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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 5

Clint and Jay weren’t surprised to find that the Spearfish Lake grass truck had beaten them to the turnoff – Spearfish Lake had a shorter distance to go, and then when they got to the County Road 919 crossing a rock train was on the tracks. Though the train was moving along pretty good and only took a couple minutes to clear the crossing, it seemed like hours to the two firemen. They had been relieved indeed to see the last of the loaded hoppers go rolling past them, a blinking End-Of-Train light on the last one, and it had hardly gotten halfway across the crossing before Jay had the grass truck rolling.

The turnoff where they were supposed to meet the kids in the Jeep was still several miles ahead, and Jay had the grass truck moving as fast as he dared. He was as aware as anyone of the danger of meeting a fast-moving logging truck on a blind corner, but hoped that the overheads and the siren might give him a little bit of safety. As it turned out, they didn’t meet any logging trucks, but again it seemed like they’d taken half of forever before they swung around a corner and saw the Spearfish Lake grass truck sitting by the side of the road, overheads flashing. They could see a couple of firemen in turnout gear and a couple of kids clustered around the hood of a Jeep.

Jay braked the Hoselton truck to a stop right behind the Spearfish Lake truck as Clint peeled out of the cab and headed over to the collection of people around the Jeep, where he could see that a map had been spread out. “You the kids who found the fire, right?” he asked without introduction.

“Yeah,” the teenage guy said, pointing at the map. “It’s back about here.”

Clint looked at the map. “Boy, there ain’t no roads back there, are there?”

“There’s a real old truck trail that doesn’t show on the map,” the kid replied. “That’s how we went in this morning. It’s pretty solid, no danger of getting stuck, but there’s some brush to crash through.”

“You going to be able to follow it again?”

“Yeah, shouldn’t be a problem,” the kid said, “I mean, now that we’ve done it once. We didn’t get right up to the fire but you ought to be able to go the rest of the way.”

“You don’t have any problem leading us in, do you?”

“No, that’s why we’re here.”

“Look, why don’t I ride with you kids, that way you can tell me what you know,” Clint suggested. He glanced up at the other firemen and said, “You guys follow along, but stay back enough that you can stop if something happens. Let’s do it.”

“I’ll ride in back with Stas,” the girl offered, and clambered over the back fender of the Jeep as Clint and the kid got in front.

“How far back in?” Clint asked the boy as he settled into the seat.

“About five miles to the fire,” the kid replied. “Seat belt, please. There are some rough spots.”

“Yeah, OK, thanks,” Clint replied. Despite what the cops said, he didn’t like seat belts and got away without using them when he could, but this was the kid’s Jeep after all and he’d been back there before. Besides, it was an open Jeep without doors and he could see it possible to get bounced right out of the thing. “Glad you know where you’re going, because I don’t have any idea.”

“Well, we hadn’t been out there before this morning, either,” the kid told him as he started the Jeep and dropped it into gear.

“What were you doing fooling around out there, anyway?”

“There’s an eagle’s nest up north of the tracks,” the kid explained as he backed the Jeep out onto the road, turned it around, and headed for a faint track into the forest. The Jeep bounced through the ditch at the side of the road and over a berm, which confirmed that the track wasn’t used very much and that there were going to be some rough spots. “We wanted to get close to it, maybe get some pictures, although it’s getting pretty late in the season to expect to see fledglings.”

“You’re into this bird watching stuff, I take it?”

“Quite a bit,” the kid admitted. “It beats hanging around home playing video games. By the way, I’m Jack Erikson, that’s Vixen Hvalchek and Stas in the back.”

“Clint Bork, Hoselton chief,” he replied. “So what’s the deal on this fire? How big is it?”

“Looked to be a hundred yards across, maybe a little bigger when we first saw it,” Jack replied. “We saw it again from the top of the hill fifteen, twenty minutes ago and it seemed a bit larger then, although it was hard to tell even with the big binoculars. It’s pretty smoky so I couldn’t tell for sure.”

“Big flames? Burning fast?”

“No real, real big flames that we could see,” Jack told him. “But lots of smoke.”

“Jack said he thought it looked a little strange,” Vixen added from the back. “The smoke is pretty dark and hangs low. After he said that I wondered if it wasn’t more smoldering than it was burning.”

