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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 11

“Shit,” Chad yelled. “I guess we found the fucking bog.”

“Yeah, looks like it,” Jay agreed. “Hell of a place to get stuck.”

“No shit,” Chad replied with a sneer. He keyed the mike again and called, “Grader, Seven is in the bog and stuck. Don’t come any closer until we can check things out.”

“Roger that,” Randy replied from the grader. “You got a tow chain or a strap?”

“Should have,” Chad replied. “Let’s make sure of our footing before we try anything. I don’t think we’re real far into it.”

“All right,” Randy called back on the radio. “I’m waiting on you guys.”

Chad opened the door of the pickup and gingerly stepped out, to discover that his fireman’s boot went in halfway to the top. “Shit,” he said again. “I can’t believe it’s this soft. Be careful over there, Jay.”

A muttered curse from the far side of the truck told Chad that Jay had found out just how soft it was. It was just a little funny – it didn’t seem very wet, but was very loosely packed. In any case, there was nothing to do but to work his way toward the back of the truck, step by laborious step. At least he had the truck to hang onto for the first few steps, but they took a while.

As soon as Chad got to the back of the truck, he could see that they weren’t real far into the bog – only a few feet away there was no sign of the truck’s tracks; but they angled sharply down into the soft soil. “Don’t think we’re more than a truck length into it,” he called to Jay.

“That’s how I read it,” Jay called from the other side of the truck.

“The tow strap ought to be in the equipment locker on this side,” Chad replied. “While I get it, why don’t you hike back to the grader and make sure we’ve got solid ground for it?”

“Yeah, can do,” Jay said. “Jeez, and we’re supposed to throw a wet line across this shit?”

“Gonna be hard going,” Chad yelled back. “Too damn bad we don’t have any snowshoes.”

“You know, that might not be a bad idea,” Jay replied, “Might be worth a try if we can get some here.” He took a few more steps, the going getting easier with each one. By the time he got past the point where the tire tracks started to disappear, he was standing on solid footing. From there, it was a short walk up to the front of the grader; he walked back and forth in front of it a couple times, then walked up to the cab, where Randy was again standing on the step outside. “Chad is getting out a tow strap,” Jay explained. “You can come forward another twenty feet or so, but not an inch farther. This shit is terrible.”

“Your boots look like it,” Randy said. “Kind of sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?”

“Sure did on us,” Jay agreed. “Since you’re right here you might as well tow us out then back up a bit and clear out a spot where we can park equipment. Did you get that bit about an emergency route?

“Yeah, to the north, angling back towards the fire line I plowed earlier,” Randy said. “I think in this stuff I’d just as soon have you guys lead me again.”

“No problem with that, so long as we can get this thing loose,” Jay told him. “What I’d kind of like you to do is when we get back out to the fire line, rather than just widening what you’ve done, I’d like it if you cut a new line that’s a little more direct towards the track down here from the hill. That way if the fire crosses the fire line upwind of us, there’ll be another way out.”

“Yeah, I can do that,” Randy agreed. “Shouldn’t take very long.”

“Hey, Jay!” Clint yelled from the back of the truck. “You want to hook us up?”

“Yeah, sure,” Jay said, turning away from Randy and heading back up to the front of the grader. As he got there, Chad took a wrapped up webbing tow strap and tossed the heavy end of it toward Jay, letting it unroll on the way. It wasn’t quite long enough to reach the grader where it sat, but Jay motioned Randy forward until he could reach a tow hook on the front of the grader. As Chad clambered back into the cab of the truck, Jay motioned the grader backward until the line was tight.

Considering the noise and all, Jay decided it would be better to do this on the radio. He pulled out his portable and called, “OK, Chad, let us know as soon as you’re set.”

“Any time,” he replied.

“OK, grader, let’s take this slow and easy. Come on back.”

He heard the grader power up, but it only inched backward very slowly. Must have a real low gear in that thing, Jay thought. The strap became even tighter, and with Chat giving the grass rig some gas in reverse, it slowly began to move.

In a minute or so, the grass rig sat on firm ground, and Jay was wadding up the tow strap as Randy backed the grader up further. It didn’t take him long to clear out an area three or four blade widths wide where they could set up. He pulled the grader to the side so the grass rig could get ahead of him again. As Chad drove the rig back toward the fire line, Jay called Clint again. “Birdwatcher Hill Command, I’m going to have the grader continue the escape line back to the access road a ways away from the fire,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable with our only access that close to the fire.”

“Well,” Clint replied on the radio. “If you gotta, I guess you gotta. But I don’t want the grader tied up any longer than that. We’ve still got to throw a fire line around the rest of the fire.”

“I should be OK after that,” Jay replied. “Is there any chance we could get our hands on some snowshoes?”

