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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 13

When they’d been down near the fire earlier, Jack and Vixen thought they’d been in the smoke, but it had been nothing compared to the thick mess down at the anchor point. If it hadn’t been for the track plowed out by the grader they could have easily gotten lost, and that wasn’t a good place for it to happen. Jack had to inch the Jeep along at only a few miles per hour in order to see where he was going at all. It proved that the anchor point was farther back than he figured, and he was starting to get worried when he came up on the collection of fire equipment.

Jack didn’t know who he was looking for, so all he could do was beep the horn and yell, “Chainsaws!”

“Jeez, thanks,” Jay said, hustling over to the Jeep. Before Jack could get out of the Jeep, Jay had set the chainsaws out. “This could save our butts.”

“Glad we could help,” Jack told him.

“Good enough,” Jay told him. “Now get out of here. Keep your headlights on at least until you’re out of the smoke, there could be someone coming the other way.”

“Will do,” Jack told him. He dropped the Jeep into gear, pulled ahead a little, then backed up to turn around. In seconds, he was heading back out the way they’d come in, going a little faster, if anything.

“Holy shit,” Vixen said. “I’m really going to have to wash my hair after this.”

“Don’t plan on it just yet,” Jack told her. “This may not be the last time we’re down here.”

*   *   *

Most police officers of any description are quick to say that they obey traffic laws. Though there are few who will admit it, a good many of them really enjoy the opportunity to get their cruisers out on a lightly trafficked road and open them up, just put the pedal to the metal and let her roll. It was especially true in a situation where that kind of speed is justifiable, and without the concern of getting stopped by another cop.

Needless to say, Chris Aaronsen had Spearfish 33 going extremely hard up the highway toward the fire. Most of the way Aaronsen had the big Ford up past a hundred, and the scenery was really flying by. Of course, he had his overheads and siren on, even though there wasn’t much traffic out there – it just added to the fun.

The thing he couldn’t figure out was the snowshoes. When he pulled up in front of Spearfish Lake Outfitters, he didn’t even have to get out of the car – Candice was waiting for him with an armload of them. He popped the latch for the trunk; she threw the armload of snowshoes inside, slammed the trunk, and yelled, “OK, you’re good, get out there!” That was about as quick as a NASCAR pit stop, but he still had no idea of what all the rush was about, for snowshoes, of all things.

Still, once he got out of town, he radioed Stoneslinger with the news that he had the snowshoes and was on his way. Much to his surprise, all he got back from the sheriff was, “Good, step on it.”

In any case, Aaronsen knew he’d rather be hauling ass up the highway than delivering the news to a woman that she was now a widow. Carol Coopshaw had broken up completely at the news, and he just hadn’t been able to make himself leave until the minister got there. At least this balanced things out a little bit.

*   *   *

Although Turtle Hill was a good place to judge the overall extent of the fire, things were really on the boring side there. Ryan and Allen couldn’t do much but pass the binoculars back and forth, along with listening to the traffic on the portable radio. From what they could tell, the firemen were making progress, but they couldn’t see much of it, not that they expected to. They could make out the grader working its way south on the near side of the fire, but at a distance it seemed to go with agonizing slowness. Ryan knew that his son was pushing it as fast as he could, but it still seemed like it was taking him forever.

So, when they noticed someone driving up the hill in an older SUV, it looked like they might have a little diversion. The SUV pulled up alongside the two trucks, and Ryan looked up to see Carrie Evachevski get out.

Although Carrie was a few years older than Ryan, he’d known her about as long as he could remember. She and her husband Gil were old friends of Ryan’s. Almost twenty years before Gil and Ryan had been with a group of veterans who had gone to Vietnam to find the body of a Spearfish Lake kid who had been a MIA. The guys in that group were all pretty close, and had remained that way ever since. She was a tall, slender woman, going gray now, or at least admitting it, but still a good looking woman in spite of her age. Ryan knew that for many years, Carrie had been chairman of the Board of Directors of the nudist resort, the West Turtle Lake Club; her father had been one of the founders. “Hi, Carrie,” Ryan said. “I’m not surprised to see you here. Where’s Gil?”

“Down in Camden getting something for the store,” Carrie replied. “So how’s the fire going?”

“They’re starting to get a handle on it,” Ryan explained, handing her the binoculars. “It’s a long way from out, but I don’t see how the Club could be threatened at all. It’s mostly heading in the other direction.”

“Good,” Carrie said. “We can see the smoke from down there, and people are starting to get a little worried.”

