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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 7

More than a hundred miles to the east-northeast, the phone on Department of Natural Resources District Forester Andy Petree’s desk rang again. It was nothing new; just another call from the woman at the dispatch unit in Spearfish County, giving a little more information on the fire. About all he could tell her was, “We’re looking at it,” and wonder what to do.

“That fire over in Spearfish County again?” Tom Dunning asked from over by the map in the DNR regional forester’s office once Andy had hung up the phone.

“Yeah,” Andy replied to his assistant. “They’re starting to get a little better handle on what it is, now. There’s no doubt it’s a significant fire, a couple hundred yards across and spreading. And there’s no question that it’s at least partly on our land, so it’s at least partly our responsibility.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“That,” Andy grimaced, “Is a damn good question.” While he was the District Forester, he also had a secondary job as the regional fire team chief, and it was this job that was concerning him today. He got up, walked over to the map, and pointed at the reported location. “Let’s face it,” he said. “It’s just about the middle of nowhere. There apparently aren’t any structures for miles downwind, and there’s a pretty good road that would make a good fire line before you get to any. If it was all our land, I’d be tempted to say, ‘let it burn.’”

Fighting forest fires is a specialized business, with no small number of conflicting philosophies and interests involved. Generally speaking, the DNR’s policy was to let small fires of natural causes burn themselves out to lessen the fuel loading in the woods and allow natural succession to take place. Fire is, after all, one of the forces of nature, and it’s part of the way that forests renew themselves. Andy didn’t particularly agree with that policy, for he knew very well that small fires, if left uncontrolled, have a way of turning into big ones. He admitted regularly that the “let it burn” philosophy was at least partly driven by fire-fighting budgets that had been getting tighter and tighter each year, since other things seemed to have a larger demand on the limited amount of state dollars available. That meant that he only had limited of resources to throw at a fire.

“The problem is that it’s not all our land,” Tom observed, stating the obvious. “That area is more Clark Plywood than it is ours.”

“Yeah,” Andy agreed, “and if we just said we’re going to let it burn, do you want to guess how fast Ryan Clark would be on the phone to someone way over our heads downstate? I’m already getting calls about how we’re not doing enough about Hansen Lake. For a couple reasons I’m a little more concerned about that right now, anyway. The governor farting around with our budget means that we’ve only got four fire plows. Two of them are already at Hansen Lake, and a third is on the way there, probably ought to be less than an hour out by now. The fourth, well, you know more about that than I do.”

“Larry says that UPS is supposed to be in with the crankshaft later today,” Tom told him. “So if the guys work hard we might have it back tomorrow or the day after.”

“It means that today we don’t have anything to send to Spearfish County anyway,” Andy admitted. “I’ll admit, up till now I’ve mostly been ignoring that fire and hoping it would go away, but now it doesn’t look like it wants to do that.”

“It’s at least partly on our land,” Tom pointed out. “That means that it’s supposed to be our responsibility. And even though it’s in the middle of nowhere, it doesn’t mean that the fire is natural. It’s been several days since there’s been any lightning in the area, so that makes it that much harder to decide to let it burn.”

“I’ll agree on that, at least because it isn’t all our land,” Andy nodded. “Let’s face it, while we look at the forest in a place like that as wilderness, to someone like Clark they’re a crop that’s going to get harvested. It’s the same damn thing at Hansen Lake. The fire there is partly on our land, and partly on Mattawan-Pacific’s. I’ll bet you good money that Clark Plywood feels about the same as Mattawan-Pacific about letting perfectly good wood go up in smoke when it could be turned into profitable products.”

Tom shook his head and observed, “It’s just that Mattawan-Pacific is bigger and they have more clout.”

“I’m not going to deny that,” Andy smiled wryly, then got serious. “We’re about going to have to make a decision one way or another. Crew Three and their fire plow has to be getting close to Hansen Lake by now. If we turn them around and point them at Spearfish County, they’re going to have spent most of the damn day in truck cabs without accomplishing anything at all. We still don’t know how big a deal this thing in Spearfish County is going to be, and we know for sure that Crew Three can do some good at Hansen Lake today.”

“Yeah, you’ve got a point on that,” Tom agreed. “So what about Spearfish County?”

“Well, if we’re a little lucky and the local resources can handle it today, we might have a fire plow available by tomorrow, either from our repair shop or from Hansen Lake. If we’re not lucky, well, I guess I’m going to have to call around and see what’s available elsewhere, either another district or maybe from the Multi-State Fire Compact. But I want to make sure our hands are pretty damn full before we yank on that chain.”

