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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 6

The two grass rigs that Clint had with him had only a few hundred gallons of water, almost nothing in terms of fighting the fire that they faced, so for the first hour Clint was on the scene they didn’t do much actual firefighting. Clint didn’t consider the time or the trucks wasted, since what he really needed at that point was information rather than water. When he’d first seen the fire at a distance from the seat of Jack’s Jeep, about all he knew was that it was a big fire.

Even as Jack and Vixen disappeared down the hill in the Jeep, Clint had an idea of what he needed to do. “See if you can find a way to get around to the upwind side,” he told Mike Trevetheck in the Spearfish Lake grass rig. “Find out what we’re dealing with over there. Watch out for soft ground, it looks like there’s a peat bog in there. See if you can spot a good location for a fire line. I’m going to see if I can spot a good place for a fire line downwind. Keep me informed.”

From the spot on the top of the little hill there didn’t appear to be a clear way to get to the fire. “Can do,” Trevetheck nodded. “It looks pretty thick over that way, though. I’m thinking it might be best to go back to that path we followed in here and see if I can get closer to the fire there.”

“Probably as good an idea as any,” Clint agreed. “I’m thinking that if we go left down the hill it doesn’t look quite as bad as straight ahead. Let’s do it.” He turned toward the Hoselton grass rig, as Trevetheck backed up the Spearfish Lake rig to turn it around. Clint made the few steps over to the Hoselton rig, got in the right side, and told Chad McCumbee, the driver, what he had in mind.

“We’ll find a way,” Chad replied confidently, “assuming you don’t mind this thing getting scratched up too much.”

“Can’t be helped,” Clint shrugged. “I’m thinking that if you bear left it looks like a good place to start.”

“Yeah, about as good as anything. Can’t be a whole lot worse than the trip in here.”

“That was pretty bad,” Clint agreed. “That path is going to have to be cleaned out before we can get any real equipment back here, but at least we can find out what we’re dealing with. I’m thinking we need to get pretty downwind of what we can see just to find out how far the fire extends into the smoke. If it’s going to be a while before heavy equipment gets here, I think we’re probably going to have to put the fire line pretty far downwind.”

*   *   *

The trip back out to 919 went a little more quickly for Jack and Vixen, if for no more reason than the fact that he’d been over the path several times and now had some idea of where he was going and where he had been. Still, it wasn’t a fast trip, and it wasn’t any less rough than it had been before. There were still plenty of places where they had to duck to avoid heavy brush, small gullies and such that made the Jeep bounce around. Two or three times in easy spots Jack glanced back at Stas on the back seat, wondering how the old dog was doing, but he seemed to be enjoying the ride, or at least tolerating it.

On the way back he was recognizing landmarks, and after a while he said to Vixen, “Not much farther, now.”

“Good,” she said. “Jack, that fire looked even nastier than it did when we were out there the first time.”

“Yeah, it did,” he said. “I’m glad we got out there when we did. It could have been a lot worse before someone noticed it. I think they’re going to have their hands full with it.”

“I do, too,” she said. “At least we did the right thing.”

“Yeah,” Jack agreed, stomping on the brake and twisting the wheel to avoid a washout they’d bounced through on the way out. He managed that, then continued, “We’re probably going to be messing around out here for a while yet. Guess we’re not going to be looking at eagles today.”

“If it was even an active nest,” she smiled. “After all, the idea was to get out by ourselves, as much as anything.”

“There’ll be other times,” Jack grinned, “but I’d guess not today.”

A couple minutes later the Jeep came out of the last of the woods, bounced through the ditch at the edge, and pulled out onto 919. Several fire trucks were waiting nearby, their overheads going, and right past where the path came out to the road the sheriff sat with his cruiser, its lights going as well. Jack stopped the Jeep behind the patrol car, turned off the engine, and started to get out when Sheriff Steve Stoneslinger walked up to him. “Hi Jack, Vixen,” the sheriff said – he knew the kids, although not well; he’d met them after the two had found a dead body in the woods a couple weeks before, and knew that as birders they got to some out-of-the-way places. “Thought this might be the place, what with the fresh ruts right there,” he continued. “That doesn’t look like much of a road.”

“Sheriff, road is hardly the word for it,” Jack told him. “Looks like it might make a good deer run, though.”

