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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 4

Before they left the top of the hill, Jack took the 12x80s from Vixen, and turned them on the fire. Though they were much further away than when they’d seen it earlier, the big binoculars did a good job of bringing the fire up close. From this view, it seemed a little strange. It wasn’t kicking out big towers of flame like the western forest fires he’d seen on TV; while he could see some flame, it was mostly overwhelmed by the smoke, a thick, strange-looking dark gray that hung close to the ground. “Seems a little strange,” he remarked to Vixen.

“Why’s that?” she asked, pulling out her own 8x35s to point at the fire. The two of them were birders, after all, and they had a variety of optics with them on every trip they took into the woods.

“Dunno,” Jack replied. “I guess it just doesn’t look like I’d expected a forest fire to look.”

“Yeah, I guess,” she agreed. “Guess it takes all kinds.”

“Well, enough of that,” Jack said, putting the 12x80s back in the case in the back seat. “I suppose we’d better get down there. Don’t know how long it’ll take the fire department to get there, but we’d better be waiting for them.”

“I suppose,” Vixen nodded, putting her own binoculars away. “I guess that means no eagle today, doesn’t it?”

“Most likely,” Jack agreed, turning the key on the Jeep to get it started.

The road up Turtle Hill from County Road 919 is far from impassible – kids drove up it in two wheel drive cars and trucks all the time – but it takes a little driving know-how to keep from getting stuck, which occasionally happened. Although it had never happened to him, partly because he had a four wheel drive Jeep and partly because he’d never gone out there parking, Jack and Vixen both knew that having to call for a tow on Turtle Hill was a pretty embarrassing thing to happen for the typical Spearfish Lake high school kid. This was mostly because the fact that they’d been out there would get known around the community about as quick as anything, and everybody knew why the kids were out on Turtle Hill in the first place. In any case, Jack didn’t have any trouble getting down the hill to 919.

Though it was key to getting to a lot of the woods in the central part of Spearfish County, County Road 919 had a reputation that was, at best, evil. It was narrow and crooked in the best of places; this close to Spearfish Lake it was at least gravel-surfaced. As the road ran on to the northeast it became narrower, the surface became looser and the road even more crooked before it emerged well to the east of Warsaw. That by itself wouldn’t have made it so bad, but there were a lot of logging trucks going both ways on that road, usually with pedal to the metal and often using all the road and then some. Since a confrontation between a Jeep and a semi didn’t favor the Jeep in the slightest, Jack kept it slow and kept his eyes open for any sign of a logging truck ahead or behind.

Fortunately, the two of them made it the several miles up to the turnoff they’d used earlier without incident. Jack was just a touch relieved that there was no sign of a fire truck waiting for them, but they’d had the much shorter distance to come. He pulled the Jeep well off the road and shut the engine off to wait. While Stas lay down in the back seat to catch a nap, Jack pulled out the topo map he’d been looking at earlier, to see if there might be a better way close to the fire.

A quick glance at the topo made him realize once again that it was more or less useless. It was old, and probably predated the logging that had been done there, perhaps dating from about the time he’d been born. The map showed the contour lines all right, but there wasn’t much about the two-ruts and trails in the area that matched the reality he’d seen just a little while ago.

But Jack expected that; the map had some use, but limited. He spread it out on the hood of the Jeep to use for a reference, and pulled out a folder of aerial photos he’d downloaded from the Internet. These were much newer, and much higher resolution than the topo anyway. Even though he didn’t know exactly where the eagle’s nest was – it was too small to show on the aerials – he had a pretty good idea of where it had to be. Hints of the logging trail they’d followed earlier had shown up here and there on the overheads.

“What ’cha doing?” Vixen asked, looking at him studying the aerial intensively.

“Trying to spot a better route in there,” Jack told her. “I don’t know why I’m bothering, I’ve already gone over these pretty seriously and where we went earlier was about the best route I could find. Guess I’m just nervous, that’s all. The fire is way the hell in there. They’re going to have a hell of a time getting in there to put it out.”