Tom shook his head again. “Given everything, we about have to do something in Spearfish County, at least if things get out of hand.”

“That’s all too true,” Andy told him. “We’re getting all our information second-hand. We don’t really know what’s going on there or how well they’re handling it. I was thinking about sending you to Hansen Lake to keep an eye on things there, but I’m having second thoughts. I think now I’d better send you to Spearfish County to find out what’s really going on, whether it’s something we’re really going to have to deal with, or what.”

“Yeah, sounds like a good move to me,” Tom agreed. “At least we’ll have a better idea of what we’re up against.”

“It’s not quite that damn simple,” Andy told him. “You’re going to have people bugging you about why we’re not sending more resources, and you’re going to have to make it clear that right at the moment we’re fully committed and we’ll send what we can when we can. Give them what advice and assistance you can, but don’t promise anything you can’t deliver, because unless it goes crazy and we have to call on the Multi-State Compact, there’s probably nothing besides you we can deliver today. And if that isn’t enough, it’d be real good if you could keep Ryan Clark and a few other people from making pissed-off calls downstate.”

*   *   *

Shaundessy’s Bait Shop on the shores of Wood Duck Lake is a landmark of sorts in Spearfish County.

Emil Shaundessy was, as some people put it, “Older than God.” That wasn’t quite true, but the fact of the matter was that he’d celebrated his 90th birthday earlier in the year, and was still spry and got around pretty well. In a world where little local stores in out of the way places are pretty much a thing of the past, Emil still ran the place and made enough off of it to supplement the VA disability money he’d wound up qualifying for as a Marine on Guadalcanal back in 1942.

Yes, you could buy live bait at Shaundessy’s – a pretty good collection of it, along with all sorts of fishing tackle. He rented boats and let you use the boat launch on Wood Duck Lake, for a price. What’s more, you could get good advice about where to catch from Emil, because he knew better than anyone what worked and what didn’t in varying conditions. If you were heading out into the big lake looking to catch walleye, he might suggest that today, a particular bait would work well in the early morning, but you would want to switch to a particular lure at midday, and another one in the afternoon. His advice was usually pretty good, and even if it wasn’t, Emil was a talker and had millions of good fishing stories, only a few of them about the big one that got away.

That wasn’t all. Outside there was car gas and boat gas and firewood, and inside odds and ends of grocery supplies and a thousand and more other things that cluttered the cramped aisles of the little store. Shaundessy’s predated the opening of the nudist resort on West Turtle Lake by a few years, and it had proved to be very good for business. For many years Garth Matson, the resort’s founder, had absolutely forbidden the installation of telephones at the club. That gave Emil a lot of traffic – there were always people who drove over from the club, sometimes two or three times a day to make phone calls to their stockbrokers or whatever. They usually bought something while they were there, just to be courteous.

In addition, Garth’s wife Helga was a resolute and impassioned vegetarian who wouldn’t even allow the mention of meat in the kitchen of Commons, the huge central building at the club. Carnivore nudists needing a fix knew that there would be hot dogs in the roaster at Shaundessy’s, cold cuts and sandwiches in the refrigerator, and the like. Both Garth and Helga were death on smoking decades before nonsmoking became a vendetta, so Emil was one of the last people around who sold cigarettes individually, at a price higher than if you bought them by the pack. It all added up to a reasonable business for a place on a gravel road a couple miles off the highway, with a lot more character than could be found in any modern convenience store anywhere.

Things around Shaundessy’s were usually pretty slow, but the normal peace and quiet came to a fast end this morning, when a procession of fire trucks of various sorts pulled into the parking lot one after another. Someone headed inside to let Emil know what the ruckus was all about, and was greeted with the obvious question, “Where’s the fire?” Of course, under the circumstances Emil had no objection to letting the firemen use the parking lot – his main concern was how long the pop in the ancient pop machine was going to hold out. It wasn’t long before he was loading cans into the freezer to try to get ahead of the demand.

All in all then, Shaundessy’s made a pretty good staging point, except for one small item – it was on the back side of the Turtle Hills from the fire, so there was no radio contact with Clint Bork and the handful of men out at the fire. The men waiting around the bait shop could make out Central and Hoselton just fine, but anything from the fire had to be relayed to them by either the sheriff, who had stayed up at the turnoff, or by the fire station in Hoselton. There wasn’t a whole lot of radio traffic and none of it for those waiting, so it made everyone feel pretty out of touch. There wasn’t much to do but stand around, visit the pop machine, and wait for a call that never seemed to come. The main topic of conversation concerned how long it would take the road grader to cut the path out to the fire so the firemen could get their hands on it.

