Poet Kevin Goodan is hardwired to think about wildfire, even in New Hampshire’s green forests.
Granite State poet Kevin Goodan is putting his experience fighting fires onto the page in “Spot Weather Forecast.”
Goodan lives in Meriden and teaches at Colby-Sawyer College. He joined the US Forest Service “hotshot crew” when he was 18.
Hotshot crews fight some of the most dangerous wildfires, and he secretly kept a small notebook in his pocket where he wrote down words that came to him in between fires.
“You begin to understand [fire] in terms of intelligence,” says Goodan. “And so it becomes, you know, that you're working with and against this living thing. It breathes, it eats.”
Decades after leaving the Forest Service, Goodan was compelled to return to his experience.
“There were people that I knew and worked with that were lost through fire and through cancer and through accidents outside of the firefighting world,” Goodan says. “And so in a way, it's kind of an elegy for those people that I worked with.”
Even in New Hampshire where wildfires are not as common or intense, Goodan is hardwired to think about fire. He says that climate change could increase the frequency of fires, especially since the region is overdue for a fire cycle. Still, New Englanders don’t typically think about wildfires.
“I kind of wish maybe there were more Westerners out here that have that sensibility to prepare people for the eventuality of a fire cycle,” he says.
He says that while some people might see the beauty in New Hampshire landscapes, he sees where a wildfire is ready to burn.
An excerpt from “Spot Weather Forecast”:
To the bone,
As we pause
The grime-slicked hair
Kevin Goodan: I did keep a small little notebook in my pocket and I wrote down things that would come to my head, usually not in the midst of fighting fire, but I did it secretly so that the rest of the crew didn't know what I was doing. Otherwise, if they knew that somebody was writing poetry as they were fighting fires, they probably wouldn't trust me very well.
Rick Ganley: Tell me about the nature of fire. I think for a lot of people whose experience maybe is a wood stove, a campfire, they don't really understand what it means to be surrounded by it.
Kevin Goodan: Being surrounded by fire or working right next to a fire is quite an adrenaline rush. Also, fire, when you're working that close to it and for that long and intensely, you begin to understand it in terms of intelligence.
I've asked other firefighters about this and it does have a mind. It makes decisions. Some fires have personalities. And so it becomes, you know, that you're working with and against this living thing. It breathes, it eats. And like I said it, it makes decisions as to what it's going to burn or where it's going to move. And so, you know, it's alive.
Rick Ganley: I want to ask you about wildfires in the West, which you were in hotshot crews fighting for those years, and about wildfires that we see here in New England. I know you're a New Englander now. What's the difference? Is there a difference? Do you expect that we're going to start seeing wildfires like that in New England?
Kevin Goodan: I anticipate given the shift in climate, or climate change for lack of a better term, that one is going to see a continuing frequency of fires. There was a fire in Quechee falls this last summer that was about 40 acres.
Rick Ganley: It burned for a while.
Kevin Goodan: Yeah, it did. And you know, it was in, as they said, difficult terrain in order to contain. And I think you're going to see a more consistent frequency of wildfires out here. I hope that it doesn't get to the intensity that we see happening in California, but there's always that possibility.
Rick Ganley: You think about that. It worries you.
Kevin Goodan: My mind is hardwired to think about fire. So when I'm out in the woods, you know, people think, "Oh, these trees are beautiful. This is lovely landscape." And I think, "Well, this is where a fire will probably burn through much more rapidly than this area over here." It's just how I'm made to think about landscape.
One thing that worries me about New England is there hasn't been, really, for a couple of hundred years, a fire cycle because, you know, 90% of the forests were cut and they've grown back. And now they're starting to get to a point where they're mature and you have some decadence to them, you know; standing dead timber and so on, which makes for ladder fuels, which carries up into the canopy. I kind of wish maybe there were more Westerners out here that have that sensibility to prepare people for the eventuality of a fire cycle.
Rick Ganley: Now you've written other volumes of poetry. What separates this from those in that process?
Kevin Goodan: This was a much more intense process, partly given the nature of the thing that's being written about. But also there were people that I knew and worked with that were lost through fire and through cancer and through accidents outside of the firefighting world. And so in a way, it's kind of an elegy for those people that I worked with. And that's always kind of hard to get your your head around.
Rick Ganley: Have you shared this with with any any of the firefighters you worked with?
Kevin Goodan: I have and their response so far [is] nobody has said anything bad. They seem to say, "Yeah, this is as close as you can get to standing next to the fire." I feel honored that I have created something which they say is good. They would call me out on something if it were fudged a little bit, so I feel like I've done a service to the people that I worked with.