“No reason to worry,” Ryan told her. “The fire is several miles away, and even if we got a major wind shift it’d take a while to get to the Club. Even if it did shift, you’re behind the lake, the airstrip, and the golf course for the most part, so there’s no way it’s going to get across that.”

“That’s good to know,” she said, looking at the fire through the binoculars. “It looks like a big fire from here, but I don’t see many people working on it.”

“They’re getting a fire line cut,” Ryan explained. “That’s how you fight a fire like this. You cut a line and don’t let the fire cross it. The rate they’re going they should have it pretty well contained this afternoon sometime, but a lot that’s burning is a peat bog, and they don’t get those out quickly. It’s probably going to be smoky out here for a while, but you shouldn’t be in any real danger down there.”

“That’s good to know,” she said, handing the binoculars back. “I’m going to head back down to the Club and pass the word so people can stop worrying about it a little. If there’s anything we can do, I think you’ve got my cell number.”

“I’m sure I do,” Ryan replied, shaking his head. “You know, it’s still hard to think of phones down there.”

“Oh, Dad came to accept them long before he died,” Carrie told him. “Not that he liked them, but at least he realized that he couldn’t do anything about cell phones.”

“Yeah, but still,” Ryan laughed. “I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

“Thanks, Ryan,” she said. “See you later.” She got back in the SUV, and was soon heading back down the hill.

Allen watched her go. “She’s with that nudist crowd?” he asked a little incredulously. “I know I’ve seen her around town, but I find that a little surprising.”

“Most of her life,” Ryan smiled. “She and her husband are good friends of mine.”

“You ever go down there?” Allen asked.

“Not so much anymore,” Ryan said. “Once in a while. My father and her father were pretty much the founders of the place, although her mother was the one who was mainly behind it. I spent a lot of time out there as a kid, but after my mother died in a car wreck my father pretty much lost interest in it. They’ve got quite the place down there.” He pointed down at the Club. “The big log building, Commons, was designed by my mother. Clark Construction did a major renovation on it a few years ago. It’s really a showpiece. In some respects it’s the most famous building in the county, but for most people it might as well be on the back side of the moon as few around here have ever even heard of it.”

Allen shook his head. “Jeez,” he smiled. “Somehow I never associated you with that place.”

“Well, really I’m not anymore,” Ryan said, “and I haven’t been for a long time. But I had some good times down there when I was a little kid. Carrie still looks pretty good at her age, but let me tell you, I can look back and tell you she was a knockout when she was a kid.”

“And with no clothes on.”


“Interesting childhood you had there, Ryan.”

“Well,” Ryan smiled, “I never had to wonder about what girls looked like under their clothes, that’s for sure.”

*   *   *

Jack was glad to again park the Jeep next to the support van up at the top of the hill. “Well, you made it back in pretty good time,” Clint told him. “What’s it like down there?”

“Thick,” Jack said. “You can barely see your hand in front of your face. I don’t know how those guys are managing to do anything at all.”

“They know what they’re doing,” Clint told him. “That helps.”

“Here,” Vixen said, holding out the little digital camera. “This is how thick it is. I got a couple snapshots while we were down there.”

Clint looked at the back of the camera. Yeah, no fooling. To look at the tiny picture it was thick, at least as bad as it had been when he and Chad had ducked through the smoke cloud, what was it, an hour or two earlier? He wondered how Jay was managing to get through the bog, but he knew better than to call and ask. The chainsaws had just gotten down to the fire a few minutes ago, and they could hardly be started yet. He thought about asking the kids about it, but decided not to – they wouldn’t know anything about that, and probably hadn’t been able to see anything with the smoke that thick. “OK, thanks,” he replied. “I gotta go get on the radio again.”

It was only a few steps back to the right seat of the van, where he’d taken to sitting to run things. He got settled in, then picked up the microphone and called the sheriff. “What’s the deal on the snowshoes?” he asked.

“They’re on the way,” Stoneslinger told him. “A deputy just left town with half a dozen pair or so. I told him to stand on it, so I’d expect him here in fifteen minutes or so. I don’t suppose it’s a good idea to send a patrol car back there with them.”

“Probably not,” Clint agreed. “I’ll send the kids out with the Jeep to meet him.”

“Good,” Stoneslinger replied. “That’ll help.”

“Roger, wait one,” Clint radioed back to the sheriff. He leaned out of the van and yelled to the kids in the Jeep, “Get out to the road, there’s a patrol car on the way with some stuff that’s needed down at the anchor point. As soon as you get it, head right out there with it. Don’t stop here, but watch out for oncoming traffic both ways.”

