I’m sitting here waiting for our helicopter to be sent out on a forest fire. There are several fires around but none are hot enough yet to need a big helicopter like ours. Sometimes the heat is from flames, sometimes it ms from politics.
McCall, Idaho, is a beautiful mountain lake resort town of about 2500 year around residents with another 5000 part timers. McCall is an easy 2 1/2 hour drive from Boise, which is Idaho’s biggest city and its state capital. McCall has its share of lake shore trophy summer homes, lots of golf courses and a really nice winter ski resort. Think of it as Boise’s backyard sandbox and swing set. A summer evening a few years back some naughty kids snuck into the yard and played with matches. A mass of thunderstorms passed over the mountains north of McCall and blasted the forest with lightening. But no rain. They say the night sky flickered as if the sun had a short in it. Probably before the storms had passed the Forest Service was gearing up to battle the fires the lightening would surely start. They called for our helicopter a couple of days later.
When we showed up the fire was cooking. It was several thousand acres in size and burning toward the last mountain slope before McCall. At night the trophy home residents looked out their view windows and watched the forest torch off a few miles away. They were nervous. A thick fog of smoke covered McCall. The air stank and so did your clothes. Tourists were staying away. The local businesses were nervous. The Forest Service was under heavy pressure from these two groups to stop the fire. Fortunately, a few logging roads lay between the fire and McCall and these were what the firefighters would use to turn the fire away from McCall.
The fire boss called us over to fight the face of the fire closest to McCall. We in the helicopter were to slow the fire’s advance and buy time for ground crews to dig a hand line from the nearest road to this spot. They had a couple of miles to go. The hand line, which is a foot path an arm span wide dug through vegetation down to mineral soil, will starve the advancing flame of fuel and stop the fire’s progress. Meanwhile, big bomber airplanes would drop liquid red fire retardant in 200 yard long swaths ahead of the helicopter, using ridge tops and rock slides as fence posts for their retardant line. With nature’s cooperation all this would stop or redirect the fire.
Time to get busy. We flew down to the lake for our water. At the 5500 foot altitude of the lake we could lift around 6000 pounds of water, about 700 gallons. We did this for the rest of the day, dropping maybe 70,000 gallons of water on the fire. The bombers dropped that quantity in retardant. The ground crews dug a half mile of hand line. We quit at dark. At 8 am the next day we were back at it. This was basically grunt work. Lots of the time fire fighting is just that. Breathe smoky air and fly a hundred water bucket loads up the mountain, dig a mile of hand line. The fire wasn’t doing nasty things so after a few days we were able to stop the fire’s advance about half way down the last mountain slope before town. The eastern flank of the fire turned away from McCall, crossed over a ridge, and burned off into the wild forest. Adios, see you later.
Meanwhile, the fire boss geared up for a direct attack on the dangerous western flank of the fire, which was trying to jump the highway and hook around McCall. Kind of like enemy soldiers trying to surround your position. He called us over to a dirt logging road and had us fly back and forth above the road while ground crews lit a new fire at the road’s edge. This fire would burn toward the wild fire. We would drop water on any spot fires that jumped over the road to the McCall side. Soon a 2 mile stretch of logging road was bordered by flame. Then a small helicopter carrying a Ping-Pong machine began weaving a pattern in the air between the man-made fire and the wild fire. The dry forest below the small helicopter began smoking heavily and burst into flame. We were going to see a man-made nuke-out.
The Ping-Pong machine was spitting Ping-Pong balls out into the air, ordinary white Ping-Pong balls, that were injected at the last second with heat producing chemicals. The Ping-Pong balls dropped to the forest floor in a deliberate pattern produced by the pilot’s flying. The chemicals in the balls heated from reaction and burst into flame. This fire the pilot was building resembled a wedding cake. The center of the cake grew hotter with flame and then nuked out, exploding into a consuming fire storm with 200 foot high flames. A mushroom cloud 4 miles high capped the flames. It was incredible. The pilot of the small helicopter was our new hero. Wow! How’d you do that, we asked? We were in awe and jealous because it looked like lighting a big fire was even more fun than dumping water on one.
The man-made fire they’d lit earlier along the roadside was sucked toward the nuke-out by the in-rushing oxygen feeding the giant fire, as was the front of the wild fire. We flew up and down the logging road and dumped water on spot fires started by flying embers that had jumped the road. The heat on our faces from the nuke-out was impressive even at our half mile distance. By the end of the day the fuel between the logging road and the fire was consumed. The wild fire had no means to advance further so its flames went out. The western flank of the fire was nothing but a bunch of black, smoking trees. McCall would not burn.