“I guess the plan is for you two to lead the grader out there when it gets here,” Steve continued. “There’s going to be a couple pickups with guys with chainsaws and like that to clear things out a little more. Is that going to be any problem for you?”

“Shouldn’t be,” Jack told them. “If they want to start cutting brush back they could start right by the road, though.”

“They’re not quite ready to go yet, but my guess is that the grader will be able to clear a lot of it when it gets here,” the sheriff replied. “Did the fire seem to have grown any since you saw it the first time?”

“Maybe a little,” Jack told him. “It’s not moving very fast, but it seemed to have moved to the north a little, maybe.”

“Good, maybe they’ll be able to catch it,” the sheriff said. “I’ve had the gut feeling for years that we’ve been overdue for a big fire, but maybe we’ll dodge the bullet again.” He glanced down the road, where a yellow flashing light caught his eye. In seconds, he could see that it was the big grader they’d been waiting for. “Good, here it is.”

A couple minutes later the John Deere parked right in the road near the Jeep. A door in the cab opened, and the operator stepped out. “Hey, Randy,” Stoneslinger called. “They put the boss to work, eh?”

“Bob Coopshaw was over in Three Cherries, so I figured I could at least get it out here for him,” the driver said. Jack and Vixen knew Randy Clark, but mostly as the husband of the history teacher they’d had in tenth grade. Both had agreed that Mrs. Clark had been one of their favorite teachers, but although they knew Randy by sight about all that they knew about him was that he ran the construction company and taught martial arts a little. “He didn’t pass me on the way that I noticed, so I’m wondering where he is.”

“I sure haven’t seen him,” Stoneslinger said. “Can you run that thing?”

“Nowhere as well as he can,” Randy admitted. “I’ve played with it a little on stuff that doesn’t have to be real precise.”

“Looks like you’re elected,” the sheriff said. “Here’s the deal. The fire is about five miles up this track,” he pointed to the ruts leading off the road. “The kids here have been in and out with the Jeep a couple times, but I guess they barely made it out there with grass rigs. We needed to get this thing opened up to where we can get real equipment out there.”

“Well, I can take a swing at it until Bob gets here,” Randy shrugged. “He can do a lot better with it than I can. When he shows up, send him out here to take over for me.”

“I can do that,” Stoneslinger agreed. “I’m told that it’s hard to find the path, but these kids know the way and can lead you. We’re going to have a couple pickup loads of guys with chainsaws follow you to help clear back the brush you can’t touch with that big honker.”

“You haven’t been out there?”

“No,” the sheriff answered. “The kids have.”

“OK, Jack, isn’t it? Vixen?” Randy frowned, reaching for the names. “This thing will knock down brush and small trees all right, but it isn’t very good on big ones. What are we dealing with, anyway?”

“It looks like it was an old log truck trail,” Jack told him. “There are no tight turns, and while there’s a lot of brush, there aren’t many big trees and you can probably avoid most of them. We’ve got the route down pretty good now.”

“All right,” Randy said. “Let’s get started. I’m probably not going to be able to go real fast, I may have to back up and work at some places. Don’t lose me, I don’t know where I’m going.” He turned to the sheriff. “See if you can hurry Bob up. I’d hate it if one of your guys had him pulled over and was writing him a ticket.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Stoneslinger promised.

*   *   *

Randy was just a little guy in comparison to the rest of the people hanging around the turnoff, but he was wiry and athletic, so it was no great trick for him to climb back up into the cab of the John Deere. He was a little concerned; driving the big grader up the road was one thing, but to work it in these conditions was something else. He really would have preferred to have Coopshaw there, but Coopshaw wasn’t so he’d have to make do.

He knew enough about driving the beast with the six big wheels to know that working with it wasn’t a simple process. Sometimes it seemed like you needed six arms to do everything the machine could do, and there were any number of levers and controls in the cab; he wasn’t real clear about the function of some of them. The blade down under the cab could be moved every which way you could dream of to accomplish its work. It could do very precise work with laser guidance, but this was going to be just a rough job.

He started by backing the machine up a bit, then cutting it right to make the turn into the pathway. He could see the kids in the Jeep a ways up the path, but he could also see that he wasn’t going to be able to make the turn with the massive yellow grader. He had to back it up and get crossways in the road to get a good approach. While he sat there, hoping some logging truck didn’t come flying by, he set a fairly low gear, gunned the engine and eased the grader forward.