“Showshoes?” Clint replied incredulously. “What would you want those for?”

“I’m thinking they might make getting around in the bog a little easier. That stuff is real soft.”

“All right,” Clint sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Good enough,” Jay told him. “Get Hoselton 1 down here, I’m going to use it at the anchor point rather than the grass rigs. We’re going to be needing tanker support.”

It didn’t take all that long for the grass rig to make it back out to the fire line the grader had cleared earlier. Jay hopped out of the grass rig long enough to confer with Randy about the best line to take to get back to the access track, then told Randy he’d have Chad meet him when he got done with that. Once all that was worked out, he hustled back to Hoselton 7, and told Chad to take him back to the other grass rigs.

Before Jay had left to work out the fire line, he’d told the crew there to quit setting up the tanker and fill tank at that site. “OK, we’re going to set up an anchor point down closer to the bog,” he announced as soon as he got out of the grass rig. “Do not, under any circumstances, take a vehicle past the graded area, because it gets real soft, real quick. We’re just lucky we had the grader there to bail us out. Get the tank set up and get started on establishing the wet line through the bog. Take your time, it’s real soft. The fire is still a ways back there, so I’m thinking Hoselton 1 is supposed to be down here pretty quick. We’ll be able to run hoses from it to run the wet line. Let’s save the grass rigs for support and patrol.”

*   *   *


Sheriff Stoneslinger had to stop and think about that one for a moment after he got the call from Birdwatcher Hill. Even with the explanation of why they were wanted, it still seemed a little weird on a day as hot and humid as this one was turning into. On the other hand, it might work. Now, where was he going to get snowshoes in August?

It didn’t take much thought. After a moment of considering the question, he called Central and said, “Mary, I don’t have a phone book. Can you get me the number for Spearfish Lake Outfitters?”

In a little over a minute, Stoneslinger was talking with Candice Archer down at the store. Most sporting goods stores in this neck of the woods dealt in hunting and fishing gear, but Spearfish Lake Outfitters was different. To the best of his knowledge there had never been a gun or a fishing rod in the store, although he knew that Candice wasn’t a bad shot and her younger son Cody was awesomely good with either pistol or long gun. The store dealt in other outdoor things: they were the biggest canoe and kayak dealer for many miles, had touring bicycles and backpacking gear, and ski equipment. Also, considering that Candice had raced a dog sled the length of Alaska’s Iditarod Trail, the store had the largest collection of dog sledding and winter gear for a hundred miles around. If anyone could help, she could. He introduced himself, and got right to the point: “Candice, you got any snowshoes in the store?”

“Half a dozen pair, maybe,” she told him. “We’re expecting a shipment in soon.”

“Soon won’t do, we need them now,” he said. “I’ll have someone come by the store as quick as I can, and settle up with you later.”

“All right,” Candice told him. “But I can’t imagine what you want snowshoes in August for.”

“Got a fire in a peat bog that’s fairly dry but too soft to walk on,” he said. “Someone suggested we try snowshoes.”

“I’ll have them ready,” she promised.

Well, that solved part of the problem, Stoneslinger thought as he folded up his cell phone. He thought for another moment, then got on the radio. “Spearfish 33, Spearfish 31. What’s your location?”

“In town, delivering the word we talked about earlier,” Aaronson replied obliquely.

“Did it go all right?”

“Not really,” Aaronson sighed. “Her minister is here now.”

“OK, good enough,” the sheriff told him. “I need you to head over to Spearfish Lake Outfitters, pronto. Candice will have some snowshoes there for you. Toss them in the car and get out here with them as quick as you can.”

“Snowshoes?” he could hear Aaronson frown.

“Just do it,” the sheriff replied. “I’ll explain when you get here.”

*   *   *

Allen Halifax knew that Ryan was an EMT on the Spearfish Lake Fire Department’s ambulance squad. He had been for a good many years, though now in pretty much a backup role for a number of different reasons, his age being one of them. Ryan wasn’t on the regular shifts, but was available in case of a real emergency or the lack of the regular crew to respond.

Allen knew that Randy was also a paramedic on the squad. Although he really didn’t work with Randy that much, he knew that Randy usually was on backup call status for the department if he was in town during the day. That meant he didn’t get called for ambulance runs unless one ambulance was already tied up and things were really bad. Still, on occasion he’d seen Randy race off toward the fire station on little notice, the red light on the top of his truck flashing.

Now, Allen was following Randy’s truck, with Ryan behind the wheel, and the red light on the roof flashing as Ryan raced down the road toward the fire area. “Race” was a good word for it, too; Ryan was flying low, and Allen had to struggle to keep up with the dial on the speedometer occasionally touching three digits. Christ, he thought. I never knew Ryan was quite this crazy!