*   *   *

Even though Randy wasn’t using some of the grader’s more advanced features, he felt like he had his hands full and then some as he guided the big yellow machine up the trail. Even though he knew that the Jeep had made several trips up and down the route, and a couple grass rigs had also used it, as far as he could tell he had no idea of how the kids were finding a path through the brush at all.

At least the machine seemed to be doing a good job of clearing out a ten-foot wide swath through the forest. Though he couldn’t go very fast, the blade was ripping out brush and small trees, and shoving them off to one side. He had to fiddle with the blade height a bit to make sure he was cleaning them out, not just knocking them over, but in the rear view mirror things looked all right. He occasionally stopped and opened the door to look backwards, and could see that the pickups following them were cutting back overhanging limbs and brush that the grader couldn’t get to. It seemed like they were keeping up with him, so after a while he quit worrying about it. He had enough to keep his hands full as it was.

He really didn’t have any idea of how far he had come – this area was as new to him as it was to everyone else except for the two kids in the Jeep – but it seemed to him like they were doing about as well as could be expected. It would be a lot better if Bob were running the John Deere, he thought. He’d probably be faster and do a better job, but at least things were progressing.

For some reason, Randy hadn’t looked at his watch before leaving the road and he didn’t have time to look at it now – his hands were just too busy, trying to steer the thing, keep the speed under control, and manipulate the blade to deal with the changing conditions. It seemed like an awful lot of time had passed, and every time he glanced up into the rear view mirror he expected to see a truck or something catching up with them, bringing Bob. Where was he, anyway? There should have been plenty of time for him to get here now, Randy thought. While there was a radio in the cab of the grader, he knew that it wouldn’t be on the right frequency to talk to the firemen or the sheriff, and he was probably radio blind to Spearfish Lake and anything else on that frequency anyway. Besides, he just didn’t have the time or the hands to be talking on the radio at all. There was nothing he could do but continue to drive ahead and hope that Bob showed up sooner, rather than later.

*   *   *

Up ahead of the grader, Jack thought they were coming along pretty well. Overall, they weren’t going as fast as on the previous trips back to the fire and he frequently had to stop and wait for the grader to catch up with them. It was impressive to watch the big yellow machine crash through the brush behind them. Although he could rarely get a view of what the path was like behind the grader, from what little he could see it looked like a huge improvement. At least there wouldn’t be any need to guide anyone else back to the fire once it had gone through – anyone who couldn’t follow that through the woods had to be blind indeed. Someone ought to get a picture of it, he thought.

Well, someone could. “Hey, Vixen,” he said. “Get back into the equipment case, dig out the digital camera, and get some shots of that thing hacking through the brush.”

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that,” she replied, squirming around in her seat to reach the equipment case. “I was thinking that maybe the paper would like to have some photos of the fire.”

“Yeah, good thought,” Jack told her. “This is press day for them. Maybe we could head back to town when we’re done here. With this mess, there’s not going to be any eagle watching, that’s for sure.”

“That’s pretty obvious,” she said, coming up with the camera. “I’ll try to get a couple photos the next time we stop. Maybe we can get a couple more from that hill where we stopped before.”

“Good idea,” he said. “Maybe they’d like those at the paper, too.”

By now, Jack had learned to anticipate where the grader was going to have to stop, back up, and work at a place again, and the next time he found one, took the opportunity to have Vixen get out for some photos. The grader was getting close again before she hopped back into the Jeep, and he crashed back into the brushy trail. “I got six or seven,” she said. “A couple were pretty good.”

“Good,” he said, concentrating on his driving. “Here’s the trail crossing coming up. We’re getting there, now.”

*   *   *

It took a few minutes of messing around with radios and sirens before the two grass rigs were together again on the west side of the fire, and a couple minutes to exchange information. Clint now had a much better picture of what was going on. He took his portable radio and called the sheriff again. “It looks like the fire is only about two hundred yards wide but close to four hundred yards long, and most of it is in a peat bog,” he summarized. “The problem is that we’re going to have to throw the downwind fire line a good five hundred yards farther on. We really need the heavy equipment before we can do anything, and then it’s going to be a long process.”

