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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 10

Sheriff Stoneslinger happened to be a little busy when he was talking with Aaronson, stopping a lead-foot logging truck driver so a tanker and a pumper could turn onto the rough track. The idiot was leaning on his horn anxious for the few seconds of the move to be over with. Must be operating on a piece rate, Stoneslinger thought, thinking real hard about reaching for his ticket book but deciding it wasn’t worth the effort. If the trucker came back by here again and made an ass of himself, Stoneslinger decided he might not be quite as lenient.

While he was directing traffic, he was thinking about what to do about the news about Coopshaw. He knew that Randy had his hands full running the grader, and as far as he knew there was no reasonable way to get him on the radio. Even if he could be reached by radio, Stoneslinger was just as reluctant as Aaronson had been to pass the exact news of what had happened. Under normal circumstances, he probably could have called Randy’s office and gotten the number for his cell phone, but there was no way to tell if Randy even had his cell phone on, and he couldn’t be reached on the cell phone here in any case. If the sheriff had been in Randy’s shoes, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t want the possible interruption of it ringing while he was trying to run the grader.

Under the circumstances, he decided the best thing to do would be to call Randy’s office and pass the buck. Stoneslinger could picture Randy’s assistant, but couldn’t come up with the name at the moment. Some Latino guy, supposed to be real sharp. If he wasn’t around the office, Randy’s secretary ought to be able to find him.

Although it took several phone calls to track Carl Gutierrez down, Stoneslinger was just a little bit sheepish about not being able to remember the guy’s name. After all, it wasn’t as if he was new in town, he’d been here for years, but somehow he had just blanked on the name. As least he felt he didn’t show his embarrassment when he called his cell phone. After a couple sentences back and forth, Stoneslinger got down to business. “Carl, Regina at your office tells me you’re over at Three Pines.”

“Right, trying to work out some issues here. Did Coopshaw get there all right?”

“No,” Stoneslinger replied, hoping no one had a cell phone scanner. “In fact, that’s why I called. Apparently he ran his truck off the road about ten miles this side of you guys. My deputy didn’t give me the details but said it was a fatality.”

“Fatality?” Carl replied, a little shocked. “Bob? Jeez, I was just talking to him a couple hours ago! You don’t know what happened?”

“Not much more than the fact that it did,” Stoneslinger told him.

“God, Carol is going to crack up,” Carl said sadly. “They’ve been having some troubles with their son, Larry . . . well, I guess you probably know more about that than I do.”

“Probably,” Stoneslinger admitted, “but that’s neither here nor there. The same problem is here. Randy is still driving your road grader. He’s cutting a path back to the forest fire we’ve got here. He wouldn’t say it, but I think he feels he’s in over his head. Again, I don’t know any details, but it sounds like he’s done all right so far.”

“Randy is the kind of guy who’s going to give something his best shot, whatever it is,” Carl observed.

“I know him well enough to agree with that,” the sheriff agreed. “The problem is, he still wants someone who knows what they’re doing to relieve him. Can you track someone down and get them headed this way?”

“Well, there are two or three guys here who can run the grader, but nothing like as well as Bob. Hell, Randy’s probably as good at it as they are, if not better. I’d guess the next best person would be to fill in would be Jerry Evernham. He’s the excavating super, I know he knows how to use one.”

“Get him started this way, would you?”

“I’d like to,” Carl replied. “The problem is that he’s not here today. He had to take his kid down to some doctor’s appointment in Camden, I’m not sure what it’s all about but it sounded like one of those things that both mom and dad had to be there because it might not be good news, if you get what I mean. Jim Wooten would be the next choice, but I know he and his wife are at a funeral out of town today.”

“That’s not good,” Stoneslinger agreed. “Just get someone headed this way, anyway, would you? And don’t say anything to anybody about Coopshaw just yet. I just told one of my deputies to head over and notify her, but he hasn’t reported back yet.”

“That’s going to be hard,” Carl told him. “Bob, well shit, he’s been under a lot of stress lately what with his kid and all. I think I’d better get back to Spearfish Lake and see her. That’s what Randy would do, but from what you said he’s tied up right now.”

“That would be good,” Stoneslinger said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Clark Construction equipment has to get tapped a little more, and it’d probably be good if you were around to coordinate things for him.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Carl said, a defeated tone to his voice. “Poor Carol. I’m going to head directly there, but I’ll have my cell phone on if you need me.”

