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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 3

Clark Plywood is the biggest company and biggest employer in Spearfish County. Though it’s a corporation, the vast majority of shares are held by the Clark family, mostly Ryan Clark and his son Randy.

Ryan Clark usually characterized the company as “a little, local company.” While it was definitely local, with most of its interest in Spearfish County, it was a little company in the industry only when compared to something like Weyerhauser or Georgia-Pacific. Back in the boom years of the late 1920s, Ryan’s grandfather Wayne had taken an interest in the then-new concept of plywood. He had some money to work with, mostly family money, and since he was concerned that the stock market was getting crazy and unpredictable he cashed out and started the plywood plant in Spearfish Lake, a town he knew because his family had a lakeside “cottage” there. Most people today would hardly call it a cottage – it was a big, rambling old Victorian mansion built in the days when good white pine lumber and labor were cheap.

Plywood involves shaving thin strips off of large logs, then gluing them together with the grain of each layer running at right angles to the neighboring layer to give it strength. At the time Wayne Clark got into the business it was still largely experimental, so he got in on the ground floor. Even in the building bust of the Great Depression, big sheets of plywood were useful for many types of construction, and the business was a success even if there were some rough spots along the way.

Back in those days there were still some big trees around Spearfish Lake that could be made into plywood – mostly birch, which made for an excellent finish product, and which had largely been overlooked in the heady white pine lumber boom of the late 1800s. Still, the supply of such trees was finite, and Clark could see that in time they would get scarce. Added to that, he soon realized that a lot of each tree was wasted – probably half or less went into the final product, and the rest ended up in huge piles around the still-new plant. Somewhere along in there, he got to wondering if having the large sheets of thin strips milled off of the trees was all that necessary. Why couldn’t you just use wood chips, he wondered, pressed flat and glued together? Most of the strength of the material would still be there with the wood fiber running in random directions.

It was an interesting idea. The “chipboard” wouldn’t have the finish potential of the good birch plywood, but if someone veneered a layer of birch or other material on top of it they’d have something nearly as good at a cheaper price. Knowing that almost everywhere in history the cheap crap has driven out the good stuff, Clark began experimenting over in a corner of the plant. It took some new machinery and new processes, but in the depths of the Depression he had something he could produce and sell. He could see that in the long run it was going to be a big deal.

In the long run, it was. The chipboard, waferboard, and composition board that Clark and other pioneers like him came up with is common and relatively cheap today, while traditional plywood has gotten very expensive by comparison. Clark Plywood kept producing plywood for years after Wayne’s death, but in the early 1980s it had become clear that if the machinery to make it hadn’t been old and fully amortized, they were losing money on it. This was at least partly because there weren’t many trees around that could produce a reasonable plywood veneer, and they were getting expensive. With a deep sorrow at losing the tradition of over half a century, in 1982 Clark made its last actual plywood, and turned entirely to waferboard and composition board, made up of small-grain sawdust glued together.

By that time, the other part of Wayne Clark’s wisdom had become clear to his successors. Much of the land around Spearfish Lake had been largely cut over in the white pine clear-cut, and it had been hoped that the cleared land could be used as farm land. While there were places in the county where there were halfway reasonably profitable farms, especially growing potatoes, for the most part the hope of turning the forest to farmland was a heartbreaking bust – the soil just wasn’t good enough for it. By the 1920s and 1930s most of the attempts had been abandoned, and the land reverted to the county for unpaid taxes, since no one wanted to buy it.

Wayne Clark did. That land had grown trees once before, and could do it again. There were literally millions of small trees growing naturally, scrub and brush. Again, it took a long view and a willingness to seize the opportunity when it was there. In the Depression, the Spearfish County government was as busted as everyone else, and they were perfectly willing to sell thousands upon thousands of acres of the cut-over, scrub forest lands at literally pennies an acre, just for the sake of having some ready cash to work with. It was not all contiguous; forty acres here, eighty there, a half-section over yonder, and so on over the course of a couple years, to the tune of nearly a hundred and fifty square miles. It was still less than a million dollars, which was a lot of money in 1930s terms and even a pretty big investment for Clark.

Even though the taxes were miniscule, considering the low sale price, it all added up to a fair chunk of change, and most people thought Clark was pretty close to crazy. But Clark was crazy like a fox; he didn’t plan on logging those lands, but he figured that his kids and grandkids would. He had some government help in setting up a nursery for tree seedlings, and during the tough times of the Depression, Clark kept a lot of families in the area afloat by hiring people to plant trees out on those lands. Even people who couldn’t take Clark’s long view still remembered him as a savior in those years.

