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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 9

Clint was trying to keep one eye on the fire, but keep the other one on the faint trace of trail where the grader would soon be arriving. Right at the moment, the big yellow six-wheeler seemed to be the key to the whole operation, and it couldn’t get there too soon to suit him. He happened to be looking in the right direction when he saw the Jeep emerge from the brush, then pull ahead. A minute or two later, the grader came into view, and the Jeep drove up to the open space at the top of the hill, the grader following along behind. Not far behind them were the two pickup trucks that had followed the grader to clear up the route, the Albany River and Warsaw grass rigs, and finally the smaller of the two Hoselton tankers.

Now Clint could actually start fighting the fire, rather than just think about it.

He waved the Jeep to a stop, walked up to it, and told the kids inside, “Looks like you made good time. Any problems?”

“Nothing serious,” Jack told him. “I wish we could have gotten here sooner.”

Clint started to say something in reply, but the big yellow grader pulling up alongside him diverted his attention. He heard the engine drop down to an idle, saw the door open and the driver get out. He was a little surprised to see it was Randy Clark. He didn’t know Randy well, but since Randy was a paramedic and occasionally Spearfish Lake had to make a run over to the Hoselton area, he’d met him briefly a few times. “Hey, Randy,” he said. “I didn’t know you knew how to drive that thing.”

“Oh, I know how to drive it but I didn’t know I could do that much with it,” Randy replied self-effacingly. “Looks like quite a fire you’ve got.”

“Yeah, and you and this thing are going to be the key to whipping it,” Clint told him. “As soon as everyone else gets up here I want to explain what I’ve got in mind.”

“I’m hoping that my regular grader driver is going to be in the back of this line of vehicles,” Randy said, looking at the trucks coming up the hill one by one. “He can get a lot more out of this thing than I can.”

“The sheriff is still out at the road,” Clint told him, reaching for his portable. “He’d know if anyone would.”

“Yeah, call him, if you would. This came down so fast I left my portable at my office.”

Rather than replying to Randy’s statement, Clint punched the microphone button on the side of the portable and called, “Spearfish 31 from Birdwatcher Hill Command.”

“Spearfish 31, go,” Stoneslinger replied.

“I’ve got the grader driver here,” Clint said. “He wants to know if the relief driver has started back here yet.”

“Uh, that’s a negative,” the sheriff said. “No sign of him yet. I sent Spearfish 33 looking for him but I haven’t heard back. I’ll call the office and see what’s going on.”

“Would appreciate it. Birdwatcher Hill Command, clear.” Clint turned back to Randy. “Looks like you’re the grader driver for a while yet.”

“Crap,” Randy replied. “Something must have happened. So what do you need done?”

“Mostly clear more brush,” Clint told him. “I’ll explain in a minute.” He looked around and decided that the hood of the Jeep looked like about the best place to spread out his map for a meeting. “Yo!” he yelled. “Everybody, gather round the front of the Jeep.”

In a minute or two everyone on the top of Birdwatcher Hill was gathered around the Jeep. Even Jack and Vixen were standing up in the Jeep, looking over the windshield at the rest in the circle around the hood. Clint unfolded the map, took a look at it, and decided it was too small a scale for what he wanted to say with all these people looking on. He flipped it over, and started to use the pencil he’d swiped from the glove compartment on the grass rig to draw a quick sketch map of the fire. “OK, we’re here on what I’m calling Birdwatcher Hill,” he said. “This will be the overwatch lookout spot and command center.” He raised the pencil and pointed at the fire, then continued, “The leading edge of the fire is over there, buried in the smoke, a little to the right of the direct line to the fire. Chad and I have been down there, the smoke is thick as cheeseheads at a Packer game. Most of the way down there is like what you’ve seen, young aspen, young red pine. Randy, I want you to grade out an approach trail down toward that grove of older popple over there,” he pointed. “Is that going to be any problem?”

“No, if anything it ought to be easier going than what I’ve had so far, at least most of the way,” he said.

