JACKSON — You’ve never seen a tree quite like the one inked onto Evan Guzik’s right forearm.
Peeking out from the sleeve of his frayed Nomex shirt is an imagined blend of two pines and a fir: ponderosa, lodgepole and Douglas — all trees he knows well, after years spent battling fires among forests of them.
Guzik, 35, is a member of the Teton Interagency Helitack Crew, and wears his long blonde hair tied back under a well-worn ball cap that says so. He’s one of the 1,500-plus firefighters who spent the past two weeks fending off infernos in western Wyoming. Playing many parts, he flew in on the initial attack team at the Marten Creek Fire in mid-September and has since become its public information officer.
“Sometimes you’re just the guy holding the chainsaw,” Guzik said, “and sometimes you get to make decisions.”
The Helitack crew performs search and rescues, flies weather stations to mountaintops and counts elk herds, but its main purpose is to support wildfire operations. Guzik relishes the job’s variety, both in duties and locations. It’s allowed him to work in “every state west of Montana,” minus Colorado.
After a childhood “Griswold family vacation,” the Indiana native grew up obsessed with the West and headed that way as soon as he finished six years in the Marines. First came a move to Washington, then a stint as a pastry chef in Montana.
Since Guzik joined the U.S. Forest Service in Pinedale and then the Helitack Crew in Jackson, the elevation has made baking a bit of a challenge (Bisquick’s instructions for altitude stop short of 6,000 feet), so Guzik’s culinary flair has translated into preparing home-cooked meals with his girlfriend whenever possible.
But such opportunities are hard to come by when he’s tending to a wildfire for 14 days straight, especially if he finishes his fortnight shift only to be roped into a search-and-rescue mission upon returning home.
“There’s a lot of dinners that turn into leftovers,” he said. “It’s definitely harder on the people around us than it is on us.”
For Guzik, another of those people is his 6-year-old son, Rhys, named with the traditional Welsh spelling. Above the roots of his tattooed tree, Guzik wears a lowercase r.g.
He’d like more time with Rhys. He’d like more time with his girlfriend. He’d like more time for “your usual Jackson things” — hiking, camping, fishing, floating. Guzik considers easing away from fire response operations for something more flexible and forgiving.
He plans to stick to his general career path, though. Maybe fuels management — removing combustible vegetation from forest land — or maybe the public information side of things. Guzik believes in the importance of this line of work, in all its forms.
“Having a job that actually has a purpose, and that there’s a need for in your community, is nice,” he said. “I think it’s good to be proud of what you do.”
And despite the strain it’s put on his personal life, Guzik’s job has been good to him. From the Tetons to the Wyoming Range, where Marten Creek recently flared up, he spends his days roaming some of the most beautiful land on Earth.
Even when that land is ablaze with the hellish fury of a raging wildfire, it’s given him many of his fondest memories — “the times you’re cursing and moaning and complaining for four days.”
He recalled one “disgusting and brutal” night on the initial attack of a fire north of Boise, Idaho. He and his team hiked in just after a heavy rain that boosted the humidity to torturous levels in 90-degree weather.
Soaked to the bone, Guzik hefted a chainsaw up steep slopes, cutting a fire line through thick brush jutting out at his face. He remembers “yelling at my saw, yelling at the trees … yelling at everything.”
But when the misery ended, after they finished slogging up the hill after 2 a.m., he realized they were 100 miles away from city lights during a meteor shower. Deep in the wilderness, he watched the night sky.
“You could almost hear all the meteors going through,” he said. “It’s just one of those few places you doubt anyone’s ever been, and if they have it was 50 years ago, and it’ll be 50 years until someone goes in again.”
Usually, though, there’s little time for such reflections on the spot. These insights come later, once the fire is dead and the ashes cooling.
“In the moment,” Guzik said, “you’re just trying to get the mission accomplished.”