The tree planting was scaled back of necessity during the war years, but Clark made back every cent of his investment and more by running the plywood plant three shifts, seven days a week. The huge numbers of landing craft needed on every war front of the world, along with everything else meant that Clark could sell every sheet of plywood he could make at a price undreamed of during the Depression.

Unfortunately, in spite of Wayne Clark’s business acumen, which was considerable, his personal life was much less so. From all reports of those that knew him, he was hard-nosed, opinionated, and not easy to get along with. He definitely knew what to do when he had a bottle in his hand, a frequent occurrence, and was a womanizer and a philanderer. The only woman who could ever stand up to him was his last wife, Donna, who was pretty hardheaded and opinionated herself. He was barely on speaking terms with his only child, Brent, for the last quarter century of his life. What with everything, the twenty-odd years between his death and Donna’s was a turbulent time for the company, a period that ended only when Ryan Clark took control of Donna’s shares after her death and with his father Brent, gained full control.

In the period that Brent Clark had been more or less estranged from his father, he’d started his own company, Clark Construction, which was the largest construction company in the area. Over the years his attention had mostly gone to that. After Brent’s death, Ryan’s son Randy had taken over running the construction company, and it had continued to be a success under his management, in some ways more profitable than Clark Plywood.

Ryan Clark wasn’t real sure what was going to happen when he decided to take his leave of the business – much was still up in the air and depended on Randy – but in spite of pushing sixty, he didn’t feel like giving up just yet. He had good managers who kept a handle on the day-to-day operations, leaving him time to work on the big picture. Although he delegated most of the authority for managing Clark Plywood lands to his chief forester, Allen Halifax, it would be unfair to say that he took no interest of what was happening on them.

Halifax was comparatively young, just into his forties. In recent years, Ryan had tried to bring young, well-trained, and experienced professionals into management positions when he could, looking to give the company solid management in the years when Randy would have to bear the ultimate responsibility at something of a distance, much like his father Brent had done. Allen was relatively new to the company, less than ten years on the job, but he had a master’s degree in forest management and knew his stuff from experience. Needless to say, as soon as Ryan got off the phone with Mary Tingley, the first thing he did was to get up from his desk and head down the hall to Halifax’s office.

“Allen, we’ve got a problem,” Ryan said without preamble. “The sheriff’s office just called, we’ve got a fairly large fire out east of Turtle Hill, about a couple of miles north of the railroad.”

“Oh, crap,” Halifax said. “It’s pretty dry out there. Any idea where?”

“Still pretty fuzzy,” Ryan told him. “What they said was around four miles east of the hill, and a mile or so north of the railroad. That’d put it in, oh . . . ” he glanced at the large map on Halifax’s wall that showed the juxtaposition of Clark, state forest, and other properties “ . . . about Section 16, along in there somewhere.”

“Lovely,” Halifax nodded, getting up to look at the map. “That’s mostly aspen and red pine, some spruce. The aspen is getting pretty close to harvesting, tentatively set for three years from now, but the conifers have a way to go yet.”

“I’ve been out there at one time or another,” Ryan agreed. “Must be several years, now, since I don’t remember things being that far along.” He glanced at the map again, various shades of color told the ownership of various areas. “We don’t exactly have full coverage out there, do we?”

“No, we don’t,” Halifax agreed. “The odds are about even that it’s our land or the state’s. No way of telling which is which, right now.”

“Even if it’s the DNR’s, we want to minimize the damage to our land, if possible,” Ryan said. It was a given; a big fire would be costly all the way around. A fire in the forest lands hurt everyone, no matter whose land it was on, although where it was located had some bearing on whose responsibility it was to fight it. “Access doesn’t look very good.”

“No,” Halifax agreed. “There’s probably some abandoned truck trails in there, but they’ve probably grown up pretty thick. If it’s a big enough fire to involve heavy equipment, maybe we’d better get some stuff moving, just on general principles.”

“Better do it, just in case it really is something,” Ryan suggested, just short of a flat order. It was Allen’s responsibility, after all, and he didn’t want to tread on his toes if he could help it.

“Couldn’t agree more,” Allen replied. “I’ll contact the DNR, too. It sure would be nice to have a better idea of the location.”

