PLAYING WITH FIRE
Andreae garners praise for hot stuff
—CHRISTIE GREEN – The Warren Sentinel – March 16, 2000
Christine Andreae left the quiet solitude of her safe home in Front Royal to explore the harsh world of specially trained, federally appointed firefighters. Exchanging the rustling of the trees surrounding her mountaintop home for the crackling of million-dollar fires in California, Andreae researched the life of those who fight the far-reaching fires of the west for her latest book, “Smoke-Eaters.”
In her favorably reviewed new book, a psycho- arsonist has set a fire that rampages through Montana. A woman commands the group of thousands of firefighters, something as-yet unheard of in real life.
The story explores sexism among the ranks, the thrill of fighting infernos, and the darker side of human nature as the arsonist turns out to be someone very close to the camp.
Andreae’s interest in the subject ignited in 1994 with a large fire in Colorado.
“In that fire, 14 firefighters were killed, four of which were women. It was interesting how there was no great human outcry, no big reaction of ‘Oh this is why women shouldn’t do this,’ but there is such a big upheaval in the military over the same thing. The firefighters structure is based on the military, but women are just a part of the team here,” she said.
Originally, Andreae’s fourth book was going to center on a cook for the firefighters, but once she got out there and saw how massive the entire production really was, she realized a chef would not give an accurate picture.
“These camps really are a world into themselves,” she said. “It was like going into another city or town. The fire was up in the hills. Fighters were bused to the fire from the camp.”
The camp, she said, consisted of several tents, shower trailers with machines that recycled water and bath sheet-sized paper towels to dry off with, communication satellites, weather stations, and kitchens with huge salad bars.
“It was really fascinating. The logistics were truly amazing,” she said.
Andreae arranged the stay through a public relations agency in Iowa. The actual fire was in San Bernadino Mountains, not far from Palm Springs, Calif.
“The public relations unit in camp helped prepare everyone for my arrival,” she said, chuckling at the fact the firefighters camp was so large it would even need a P. R. unit. “I wondered if anyone would talk to me at all, since there was no incentive to get their names in print, but everyone was very welcoming and interested in what I was doing, even if their names would never be in print.”
It was during her stay in the camp that Andreae met Candace Gregory, the woman who would become the basis for her heroine, Mattie. For almost a year, the two remained in contact, filling in specific details of the life of a woman firefighter.
“The best part is hearing people’s stories,” she said. “Candace was telling me about the time when she was new to the team, she was told to go out and brief some people that they were in danger of the fire. They failed to tell her she was going to a nudist colony.”
“Mattie’s character was much more difficult than the antagonist because I had to figure out how to portray the woman as warm inside, but see that she is perceived by her colleagues as tough,” she said.
Along the way, Andreae, without putting her name on the manuscript, had several people read her story to see if she was making her characters believable.
“One of the comments that came back was ‘This is clearly an experienced writer who knows a lot about fire, but obviously he doesn’t know a lot about women,'” she laughed. That was clue number one her characters needed some work.
The antagonist in the book came much more easily for Andreae, which she found rather uncomfortable. “I spent a lot of time reading books on serial killers and trying to find common denominators between arsonists and firefighters howell’s heating & air. I wrote his parts in first person in the form of diaries he’d been keeping about his fantasies. In the profiles of fire setters, fire and sexuality are closely connected,” she said. “It was really scary.”
The fact that the character was a man is why the voice came so easily, Andreae speculated.
“I was able to let my imagination go with this one. I wasn’t so closely connected. There wasn’t that feeling of ‘Will people think that’s me?'” she explained.
That same self-doubt has kept the award-winning writer from admitting she is an actual author.
“I’ve never really liked to say I’m a writer,” she said, in spite of winning a Shenandoah Arts Council Award for Literature in 1996, The Blue Ridge Hospice’s Founder’s Award in 1994, and a nomination for “Best First Mystery” by Mystery Writers of America in 1992.
“Now that I’m on my fourth book I guess I can say it.”
SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES
Women hit the fire lines in the Montana-based Smoke Eaters
—Margariet McKenna – Missoula Independent August 17-August 24, 2000
For several weeks now, Missoula has been going in and out of a fog of smoke. At times it has appeared as if we are in a bubble, detached from the surrounding mountains, highways, and rivers. But the feeling brought on by the overhead coverage isn’t the cozy feeling of fog rolling off die ocean, when you always know that as the day progresses, or the front moves on, sunny skies will return. Here in Montana with rites burning in every direction, there’s no weather cycle to inform us as to when the haze of ashy air will clear out for good. Red eyes and difficulty breathing throughout the valley, are symptoms with no end in sight. As the AP declares the Bitterroot Valley “ground zero” for the worst fire season in 50 years, Missourians find themselves in awe: of the fires, and the women and men who fight to keep them at bay. Between official evacuations and natural fear, very few people actually get to see a fire line and what goes on behind the smoke in order to ensure the safety of homeowners and their property. While fiction is known for its romanticizing tendencies, Christine Andreae’s latest book, Smoke Eaters, gives an exciting, perhaps informative, look at what happens when the media goes away and firefighters go to work.
Mattie McCuloch was born to fight fires. Growing up on stories of fire heroics from both her mother and father who were firefighters in southwestern Montana, Mattie barged into the male-dominated culture and stayed long enough to see herself rise through the ranks of high command. Now with her own legacy of firefighting (her son Jimmy is in his second year as a hotshot), Mattic is named incident Commander of the summer’s largest fire. Justice Peak has gone up in flames and it’s not dying down anytime soon, threatening private property owners throughout the valley, including a militant nudist colony. Brought onto the job after several explosive racial incidents threatened to divide the fire camp, Mattie must balance fire strategy with human relations strategy, as there is no shortage of peers or underlings wishing to see the first female Incident Commander become the last one.
Woven into the already tense narrative are the journal entries of a sadistic misogynist who has a thing for fire games and appears to have quite a bit of influence among the high command. His writings revolve around one of Jimmy’s company, Cat Carew, a wild woman and fierce firefighter. She apparently has spurned the mystery man’s advances, and now he wants her, and anyone she’s associated with, to pay. What results is arson, murder and a grand dethroning in the works for Mattie.
In a story fiddled with innate suspense, Andreae deftly weaves in Matties emotional struggles to come to terms with her son’s disregard for her, her own poor decisions in her personal life, and the fine line a woman in a male-dominated world must walk. There is much at stake in this book, and it doesn’t all have to do with the thousands of acres of public and private property being lost to the fire. Andreae does, however, have quite the eye for fire; her descriptions of the sight and south of the deadly monster bring you to the front lines, soot on your face and blisters on you hands. Clearly Andreae has done her research both on fires and on southwestern Montana, were she spends her summers. She has crafted what could have been in other hands, simply another suspense thriller, into a nuance story of what sacrifice really means when the one passion in you life is the one thing society won’t permit you to have.