It was clear that he needed to fill in the ditch and lower the berm right past the edge of the road. He centered the blade and raised it so it would clear the berm at the far side of the road, then dropped the blade and backed up, dragging dirt into the ditch with the back side of the blade. He backed up enough to see that a little more was needed, so took another pass, thinking that there really should be a culvert placed there but this would do for now; the grader could clean the ditch out later easily enough if needed. He pulled ahead, took another bite of dirt out of the berm and dragged it back into the ditch. Again, he backed up enough to check his work; from here it looked good enough, although it most likely would be a bit on the soft side. He rolled the grader ahead, using the big wheels to pack the dirt in the ditch down, then fiddled with the settings for the blade.

Setting the blade to plow left at about a thirty degree angle seemed about right for starters, so he set the blade for that and decided to leave each end at the same height. At a guess the blade pitch also seemed good to start with – he could adjust it as he went along – and set the level to take about four inches out of the topsoil. He figured that would remove the sod and most of the small trees and brush; again, he could adjust it as he went along. “Well, here goes nothing,” he said to himself, dropped the grader down a couple of gears, and got it moving behind the Jeep.

At first, he didn’t move very fast, to see how things went, but he could see that they were going pretty good. That really was an old truck trail they were following, and it seemed to have been pounded out quite well, if long in the past. That meant that the brush that had grown up was small stuff, and the blade ripped it up and shoved it to the side fairly easily but not without riding over some of the larger stuff. He checked the mirrors, and from what he could tell he was leaving a pretty good path behind him – maybe not a perfect road but better than what they had. After only fifty yards it seemed like he could go a little faster, so he picked it up another gear and leaned on the throttle a little. It was still a long way to go and Randy hoped that Bob would get there soon.

*   *   *

It took longer than Clint Bork hoped to get from the viewpoint on top of the little hill to close to the downwind side of the fire. He and Chad were trying to find a way through the scrub mostly by guess, and sometimes they guessed wrong. When that happened, they had to back up and try to find a different way in through the thick brush and medium-sized conifers. Several times they were on a promising line when they ran into a patch of aspen too large to ride over and too closely packed to drive the grass rig through.

On the whole they were making progress, from what Clint could see, but the closer they got to the smoke cloud rising above the fire, the harder it was to make progress. From close up it was hard to see through the smoke, but Clint got the impression that the fire extended downwind farther than he had thought. Finally, they hit a patch that was at least a little open and were able to gain on it some. “All right, Chad,” he said finally. “Guess we can’t put it off any longer. Cut into the smoke and we’ll have to see where we are. Take it easy, there could be some soft ground anywhere.”

Inside the smoke cloud they could only see feet in front of them, and navigation was difficult. The smoke itself was almost stifling, filling the cab of the grass rig, making their eyes water and their throats dry. Both peered out through the windshield, trying to get a hint if there was fire or bog in front of them.

They didn’t get far into the cloud before Chad spoke up, “Clint, does that grass up ahead look funny to you?”

“Yeah,” Clint agreed. It looks a little greener, if anything. I’ll bet we’re running into a bog. Stop, let me get out and take a look.”

In a minute, Clint was working his way through the smoke, hardly able to see where he was going, but he could feel the footing getting bad. The ground was very soft, and it seemed unlikely to him that the truck would be able to get through without getting stuck. He headed back to the left side of the grass rig, and told Chad to turn it around.

It took a couple minutes to get back out into relatively clear air. “We’re just going to have to go farther downwind,” Clint said grumpily.

“Maybe the smoke will be better,” Chad offered.

“Yeah, maybe,” Clint agreed. “Let’s make it a pretty good run.”

A few minutes later and a quarter mile farther on, they decided to turn into the smoke again. It wasn’t quite as thick here as it had been earlier, and they were in an area where the brush was a little thinner. However, again they saw the grass looking a bit more lush off to their right, indicating they were still near the edge of the peat bog. “This still ain’t gonna get it,” Clint said. “We need to be able to put the fire line away from that shit a little or it’ll burn right through it. Nothing to do but look farther on.”