“All right,” Clint said. “Pay attention, especially drivers. Chad and I have been down there, which is kind of how we saw it. But everybody, that’s a peat bog down there and it’s soft, I suspect too soft for wheeled vehicles and maybe for tracked ones, so be real careful that you don’t drive into it. Randy, when you get about fifty yards from the smoke line, I want you to turn and run parallel to it till you’re at least a couple hundred yards past the fire edge. I’m going to send Chad with you in the Hoselton grass rig, somebody with him, to scout out where the edge is and help if you run into problems. Anyway, when you get a couple hundred yards past the fire edge, turn around and plow your path out wider heading back south. That’s going to be our anchor line for our initial assault on the fire’s leading edge. Like I said, it’s real soft in there, so we’re not going to be able to plow out a fire line, so we’ll try to stop the leading edge with a wet line. We’ll start that out with the three other grass trucks and the tanker. There’s a pumper and another tanker heading in, I’ll get them down there as quick as I can. Jay, I want you to take charge of that. We’ll talk about it more in a minute.”

“Sounds OK,” Jay replied. He’d been through a lot of the same forest fire fighting schools that Clint had been, sometimes at the same time, and he was already forming a mental picture of what he wanted to do.

“OK, Randy,” Clint said, “I want to get you and Chad moving since you’ve got lots to do. Chad, give him your portable for now; you’ll have a radio in the truck that’ll let you talk back and forth. Once you get the anchor point plowed out, I want you to head south and carve a fire line into the flanks of the fire. So long as you don’t get into soft ground you can get pretty close to the fire. I want you to go clear around the flank, the upwind side, and back down the far side. I’m thinking that one pass ought to do a pretty good job of covering the flanks for now. Again, Chad will scout and run interference for you.”

“How far north do you want me to go on the far side?” Randy asked.

“Way past the leading edge,” Clint told him. “The bog extends way past the fire’s leading edge, a quarter mile or more, I’m not real sure where it ends. Chad and the grass rig will have to scout ahead of you to find just where you can cross back through the smoke, but it’ll be way north of the wet line. That’ll give us a backup fire line in case the wet line doesn’t work. I wouldn’t be surprised if all that takes you a couple hours. By the time you get back to the anchor point I’ll have figured out what I want you to do next.”

“Good enough,” Randy told him. “Chad, for this first part, since I’ll have some idea of where I’m going, why don’t you let me take point with the grader? I think I sit high enough in that thing that I can see ahead better than you. If it doesn’t work we can switch.”

“Sounds good to me,” Chad replied.

“You two get moving,” Clint told them. “The rest of us are going to have to wait until you get down and get the anchor point cleared out, so we’ll have plenty of time to talk about how to set up the wet line.”

“OK, let’s get rolling,” Chad agreed, and handed his portable to Randy.

“Thanks,” Randy said. “Nothing to do but get started. Clint, if my driver shows up here, send him out to relieve me.”

“Will do,” Clint said as Randy turned to head back toward the big yellow grader. “Good luck, guys.”

*   *   *

What with one thing and another, it took until after the Radisson County ambulance had shown up, along with a Raddison County patrol car before Chris Aaronsen thought of calling Spearfish Central. Right then he was too busy helping direct traffic while the ambulance crew extracted Coopshaw’s body from his truck, so it took him even longer to get back to his patrol car.

In the case of a death – a Code Blue – it was both courtesy and county policy to not use the name of the deceased on the air, at least till the next of kin had been notified. All too many people had police and fire scanners, and using the name on the air was just about the equivalent of giving the information directly to gossip central. Cell phones, however, were a little more secure, so as soon as Aaronsen got back to his car he dug his out and tried to call Central. Not surprisingly, he didn’t succeed – cell phone coverage is far from universal in the north country, and he just didn’t have a signal. That was a little frustrating in an age where he’d gotten used to instant communications, so the only logical thing to do was to get back in his car and head back to Spearfish County, checking every few miles to see if he was in range of a cell tower.

He was almost back in the county before he got that signal, and dialed the sheriff’s cell phone. Once the preliminaries were out of the way, Aaronsen figured he’d still be a little oblique in case someone had a cell phone scanner – they weren’t unknown. “Sheriff,” he said. “The guy you sent me looking for won’t be making it. I’m not real sure what happened, but I found him in a ditch about ten miles this side of Three Pines.”

Sheriff Stoneslinger understood his deputy’s unwillingness to state the name or what actually had happened, even on a cell phone. “Permanently not going to make it?” he asked.

“Affirmative,” Aaronson told him bluntly.

“Well, that answers that,” Stoneslinger replied sadly. “What’s your location?”

“On the state road, just coming up on the county line.”

“Then get back to town,” the sheriff told him. “I guess you’d better be the one to take the information to the next of kin.”

