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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 8

Clint Bork let Chad do the driving on the way back from the far side of the fire, while he organized his thoughts. For practical purposes, the initial size-up of the fire was complete, and he now had a better idea of what he was dealing with. The fire, although pretty large for a blaze in this area, was burning with relatively low intensity and not moving all that quickly. That was good news; if things didn’t change in the next few hours they ought to be able to get a fire line around the whole thing and have it contained. While the fire danger was listed officially today as “Medium,” that meant that things weren’t powder-dry and that the fire would develop more slowly, which would buy them some time.

The problem was that once the fire was contained, all the peat in the fire area was a pretty large fire load. It wouldn’t produce a racing forest fire burning in the crowns of the trees unless there was a lot of wind, so putting the thing out was going to be an enormous pain in the neck.

Peat is nasty stuff to have a fire in. A peat fire like this didn’t burn with a lot of flames, but smolders almost uncontrollably, and in this case putting out a lot of heavy, particulate-laden smoke. A peat bog like this one is an area that had once been a lake – probably a fairly shallow one. Lake weeds grow and die, and as they do, their carcasses start to choke out a lake. Over time, the lake becomes shallower and shallower, and more filled with the mainly dead plant material. The process is known as eutrophication, and was how lakes become swamps, and eventually meadows in a process that can take thousands of years. Peat is the first step toward becoming coal, and when wet it’s nearly fireproof – however, when dry, it burns fairly well. In some parts of the world, like Ireland, peat has historically been an important heat source.

Clint didn’t want to speculate on why the peat in this bog had been dried out, or even how deep it was dry. He knew that burning peat was the ground burning itself. The fire could get deep below the surface, and even though contained would be tough to put out. It might take a lot of heavy rain or a winter of heavy snow to extinguish the fire, and that might not even be enough.

That meant that the fire was two separate problems: the ground cover and brush above ground that was producing fire with flames, and the burning peat. However serious the long-term problem with the peat was, the more immediate danger was the fire burning above ground. However, with a little bit of luck, that should be controllable, and how to do it was mostly what he was thinking about.

Though the fire was spreading more quickly on the downwind side of the fire, it was also burning outward more slowly in every direction. The soft ground on the downwind side of the fire meant that a graded fire line was out of the question, except well downwind, the area that he and Chad had gone through earlier. A quickly graded fire line – maybe with the grader that was headed out to the fire could easily control the rest of the fire’s creeping advance. It was a shame to have to let so much area burn to a hard-ground fire line, but Clint thought that perhaps a wet fire line provided by hoses and trucked water might stop or at least slow the advance of the fire on the downwind side well short of where a dry line would have to go. The fire wasn’t terribly big at the moment, only about thirty acres, and with a little bit of luck it ought to be contained if not controlled in a few hours.

*   *   *

Although most people have a vision of modern logging involving a guy with a chainsaw hiking through the woods, and there is still some of that, the kind of production pulp logging that Bork Logging did was highly mechanized, like many of the other contract outfits in the area. Logging equipment is expensive, and the expense can only be justified if there’s a lot of production to pay for things. While Bork Logging owned a couple of chainsaws, they were rarely used, and then only in very special situations. Virtually all their logging was done with a specialized cutter-stripper machine that grabbed a tree trunk, cut it off at the base, then slid the tree through a bark stripper and cut the logs to eight-foot lengths. A skidder hauled them to a central yarding area, where a swing loader then picked up these pulp logs and loaded them onto trucks to be hauled off. A separate machine, following behind, gathered and bundled the slash left by the cutter-stripper; it was also trucked off to be turned into wood chips. The machines were ungodly expensive, but they meant that that the loggers could clear off an acre of poplar and not have to get out of the cabs of their machines until it was time for a coffee break or to get rid of the results of the last one.

However – and it’s a big however – those machines have to be kept running to earn their keep. One broken down machine usually means that the whole project has to come to a screeching halt until the machine is back in service. It meant that Jimmy Woodruff, Bork Logging’s mechanic, had to be able to fix things on the fly, and fix them right. Jimmy had done a lot of work out in the woods, but his talent with keeping the machines running meant that he spent most of his time at the shop, or sometimes out in the woods trying to fix the plethora of things that could go wrong with all that heavy machinery. Loading the ancient D-4 Caterpillar bulldozer onto the lowboy by himself was straightforward. The D-4 was a little small for the work it had to do – mostly clearing out logging trails, and plowing up stumps to create yarding areas. But it was also about as large a machine as could be loaded onto the lowboy and hauled down the highway without special permits, which is why Bork held onto the machine in the first place.