It was another quarter mile before they were able to get to a place where they felt they were past the bog. At least the smoke was thinner here – they may have been able to see as much as thirty or forty yards in the stuff. It was still hard to pick their way through, but at least they knew there was a way to get a fire line set up downwind of the flames. “You want to head back?” Chad asked.

“Not really,” Clint said. “Let’s press on and see if we can run into those Spearfish Lake guys, see what they found.”

“We could run right past them and not know it,” Chad pointed out.

“True,” Clint nodded, and reached for the microphone. “Spearfish Lake seven, Hoselton C-1,” he called. “Where are you at?”

“Southbound on the west side of the fire,” Millikan replied. “The brush is pretty thick, but I think we’re past the main fire.”

“Flip on your siren for a minute,” Clint ordered. “We’re on the west side now, too.”

*   *   *

As Randy was filling in the ditch, the sheriff was on the radio back to Central on the law enforcement frequency. They still had radio contact here, although it was on the faint side; he figured he wouldn’t have to go very far to get blocked by Turtle Hill. “Central, 31” he called. “Do we have anyone out on the state road over toward Three Pines?”

“That’s a negative,” he heard the reply.

“Send someone that way,” he ordered. “Bob Coopshaw is coming this way and we need him out here. When whoever it is finds him, escort him over here fast.”

“Clear on that,” Mary told him. “Do you want our unit to cross the county line?”

“Yeah, we need him here,” Stoneslinger replied, watching as Randy used the big machine to fill in the ditch.

“10-4 on that,” Mary replied. “33 is out south, he’s probably the closest.”

“31, this is 33,” he heard. “Clear on that, I’m moving. That’s a blue pickup, right?”

“Yeah, a Ford, I can’t tell you the tag,” Stoneslinger replied.

“Roger, I think I know the truck,” the deputy replied from unit 33.

By now Randy was going out of sight in the grader. Steve put the microphone back in the car, and walked over to where he could have a clearer view of how things were going. The grader was doing a good job of clearing the pathway out, but it obviously wasn’t going to be a quick process. He glanced over at Rex Millikan, who had driven a Spearfish Lake tanker out to the scene. “You going to be able to get the tanker through that?” he asked.

“Yeah, doesn’t look like a problem,” Rex told him. “Might be a little soft right here at the road, but I think it’d do. What would you think if we followed them in there?”

“I’d say no for the moment,” Steve sighed, realizing that the fireman was anxious to get on the scene. “It’s going to take them a while to get out there, and you can’t go any faster than they can. If some more heavy equipment shows up, they need to go first to help clear the trail.”

“Just asking,” Rex told him. “We’re getting a lot of equipment piled up here, and this road isn’t real wide.”

“Yeah, that’s something to be concerned about,” Stoneslinger agreed. He headed back to his car, picked up the microphone to the second radio which was set on the county common fire frequency, and called, “Hoselton C-1, Spearfish County 31.”

“Roger, 31,” he heard Clint reply after a moment. It was a lot clearer than talking to Central.

“What’s your status?”

“There’s more fire in the smoke than it looks like from outside,” Clint told him. “We’re still evaluating, but we’re going to need heavy equipment to break a fire line as quick as we can get it here.”

“The grader is on the way; they just left here,” Steve told him. “I can’t give you an ETA. I’d guess an hour minimum, and it could go longer. There should be more here by the time the grader gets there.”

“Send it as quick as you can. The fire isn’t progressing real fast so we’re not losing this thing yet, but if the wind kicks up it could be a different story.”

“I’ll try to hurry things up,” Steve promised. “We’ve got a bunch of fire equipment sitting here waiting to get to you, and it’s starting to block things up. I’m thinking we need to send at least some of it back up the road a ways until you need it, maybe Shaundessy’s Bait Shop.”

“Fine with me,” Clint told him. “I don’t know if there’s any water point around here any closer, so have someone set up a draft truck to fill tankers there. Keep a tanker, uh, Hoselton Tanker 4 and the grass trucks out there on the road with you in case we need them in a hurry. Tell Central to not send any more fire units until we call for them, there’s no point in having people sitting around when we can’t use them.”

“Roger that,” Steve told him. “Keep me informed.”

“Will do. Try and hurry the DNR up, too.”

“Will do,” Steve replied. “31 out.”

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To be continued . . .

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