“If I have to, I have to,” Aaronson told him. It was never a deputy’s favorite job, but it wasn’t be the first time he’d had to do it.

“Good,” the sheriff told him. “Inform me when you’re done.”

*   *   *

Even though the route down to the fire was more grown up than the track in had been, Randy thought it was easier to get the John Deere down to the fire. This was partly because he had a better view from the cab which helped in his route choice, but mostly because he could see where he was going and how far he’d come.

They were getting pretty close to the smoke when Randy figured he was getting to the point where he needed a little help. He grabbed the portable he’d borrowed from the Hoselton fireman, and called, “Hoselton 7, this is the grader. I’m going hold up here for a second to let you run ahead of me. Figure out how close in to the fire I should be and how far north you want me to go.”

“Hoselton 7, clear,” came the reply. “We can get in a bit closer, but I’ll get in front of you.”

As the grass rig was passing the John Deere, Randy was able to glance at his watch. It was only a little after eleven! Randy would have been willing to swear that it was getting close to sunset! Then, he glanced at the sun, and realized that it was still high in the sky, so his watch must have been right after all. No doubt about it, this was a busy morning. Once again, he wished that Bob was here and wondered where he was, but by then the grass rig had passed him and it was time to get the grader going again.

The grass rig led Randy and the grader a lot closer to the smoke line than he would have gone if he had been making the decision on his own before it turned to the left and began to parallel the smoke line northward. “Grader, Hoselton 7,” he heard. “We’re going to pull ahead of you a bit so we can cut in and see how far the leading edge has gotten. I’d say keep the fire line about this far out for now.”

“Roger, clear on that,” he replied as the grass rig pulled ahead, twisting and turning to drive around thicker spots of vegetation. Randy continued on ahead, having to shift his own route around a little to stay clear of bigger trees that the grader couldn’t handle. Occasionally he glanced to his right, trying to see something in the thick smoke off to that side, and once in a while he saw flames – not big ones, but something burning, at least. Even being back from the fire a bit, he was in and out of the edge of the smoke, and the cab of the grader stank of it. Well, he thought, it’s going to stink of it a lot worse before we’re done with this. Hopefully Bob wouldn’t be too mad at him for stinking the thing up so badly.

*   *   *

For whatever reason, there wasn’t a portable radio lying around the construction company office – most of them were out on work sites, or at least that was what Regina told Allen Halifax. However, there was a vehicle radio in Randy’s pickup truck, which was still parked at the office. Regina agreed that under the circumstances, Randy wouldn’t mind Allen taking it. The only fly in that ointment was that it would mean that Allen had to move all his stuff over between the two trucks, and it took a few minutes. He was barely done with it when Ryan came sliding into the lot, and that soon meant more stuff to have to transfer between vehicles. “I should have known better,” Ryan said. “Linda insisted that I take everything but the kitchen sink. I mean, I don’t think we’re going to be up there for days, after all.”

“Best to be prepared,” Allen shrugged, knowing that if he made the mistake of going home when his wife was there that he’d get the same treatment. The problem was that Ryan’s wife was a schoolteacher, and that meant she was home in the summer, while Allen’s wife normally worked during the day.

“You need to swing by your house for anything?” Ryan asked.

“No, I’m good,” Allen told him. “I mean, unless we actually are going to be up there for days, and if we are there’s no reason we can’t call someone to bring stuff up to us.”

“You know,” Ryan said, “If we take both vehicles, then we’d have something for one of us to run and get something if we needed to.”

“Yeah, good idea,” Allen said. “Of course, you mentioned it right as soon as we got all the stuff moved from my truck to Randy’s.”

“Leave it there,” Ryan told him. “We can sort it back out when we get up on top of the hill. I don’t want us to have to mess around here any more than we have to.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Allen agreed. “Let’s get moving.”

*   *   *

What with everything, Chad didn’t have a real good idea of where he was in relation to the fire. He and Clint had taken a different route earlier, and as thick as everything was, nothing seemed familiar, but he needed to have a better idea of what was going on. He wasn’t sure it was such a good idea to take the grass rig into the smoke. It was awful thick in there, and he couldn’t see very far, but he didn’t see a better way to do it. He didn’t want to run into the fire itself, so he had to take it easy. Up at the top of the hill, he’d picked up Ed Yarwowski to ride with him, just so there’d be an extra set of hands if needed. Now both of them were peering out the windshield, trying to see what was coming as they wound around through the brush and small trees.