At least at that speed it didn’t take long to get to the turnoff onto 919. Ryan slowed down a little – maybe seventy – once he got on the gravel, and Allen was even harder put to keep up in all the flying dust, with his pickup sliding around uncomfortably on the loose stone. They flashed by the collection of fire trucks sitting at Shaundessy’s Bait Shop, and Allen wondered a little about why they were sitting there, rather than out fighting the fire. He didn’t have a lot of time to think about it since Ryan was still stomping the throttle and Allen knew he didn’t want to lose him.

The road gets more crooked once it gets north of Shaundessy’s, and Ryan slowed down a little more, to maybe fifty, which was still a damn sight more than Allen would have been willing to drive if he’d been by himself. He was well aware of the fact that logging trucks had a tendency to fly down this road, and he didn’t want to think about what would happen if one suddenly appeared around a corner. Allen took a little comfort in the fact that if it did happen, he wouldn’t be the one in front.

Finally – and with more than a little relief – he saw the brake lights on Randy’s truck flash on, as Ryan slowed and made a hard turn to the right. For whatever reason, Allen had never bothered to drive up to the top of the hill, although he’d been told that the view from there was pretty good. At least there wasn’t much chance of losing Ryan on the road up the hill, which was better than a two-rut but only just.

Allen was lagging behind a little when they got to the top of the hill, and his heart was pounding. He pulled to a stop next to Randy’s truck, and just sat there for a moment to let a little of the excitement and adrenaline die down. He glanced around – yeah, the view was pretty good, especially in the direction of the fire. Ryan was already out of the truck and giving things a good looking over with the binoculars. Allen didn’t have any, but checked the fire out anyway. It really was smoking badly, a huge cloud of smoke rising from it, hugging the ground more than rising into the sky. It really wasn’t roiling like he’d seen some other fires do, which made him think that perhaps the fire wasn’t quite as bad as they’d been led to believe. Far in the distance, he could see what looked like fire trucks to him, but without binoculars it was hard to make out any detail.

He got out of the truck, and walked around the other truck to Ryan. “Well, what do you think?” he asked.

“It’s a pretty big fire,” Ryan said, handing him the binoculars. “Can’t tell how deep into the smoke the left end of the fire is, but it’s burned off a couple hundred acres, anyway.”

Allen took the binoculars and pointed them at the fire. Yes, those were definitely fire trucks down there, and a little ways away from them he could make out the yellow of the Clark Construction grader, obviously hacking out a path of some kind. “Doesn’t look like it’s affected much timber that’s getting close to harvesting, from what I can tell from here,” he commented.

“Yeah, but it’s hard to tell what’s going on in the smoke and behind it,” Ryan told him. “At least they’ve got back to the fire and are doing something about it.”

“That’s something,” Allen agreed. “The last we knew they hadn’t even gotten back to the fire yet.”

“Let’s see what Randy thinks,” Ryan suggested, turning back to the truck. He climbed inside, turned on the Motorola that was on the company frequency, and put out a call: “Randy, this is Ryan,” he called – since it was a company frequency, he didn’t bother with any call signs.

Allen stood outside the door of the truck, listening as intently as Ryan was, but the only response was stillness. “Randy, this is Ryan,” he called again.

Still, there was no response. “Six will get you two that he never bothered to turn the damn thing on,” Ryan snorted finally. “Guess I can’t blame him, he probably doesn’t want to be bothered.” He shook his head and continued, “Well, at least we can listen in to the fire frequency from here.” He reached into the truck and pulled out his portable radio, then turned it on.

A minute passed, then another, with nothing coming from the little portable in the black leather case. Finally, out of nowhere, they heard, “Birdwatcher Hill Command, Hoselton C-3. We’ve got the wet line started but we’re going to need another tanker pretty soon.”

“Ah, roger on that,” a different voice replied. “One’s on the way and I’ll get another one started. Break, Spearfish 31, Birdwatcher Hill.”

“Spearfish 31.” Allen could recognize Sheriff Steve Stoneslinger’s voice.

“Relay that we need another tanker coming this way.”

Ryan kept his eye on the radio, but commented to Allen, “That’s Clint Bork, the Hoselton Chief.”

“Thought I recognized the voice,” Allen replied. “We’ve contracted some harvesting from him now and then, but most of what he does is for Jerusalem Paper.”

The radio was silent for another few seconds, then Bork’s voice came on again. “Grader, this is Birdwatcher Hill. Are you out to the access road yet?”

“Just now,” they heard Randy’s voice reply after a moment. “I’ll be heading back down in a minute.”

“Good enough,” Bork replied. “Break, Hoselton C-3. Use the original path for inbounds only. Send outbounds up the escape path. I’ll explain to anyone going through here. Maybe that’ll help the traffic flow a bit.”