*   *   *

“We’re going to have a hell of a time getting in there,” Clint Bork muttered to Jay Bailey, the Hoselton fireman driving the grass rig. Part of the reason that Clint had Jay drive the rig was so that he could spend some time studying the topo map, the same one that Jack was looking at a few miles away. “You ever do any work out there?” he asked.

“Not right there,” Jay, another pulp logger, replied. “That’s fairly new growth. Up the road a few miles, yeah, but not right around there.”

“Well, I hope the hell that someone shows up who knows something about this country,” Clint grunted. “These kids are supposed to know a way in there, I guess, but fuck, they’re kids.”

*   *   *

Though the turnoff was closer to Hoselton as the Cessna flies, Spearfish Lake was closer by road, so it’s not surprising that the Spearfish Lake grass truck reached Jack and Vixen first; both of them were standing out in the road, waving them to a stop.

The door on the grass truck opened, and Mike Trevetheck swung out of the cab. “I should have figured it would be you two,” he shook his head. “What other kids would be out messing around in the back of nowhere in a camouflage Jeep?”

“Well, Summer and Alan were talking about coming with us but decided to sleep in,” Jack grinned. Mike’s daughter Summer and her boyfriend Alan often hung out with Jack and Vixen, especially recently.

“But you two wouldn’t let anything like sleep stand in the way of looking for some bird, would you?” Mike teased. “Now, where’s this fire and how do we get to it?”

“Here, let me show you on the map,” Jack told him. He unfolded the topo and pointed. “It’s back about here,” he said. “We didn’t get real close to it, a quarter mile or so. We were out looking for an eagle’s nest I spotted a while back.”

“No roads back there,” Mike observed.

“No, but the map is old,” Jack told him. “There’s a faint trace of an old truck trail that we followed in.”

“Any problem getting this truck back there?” Mike asked.

“No, if you don’t mind having to put up with some branches,” Jack told him. “It’s solid all the way back, even if it’s overgrown.”

“You can find your way back there again all right?”

“Shouldn’t be any problem,” Jack said. “We should be able to see where we went an hour or so ago.”

“OK, good,” Mike told him. “This is Hoselton country, I suppose we really ought to wait for them to show up, just on general principles.”

*   *   *

Several miles to the west, both Jackie and Bree could see the fire ahead of them through the blurred disk of Rocinante’s propeller. It wasn’t quite what she imagined a fire like that would look like; the smoke hung low, not far above the ground. At this distance they couldn’t see any hint of flame. She glanced down to get a better idea of where they were, not yet to the 919 crossing. Below her she could see the morning rock train heading southbound – it was actually eastbound here, but Jackie, a railroader’s daughter, thought of it as south because that was what the railroaders called it since the tracks ran south to Camden. The train had just cleared the crossing, and she wondered idly if her half-brother Josh was on it. Probably not, she thought; he still ran two or three turns a week, but had to spend quite a bit of time in the office these days.

While 110, the Cessna’s normal cruising speed and twice the speed limit of most highways, even from a thousand feet it seemed like they were drifting along lazily. In over thirty years of flying it was something that Jackie had never quite managed to get used to. The fire was clearly in view ahead of them, but it seemed like it was taking forever to get there.

Somewhere along the way Bree altered course slightly to fly directly toward the fire, not a huge course change. Their course would nearly take them over West Turtle Lake and the nudist resort. Jackie was sure that Bree knew about it, since the topic had come up before, but she decided that now was not a good time to mention it. Becca was fascinated with the idea and had been fishing for some way to get permission to go out there, while the very thought of it horrified Bree, and she was always ready to let Jackie know that Becca was thinking about it. It wasn’t all that big a deal in Jackie’s mind; she and Mark had friends who had once been members there, and they’d been out there on occasion over the years. Once again, as she had done a good many times over the past couple years, Jackie reflected that it was hard to believe that the two kids had the same mother. Gonna have to figure some way to get Becca out there without Bree going ballistic, she thought idly as they crept closer to the fire. At least the summer’s almost over, so it can be put off for another year.