The next day we began doing clean up. We dumped water on smoking logs on the slope above McCall all morning—the most boring and useless of jobs since the logs had to be chopped into little pieces and smothered before the heat would go out of them. Then Air Attack called and gave us some new GPS coordinates. A new fire had started about 45 miles north of town. We headed out, happy to be leaving clean up. New fire starts are always interesting because things are out of control and yet small enough to tackle. When we got to the new spot we saw just that. We had a couple of 100 acre fires burning in grass and timber on steep ground half a mile above a ranch. The river was right there and deep enough for us to dip our water bucket in. We could dump a lot of buckets of water on the fire quickly and do some real damage to it. Some guys were on the ground scratching a hand line in the grass trying to surround the fire so we helped them by dumping water on the flame ahead of their intended line. An hour later we almost had the grass fire contained when it was time for us to return to McCall for fuel. With the round trip we would be gone an hour.
An hour later we were back and things looked so different. The wind had picked up and our grass fire had jumped the hand line. It was now 200 acres and about to enter the timber, where it would become hot and hard to put out. We attacked that side of the fire but that meant ignoring the rest of it. The fire grew to 300 acres but we kept it out of the timber. We called Air Attack and asked him for more help . If we had another big helicopter out here and staggered our fuel loads one of us could keep attacking the fire while the other went for fuel. We could lick this thing today before it got any bigger. Air Attack answered back, “Roger, we understand. We can’t release another big helicopter from clean up at McCall because there’s a lot of political pressure on the Forest Service to have a visible presence on the smokes that the townspeople can see. You’ll have to make do yourself.” Soon we went for fuel and the fire entered the trees.
We didn’t return to the new fire again that day. We were put back on clean up, dumping bucket after bucket of water on the campfire sized smokes of smoldering logs that were visible on the slope above McCall. Meanwhile the new fire burned.
The next day we sat on the ground most of the morning due to poor visibility from smoke. Around noon we launched. Air Attack wanted us to do more clean up but we asked him if we could go to The Front. That’s what we called the new fire. He said yea and sent us off. Holy Smokes.
The fire was 10 times bigger. The air was very smoky. The side of the fire in the timber was cooking. The grassy side of the fire had spotted across the river. We started dumping water on the spot fires across the river, trying to keep things from spreading in a new direction. I was flying and a new pilot sat in the copilot seat. The fire was so close to the river that I basically just pulled a bucket of water out of the river, turned, and threw it on the fire. You know the Mad Hatter’s spinning teacup carnival ride? That’s what this was like but you got paid to be on it. And you couldn’t get off. After 30 minutes of this the new pilot threatened to barf in my lap, so I had to find new targets that weren’t so spinningly close. There were plenty, but the close targets were the most important, we would find out later. Again we returned to McCall for fuel and again we were put back on clean up. We flew campfire duty for a 2 hour fuel load and then headed back out to The Front.
The close targets had grown into running open flame. The fire entered the mouth of a narrow, steep, brushy draw made by a seasonal creek. The wind pushed the fire up the steep drainage of the dry creek, the fire fanning wider as it burned uphill. We attacked the point of the flame. Our water bucket hung 150 feet below us on a cable so we were at least that high above the ground. Yet, as we flew up the narrow draw to the head of the fire I realized the flames on either side of the draw were above us. They were so close it looked like we could touch them, although they were probably a good 50 feet away. The only place around us with no flame was directly overhead. The other pilot with me was one of our East Coast construction guys doing fill-in duty. His normal world was flying between city skyscrapers carrying construction material. “Hey, check this out,” I told him. He looked up from his flying duties and realized where he was. “Pretty cool, heh?” I said. “We are definitely at The Front.” He made a good drop of water on a spot fire but on his next drop the wind caught and blew the water off target. That’s all it took. In the three minutes that passed getting the bucket refilled at the river the spot fire we missed burned another 100 yards up the draw. In 10 minutes it had climbed another 1/4 mile up the draw. The flame front was now a quarter mile wide and out of control. We called Air Attack and passed on the news.
We spent the rest of a month fighting the backside of the McCall fires. The little fire that we had hoped to contain on its first day and we had named The Front grew to 45,000 acres before cool weather and rain put it out. The smoking logs above McCall continued to send up wisps until someone hiked over to them, chopped them up, and smothered the hot coals imbedded in the wood. The field at McCall where we parked our helicopter during the fire is now a golf course. Idaho is having a drought now. Fire danger is high. Maybe I’ll get to park on the fairway this summer.