Jimmy wasn’t actually on the fire department, but it wasn’t the first time that Clint had dipped into his collection of woods machinery to fight a fire and it probably wouldn’t be the last time, so he had some idea of what he was doing. Cigar clamped firmly in his teeth, like normal, Jimmy made good time up 919, past Shaundessy’s Bait Shop where a number of fire engines were sitting not doing much of anything, and headed on up to where the sheriff was waiting by the side of the road. He pulled to a stop right across from the sheriff’s cruiser, and saw the Sheriff was coming over to him. “Mornin’, Steve,” he said. “They tell me there’s a fire out here somewhere.”

“Right up that track,” Stoneslinger replied, pointing at the trail that Randy had cut with the grader not long before. “About five or six miles back there.”

“Any problems with my getting back there with this rig?”

“There’s not supposed to be any sharp turns, and it should be all graded out by now,” the sheriff replied. “They actually aren’t back to the fire yet, but they ought to be getting close.”

Jimmy glanced over at the grade. “What’d they cut that with?” he wondered.

“Clark Construction sent out their big road grader,” Stoneslinger replied. “They only started back there about an hour ago.”

“Ought to be all right, then,” Jimmy nodded, taking a drag off his cigar and letting the smoke roll out the window. “They can’t make a real sharp corner with that thing.”

“Randy Clark was driving it,” Stoneslinger said. “He knew there were going to be fire trucks going through, so a real sharp corner wouldn’t be a bright idea.”

“Suppose I’d best get moving, then,” Jimmy said. “If I know Clint, he wanted this cat back there yesterday.”

“Something like that,” the sheriff agreed. “Take it easy, I don’t know what conditions are actually like.”

“Sure will.” Jimmy backed the rig up a little bit to be able to make the corner onto the track, then got moving. Black puffs of smoke came out of the semi’s stacks, and he was off toward the fire.

The semi carrying the cat was by far the largest and heaviest rig to head up the path that had been cut by the grader. It seemed to Jimmy that the track was pretty solid for just having been graded out, and there were obvious signs of brush having been cut back. It wasn’t the prettiest road in the world, but Jimmy was used to driving semis up places that were as bad, if not worse, so he didn’t worry too much about it.

*   *   *

Up in the cab of the grader, Randy still had no idea of how far he had come or the distance he had to go, but he felt like they had to be getting there. The kids in the Jeep probably had a good idea, he thought, but it wasn’t worth the effort to stop, get their attention and find out. Coopshaw would not be happy if he were to see how crappy a job he was doing, he thought, but this time speed was more important than precision, and from what he could tell he was getting the job done.

For that matter, where was Coopshaw? He’d had plenty of time to get over here from Three Pines by now! There must have been something holding him up, or maybe he was somewhere on the track back behind him and just couldn’t get caught up to take over. Randy was doing a good enough job without him, but was still concerned about tearing something up on the expensive machine by doing something it really wasn’t supposed to do – like hack a path through brush and trees. A breakdown would be a huge pain in the butt, because there were other things this machine had to be doing in the next few days. The parking lot over at Three Pines wouldn’t be delayed all that much if the machine weren’t over there today. It wasn’t supposed to go over until this afternoon, anyway, but if he were stuck out here too long with it the need for it at the casino parking lot would just get greater. On the other hand, this fire was supposed to be mostly on Clark land, so it was going to hurt the family business there, too – just not as quickly.

Randy kept the John Deere moving, mostly ahead, although at times he had to back up and do a section a little bit better. It couldn’t be much further now, could it?

*   *   *

Clint couldn’t remember hearing a weather report this morning, and the only report he had from yesterday was one of the TV weathermen from down in Camden the night before. As he recalled, it was supposed to be pretty much the same as yesterday, so that meant there probably wouldn’t be a lot of wind, and what there was would probably continue to be southerly. That meant a hot day, which was going to make things uncomfortable, but it could be a heck of a lot worse.

It took longer than Clint had hoped for the two grass rigs to get back around the upwind side of the fire and back to the top of the little hill where he’d first seen the fire, but the time wasn’t entirely lost. Going around the other way gave him a picture of the upwind side of the fire that he hadn’t seen before. It was still creeping ahead, but it seemed to him that as long as the weather conditions stayed pretty much the way they were that a hasty fire line would hold the fire well enough. That meant for the initial attack, the main effort could be spent on the downwind side of the fire, where the real danger was. By the time they got to the top of the little hill, Clint had pretty well worked out the initial attack plan in his mind, depending on what he had to work with.

