I was in Florida on fire duty the first part of June. Tallahassee, in the northern part of the state. I went there to relieve another pilot who required some time off. I guess he’d gotten fatigued from putting fires out because nothing was burning nearby when I got there. It was very dry though. One lightning storm or trash fire could set the neighborhood back on fire again so we, the crew of the helicopter, were kept on standby. We had to be ready to be airborne in 10 minutes from the call if needed. That’s a pretty short leash so we stayed in sight of the helicopter all day.
Our day went from 8 am to 9 pm. Our exercise consisted of moving lawn chairs to the shady side of the fuselage as needed. Florida sun is right up there straight overhead, and it is strong. I would sneak my Oregon dead-fish-colored carcass out into that sun for a few minutes each morning and evening. Being careful, don’t you know? Still got burned. But by the end of my 12-day tour of duty I was getting some sort of red-tan-white body striping and could stay out in the sun for a whole hour with no ill effect. I think the blotchy, patterned skin color I had was protecting me from the astro death rays like the way they paint checkerboard patterns on satellites to help them survive in outer space.
It can get mighty hot and muggy in Florida. There must be some really miserable weather in many parts of the U.S. because all the people moving to Florida from those places apparently think the Florida climate is an improvement.
The head Forest Service man at our helibase was a man named T. K. A Born and Bred Georgian, T. K. had a good time indoctrinating our Yankee crew to the ways of north Florida. He’d tell ‘gator stories. "The brush is real thick in these swamps, so you see, you get around on your hands and knees. It’s just easier that way. I was leading this Yankee boy from Montana through the dry swamp. We were looking for the edge of the fire, where it was smoldering in the peat moss. We were crawling along, completely hidden in the brush, and I’d stop every time I got to a hole in the swamp. I’d have a look and then we’d keep going. That Yankee asked me why I was stopping and I told him these were ‘gator holes I was stoppin’ at. ’Gators’ll always run from you if you give’em the chance, I told him, so I was waiting at each hole to give’em the time to run. But so far there aren’t any ’gators in these holes and… And I looked back and I was all alone. That boy was long gone."
But T. K. wasn’t provincial. He’d spent plenty of time out west fighting fires in that Yankee’s neighborhood. He knew what the differences were in the various parts of the U.S. “Now, you Yankees, these swamp fires don’t burn like what you’ve seen. When the swamp is dry the fire goes down deep in the peat moss. We dug a fire line in the swamp once with a big track-mounted backhoe—’bout got it stuck out there. We were gonna stop the fire by digging out in front of it and that big backhoe about couldn’t reach down deep enough to dig below the fire. We were down ten, twelve feet with our trench before we got below the fire.”
It turned out there was currently a fire in our area of Florida. It was in a dry swamp, smoldering away in the peat moss. The previous crew of our helicopter had put out the surface flames to kill the danger of the fire spreading quickly to the surrounding forest (and houses). Now the fire was underground. As long as it stayed in the swamp the fire would be avoided by humans. Swamp fires are a natural, healthy thing, and our fire would be left to burn as nature pleased. We were on standby to be ready if the fire surfaced and tried to make a run out of the swamp.
T. K. explained. “These swamp fires can’t be put out. Rain won’t put’em out. Dumpin’ water on’em won’t put’em out. The only thing that’ll put out a swamp fire is if the water level in the swamp comes up several feet and floods the fire. We’ll need around 10 inches of rain in a short while to raise the swamp water level that much.”
It had been raining most every day since I’d been in Florida this trip. Afternoon thunderstorms would flood the surface of our field with a half-inch of water. An hour later everything would be dried out by that overhead sun. This wasn’t the kind of rain T. K. meant. What he meant showed up on Monday, June 11th. We went to the helicopter that morning in light rain. That was different.
Every other morning it had been dry. We checked the weather radar at the airport. The big storm that had just caused so much death and destruction in Texas and Louisiana was now crossing into Florida. The leading edge of the storm was 50 miles from us. We had no place to go, no way to fly around the storm or thread our way through it if we tried to leave, so we tied the rotor blades down, securing them with rope strung from blade tips to helicopter, tightened the rotor brake, put all our equipment inside the fuselage, and waited.
The rain stopped. We had blue sky behind broken clouds. It was a nice day. The wind sock began to straighten and open up to the south. A bit of thunder. Slowly a long black sausage cloud rolled at us from the west, not much above the trees. More thunder, then a lightning bolt. Counting one-thousand-one…the thunder was 5 seconds behind. All right! This was going to be fun to watch.
I stood outside and looked at everything I could see. The wind picked up. The low, black sausage cloud rolled on by and was followed by another. More lightning. The thunder was now continuous. The wind shifted erratically, blowing hard. A small plane took off from the nearby airport! Whoa, is someone crazy? But they were taking off headed away from the storm, toward blue sky to the southeast. I wonder if the pilot was nervous?
The rain came to us in a wall, like I remember from the storms of my youth when we lived on a bluff above the Mississippi River. We got nailed. Hammering rain, hail, wind, lightning, enormous thunder. The storm drove us all inside seeking protection. Rain blew sideways through the open doorways. The wind slammed the doors shut. Then the power went out. Yeaoww! Quietly, an hour later we snuck outside, wandered around a little bit under dry skies and drove back to the motel.
I stood on the balcony outside my motel room for a while and watched the sky. It had rained off and on the rest of the afternoon but now it seemed to be clearing up. Blue sky was showing through the white clouds. It had rained maybe 2 inches. Not bad, but not enough according to T. K. There were still some low clouds, like fog, moving through the area. They restricted my view from the balcony I guess. Because low dark clouds appeared overhead, just like that. They were horizontal, the sausage tubes again.
The nearest layer was moving quickly to the left and the layer behind it moved to the right. Hey, I thought, those clouds are going to collide, and they did and then they began to rotate. I called the other pilot over to have a look and we watched the black cloud rotate. It was straight over us, right over the motel. We watched, probably with our mouths open, waiting to see if the rotation increased in speed. It did not. But the cloud seemed to suck upward, like a reverse funnel, and the sky fogged over, blocking our view. Except it wasn’t fog, it was rain. Torrential rain. Soaked-in-a-second rain. Straight-down rain, even though the wind was blowing. In a minute sheets of water were pouring off the roof. The rain came down so straight that I could stand at the balcony railing and not get wet. This continued for an hour.
I called your mother on the cell phone and let her listen. She asked, “What’s that?” “The rain,” I said. “This is incredible. The motel swimming pool is overflowing.” She could easily hear the splashing din, even though I was in the motel room watching TV. A modem noise came on the TV. The screen blacked out and a scrolling weather warning appeared. A computer voice announced, “…There is a tornado warning for the area. Tornadoes have been spotted by law enforcement officers. The counties of…”
You don’t suppose that thing above us was part of it, do you?
The rain stopped for a half-hour or so and then new black clouds appeared. The thunder and lightning became more intense and, unbelievably, it began raining even harder. At 11 pm I went to bed, heavy rain still coming straight down.
It rained 10 inches total that day, most of it between 6 pm and midnight. We left Florida the next morning. I think T.K. was happy. With the swamp fire, that is. He was going home, too. I wonder what he found at home? The weather for the morning had heavy rain and tornado watches forecast for central and western Georgia. Maybe I’ll bump into him on a fire out west this summer. I’ll ask him.