*   *   *

The Warsaw and Albany River grass rigs were just heading down the hill toward the fire, followed by the Hoselton tanker, when Jimmy came around the corner in the semi with the cat on the lowboy. Clint was just about as happy to see it as he had been to see the grader come around the corner. Jimmy dropped the semi down a couple gears, and rolled it up to the top of Birdwatcher Hill, before coming to a stop next to Clint. He rolled down the window, cigar in his mouth, and said to Clint, “Is this what you wanted?”

“Darn right,” Clint told him. “You get back here all right?”

“I’ve seen worse,” Jimmy said. “Actually, the trail in isn’t too bad. Hard to believe someone cut that with a road grader.”

“Well, there was a little chainsaw activity,” Clint told him. “Look, you’ve got room to swing around here and you may not down the hill closer to the fire. Can you get that thing dropped? The one thing the grader can’t do is handle bigger trees, we need the cat to take them out.”

“Sure, here is as good as anywhere,” Jimmy told him as he opened the door and swung down out of the cab. “Who you got to run it?”

“Ed Yarwowski is down on the fire line with the grass truck,” Clint told him. “I want you to head back and get the old skidder. Its blade isn’t going to be as good for moving trees, but blades are at a premium right now.”

“Hell, if you want to move trees quick, maybe I ought to bring the cutter/stripper instead,” Jimmy suggested.

“No, and for a couple good reasons,” Clint told him. “We still have to move the stumps if we want a clean fire line, and it won’t help with that. Besides, I don’t want to risk it near a fire. If something went wrong and it got burned up, it’d be months before we could get a new one from Deere.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” Jimmy agreed. “Well, let me get the ramps down and get this thing unloaded. See if you can get Ed up here.”

“I can do that,” Clint said, grabbing the portable and radioing, “Hoselton 7, Birdwatcher Hill Command.”

“Seven” the radio squawked back.

“Seven, get Ed heading back to this location,” Clint told Bailey.

“Can do,” came the reply. “All vehicles are busy right now, so he’s going to have to walk.”

“Get him walking this way,” Clint told him. “The kids are still here with the Jeep, I’ll see if I can’t send them down to get him.”

Clint looked around; the kids were off to one side of the clearing, both with binoculars focused on the fire. Jimmy was certainly capable of unloading the bulldozer by himself, so Clint didn’t feel guilty about leaving him as he went over to talk to the kids. It was only a few steps over to the Jeep. “Hey, kids,” he said. “How’s it going?”

“It looks like the grader has your anchor line cut,” Vixen reported, showing that she had been paying attention during the briefing earlier. “They’re heading south alongside the smoke. We can see them stretching hoses and stuff down by the fire.”

“Hey, can I ask you kids to do something else for me?”

“Sure,” Jack replied. “We were kind of wondering about it. We were thinking about asking if you needed us any more. If not, we should probably get out of the way.”

“I’d just as soon you stuck around for a while yet,” Clint told them. “You never know when an errand has to be run somewhere, and right now there aren’t extra vehicles to do that, except for yours. There’s a guy down with the Hoselton grass rig, Ed Yarwowski, and I need him up here. I just radioed for him to start walking this way, but it’d be quicker if you ran down and got him.”

“We’re on the way,” Jack told him.

“Just a second,” Clint replied. “I can use you kids, but remember that you’re not firefighters. Stay out of trouble, and if in doubt, do the safe thing, OK? I do not want your folks to be pissed with me.”

“OK,” Jack said. “We can do that. It looks like the grader cut a pretty good path down that way, we should be back in a few minutes.”

*   *   *

Jack started the Jeep and dropped it into gear. “Grab the camera,” he told Vixen. “This may be our one chance to get any photos up close to the fire.”

“Got it right here,” Vixen replied. “I’m surprised. I figured he was going to send us out of here.”

“Me, too,” Jack said, “but I’d just as soon stick around and help out if I can. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“I’ll stay with you,” she smiled. “Boy, I never expected a birding trip to turn into this.”

“You never know what you’re going to find,” Jack grinned as he got up speed down the path that the grader had cut a few minutes before. “I think I told you that once before.”

Considering that the grader had cut a pretty good path and that Jack and Vixen were in a Jeep, the trip down to the fire trucks went quickly. The smoke was thick; while they got a whiff of it every now and then up on the hill, here, even though they were outside the main cloud, it was on the verge of being nasty. “Crap, I’m going to have to wash my hair after this,” Vixen grumbled.

“Well, maybe when we get out of here, we’ll have to go find a place to go swimming,” Jack suggested.

“Jack, you know as well as I do that I didn’t bring a swimsuit.”

“That hasn’t stopped you before,” he grinned, a lecherous look on his face. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d gone skinny dipping in the daylight. Jack had sort of figured on heading on over a favorite place if they didn’t find any likely looking and isolated swimming holes on this side of town – and so far, they hadn’t; no ponds of any kind, for that matter, except for Wood Duck Lake at Shaundessy’s.