“The grader left here a good hour ago,” Stoneslinger replied. “So they ought to be getting pretty close to you by now. I don’t know if they have a radio with them, so there’s no way of telling how far they’ve gotten. Maybe one of the guys in the pickups has a portable.”

“Hoselton C-1 to any unit with the grader,” Clint replied, taking direct action.

“Hoselton C-1, Hoselton C-15,” came the immediate response. “We’re about four and a half miles off of 919 by my odometer, whatever that’s worth.”

“Got to be getting close, then,” Clint replied. “We’ll try to get over and meet you. I’m guessing the kids in the Jeep will go to the same place they went before, we’ll try to meet them there.”

“There’s no way we can get past the grader and catch up with the Jeep,” Hoselton 15 reported. “At least not right now. Maybe we can in a little while.”

“Do it if you can,” Clint told 15. “Spearfish 31, if they’re that close, you can go ahead and send the other grass rigs and the tanker. If you have any other heavy equipment, send it first.”

“Nothing yet,” Stoneslinger reported, “but I understand there’s some coming.”

“The sooner, the better,” Clint replied. “Hoselton C-1, out.” He clipped the portable back on his vest and said to the other firemen standing around, “Good, if the grader is almost here we may lick this thing yet. What’s the chances we can get back around this fire better on the upwind side of the fire, rather than the downwind side?”

“I don’t know,” Millikan replied. “It took us as long to get here as it did you. I think I can find my way back without all the false starts, though.”

“The air will be clearer that way,” Chad offered. “I don’t think I want to breathe any more of that shit than I have to.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Clint agreed. “OK, you guys lead us out of here; we’ll be right behind you.”

*   *   *

Well to the west of Spearfish Lake, Spearfish County Deputy Chris Aaronsen had reached the county line, and he hadn’t seen any sign of Coopshaw’s blue pickup. Even though Sheriff Stoneslinger had authorized him to go beyond the county line, it didn’t seem quite right. This was probably a fool’s errand, he thought, but the sheriff had seemed anxious to find Coopshaw, so probably the best thing to do was to go ahead and look for him.

With his mind made up, he called Spearfish Central to inform them that he was leaving the county and going to the Radisson County frequency, then changed the frequency on his radio. “Radisson Central,” he called. “Spearfish 33 is entering the county. I’m looking for a blue pickup truck that’s needed badly at a fire.”

“Spearfish 33, Radisson Central clear,” an unfamiliar voice replied laconically. “Keep us advised.”

“Radisson, Spearfish 33 clear,” Aaronson replied courteously, even as he pressed westward up the empty state road well over the speed limit with his overhead lights flashing, wondering if somehow he could have missed Coopshaw heading east. He hadn’t been that far south of Spearfish Lake when the call came in, and the impression he had from the sheriff was that Coopshaw hadn’t been on his way for very long. The only way he could have gotten past him would have been if he had been driving like he was in a NASCAR stocker. Since Aaronsen doubted that the pickup could go that fast, it didn’t seem likely.

He was seriously wondering about the question as he hurtled down the empty road, came up over a rise, and spotted a blue pickup in the ditch on his side of the road. “Oh, shit,” he said out loud. This didn’t look good. He got down hard on the brakes, and grabbed the microphone. “Radisson Central, Spearfish 33 is out on an unknown accident about ten east of Three Pines,” he called. As he slid to a stop on the road next to the pickup, he heard Radisson Central replying but didn’t pay much attention. He could see someone in the cab of the truck, which didn’t look damaged at all, except for being nose first into the ditch, but that someone wasn’t moving.

In an instant, Aaronsen was out of the patrol car and running down into the ditch. As he got closer he could see that was definitely Coopshaw in the cab, but the driver didn’t seem aware of his presence. He pounded on the window a couple times, then opened the door, just barely managing to get it open halfway due to the way the truck was lying in the ditch. Once he got his head into the cab, he could see that Coopshaw was definitely out of it – unresponsive; his eyes rolled back when he peeled back an eyelid. He felt for a pulse, to discover that there was nothing there, and as far as the deputy could tell the man wasn’t breathing. This does not look good, he thought.

Aaronsen reached for his portable radio, but thought better of it. He was in Radisson County, after all, and the portable didn’t have the frequency. As soon as the thought hit him, he hurried back to his idling car, grabbed the microphone, and called, “Radisson County, Spearfish 33 has a possible Code Blue at this location, about ten east of Three Pines on the state road. You better send an ambulance.”

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To be continued . . .

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