It was Thanksgiving and I was in North Carolina on another forest fire. This was the eleventh fire for me last year. Year wasn’t over yet. Oddball fires, too. A swamp fire, a no-fire, a desert fire, the movie-star fire, the fire of 300,000 motorcycles, an island fire, a mountaintop fire, this leaf fire in North Carolina, plus several of your run-of-the-mill forest fires. And we didn’t put a-one of ’em out.
I told you about the swamp fire already. Ten inches of rain fell in one evening put it out. That’d probably put out anything, even a nuclear bomb mushroom cloud.
The no-fire was like this: We got the call one late July afternoon while we were in Northern California. We were to go to Susanville, east of us, to fight a forest fire. We loaded up the helicopter, which means four middle-aged, pot-bellied, bad-backed aviation studs lifting to chest height (the level of the helicopter floor) 1,800 pounds of stuff including two water buckets at 400 pounds each, four 100-pound parts boxes, a 400-pound longline and hook, and a bunch of other support equipment. We headed out, flying east past three other big fires, any one of which could have used our services, on our way to Susanville.
“Wow,” we talked in the helicopter, “They didn’t assign us to these. Our fire must be a bad one.”
We got to the Susanville airport and waited there for the arrival of our fire fighter liaison person, from whom we would get our specific orders. The guy arrived at sundown and told us we were released from our fire, which we never even got to see.
“But we want you to go to a different fire,” he told us. “One out in the desert at Wells, Nevada. Structures threatened.”
By now it was dark, so we were here in Susanville for the night. We needed a motel room and we had no car. Also, there were no rooms left in Susanville due to a big local event that day. Great. While we scratched ourselves and thought, “What next?” the airport manager came by and offered us the free use of his old Ford Escort. Its tires were bald but we were grateful.
“The emergency brake works!” the manager advised as he jumped in his pickup.
I waved thanks as he drove off and jumped in the Escort. The car started right up, the clutch worked fine, I chugged over to the helicopter to get our luggage, and I stepped on the brake pedal. Plop. All the way to the floor. I got the emergency brake handle up in time to see what the airport manager had meant. The brake pedal had zero effect. Nada.
The other pilot and I loaded the Escort anyway and drove off toward the motels in Reno (eight-five miles away), hoping to find something closer. Our car had bald tires, no brakes, and a shake above approximately fifty miles per hour. I say “approximately” because the speedometer didn’t work, which didn’t really matter because the dash lights didn’t work either, so you couldn’t see the speedometer. Also, there was no moon out. You know, it is black at night in the desert. Great night sky, though. You can see the Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye on nights like this, and it’s two-million light-years away.
We drove on, found a Bates motel clone by a dirt road intersection, rooms for sixteen-dollars, run by a very nice man who took cash only, and we plopped in bed for five hours of sleep. I even took a shower and didn’t get scratched by the rust.
Amazingly, the Escort carried us back to the helicopter the next morning, vibrating and shimmying the whole way. We almost rear-ended only one car. When I coasted the Escort to a handbrake stop at the airport manager’s office and did the final door slam I half-expected the car to do the Blues Brothers Bluesmobile self-destruct-o thing with the doors and fenders falling off.
At first light we launched the helicopter and headed east for what is called a “structures threatened” fire at Wells. “Structures threatened” fires are the ones that get everyone shouting. Fire-fighting resources are called in from all over. Drop what you’re doing, go save the structures. These are usually fairly young, hot, out-of-control fires that promise lots of busy, exciting work.
We got to Wells in mid-morning and checked in with our fire fighter people at the airport. The plume of smoke from our fire was rising above the horizon twenty miles to the east. The fire had been burning for two days and was spreading quickly. But here at Wells we were surrounded by desert. Sagebrush, tumbleweeds like in the cowboy movies, lots of rocks.
“Hmmm”, we talked in the helicopter," maybe there are trees twenty miles away."
We flew to the fire and checked in with Air Attack. A lonely horse corral (technically, a structure) was being threatened by running flames but the fire trucks there had that covered. We were to dump water on the far side of the fire to keep the flames from jumping a ridge and then running into open country. We looked around. Sagebrush. Tumbleweeds. Rocks.
“Nope.” we talked in the helicopter, “Same here as Wells.”
So, we dropped water on burning sagebrush. We and half a dozen other helicopters and three retardant planes and 150 ground people and a dozen fire trucks and three bulldozers hounded that fire into the next morning. Then it rained.
