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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 2

Most of the time the dispatcher’s desk at the Spearfish County Sheriff’s Department was not a busy place. Even though the desk served as call central for the county 911 system, Mary Tingley, the dispatcher on duty, thought that she was bored more often than not in the dozen years she’d held the job. She was one of five people who rotated the duty, and most of the time she went through the whole shift and only got a handful of calls, many of them minor things. To get a fire call for an actual live fire, even a forest fire, was a big deal.

Oh, once in a while things got busier, just enough to stave off terminal boredom. Some of the busy times could be predicted; Saturday nights still got out of hand at times, especially in the summer, but that was more summer-visitor craziness than it was the normal Saturday night partying. Just a couple days before a big thunderstorm had blown through, with tornado watches flying, although no tornado warnings, thank goodness – though not unknown, tornadoes were pretty rare around this neck of the woods, and Mary was just as happy to keep them that way. Still, the thunderstorm had brought several reports of wires down, which meant calling the power company and fire departments; there were scattered reports of wind damage, and the state road northeast of town had been closed for a while with a big tree across it. The town had a couple inches of rain and some hail dumped on it, but she’d heard that Emil Shaundessy out at Wood Duck Lake hadn’t reported a drop of rain. Thunderstorms were funny like that.

Still, she’d been on the job long enough that she didn’t even have to think about the response. In the moments that she had the Erikson kid on hold, she alerted the Hoselton and Spearfish Lake Fire Departments. Technically, the fire was in Hoselton’s coverage area, but Spearfish Lake was just a touch closer the way the roads ran. A fire that big would need more than one department, anyway. Both departments were set up to fight field and forest fires, although a big fire would become the responsibility of the Department of Natural Resources. Still, the local departments would bear the brunt of the responsibility, since it probably would take the state a couple hours to respond with the heavy equipment needed to fight a serious forest fire. If it got to the point where it was out of hand, it could turn into a big deal for both the local fire departments and the state.

“Hoselton and Spearfish Lake,” she called on the fire frequency. “Caller reports a forest fire fifty to a hundred yards in extent, located about four miles east of Turtle Hill, two miles north of the railroad grade.”

Spearfish Lake responded to her call almost immediately. Even though Spearfish Lake was a fairly big town, it still had a volunteer department. She recognized the person making the response: Joe McGuinness, the former chief, who had retired from active firefighting a few years ago but still ran the department’s radio, so must have been hanging around anyway. “Central, Spearfish Lake clear direct,” she heard, which told her that Joe had gotten the information about the fire from the original call. Just about that time, she heard the fire siren in town start to blow, so that doubled the notice to the firemen.

*   *   *

It was still uncomfortable for Joe McGuinness to watch the fire crews race in, gather their gear, and head for the trucks, then head off, sirens blaring, for a fire somewhere. He had been on one of those crews for a lot of years, close to forty of them. He always enjoyed the anticipation of the excitement as much as anything, but he’d finally realized that he was getting too old for that kind of thing, whether he liked it or not.

Joe had come to Spearfish Lake back in the seventies, mostly because he didn’t like living in Milwaukee. He enjoyed being up in the woods, the opportunity for hunting and fishing, the opportunity for canoeing and kayaking. There was a lot more whitewater to be found around Spearfish Lake, especially in the spring, than in a month of Sundays looking anywhere near Milwaukee. He’d had a good job with a big accounting firm there, and was making good money at it, but hated it and was bored to tears. He’d get away to the woods when he could, but Sunday afternoons heading back to Milwaukee were always a drag. His wife, Nancy, liked being out in the woods and hated being in the city almost as much as he did, and one Sunday afternoon on the way back home she said, “It’s too bad there aren’t any jobs for accountants up here. It’d be great to live in someplace like Spearfish Lake.”

“Well,” he said, “people can always use commercial accountants. We might have to struggle for a while, but it should be possible to open a small agency in some place like that.”

That got him to thinking, and from that point on his days in Milwaukee were numbered. The first chance he got he took a couple days off during the week, headed up to Spearfish Lake, and went snooping around. There was one agency in town that was pretty busy, although the owner was elderly, and after some investigation he found that a lot of the accounting business in town went to Camden. It looked like there was room for another accountant in town, and before long he and Nancy decided to take the plunge, knowing that it was going to be a real reach for them.