“Could be,” Clint nodded. “There are patches of peat bog all through these woods. If one of those gets dried out and gets burning, it can be a real mess to put out.” He thought about it a minute. Peat bog fires weren’t unknown, and he knew that they were a real pain in the neck. He knew that a few years before one had gotten out of hand over around Sleeper Lake over by Seney, and it had taken weeks to get it out. Fortunately, the peat bogs in this neck of the woods weren’t all that big. There was no way of telling until he saw the fire. “Boy, this ain’t much of a road, is it?” he commented.

“Oh, this is the good part,” Jack told him. “It gets worse further in.”

“Shit,” Clint said. “I didn’t need to hear that. If this is a peat fire, and this is the best way in, we’re going to have a hell of a mess.” He thought about it for a moment, then unclipped his portable radio from his chest, brought it to his mouth, and keyed the mike. “Central, Hoselton C-1,” he called. He waited a few seconds without a response, then repeated his call.

“If you’re trying to reach Spearfish Lake, you’re probably blocked by the hill,” Jack suggested. “We can’t get a cell phone signal out here.”

“Just to make life even more interesting,” Wally snorted, then keyed the mike again and called, “Hoselton, Hoselton C-1.”

“Hoselton, go,” his father’s voice came back over the speaker.

“Hoselton, apparently we can’t contact Central directly from here. Relay to them to have all units hold up on 919 until we find out what we’re dealing with. Someone could get lost if they don’t know where they’re going, and this track isn’t really up to heavy units without some clearing.”

“Roger, clear on that,” Wally replied. Clint listened as he heard his father continue, “Central, Hoselton.” There was a moment of silence before Wally replied to the unheard voice, relaying Clint’s message. There were several more moments silence before he again heard his father reply, “Roger, clear on that. Hoselton C-1, Hoselton.”

“Go ahead.”

“They’ll hold up further units on 919,” Wally told him. “Central says that Clark is sending out a big road grader, ETA about an hour, and some more heavy stuff on the way when they can get to it. What’s the status of the fire?”

“Haven’t gotten there yet but from what the kids tell me it’s going to take heavy equipment,” Clint replied. “Ask Central to contact the DNR, then call over to the shop, have Jimmy load the cat on the lowboy, and get him heading this way.”

*   *   *

Wally relayed his son’s message to Central, which only took a few seconds. He leaned back in the battered old wooden chair in the fire station, and let his eyes stray to the map of the fire district. He didn’t know that area all that well, but knew that it wasn’t much different than a lot of woods around the area. The map didn’t show any roads leading into the place, so why Clint wanted the bulldozer was pretty clear.

Bork Logging didn’t use the bulldozer all that much, but there were plenty of times when they were glad they had it. It was an old one, dating back into the sixties sometime, but Clint’s crew kept it in pretty good shape even if it didn’t look like much.

It was no great trick to call Jimmy over at Bork Logging and tell him what needed to be done. Although Jimmy was a logger like the rest of them, he was also more or less the mechanic who kept the collection of heavy equipment the company owned going. Jimmy was some kind of relative, a cousin of a nephew or something, but then, most of the Hoselton loggers were related to each other in some way. In any case, it didn’t take long for Wally to say, “Jimmy, Clint wants you to load the cat onto the lowboy and take it over to this fire they’ve got over on 919.”

“Yeah, I can do that,” Jimmy told him. “It’s going to take a bit, I just got the loading crane on the lowboy. They got a big fire over there?”

“As far as we can tell at this point,” Wally replied. “I suspect you’re going to have to help cut a fire line with it.”

“I’ll be as quick as I can, but it’s going to be a few minutes,” Jimmy told him. “Then it’s a pretty good haul over to 919. It’d help if I could take a few minutes to try to get hold of Tom or Steve, they’re out in the Section 28 lot. I could use the extra hands, and it’d make things that much quicker.”

“I’d say give it a try, but get moving,” Wally said. “They’re supposed to be sending some stuff out of Clark in Spearfish Lake, but if this fire is bad everything that can get there is going to help.”

