In his memoir, “Ahead of the Flaming Front,” Jerry D. Mathes II transports readers to the remote forests of the West as he navigates the danger, camaraderie and bureaucratic mountains of paperwork that comes with fighting forest fires. The book recently won the North American Book Award for memoir.
Mathes volunteered to fight his first fire in Weippe after moving to the area with his then-wife.
“My first experience with fire was showing up and ‘here’s a shovel’ and ‘here’s a guy who knows what he’s doing.’ That would never fly with the feds,” Mathes, 51, said in a recent interview.
He went on to work as a wildland firefighter for 14 seasons for the federal government and the Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association. He joined a helicopter attack crew when he was 40-years-old and worked with a rappel crew from 2006-10 outside Grangeville.
His book details experiences fighting fires in the Clearwater National Forest, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and elsewhere. He tells of the lives and deaths of friends, rivalries between agencies and encounters with spiteful private landowners harboring a grudge against the government.
Mathes is a graduate of Lewis-Clark State College and the master’s degree program in creative writing at the University of Idaho. A single father of two, he lives in Tehachapi, Calif., where he works as an oil field service technician. He writes poetry and is completing a memoir about his youth, which he called “another cautionary tale.” “Ahead of the Flaming Front” is available online.