“Roger, clear on that.”

There was silence for another few seconds, then Randy’s voice came over the radio again. “Hoselton 7, the grader is headed back down the access track. I’ll meet you where it knuckles to the north.”

“Roger, clear on that, I’m already here and waiting for you.”

Allen raised the binoculars and could see the big yellow grader working its way down through a cleared line through the young growth. “Looks like he’s done a pretty good job with it,” he commented.

“Damn,” Ryan said. “I really shouldn’t do this, but what the hell.” He raised the radio, and keyed the microphone. “Grader, Life 20. Turn on the company radio.”

Perhaps half a minute went by before they heard Randy’s voice on the radio in the truck: “Yeah?”

“Allen and I are up on top of Turtle Hill. What’s the status?”

“Just starting to get a handle on it,” Randy replied. “Fortunately, it’s not moving very fast. If nothing goes wrong we ought to have it pretty well contained in a couple hours.”

“OK,” Ryan said. “We’re going to stay here for a while in case you need anything.”

“Yeah,” Randy replied. “I called for Bob Coopshaw to come run this thing back when this all started, but there’s no sign of him yet. I know I’m just playing with this thing compared to what he can do with it. Can you try to track him down for me?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Ryan told him. “Hang in there, it looks like you’re doing pretty good.”

“Doing what I can,” Randy replied, and added, “Out.”

“Well,” Ryan said as he put the microphone of the company radio back in the holder. “It looks like he doesn’t want to be bothered, just like I said, so we won’t bother him again unless we have to.”

“No need right now,” Allen agreed. “Considering that they had to hack a path in there, it looks to me like they’re doing pretty good. It doesn’t look anywhere near as bad as I expected.”

“Yeah,” Ryan agreed. “It’s better than being kept in the dark.”

“I can agree with that.”

Ryan raised the portable again. “Since we’re here, I’m going to check in.” He keyed the microphone and said, “Birdwatcher Hill Command, Life 20 is on top of Turtle Hill and is available for overwatch and relay.”

“Ah, roger that, Life 20,” Bork replied. “We’ll call you if we need you.”

“All right,” Ryan said, pulling out his cell phone. “Let’s see what we can do about Coopshaw.”

*   *   *

The real reason that Clint wanted Support 6 on Birdwatcher Hill was more than just having its tools available: it made a good command post, and could be used to give fire fighters a break if and when needed. What’s more, it had a good radio with a better antenna than the portable. Clint had been able to reach the sheriff out on 919 all right with the portable, but he hadn’t been able to reach the fire hall in Hoselton with it. He could hear his father just fine on the portable, but for whatever reason couldn’t get through calling him.

It was starting to get hot out there in the sun on the top of the hill, and Clint had been wearing his turnout gear since he reported to the station. It was damn hot, and he was feeling exhausted. It was going to be a lot worse for the people down on the line, he knew, so he made a mental note to make sure that everyone got rest breaks now and then. It was just another on a long list of things he had to keep in his mind. Still, as soon as he was done calling Stoneslinger for another tanker, now that he had a place to put the heavy clothing and a minute to deal with it, he decided to peel it off for the sake of being a bit cooler. It took two or three minutes outside the back of the truck, but he felt better for having done it. Other people could take a break if they got too hot, but he knew he couldn’t.

Given a choice, he knew he’d really rather be down with Jay on the fire line, but it was clear that it wasn’t going to happen this time. The fire was too big and the number of people committed to it was going to rise, and rise quickly. That meant that he needed to be controlling the whole picture, not just the people down on the fire line.

For whatever reason, he missed the call that Ryan Clark made to the grader about turning the radio on, but he was back in the right front seat of Support 6 when he got the call from the top of Turtle Hill. After his brief but courteous reply, he turned to Dave Jorgensen, who was packing away some gear in Support 6 not likely to be needed. “That’s all we need,” he said. “Now we got the boss looking over our shoulder.”

“Huh? Life 20? Who’s that?”

“Ryan Clark,” Clint snorted. “He’s on the Spearfish Lake ambulance, but he owns most of the wood that’s on fire over there. Well, Clark Plywood does, which is to say pretty much the same thing. Well, at least I’d rather have him up on the top of the hill rather than down here bugging the shit out of me.”

“Well,” Dave pointed out philosophically. “If you had a house fire wouldn’t you expect the owner to be standing around worrying about it?”

“I suppose,” Clint shrugged. “Anyway, I don’t want to piss him off. He may be able to do something for us that we can’t do for ourselves, like lean on the DNR to get some of their crap over here, or maybe get the DNR off our backs if they try to be too big a pain in the ass.”

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To be continued . . .

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