As he pressed ahead the smoke got thicker, if anything. “Jeez, what a mess,” he heard Ed mutter. “I can’t see a fucking thing.”

“Well, I can’t either,” Chad admitted. “But I don’t think we better get out of the truck. I don’t think we’d find it again if we got more than a few feet away.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Ed replied. He opened the door and leaned out, hoping that he could see something just a little bit better without the glass in the way. He rode that way for a ways, until he said, “I think I see some flame ahead and to the right.”

Chad braked the grass rig to a stop, and opened his door. “Yeah,” he said. “I think I see some ahead and to the left. I don’t think we’re up to the leading edge yet.”

“Let’s get out of here, get back in the clear, and run downwind for a ways,” Ed suggested. “I don’t think we want to try to thrash around in here and get flanked.”

“Me either,” Chad agreed, closing his door and making as tight a turn to the left as he could around a patch of brush. It didn’t take as long to get out of the smoke; it cleared rapidly as they headed away from the fire. In no more than a hundred yards or so they could more or less see again; in that brief period, the grader had already come close to catching up with them. He turned to the right, picked up the radio microphone, and called the grader: “The leading edge is farther on down. We’ll have to go take another look.”

“Grader, clear on that,” he heard.

“Let’s go a pretty good piece,” Ed suggested. “It’d be better to be too far down than it would be to be too close to the fire.”

“Yeah, I’m thinking the same thing.”

Chad drove the grass rig another couple hundred yards to the north before he decided to go take another look. He turned to the right and pushed into the smoke again, finding it just as thick as before. This time, however, they got quite a ways further into the smoke before Ed once again spotted fire out the side of the truck. Again, Chad stopped for a look out his side of the truck, but this time he didn’t see flame. “We may have turned the corner on it,” he told Ed. “Let’s turn to the left a little and press on. Keep a good eye out the side.”

Driving slowly, Chad pushed ahead for a ways – perhaps a hundred yards, perhaps two. Occasionally he or Ed could see the glow of a flame to the side, but they didn’t find anything going straight ahead. Chad knew that the bog had to be ahead somewhere and he sure didn’t want to get stuck in it, so he kept looking out the front, too. Finally, after what could have only been a couple minutes but seemed like a couple hours, he again saw the telltale change in the grass and brush that told him the bog was just ahead. “That’s it, we don’t dare go any farther,” he told his companion. “That’s pretty well got to be the leading edge, but I don’t think we want to go out in the bog to see how much farther it goes.”

“Sounds like a hell of a good idea to me,” Ed told him. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Fine by me,” Chad agreed. He again turned the truck and started back toward clearer air. It was another long trip through the thick smoke, and about the time it started to clear the came across a section where the grader had cleared the fire line.

“He got past us,” Ed commented unnecessarily.

“Can’t hurt,” Chad said. “Clint wanted him to press on north for a ways, anyway. Get out and tie some flagging tape around a tree so we’ll have some idea where we are.”

It only took a minute or two for Ed to tie a couple wraps of yellow caution tape around a medium-sized tree right close to where the grader’s blade had been. As soon as he climbed back in the truck, Chad took off in pursuit of the grader. In another couple hundred yards, they caught up with it. “Grader, this is Hoselton 7,” Chad called. “We’re behind you, not close in case you have to back up. Clear things out on north for a couple hundred yards more, then turn around and widen the path. We’ll get out of the path and wait for you to come back.”

“Good enough,” came the reply from the grader. “I was beginning to wonder what happened to you guys.”

“Clear on that,” Chad said, then continued, “Birdwatcher Hill Command, Hoselton 7.”

“Birdwatcher Hill, go.”

“I think we more or less found the leading edge, at least on this side of the bog,” Chad told Clint. “I think it’s farther north than it was where we were earlier, but I don’t think it’s nowhere near where we cut across to the other side. We put some flagging tape around a tree along the fire line, the advanced part of the leading edge is roughly right angles to the fire line from that.”

“Clear on that,” Clint told him. “Go back to that location, and wait there. I’m going to be sending the other grass rigs and the tanker down to that location to get started on the wet line. When they get there, you stay with the grader like we planned, OK?”

“Roger, clear on that, we’re moving now. You might want to think about setting the wet line up a little farther north of the flagging tape.”

“Pick a spot and wait there,” Clint told him. “I’m sending the other units now.”

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To be continued . . .

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