Setting up a new business in someone else’s established territory was a struggle, but Joe realized that the quickest way to build up a clientele was to get to know people as soon as possible and to become part of the fabric of the town. In his first days there he happened to talk to Harry Masterfield, the oil distributor, about getting some business. Harry was open to the idea, but in the middle of the discussion the fire siren sounded, and Harry had to go running off to the fire hall – it turned out that he was the chief of the local volunteer fire department.

Joe was admittedly an adrenaline freak – otherwise he wouldn’t have been into whitewater kayaking – and as a kid he had always dreamed of being a fireman. When he and Harry were able to pick up the discussion a couple days later, it didn’t take Harry long to discover he’d found a new recruit. Although there was much to learn, joining the department proved to be the key he needed to make the accounting business a success – not that the firemen brought in a lot of business of their own, but being on the department proved that he was committed to the community. That counted for a lot.

Still, business was touch and go for a while, until Joe was injured fighting the Warsaw fire back in the early eighties. Although he was pretty stove up and in casts, he could still do accounting, and perversely it brought him some business. By the time he was ready to go firefighting again the business was a lot more solid, and at the same time Joe was a lot more committed to firefighting. Getting injured had just proved to him that there was risk there, and the risk made for excitement, which admittedly there wasn’t a lot of behind an adding machine. Over the next few years he took all the training courses he could and proved his commitment to the department time and again. When Harry was stricken with cancer in the late nineties Joe had been on the department for over twenty years and was one of the more senior of the officers, but he was still surprised to be elected chief.

He stayed with it for a while. By then he was starting to think retirement, starting to think about other things he wanted to do, and to despise the nice days that he had to spend indoors and behind a desk, rather than out in the woods. By happenstance, he met a young accountant originally from Spearfish Lake who wanted to leave the city and return home. Within days he had worked out an agreement for John Archer to buy him out of the business over the long term. He still worked at the agency some, but only as much as he wanted to, and there was plenty of time to be out in the woods. After a decade he gave up the chief position and just stayed with the department as a radio operator.

But an old fire horse like he was still got excited at the smell of smoke. Since McGuinness-Archer Accounting was right up the street from the fire station Joe often spent some of his free time hanging around there, even if he was doing nothing in particular. Thus it was that he was next to the radio in the station when the call came in from Central. Even though he wasn’t the fire chief any longer, he could still direct traffic, so to speak. He got the station doors open even before the first of the volunteers arrived, men – and a couple women – who had heard the call on their own portable radios. He knew that Ron Keilhorn, the new chief, would be a while getting there from his job at the plywood plant, and he knew that Ron trusted him to get things going and keep them going.

So when the first arrivals showed up, Joe pointed them at the grass truck and told them to get moving. As soon as three people had arrived, he sent them off.

The normal procedure was to send the grass truck out first to field or forest fires. The four-wheel-drive pickup was designed to fight fires off road and carried a small tank of water and a relatively small pump. However, Joe also knew that while the rig was effective against field fires, it really wasn’t much good against a forest fire unless it was pretty small. For a number of reasons, the main tactic to use against forest fires was not to try to put the fire out per se, but to keep it from spreading. Water could be used if necessary, but mostly they would have to cut a fire-resistant fire line to limit the spread of the fire and let the fire burn itself out within those limits.

The department really wasn’t equipped to fight a full-out forest fire that well. It could protect structures, for example, but cutting fire lines was a little above their capabilities. Cutting fire lines by hand is slow and tedious work – a crew of men the size of the full department working frantically would do well to cut a quarter mile of relatively small fire line over the course of a couple hours. If the fire was at all big, it would take heavy equipment that the department didn’t have, and from the first report, this fire sounded big enough that the department wasn’t going to be able to do much with it on initial attack.

More and more people started to show up, and as they came Joe directed them toward equipment and passed along what information he had, which wasn’t much. It was still very frustrating that he wasn’t going to be going with them. They’d been lucky and hadn’t had many big forest fires over the recent years, but deep in his gut Joe somehow felt that this one was going to keep things busy for a while.