“No fooling,” Ryan sighed. “Right about now it would sure be nice to have those old fire towers.” In days that Ryan could remember, but before Halifax’s time, the forests had been studded with fire towers. Simple cross bearings from two of them could pin the location down to within yards. But those towers were long gone; an economy measure, some said, since serious forest fires were rare. Nowadays, fire search was provided by a contract airplane, flying out of Camden, but they only made one flight a day, sometimes two when things were fairly dry, and obviously they hadn’t been in this area yet today.

“Yeah, but we shouldn’t wish for what we don’t have,” Allen grunted.

“Well, do what you have to do,” Ryan told him. “I’ll see what I can do on the location.”

“Good enough,” Halifax agreed.

Ryan headed back to his office to let Allen get to work on what he needed to do. There was no point in standing around looking over his shoulder, after all; he’d been hired to do the job he knew how to do, and it wasn’t the first time something like this had come up. He turned his mind to the question of getting a location on the fire. Obviously, the dispatch center didn’t know more about it than they’d already told him. Usually, the problem of getting the location of a fire was fairly easy, but this was in a remote section, about forty square miles of nothing in particular but trees.

He thought for a moment about calling the air fire search contractor down at Camden. This was a bit touchy, since the contractor wasn’t working for Clark, but for the state. They’d get touchy if a request came from someone besides the DNR, and it would take a while to get a request to them through the DNR, then longer to get the word back to him. Knowing the way that the state bureaucracy handled things, he might not get an answer back until next week.

But there were other ways, Ryan knew. He picked up his phone and dialed a number he’d had in his memory for many years. The phone rang once, then twice, before a kid’s voice answered, “Spearfish Signs.”

“Hi,” Ryan said into the phone. “This is Ryan Clark. Is your Aunt Jackie around?”

“Just a second,” the kid answered. “I’ll go get her.”

“OK, thanks,” Ryan said, as he heard the phone clunk down on the workbench. He punched the button for the speakerphone, then leaned back. It still felt strange to hear a kid answer that phone. He’d known Mark and Jackie Gravengood since, well, hell, all his life. He wouldn’t call them real close friends, but he and Mark had shared a couple of adventures over the years and were on good terms.

The thing was that Mark and Jackie had never had kids of their own. Then, a couple years previously, Mark’s brother’s daughter had been killed down in Decatur in a situation that was still mysterious, and Mark and Jackie were the only logical people to take her two daughters. Rebecca and Brianna were pistols, no doubt about it, and it didn’t help that at approaching the age of sixty Mark and Jackie with no prior experience became instant parents to a pair of rather unruly teenagers. Ryan was roughly the same age, and was just as happy that his youngest kid, Randy, was now in his thirties. Where Mark and Jackie got the energy and will power to deal with those two kids was beyond him.

A few seconds later he could hear Jackie pick up the phone. “Hi, Ryan,” she said. “What’s up?”

“You mean besides your blood pressure from dealing with the girls?” he laughed, then got serious. “Jackie, we’ve got a fire, supposedly pretty serious, out on the far side of Turtle Hill about four or five miles. Any chance you could fire up your plane, take a GPS, and get me a good location on it, then call me back with it?”

“Sure, no problem,” Jackie said. “It’ll take me about ten minutes to roll it out and preflight it, and then maybe another ten to get over there.”

“Thanks, Jackie,” he said. “I appreciate it.”

“No, I appreciate it,” she replied. “You know me, it’s a nice day and I’ll take any excuse I can to get out flying for a few minutes. I can call you back on my cell from the air. Have you got a direct number? Or, I think I’ve got your cell number on mine.”

“Let me give you the number, just in case,” he said, and passed it along. Then, he added, “We need to get the best location on it we can. We need to know whether it’s on Clark land or state land so we’ll know how to respond to it.”

“Then we’d better not talk about it, and I’d better get to doing it,” she told him. “Call you in a few minutes.”

*   *   *

“OK, Bree,” Jackie said as she hung up the phone, “I’ve got to go flying for a few minutes. It’s your turn to go with me, so run up to the house and tell Becca that we’re going to be gone for a while. Tell her to keep an ear on the phone.”

“OK, Aunt Jackie,” the little blonde-haired girl said. “Be right back.”

It was kind of a pain to have to leave one of the girls behind, but the old tail-dragging Cessna 140 was a two-seater and that was that. Given a choice Jackie would rather have left Bree behind, even though she was younger – she didn’t get into things the way her older sister did. Not that Becca was a troublesome kid, per se, but she was interested in things, some of which Jackie didn’t understand and wasn’t sure she wanted to understand.