At the fairly open area at the top of the hill, Clint had Chad stop the truck. He turned back and took another look at the fire – it had grown some in the hour or so since he’d been there last, but not a lot, which confirmed his suspicions. He walked a few steps away from the truck in hopes of hearing the oncoming grader, but couldn’t hear anything. Still, they had to be pretty close.

He took another look around, and realized that this was an important spot. It was the only place close up where he could see pretty much the full extent of the fire, so it was an obvious spot for a lookout to be stationed, to warn if things got out of hand. It also was a pretty reasonable spot for a command post, at least for now, especially since it was located on what was the only known access to the fire, at least when the grader got here. Moreover, unless there was a major wind shift it was fairly safe from the fire, and if things did get out of hand it was open enough that a fire line could be quickly created to defend the spot.

There was really only one bad part about this spot – he was radio blind to both Spearfish Lake and the trucks being concentrated down at Shaundessy’s. That meant messages were going to have to be relayed through either the Sheriff out at the road, or the Hoselton fire hall. That was going to complicate things, but things would be even more complicated in any other spot.

It was kind of a shame in a way, but Clint realized that he was going to have to fight the fire from here, rather than from down next to the fire. There were already several different fire departments involved, not to mention Clark Construction and Bork Logging, and it seemed likely that there would be more involved before it was over with, not to mention the DNR, which was going to complicate things royally. If and when the DNR showed up in force, they’d probably wind up taking over responsibility for the fire. For now, Clint was the first fire chief on the scene and it was his territory anyway, so that meant that he was going to have to be the commander of the whole show, and not down on the fire line where he’d really rather be.

Being a conscientious fireman in a forest area, Clint had been to a few forest fire fighting classes and schools over the years, and knew quite a bit about fighting forest fires. He’d fought any number of them over the years, but mostly small ones; this would be the first time in those years that he’d have to be incident commander on a major forest fire, and this was the logical place to coordinate things.

It was time to start coordinating, then. He walked back up to the truck, and pulled out the topographic map. Amazingly enough, the contour lines showed this little hill, and even showed the hachures of a marshy area pretty much where the fire was located. There were no names for either one of them, of course, but thinking of the kids who had found the fire he decided that it had a name now: Birdwatcher Hill. He scrabbled around in the glove compartment of the grass rig until he found a pencil, marked out the extent of the fire and at least a rough idea of the route he’d taken around the fire, and at least a guess of the route that the kids had brought him in on. He picked up the radio microphone in the grass rig and called, “Hoselton C-1 to all units. I’m designating myself as incident commander for this fire, and am going to establish a command post on a small hill . . . ” He had to break for a second to find the coordinates, then read them off. “I’m designating the command post as Birdwatcher Hill. Does anyone have any idea how close the grader and other equipment are to this location?” He let up on the microphone and waited for a reply from someone.

“Hoselton C-1, Hoselton C-15,” he heard in a few seconds. “I’m not real sure where we’re at, but I don’t think we can be very far away.”

“Good,” Clint replied. “We’ll wait here for you. If you can get word to the kids in the Jeep, it’s the same spot where they left us last time.”

“C-One, I’m not sure if we can catch them,” came the reply. “Right at the moment we’re moving pretty good, and we’d have to get past the grader somehow.”

“Catch them if you can but don’t break your neck, it’s not that important,” Clint told him. “Break, Spearfish 31 from Birdwatcher Hill Command.”

“Birdwatcher Hill, Spearfish 31,” Stoneslinger replied.

“Have you sent any heavy equipment up the trail yet?”

“Your bulldozer on a lowboy left here a few minutes ago,” the sheriff reported. “They probably haven’t had time to catch up with everybody else. Nothing else has come yet.”

“We could probably use another bulldozer, or a blade-equipped skidder if a bulldozer isn’t available. Do you think you can get something from Spearfish Lake?”

“I don’t know if Clark has one of their crews heading this way,” the Sheriff replied. “If they do I don’t know how far out they are, but I’ll try to find out.”

“Do that. Also, relay down to Shaundessy’s. I need Hoselton Pumper 1 and Hoselton Tanker 2 to start heading this way, plus one more tanker. I don’t know which one to send but have someone down there figure out which is going to be the best for off-road. We’re going to need more tankers after that, but let’s make sure the smaller stuff can get through before we send the bigger stuff, or else we’re going to have a traffic jam back here.”