*   *   *

Twenty-five miles east by road, Clint Bork was a little farther from the radio in Hoselton’s fire department office. He’d been with the little volunteer department much of his life, and his father had been chief before him. Hoselton wasn’t much – mostly a handful of houses, a grocery store/gas station that in other places would have been called a convenience store, a bar, and that was about it. It really wasn’t much of a town, and it was old and shabby and beat up, but to Clint it was home and he liked it that way.

Like most of the firemen on the department, he’d spent much of his life in the woods, cutting pulp as a more or less independent contractor, mostly for Jerusalem Paper out of Warsaw, although some cutting was done for others. A few years earlier, a perfectly normal poplar tree had bucked back on him in an unexpected way, doing a real number on his leg. By the time he was mobile again he’d realized that he’d had about all the pulpwood cutting he wanted and then some. With some time to think about it and put things together, he’d managed to organize several independent cutters into a cutting and hauling company that could bid on contracts more efficiently. That meant he could stay in town and run things, or, if he wasn’t too busy, spend time at the fire station.

There was always something that needed to be done at the fire station. The Hoselton department didn’t have a lot of money for equipment, so much of what they had was old hand-me-downs from other departments from here and there and everywhere. Of course, old equipment takes a lot of maintenance, and Clint, like his father before him, spent a lot of time working on it. He had just been finishing up an oil change on the draft truck when the call came in, so he had to wipe his hands as he limped quickly toward the office.

While he was heading toward the office, he was thinking: four miles east of Turtle Hill, a couple of miles north of the rail grade? There ain’t nothing out there! No roads, no anything. As a longtime pulp logger he knew that you could get anywhere in these woods if you knew the way and had time enough. The problem was that he didn’t know the woods in that area all that well – that was all either state or Clark Plywood land, and while Bork Logging did work for Clark Plywood from time to time he couldn’t recall doing any in that area. Boy, that’s the middle of damn nowhere, he thought as he keyed the microphone and said, “Central, Hoselton, clear direct.” He thought for a moment more – if the fire is that big and it’s that tough to get into, it could get out of hand real easy. Since the fire was in his district, he’d bear the initial responsibility for decision making on the scene, so he added, “Have Warsaw move up to our station and put Albany River on station standby.”

“Roger, clear on Warsaw to move up and Albany River to station standby,” Mary replied. Not taking her finger off the microphone button, she called the other two stations – the first well to the east of Hoselton, and the other to the south of Spearfish Lake – to have them call their volunteer firemen to the station to stand by for further orders. Warsaw’s would stand by at Hoselton, closer to the fire. If the fire were anything at all, both probably would get called to the scene.

“Central, Hoselton,” Bork called again. “Do you have any better location on the fire?”

“Hoselton, the caller reported that they drove in on an old logging road off 919 about six miles north of Shaundessy’s.”

“Central, I don’t recall anything like that in that area. Could you have them stand by?”

“Hoselton, I’ll ask,” crackled out of the speaker.

OK, now what? Clint wondered. Grass truck has to go first, that’s four wheel drive so it can probably get in there. What the hell are we going to use for water once we get there? There’s probably a pond or something back there, but no idea where, and there’s no way we want to take the bigger trucks off road until we know we can get them to the fire. Hell, it’s going to take half an hour just to get there, so if this is anything at all we’re probably going to be all damn night and then some. Damn, can’t make any decisions until we know what we’re dealing with. Hell with it, take everything, have them stand by on 919 until we find out if we can get the other stuff in there.

Jay Bailey came running in the door, one of eight or nine guys who Clint figured could get there in a hurry. “What we got?” he yelled.

“Forest fire, four miles east of Turtle Hill, a couple miles north of the railroad,” Clint reported. “We’re gonna take the grass truck as soon as someone else gets here.”

A screech of brakes told Clint that “someone else” had arrived. It proved to be his father, Wally, who was nearing eighty, and while not formally a fireman anymore manned the station and the radio when needed. Even though he only lived a couple hundred yards up the street, he was having trouble enough getting around that it was quicker for him to drive his old pickup than it was to walk it. “Heard it on the scanner,” he reported. “Boy, that’s about as close to nowhere as you can get around here and still be somewhere.”