Finally, with West Turtle Lake behind them and the fire only a couple miles off, Jackie told Bree that she’d take it now, and dropped the nose to get a little lower and get there a little quicker. She didn’t fly directly over the fire, but off to one side a bit so she could get a clearer view out the left side. From this distance she could see flames, although not big towering ones, but lots and lots of dark gray smoke hanging low. She could see that it wasn’t a small fire; it was, at her guess, maybe a couple hundred yards across, although the smoke made it hard to tell how big the fire actually was. Big enough to be a problem, she guessed.

She flew past the fire, then swung around to fly directly over it. She had the GPS out and running, now. It was an older one but worked well for airplane navigation, not that Rocinante usually required a lot of navigation. After all, she and Mark had flown all over the country in this same plane with only a magnetic compass and old-fashioned “thumb on the chart” navigation. That was how Jackie had learned it, the hard way, and she still preferred looking out the window with her thumb on the chart – there was more to see that way, which as far as she was concerned was the point to flying anyway.

Still, Ryan needed an accurate location, so she set the GPS up to take a waypoint when she went back over the fire. When she figured she was close to the middle of it, she punched the appropriate button, and immediately a set of coordinates popped up on the little handheld device. Takes the guesswork out, she thought, but it also takes the fun out. “OK, Bree,” she said. “Let’s pick up a few hundred feet and circle the fire. I’ll let you take it while I make a call.”

It turned out she did have Ryan’s cell number on her cell phone – he and Mark were in the Amvets together, so that may have been part of the reason why, so it was no great trick to be talking to him within seconds. “OK, we’re over the fire,” she reported, and read off the coordinates.

“Good enough, Jackie,” Ryan said. “Now do it again so I can be sure I have them right.”

She read the numbers off again, and he read them back to her just to be on the safe side, then asked, “So what does the fire look like?”

“Large,” she reported. “I’d guess it’s a couple hundred yards across. The smoke is very thick and dark, so I can’t see much about what’s got to be going on under it.”

“Nothing little, then,” he replied. “Thanks, Jackie. You’ve been a big help.”

“No problem,” she told him. “You need anything else from us?”

“Not at the moment,” Ryan told her. “But keep the phone handy, we don’t know what could happen.”

“Will do, Ryan,” she replied. “We’re heading back.” She clicked off the tiny cell phone – something else she would never have dreamed of back on her honeymoon in this plane – and turned to Bree. “Think you can find our way back home?” she smiled.

“Sure thing, just back down the tracks,” the girl smiled.

“Then go ahead and do it.”

*   *   *

Ryan stuck his cell phone back in its holster on his belt, grabbed the notepad he’d written the coordinates on, and headed back down the hall to Allen Halifax’s office. “OK, Allen,” he said as soon as he walked in, “I’ve got a solid GPS location on the fire.”

“How’d you get that?” the younger man asked.

“Called a friend,” Ryan smiled, and headed over to the map. It took a minute’s work to locate the GPS coordinates on the map, and then Ryan made a dot with a grease pencil on the plastic covering of the map.

“Oh, I can see this is going to be fun,” Allen commented with a look at the location. “Part on our land, part on the state’s. We might get the fire out this morning but we’ll be months figuring out who pays for what.”

“Looks like it to me,” Ryan agreed. “The fire is supposedly a couple hundred yards across, but a lot of it is shrouded in smoke so my friend can’t tell the full size of it.”

“Then we’re not getting it out this morning, that’s for sure,” Allen grumped. “Look, I called Randy. He doesn’t have any dozers in town, but he’s going to get the grader rolling that way.”

“Good, I think we’re going to need it,” Ryan said. “Better call the DNR and tell them it’s at least partly on their land, and we’re probably going to need at least one of their fire plows.”