The two kids were pretty different, so different that it was sometimes hard to believe they shared the same mother. It was no secret that they didn’t share the same father, not that their mother had ever revealed to anyone that she had any idea of who the father of either of the girls was. While Bree was small, slender, blonde, and cute, Becca was big, lean, muscular, and dark – not bad looking if not pretty. In spite of everything, Becca was the easier to get along with; Bree’s main interest in life seemed to be ratting on her older half-sister. After many years of not having kids, Mark and Jackie were making up for it in spades.

Jackie didn’t have far to go to get to Rocinante, their airplane. It had been an old plane when Mark bought it almost forty years ago and now could not be called anything but an antique, older than either Jackie or her husband. It was in pristine shape, though; they’d put a lot of work into it over the years, especially considering the fact that Mark had to bring it to Spearfish Lake on a flatbed trailer way back in those days. Rocinante had been the vehicle for their “honeymoon” more than half a lifetime before – a trip that had lasted eight months, and had ended, rather than started, with their getting married. They’d done some longish trips in the plane since then, but nothing to compare to those memorable days.

Over the years they’d occasionally talked about selling the old Cessna and buying a bigger plane – but Rocinante was something special to them, so they’d always rejected the idea. Now, as Jackie hit the switch for the hangar door, the little two-seater was revealed, pure white and highly polished. It wouldn’t do to fire the engine up inside, so Jackie grabbed a handle back on the fuselage and rolled it out into the sunshine. It was a nice day, although the air seemed a bit heavy, the kind of day that might brew up a thunderstorm after a while, although it was still a little too early to tell. The air was just about dead calm, so there was no reason they couldn’t take off down the runway from the house.

With the plane outside, Jackie started on her preflight inspection. It was a walk-around that she’d done thousands of times in over thirty years – she’d learned to fly in this plane back on their honeymoon, and it held memories of a time when she was young and the world was theirs to explore. A lot of miles had gone under the wings since then, too many to count. She continued the routine, habitual for decades, and didn’t notice anything wrong. The oil was all right, no water accumulated in the gas tank, and the tank was full, since they always filled it when they brought it back from flying. She checked it anyway, just to make sure.

In a couple minutes Bree came running up to the plane. “Becca’s playing some dumb computer game,” she reported as she climbed into the right seat. “Do you think I can fly it for a bit?”

“Don’t see why not,” Jackie told the girl. Flying was Bree’s real passion, other than ratting out her sister, and even at her age she was getting fairly accomplished as a pilot, if not quite legally, since she wasn’t old enough yet to even be a student pilot in airplanes. It wouldn’t have surprised Jackie in the slightest if the girl turned out to be a professional pilot – she had an organization and attention to detail that would make her a good one. That was still a few years off, although she was already good at handling the plane in the air. “We can’t fool around, though,” Jackie continued as she climbed into the left seat. “We’ve got to go see if we can locate a forest fire and call in exactly where it’s at, so we’ve got to hurry.”

Again, out of long developed habit, Jackie opened the window, yelled “Clear the prop,” even though she knew no one else was around, and hit the starter. The plane’s engine turned over once, twice, then again before a cylinder caught. She let it warm up a little as she checked the gauges and made sure everything was running right. Satisfied, she cracked open the throttle, and taxied out to the runway behind the barn.

Part of the reason Mark and Jackie had bought this old place was that it had a good field usable for a runway. The house was stone, and solid if abandoned and run-down back then. She and Mark had spent three years living in an old travel trailer in what was now the middle of the driveway as they rebuilt the house from the walls in; it had made a good home for them. She glanced down the runway; it was clear, with no deer grazing anywhere as there occasionally were. A glance at the windsock showed that the wind was still close to calm, and a quick run-up of the engine told her that the magnetos were working properly. There was nothing to do but do it. Jackie ran the engine up again and released the brakes and let the eighty five-horse Continental under the cowling do its job. There was plenty of runway and she wasn’t in a mood to crowd the plane, after a hundred yards or so they were moving fast enough to get the tail in the air. In another couple hundred yards the plane was telling her that it was ready to fly, so she eased back on the yoke and took flight.

Given the smooth morning air there was no great need to get high, so Jackie swung to the right as the plane gently climbed and picked out the railroad track leading east; following it was about the quickest way to get where she was going. In a couple minutes they were a thousand feet above the ground, plenty for what was needed. “OK, Bree, go ahead and fly it for a few minutes,” Jackie told her. “Just keep this heading.”

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To be continued . . .

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