“Spearfish 31 is clear on that,” Stoneslinger told him. “Anything else?”

“Yeah, I’d like you to stay at that location to direct traffic and relay messages,” Clint told him. “Also, if Hoselton Support 6 is down at Shaundessy’s, get them started this way, too. Oh, and if the Spearfish Lake Air Truck isn’t at Shaundessy’s already, get them started this way and have them come out here. It’s smokier than shit in there, and we’re going to need one to keep air-packs charged up.”

*   *   *

At least partly due to Turtle Hill being in the way, back at Clark Plywood Ryan Clark and Allen Halifax hadn’t heard much about what was happening out in the fire zone. “I don’t want to say no news is good news,” Halifax told his boss, “Because right now, no news is no news.”

“Actually, from what little we’re hearing, I doubt if they’ve really come to grips with the fire yet,” Ryan commented. “I suspect that it’s far enough off the road that they’re still sizing it up.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Allen agreed. “It’s just damn hard to stand here and not know what’s going on. I’ve got a feeling this is trouble. Do you think that someone over at the construction company could get hold of Randy in the grader?”

“If he’s out behind the hill, he’s probably as out of radio contact as anyone else,” Ryan said. “And I agree, not knowing is a pain in the ass. I’m just concerned that the guy from the DNR is going to show up and decide that it’s a ‘let burn’.”

“From what I know about them, they seem to think that an awful lot,” Allen agreed. “I wonder how much of that reflects how little money they’ve got to work with.”

“Probably more than they’ll admit to,” Ryan replied. “They can let their wilderness burn all they want to, but if they want to let our tree farms burn that’s another story, as far as I’m concerned. Allen, we need to know more about this than what we know now, just so we’ll be able to fight them if it comes to that.”

“I couldn’t agree more, but we’re not finding out much here.”

Ryan looked at the forest map again, for at least the fiftieth time in the last couple hours. “Tell you what,” he said finally. “Let’s swing by my house so I can get my portable and my scanner. We’ll be able to monitor the sheriff’s frequency, and more importantly, the fire frequencies. I may not be very active as an EMT anymore, but I’m still on the roster enough to have a portable. Anyway, let’s head out to the top of Turtle Hill. We’ll at least be able to see the fire from there, and we’ll be able to pick up all the radio.”

“Good idea,” Allen agreed. “But why don’t we stop by the construction company and pick up one of their radios? I know they have some portables, I’ve seen Randy using one. That way we can talk to him, too.”

“Let’s take your truck, it’s got four wheel drive in case we have to go somewhere else,” Ryan suggested. “Let’s take our cell phones and let people both here and at the construction company know we’re on them. That way we ought to be able to communicate with anyone we need to.”

“Yeah, and let’s go prepared to stay a while if we have to. Uh, take binoculars, maybe some lunch and some drinks, stuff like that.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Ryan agreed. “I’ll hop in my car and take a quick trip home to get some gear. I’ll meet you at the construction company. If the gal in the office gives you any static about taking one of their portables, call me on my cell phone.”

*   *   *

Vixen had gotten several more shots of the John Deere crashing through the brush with her little digital camera. She knew it didn’t have a huge memory card, so after a while she decided that she had enough to hold them, although, like Jack, she kept watching the strange sight. “We’re getting pretty close, aren’t we?” she asked him finally.

“Yeah, pretty close,” Jack told her. “I don’t think it can be very far up to that little hill, so I guess that’s where we’re going. After that, they’re on their own, since we won’t be able to guide them anymore. I wonder how much worse the fire has gotten?”

“It grew a bit from the time we saw it the first time and the last time,” she observed. “So I suppose it has to be bigger yet.”

“Stands to reason,” Jack commented. “I’m just darn glad that the wind hasn’t picked up all that much. If it gets blowing, I don’t think I’d want to be anywhere near close to it. At least we’re going to have an easier time going out than we had coming in.”

“Yeah, when you stop and think about it, this is a little scary,” she agreed. “At least we stand a chance to get away from it in this thing. You know, I wonder why we don’t have more big forest fires.”

“You mean those things like they had a hundred years ago? It seems a little strange to me, too,” he replied. “They sure seem to get them out on the west coast. I mean, you can hardly turn on the TV without hearing about another big forest fire out in California somewhere. We’ve got a lot more forest here, but we don’t seem to get the fires. I guess it must just be that it gets a whole lot dryer out there than it does here.”

“Maybe we’ll get to ask someone,” she said. “I’m just glad we’ve been able to help out.”

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To be continued . . .

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