“I’ll call back,” Allen said. “They’re loading one up to head this way, but it’s going to be a while before it gets here. An hour or so on the grader, they don’t have the lowboy here so they’re going to have to run it out on its own wheels.”

*   *   *

Given that both Clark Plywood and Clark Construction are owned by the same family, there’s somewhat of an incestuous relationship between the two. For example, it went without saying that Clark Construction could buy Clark Plywood wafer board and composition board at manufacturer’s cost, which gave them a competitive advantage in bidding some jobs. But things went the other way, too. Given the huge amount of land Clark Plywood owned, sometimes roads were needed to access more remote patches of timber, and even the existing roads got torn up from time to time. While Clark Plywood’s logging crews plowed some of their own access roads, there were times that the roads needed more maintenance than the logging equipment could handle. Clark Construction, though, had a pretty good collection of excavation and grading equipment, so it was natural to call on them when needed.

Though Ryan’s son Randy went into construction management right out of college, he’d spent summers before that on the concrete crews so recognized the value of knowing how things were actually done. Randy took a degree of pride in knowing how to run all of the equipment the company owned. He may not have been the expert with it that someone who had spent years running it might have been, but he at least knew how to operate it and had some inkling of the problems involved. That included the big diesel John Deere road grader that was sitting out on the back lot this morning.

The only reason the grader was in Spearfish Lake at all this morning was that it had needed its routine maintenance check, which had been completed the day before. Though primarily a road grader, it was useful for lots of site work since if handled correctly it could move dirt to within fractions of an inch of where it was needed, at least at the hands of an operator more skilled than he was. The lowboy was supposed to be there this afternoon to haul the Deere over to the casino at the Three Pines Reservation well to the west, where a new parking lot was being prepared. But Randy was not only a Clark but also a paramedic on the fire department ambulance crew, and he knew the fire gave the grader a more important job to do.

The lack of the lowboy wasn’t a real big problem – while the big six-wheel machine wasn’t real, real fast, it could run up the highway at twenty-five or so in top gear, which was adequate under the circumstances. It was probably quicker to just drive it out to the fire than it would be to load it onto the lowboy if it were there, drive to the site, and unload it there.

The problem was that there was no one around the lot who actually knew how to drive the big yellow machine other than Randy himself, and although he knew how to run it, he also knew he was an amateur at it. Still, there didn’t seem to be any other alternative, so he set his assistant to getting hold of Bob Coopshaw, the regular operator, who was over at Three Pines, to get him heading back this way and direct to the site. Randy could at least have the machine waiting there for him, and that would save a little time.

Randy wasn’t really dressed for a work site, although he wore khaki pants and a polo shirt, which he thought vastly superior to the suit and tie he would have had to have worn if he had gone to work at Clark Plywood years before. Under the circumstances, it would do. After letting the people in the shop know what he was up to, Randy went out, fired up the grader, backed it over to the diesel pumps and topped off its tank. It had enough fuel for a couple days’ normal work, and he filled it to the brim, figuring that if the fire was anything big every drop might get used – no small price, but Clark Plywood would be paying for it in one way or another.

Though the machine had just come out of the shop, Randy still took the time to give it a quick walk-around. Nothing seemed out of place, although he made a mental note to swing the big blade around as far sideways as he could get it, to keep it out of oncoming traffic. That much done, there wasn’t anything to do but get in, fire it up again, switch on the yellow rotating beacon on the top of the cab, and head for the fire scene.

It felt a little strange to be driving the big, lunking machine out of the parking lot, across town and onto the highway. He was sitting up a whole lot higher than in his pickup, even in one of the company’s semis that he occasionally drove. It was really an odd sensation to look down at the road from this far up.

Out on the highway he opened it up in top gear and let the machine roar along at its best speed. Still, it seemed like crawling, and he got a lot of angry honks and the occasional finger as he pushed the machine along. This would make an interesting break in the day, he thought. It really was kind of fun to be doing something different, and at least this would be actually doing something for once, rather than more paperwork. This was certainly more fun than pushing a pencil around.

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To be continued . . .

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