“No shit,” Clint agreed as he moved to grab his turnout gear; Jay already had an armload. “Jay and I are going to take the grass truck and see how bad it’s going to be to get in there. Send everything else as soon as you’ve got drivers. Anybody shows up after the equipment’s gone, have them drive their own vehicles. The access point is supposed to be seven, eight miles north of the state road on 919. Warsaw’s moving up to here, but it’ll be a while.”

“OK, will do,” Wally said, moving toward the radio. “Got a feeling this one’s going to take a while.”

“No shit,” Clint said again.

“Hoselton, Central,” blared the speaker that filled the office. “The caller reports that they’ll meet you at the access road, that’s on 919 about six miles north of Shaundessy’s. It’ll be two kids in a camouflaged Jeep. They said they drove to within about a quarter mile of the fire before they saw it clearly, but had to drive to the top of Turtle Hill to call in. They just reported that the fire is visible from there.”

Clint hustled over to the radio. “Central, Hoselton clear,” he called. “You might as well have the Warsaw and Albany River grass trucks head to that location.”

“Hoselton, Central is clear on that, Warsaw and Albany River grass trucks to the 919 rendezvous.”

“Well, that’s good news if they can get a Jeep in there,” Wally observed as Clint turned away from the microphone and headed toward the grass truck.

“At least that’s something,” Clint agreed. “Jay, you ready to roll?”

“Yeah, whenever you are.”

“Fine, you drive,” Clint said, opening the right door of the grass truck. “Let’s get rolling.”

*   *   *

The initial burst of activity was just dying down in the call center when the 9-1-1 went off again. “Spearfish County 9-1-1,” Mary said. “What’s your emergency?”

“This is Josh Archer down at the C&SL,” she heard. “Our southbound rock train crew just called in that there’s a pretty good fire somewhere north of the tracks, about five miles east of the 919 crossing. They said it doesn’t look like a little fire, but they can’t tell how far north of the tracks it is.”

“Fine, we’ve already got a report on that,” Mary told him. “Good to have the confirmation, though. How long before the train will be through the crossing?”

“Should be ten to fifteen minutes, depending on just exactly where they are,” Josh told her. “They won’t be blocking the crossing for more than two or three minutes. We’ll have another train along in about an hour, and that should be it until late this afternoon.”

“That’s good to know,” Mary told him.

“If there’s anything we can do to help, let us know,” Josh told her.

“That’s good to know, too,” Mary added. “We’ll call if we need anything.” Mary switched off the phone, thinking that Josh’s last words weren’t a surprise. A long time before, twenty-five or thirty years before, the railroad had proved to be the lifeline for Warsaw when a huge fire broke out there during a tremendous winter storm. It was before Mary’s time, and she suspected it was before Josh’s, but the legend was that the railroad had made it through the storm to Warsaw when even the county road plows were stopped. Right at the moment she couldn’t see how the railroad could be much help, but it was good to know they were there.

So far, not more than five minutes had elapsed from the first call, and everything that needed doing at the moment was being done, Mary thought, just as Sheriff Stoneslinger walked into the dispatch center. “Mary, what’s happening?” he asked.

“Forest fire east of Turtle Hill,” she summarized. “A couple kids called it in, and a train crew just confirmed it. Spearfish Lake and Hoselton are heading toward it, along with the Warsaw and Albany River grass trucks.”

“Fine, just where we need a fire,” the sheriff snorted. “We got drenched here a couple days ago, but I don’t think they’ve had a drop out there in weeks. Is it anywhere near the road?”

“No, it’s way back in,” she replied. “The kids who found it know some route back in to the fire, they were back there in a Jeep. They’re going to meet the fire department.”

“Good,” the sheriff said. “I think I might as well head out there myself. Did you happen to get the names of the kids?”

“Yes,” Mary said. “Jack Erikson and Vixen Hvalchek.”

“Jack Erikson, huh?” the sheriff smiled. “Yeah, if there’s a way back in there he’d know it. Good kids, both of them. He’s the bird watching freak.” He turned toward the door, then stopped. “Hey, come to think of it, isn’t that Clark Plywood land? They’ve got quite a bit out that way.”

“I don’t know, since I’m not clear on the exact location of the fire,” she replied. “You think maybe I ought to let someone know over at the plant?”

“Yeah, call Ryan Clark, or Allen Halifax if you can’t get him. They might have someone who knows their way around out there even better than the Erikson kid.”

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To be continued . . .

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