“Well, yeah, I guess you’re right. Maybe that pond over on the other side of town where we took Alan and Summer.”

“If we get time to go there,” Jack said. “If that fireman tells us to get out of here, we can head on over there, but I’d just as soon stay here for a while.”

“Yeah, me too,” Vixen agreed.

They ran north past the yellow flagging tape that they’d heard talked about on the radio, and soon came upon the four grass rigs and one tanker. They were just starting to get set up, with a portable tank being set up behind the tanker, and hoses being stretched from the grass rigs. Jack looked around and saw the Hoselton truck sitting off to one side, with one of the firemen coming toward them. As he did, Vixen raised the camera and took a couple quick photos of the activity. “You Ed?” Jack called as soon as the fireman was close.

“Yeah, you’re my ride, I take it?”

“Yeah, hop in,” Jack told him. Vixen took a moment to scramble back into the back with Stas, and then Ed got into the front seat. “You ready, Vixen?” he called over his shoulder.

“Ready when you are.”

Jack dropped the Jeep back into gear, backed out into the graded path, and started up it toward the hill as the fireman asked, “You got any idea what this is all about?”

“No idea,” Jack told him. “Except that a semi just pulled in carrying a bulldozer, so maybe that concerns you.”

“Oh, OK,” Ed said, realizing that he was in for a long afternoon. “That makes sense.”

*   *   *

It’s one thing for Clint to say to put a wet line in, Jay Bailey thought, but it’s another thing to have to do it. He’d spent a couple minutes talking with Chad to get a better idea of what the situation was back there, but it still wasn’t clear. What was clear was that the grass trucks were only going to be of marginal use. They were mobile units, but didn’t carry a lot of water with them. In any case, they weren’t going to be of any use in the bog or on the far side of it, since it couldn’t be crossed. The only way to handle that was to get a real pumper back here, a pumper that carried water could push it through hose lines, and run them right across the bog. The grass trucks would be of more use as backstops, trying to put out places where embers or something carried the fire across the line.

In any case, after talking to Chad, it was clear that the bog was farther back in than he’d understood it to be. There was no point in building a wet line out here when there was something else available. At least, he knew that the grader was off to the north but would be coming back this way soon. That didn’t leave a lot of time for planning, but Jay didn’t have to think about it much. He got on the radio and called back to Clint, up on the hill. “Unless you’ve got some real objections,” he said, “I’m gonna grab the grader when it comes back by here and have him run a hasty line into the smoke cloud until he gets close to the bog,” Jay said. “That way we can concentrate the wet line on the bog and the far side.”

“All right,” Clint radioed. “But don’t just have him cut a line in. Have him cut an escape line north of your fire line, and clear things out a bit where you’re going to put your anchor point so you’ll have some room for equipment. Grader, did you copy that?”

“Grader is clear direct,” Randy replied. “As thick as the smoke is in there, I’d like to have a ground guide so I don’t inadvertently run into the bog.”

“Grader, this is C-3,” Jay radioed. “We’ll be waiting. How far are you from us?”

“No telling,” Randy told him. “I don’t know where you are, but it can’t be very far.”

In only a couple minutes the grader pulled up to the collection of grass rigs. Rather than just wave it back, Jay and Chad headed over to the rig. Randy cracked the door of the cab and stepped out onto the step. “No problem doing this,” Randy told him without preamble, “but I don’t want to risk getting this thing stuck.”

“Me either,” Jay said. “The fire isn’t real close here. Chad and I will go ahead of you in the Hoselton grass rig and feel our way along. Let’s try and stay close, but we’ll take our time.”

“Good enough,” Randy replied. “Let’s do it.” He got back in the cab, backed the grader up a bit, and began to grade out an extra turning area that would allow fire trucks to make the sharp corner. It only took a couple passes, just long enough for Chad and Jay to hustle over to the grass rig. Chad got it going, flipped on the overheads in hopes that he could be seen a little better from the grader in the thick smoke, and started off. In the rear view mirror, he could see the grader turn to follow him.

The visibility was still very poor back in the smoke, but at least the flashing lights gave a few extra yards visibility for Randy to follow them. Chad was trying to make sure that the grader stayed in sight, as well as figure out where he was going. Again, he wasn’t real sure where he was – he hadn’t been back this particular way before – but after a couple hundred yards he felt things getting soft for the truck. He jammed on the brakes, yelled, “Grader, stop!” into the microphone, then shifted into reverse to try to get out of the soft spot – but the grass rig wasn’t going anywhere.