*   *   *

Clint heard Wally relaying the message to Central, but his mind was more on the road in. It was clear that the kid had been right – this had been a truck trail at one time. Although pretty grown up now, it wouldn’t take much grading to make it passable for units bigger than the grass rigs, and it was going to be needed since the grass rigs probably couldn’t do very much if the fire was as bad as the kid said. There were several decisions that needed to be made sooner rather than later, and a good many of them hinged on actually seeing the fire, to evaluate just how bad it was. He thought about asking Jack to hurry it up, but decided to keep his mouth shut – the kid was pushing pretty hard along the almost invisible path. He twisted around in the seat, to see that the first of the grass rigs was in sight. The brush they were crashing through was really going to screw up the paint and lettering on those units, he thought. “Damn good thing,” he mumbled.

“What’s that?” Jack asked as he powered the Jeep through the brush.

“Damn good thing you have this thing and know where you’re going,” Wally told him. “We’d be all damn day getting out there without you.”

“Thank that eagle for deciding to build a nest clear out here,” Jack said as he braked to keep from hitting a gully too hard, then downshifted and gunned the engine to get back up to speed.

Clint decided that he’d better just shut up and let the kid drive. Again, time seemed to crawl; he was aware that the kid was making pretty good speed over the faint track but it seemed like it was taking forever. Let’s see, he thought. Say fifteen miles an hour, which seemed like a pretty good guess, five miles, that meant twenty minutes to get out there. At least five minutes had passed now, maybe a little more. It still seemed like a long way.

A few minutes later Wally’s voice came over the portable again. “Hoselton C-1, Hoselton.”


“Central reports that Clark had a plane fly over the fire a few minutes ago,” his father told him. “The pilot estimates the fire as a couple hundred yards across. No big flames but a lot of smoke, so it was hard to tell the full size of the fire.”

“Roger, clear on that,” Clint replied, with just a sense of relief. Up till this point they’d mostly been going on the report of the fire from these two kids, and there was always the possibility that they’d blown things out of proportion. There could be no doubt now, this was a big fire and probably growing. Still, it needed to be evaluated before real decisions could be made.

“OK, here’s the North Country Trail crossing,” Jack told him a little while later. “When we left the fire earlier, we went up the trail so we could get on top of the hill. It’s actually a little better than this, but real narrow and crooked. I don’t know if you could get one of those pickups up it.”

“Good to know,” Clint told him. “How much farther?”

“Another mile or so to where we saw the fire,” Jack said. “Like I said, we didn’t get real close to it and this track angles away from it, so the last quarter mile, half a mile I don’t have any idea if there’s any tracks there or what. Seemed pretty open though, so you shouldn’t have much trouble getting to it.”

“Right now, if I could even see the damn thing it would be a help,” Clint replied. “This looks like a hell of a place to have to fight a fire.”

Here and there Clint could see where grass had been mashed down, and could occasionally even see Jeep tracks from the kid’s earlier passage, but it was really hard to tell that there had once been a truck trail here. “All right,” Jack finally told him. “Right up ahead here is where we leave the trail.”

“What trail?”

“It’s there if you look for it,” Jack said. Clint guessed that the kid was right, but even as a guy who had spent a large part of his life in the woods, he realized that it would take some study to find it. “Up this hill to the left is where we got a look at the fire.”

Getting up the hill was actually a little easier than following the faint truck trail, for whatever reason. Clint could smell the smoke now, and hints of a sight of it through the trees. Even that told him that this was fully as big as the kids had been telling him.

A few seconds later they were at the top of the hill, and he could actually see the fire. It was a little hard to judge at the distance, but it seemed like the burning area was all of a couple hundred yards wide. What little breeze there was came out of the south, so it was hard to judge the extent of the fire’s progress downwind but it obviously wasn’t burning with great ferocity. It was, as everyone had said, a very smoky fire, and the smoke hung dark and low over the forest to the north. Tell me there’s not some peat burning in there, he thought. We’re not going to beat this one down with a couple grass rigs, there’s no doubt about that. “You got binoculars, Jack?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure thing,” Jack told him, and swung around to get them out of the case. Vixen already had a pair of 8x35s out, and handed them to Clint.

In the binoculars he could see that there was definitely fire burning there, but mostly on the ground. A few popples were on fire, sticking up through the low smoke, but there seemed to be more smoke there than the fire he could make out would account for – again, a good hint of a smoldering peat fire along with what was burning above ground. “OK, thanks,” he said, handing the binoculars back to Vixen and getting out of the jeep, just as the Spearfish Lake grass rig pulled up alongside. The truck looked a little worse for wear; here and there branches and leaves had managed to get stuck on the rig, making it clear that the truck had crashed through some places that Jack had been able to wiggle the Jeep through.

