I openly admit that I have asthma and breathing problems.

I just can’t believe 15 years ago I was still smoking cigarettes.

This week, with two big forest fires burning south of us, I have been seriously struggling to breathe.

While the smoke has infiltrated the White Mountains, imagine how bad it is in Globe and Superior. As of Tuesday, nearly 100,000 acres have burned in the Telegraph Fire and the Mescal Fire. That’s a lot of acres up in smoke in just one weekend.

It also looks unlikely that they will be contained anytime soon. They are burning fairly close to each other and perhaps they could even merge.

Let’s hope they don’t merge and pray for monsoons to arrive.

While the residents of the White Mountains struggle to breath, the residents of Gila and Pinal counties fight for their survival.

My prayers are with them.

Looking back at my life, this isn’t my first forest fire. I’ve seen quite a few in Wyoming and Colorado.

One of those fires burned about 40,000 acres south of Buffalo, Wyoming when I was the editor of the Buffalo Bulletin. It was one of the most amazing adventures of my life.

I joined the Type II fires crews on the front lines one day in a reporters’ pool made up of journalist from around the state. The fire was burning in some very rugged back country. We were taken by the incident commander and his public relations crew to the very front lines after being properly dressed in Nomax fire gear (green pants and a bright yellow shirt).

Taking images that day was special as I was able to record the brave and gallant work being done by these men and women while they were surrounded by flames.

On the way back to “headquarters,” I joked with the incident commander that I would just love to go up in one of their helicopter to see the fire from above.

“Yeh, right!” he said. “Those are very coveted and special flights that people wait years to take.”

At least I tried.

After returning to the makeshift “incident headquarters” in a local elementary school, I changed out of my firefighter’s Nomax gear and into my street clothes. It was time to go back and write my story and edit my photographs.

As I was on my way out, the incident commander was walking up the hallway.

“Jim, Jim your wish has been granted,” he said.

Those in charge at the US Forest Service suddenly decided they wanted detailed photos of the fire from the air and I am a professional photographer. The stars aligned and I got my flight.

I was given 45 minutes to change back into my gear and get to the airport.

God, I was excited and got to the airport in plenty of time.

As I saw my “one-legged” pilot slowly walk towards the helicopter, I wondered to myself, “How can he fly that contraption with just one leg?”

The incident commander could clearly see that I was nervous and said, “Don’t worry he may only have one leg but he’s about the best pilot in the world. He’s from South Africa and comes here during the summers to help the Forest Service.”

The pilot asked me at the safety meeting if I had flown in a helicopter without doors. I actually lied and responded, “well sure.”

Flying in a helicopter with completely open sides on the left and the right is an experience that everyone should enjoy. Holy moly was that an amazing ride to and above the fire.

I photographed helicopters and larger winged aircraft making water and retardant drops. It was stunning.

About 20 minutes over the fire, the incident commander turned over control of the helicopter to me and I was suddenly directing the mission to get the photos I wanted.

That was 20 minutes in heaven for this life-long photographer.

After returning to the airport and touching the ground again, I realized that I was trembling with a new vibration in my soul. I wasn’t sure if the vibrations were from the helicopter, not having any doors, the excitement of the fire or the blessing that I had just experienced.

I knew I would never be the same again, and I wasn’t.

The flight gave me a new vision of how firefighters give everything they have to do their job. I spent that evening in the base camp with them and even had a 3,000 calorie meal. That was one of the best meals of my life.

As you struggle breathing all this heavy smoke, please remember those firefighters who are out there saving your lives and property. They are special people and I salute their bravery and hard work.

Reach the Editor at jheadley@wmicentral.com

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