*   *   *

Jimmy had the bulldozer off of the lowboy and sitting at the edge of the clearing when Jack, Vixen and Ed made it back to the top of the hill. Jack braked the Jeep to a stop near where Clint was standing, and Ed got out. “You wanted me, boss?” Ed asked.

“Yeah,” Clint told him. “Take the Cat, get down and clear back some of those bigger trees that the grader couldn’t handle. Start down in the area where you just were, get that opened up a bit. As soon as the grader gets done clearing out the anchor line, I’m going to send him counter-clockwise around the fire. I’d like you to tag along behind him and clean up spots he can’t handle. I want a good, solid fire line clear around this thing in case the wind picks up and changes direction on us, and the sooner we get it done, the better.”

“OK, no problem,” Ed told him. “It’s going to take a while, though. That grader seems to move through this small shit pretty good, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up with him and get anything accomplished, too.”

“Do the best you can,” Clint told him. “I’m gonna have Jimmy go get the skidder just as soon as he can get out of here, that should help some. It’s gonna be an hour or more before he can get back here with it, though.”

“Yeah, the skidder will help,” Ed agreed. “I just hate the thought of being out there by myself if something goes wrong.”

“Can’t be helped, but with any kind of luck it won’t be for long,” Clint told him. “I probably could send the kids along with you in the Jeep, but they’re kids, they’re not firemen or loggers, and I don’t want to put them at risk if I don’t have to. But hell, Ed, you know how to work in the woods by yourself.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Ed agreed. “Just so someone comes if I call for help on the radio.”

“We’ll do our best,” Clint told him. “Now, get moving. We got lucky as hell to have that grader show up here, but we don’t want to waste the effort.”

*   *   *

For the last hour or so nothing much had been happening around the fire trucks parked near Shaundessy’s Bait Shop. Two draft trucks had been set up to fill tankers, but there had been no tankers to refill yet. Hoselton 1, the department’s smaller and older pumper, had been called up to the fire. It had been accompanied by Spearfish Lake Tanker Four, which was newer but relatively small for a tanker. Hoselton Support 6 had also been called out there. It wasn’t a fire engine at all, but a tool truck – an old International Step-Van that carried a lot of things that were useful at a fire. These included tools handy for fighting a forest fire like fire rakes and pulaskis, odds and ends of spare parts and a hundred other things – among them a couple hundred bottles of drinking water and some cases of Army surplus MREs that had been kicking around the department for years. Old enough that nobody really wanted to eat them, but in a pinch they would beat nothing.

It was admittedly dull for everyone else, especially to the firemen, volunteers all. When there’s a fire burning, all firemen and especially volunteers would much rather be doing something rather than sitting around, but that was about all they could do at this point, while hoping that Emil Shaundessy was able to keep the pop cold. While there had been talk back and forth on the radio, their location on the far side of Turtle Hill meant that they didn’t hear much of it, except when the sheriff or the Hoselton fire hall relayed something to Spearfish Central.

Even though it was hard to sit around, it was clear to everyone why they’d been held back. Until the grader managed to make the track back to the fire passable, going to the fire area with all the vehicles that were sitting around in the parking lot could easily lead to a major traffic jam. If things went to cobs – and at this point it was possible – a traffic jam would be dangerous at best and could easily be worse than that.

Needless to say, with a bunch of action-oriented people hanging around with nothing much to do, the bullshit level started getting a little deep as people stood around and shot the shit. Dan Awkerman, a Spearfish Lake fireman, got tired of it after a while, and his back was hurting a little. Time to sit down for a bit, he knew. He slid into the cab of the Spearfish Lake draft truck, and considering that there were plenty of other radios around, decided to check in on the National Weather Service weather broadcasts just for something to do. The forecasts were a lot more detailed than the stuff on the local radio and TV stations, and sometimes it took a little listening to figure out just what was being said.

“ . . . recent models show that the frontal boundary is moving eastward more quickly than anticipated,” the bored-sounding voice on the radio said. “It’s now anticipated that it will be moving through the Camden area by 1800. Considerable instability is associated with this front, along with greater than anticipated wind shear. The possibility exists for strong thunderstorms to develop on or ahead of the frontal boundary, especially late this afternoon. The possibility of severe thunderstorms cannot be ruled out . . . ”

Dan shut the radio off. It really didn’t interest him. Maybe, if they got lucky, they’d get a good thunderstorm here, maybe one that’d dump a couple inches of rain. That’d knock the damn fire down, for sure. With a little bit of luck, he might be home in time to catch the Cubs game on the tube. Thank God for satellite dishes, he thought. You didn’t have to miss any games that way.

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To be continued . . .

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