“Yep,” Mike, the driver of the Spearfish Lake truck said. “That’s a fire, all right. Don’t see how we’re going to accomplish much with these two rigs.”

“Me, either,” Clint told him, and reached for the portable again. “Hoselton, Hoselton C-1,” he called again.


“Relay to Central, confirm a fire, about two hundred yards across, impossible to estimate the extent downwind at this time. I suspect there’s a peat bog involved. We’re definitely going to need heavy equipment and the DNR. We’re not going to be able to do much with the two grass rigs and what little water we have.”

“Roger, clear on that,” Wally replied. As he began to repeat Clint’s words to Central Clint got to thinking about the next move. There was a moment of silence – presumably Central was replying. A few seconds later he was proved right. “OK, Central says the grader is about a half hour out from your turnoff on 919, a Spearfish Lake truck just passed him.”

“OK, clear on that,” Clint told him, thinking furiously. “All right, I’m going to send the kids and the Jeep back out to the road so they can guide the grader in. They should get there about the same time. For the time being there’s no point in tearing up equipment until we can get the access road cleared. Keep the fire equipment on the road for the time being in case any heavy equipment shows up, that’s got priority until the access road gets opened up. I’m going to take the grass trucks and see if we can get a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”

There was some gabble back and forth while Wally relayed the message to Central, but it turned out that several units had showed up out on the road and they replied “Clear direct,” meaning that they’d heard it. Clint was only paying half attention, since he was talking to Jack. “OK, back out to the road,” he said. “There’s a big road grader and maybe some other equipment coming to clear a path in here, you’ll have to guide them back here. Can you do that?”

“Sure, no problem,” Jack told him.

“Good, get moving,” Clint nodded. “The sooner we can get some real equipment back here, the sooner we can get a handle on this thing. Oh, and Jack?”


“Thanks a bunch to both you kids. You’ve been a big help already. See you later, maybe.”

“OK, good luck,” Jack said, dropping the Jeep into gear as Vixen climbed over the seat to get in front. “Back as soon as we can.”

*   *   *

Forty miles to the west Bob Coopshaw was driving hard, heading for Spearfish Lake. He was the normal operator of the grader, and had been waiting for it to show up at the job site at Three Cherries – that was what the construction crews called the Indian casino at Three Pines. There was other stuff for him to do, of course, but the grading work was getting to the point of holding things up, so it would be good to have the big yellow machine there. Having the boss steal the machine to go screw around with a forest fire was going to really slow things up out there, but either way the skin was off the boss’s butt. His main concern was that while Randy knew how to run the machine, Bob didn’t think he knew much about actually operating it, at least using it efficiently. It would be all too easy for an inexperienced operator to screw something up royally, and there was no doubt that Randy qualified as an inexperienced operator.

As if that wasn’t enough of a problem, things were screwed up around home, too. His kid, Larry, had gotten into trouble here recently and had avoided going to jail by the skin of his teeth. Now he was grounded seriously, and bitching about it until hell wouldn’t have it. It wasn’t his fault, according to him, and Bob thought that he might be a little bit right considering the bunch he’d taken to hanging around with. They were trouble from the word go. Of course as far as his wife was concerned it was all Bob’s fault for whatever reason. It wasn’t a happy time around home and the most relaxing part of his day was spent at work. His blood pressure had to be out of sight. Just one more damn thing to have to deal with . . .

He’d been feeling a tightness in his chest ever since he left Three Cherries, but now, angry at his kid and worried that Randy might screw up the big John Deere it seemed to be even worse. It was going to be a hot day, and he was hot and sweaty already, even though the air conditioner in the pickup was going full bore. Then, all of a sudden, without much warning, it felt like a mule had kicked him in the chest. The pain was incredible. “Oh God,” he moaned, and at least had the presence of mind enough through the pain to steer the pickup toward the side of the road and get on the brake.

The pain in his chest got worse, if anything. Somehow, he got the truck to the side of the road and more or less stopped, although he wasn’t very aware of it. He wasn’t aware enough to take the truck out of gear, so when his foot slipped off the brake it started to creep ahead without any guidance. He had pretty well passed out by then and wasn’t really aware that the truck was still moving, steering itself back onto the road, then across the road, finally nosing off the far side and coming to rest in a ditch.

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To be continued . . .

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