The corral was saved, and half the Aspen trees in a little creek nearby were saved, and the flames did not run out into the open desert and burn up more sagebrush and tumbleweeds.
“Wow, they could have let the corral burn and built ’em a new one for one percent of the cost of fighting the fire and let the sagebrush burn because who cares?” I said to the motel lady that evening, and she gave me The Look.
I saw her mouth tighten. “But all that country would have burnt up,” she said. I saw right then that everybody has their forest and loves it and sees it worthy of the structures threatened, thus justifying a call for help.
Released from the fire that evening, we got orders to head further east to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at the Grand Teton mountains, to another fire. We loaded up the helicopter. Eighteen hundred pounds, aviation studs, etc., etc. At 4:30 the next morning we headed out.
The Jackson Hole fire was a nasty one. It was hot, vicious, and hungry. It burned with the wind for several days and roared through the thick forest there, destroyed nice vacation homes of the rich and famous. The houses of Sandra Bullock, Harrison Ford, and Dick Cheney did not burn. A friend was there for that part of the fire and said he will never forget it. It was very intense. He was dumping water all day at the gates of homes, flying nearly blind in thick smoke. Each of the ten or so helicopters there had its own water-dipping site, its own area to protect, and everyone had to really bear down to avoid flying into each other while battling the flames. They saved houses, the wind died down, the fire cooled off, and then we showed up.
We were there to fill in for a company sister ship while it was having repairs done to it. We flew half a day on the fire. We did the dreaded mop-up, which amounts to drowning the occasional smoking tree and smoldering log. We flew by Harrison Ford’s house, hoping he would come out on his deck and salute us by opening a beer can, as he had done earlier in the week to previously mentioned friend. Negative contact on Harrison Ford.
Then a couple of other helicopters had a problem, as in one decided to land on top of another, in clear sunny air, after going the whole week flying in low-visibility smoke and having no problems. They lived through that first fiery week and then they must have thought that flying in sunny skies was a no-brainer. Crazy. No one was hurt in the mishap, and there was minimal damage to the helicopters, but Air Attack told everybody else flying to return to the heli-base and take a break until further notice while things got sorted out. Soon thereafter our sister ship was repaired so we were released from the fire.
We loaded up the helicopter, 1,800 pounds, out-of-shape, bad-backed studs etc., etc., and got orders to go to yet another fire, further east, to Custer, South Dakota, within fifty miles of Mount Rushmore and Sturgis.
Sturgis is the famous annual gathering of motorcyclists and their machines. This year over 500,000 people on 300,000 motorcycles were expected to attend the week of events held in and around Sturgis, South Dakota.
“Hey, this is the first week of August,” I said. “And this is when the Sturgis motorcycle rally starts. Wow, we’re going to Sturgis!”
“Oh, wait,” I said, “we’ll be working fourteen-hour days and won’t have time to join the fun, and all the motel rooms will be taken and this will suck.”
Well, it wasn’t that bad.
We did the fourteen-hour days, sure, but the fire was a real barn-burner and that kept us plenty entertained. We reserved motel rooms for the next two days, after which the prices would triple and everybody was sold out anyway, but they’d say, “We’ll put you on the standby list.”
A couple of things about this fire I remember. One: no one wanted you to take water out of their livestock pond to dump on the fire on their land. Water is so scarce in the summer here that it’s more valuable than the vegetation and land. Think about that for a minute. Two: we could not drop water on the fire burning on an ancient Indian burial ground because the government archeologist was afraid we would damage things. Think about that for a minute, too.
On the third day, when our motel rooms dried up and we were fussing about having to sleep on the dirt the rest of the week, our sister ship from Idaho arrived and replaced us. We were released from the fire. We loaded up the helicopter with 1,800 lbs, pot-bellies, backs, etc., etc. and headed back west to return to logging. Our compatriots in the sister ship had to deal with the motel rooms and sleeping on the dirt to the rumble of 300,000 Harleys. They eventually drove seventy-five miles that night to avoid both.
Not too bad a trip. Four fires in six days, seven states, 2,500 miles, one Bates Motel and a Bluesmobile, burning desert, Harrison Ford, a helicopter crash, a fire with no water, Sturgis T-shirts, and only 7,200 total pounds of stuff lifted to chest level.
I love this job.