jepson usually avoided emotion, or at least tried. And he knew that the kitten didn't belong here.. someone had surely dumped it here and it was probably bound to starve anyway. If it had survived, it probably would have killed countless native birds, which were helpless around feral cats. But it was a life, and it was ending. A wash of sadness and anger passed over him as he realized that it had no hope of survival. He laid it down softly in the ashes and then quickly, painlessly accelerated the kitten's death.
Thank God, he thought, that Daria hadn't come with him to the burnt out shack. She would have been hurt far more than him by seeing this. He quickly spread the smouldering boards apart and watched the embers fade. Then he walked across the burnt field back to his friend. He couldn't help thinking that like the kitten, he could never belong in the world he was so unceremoniously dumped into. The trick was avoiding the headfire. Fire is brutal, but it is fair. It doesn't burn against the wind, doesn't burn across the black. If you are in its path, you die. If you are not, you live. It was the first time Jepson realized that even in doing something meant to improve the world, by destroying the noxious weed, something somewhere would probably pay the price. It depends only on which side of the fire you are on when the wind shifts.