“Right, we’re on the way,” Jack said, starting the Jeep again. In an instant they were gone.

Clint turned back to the radio. “I need a couple tankers and a pumper up here from Shaundessy’s,” he told the sheriff. “Tell them to have as many people as they can get on board. The smoke down there on the wet line is awful thick, we’re going to have to start rotating people in and out of the anchor point.”

“Roger that,” the sheriff replied. “I’ll get them moving. Break, units at Shaundessy’s, we need a pumper and two tankers up here. Bring as many men aboard as you can.”

Clint hung the microphone back up, took a pair of binoculars that he’d borrowed from the kids in the Jeep, and scanned down the edge of the fire. Even though he had a good idea of where the anchor point was, he couldn’t make out a thing through the thick smoke down there. If the fire hasn’t gotten past Jay yet, we might stand a chance, he thought. There wasn’t much to be seen there, so he looked down the edge of the fire to the right of where the anchor point had to be. After a little looking, he was able to pick out the grader and Hoselton 7, which was accompanying it; they were just getting around to the far side of the fire and starting to get hidden by the smoke. Making good time, he thought. If they continued to go that well, they’d at least have a hasty line around most of the fire within a few more minutes. There were still issues to be faced along the leading edge, and to top it off he had no idea of what the situation on the far side of the fire was. For the moment getting a handle on this thing seemed to be a possibility, so long as things continued to go well.

*   *   *

There was no point in putting it off, Jackie decided as soon as the three of them had finished with lunch. A quick trip out to the fire with Becca shouldn’t take that long; at the outside, it would take an hour, and then she could get back to that sign. Besides, it was still a nice day for flying, and that beat working inside anytime she could get it. “All right, Becca,” she said. “Let’s go roll the plane back out. Bree, try to not get into any trouble while we’re gone.”

“I think I’ll just get a book and go read on the porch,” Bree replied, obviously just a little bit touchy. It had been nice to tease her older sister about getting to go see the fire, but now Becca was getting to even up the deal and it wasn’t as much fun. It would have been nice to go flying again; she liked it a lot, and she did it whenever she could, while it was just a ride for Becca.

“Good,” Jackie said, noticing the dynamics between the two. Although she had much younger half brothers, at that age she’d been an only child in a very lonely and troubled situation, so she had never had developed many of the instincts needed to figure out the continual inter-sister strife. It seemed like the girls were trying to one-up each other continually, but she knew from experience that when the situation demanded they would stand together and defend each other faithfully. Maybe she was getting a little better at figuring them out, she thought. “I don’t think we’ll be gone very long,” she added.

It only took Jackie and Becca a few minutes to get out to the hangar, open the door again, and roll Rocinante back out into the sunlight. Always being a careful pilot, she made a point of giving the Cessna a quick walk-around before getting in, and in a few minutes the two of them were heading down the runway behind the house.

They were hardly in the air before Jackie noticed that things had changed considerably since she and Bree had gotten back, not all that long before. The air had gotten rougher – not distressingly so, but there were obvious updrafts and downdrafts, where the air had been just about silk smooth earlier. This would be a good day to have the sailplane out, she thought. She and Mark hardly used it any more, but there were times it was just nice to be out flying around in it. When you got right down to it, it was an antique, too; she and Mark had rebuilt it from a wreck longer ago than she wanted to think about, and it had to be worth many times what they paid for it. It was still a link to a youth that was much too far behind them.

While Becca would fly the plane for her once in a while, it wasn’t the thrill for her that it was for Bree, so considering the rough air Jackie decided to not make the offer and just fly the Cessna herself. Above them, some cumulus clouds were popping, but in the distance off to the west Jackie could make out the tops of some bigger clouds. We might be getting some weather later, she thought absently. Oh, well, we should have the old girl in the barn long before it gets here.

*   *   *

Down at the anchor point, Jay had detailed several men to working on the improvised plankway. It was going to be a bear, he thought, but it was better than nothing. They soon had a couple of fair-sized aspen trees down, and were cutting the logs up into lengths that could be carried, which weren’t very long. The logs were small enough that it was going to be difficult to walk on just one, so the obvious thing to do was to lay two logs together, side by side. That was going to mean a lot of cutting to be able to make any distance through the bog. But walking on the logs was going to be easier than walking through the bog dragging a hose, so it seemed to Jay that it was worth the effort. It was obviously going to be slow going, though.

The smoke was still so thick that it was hard to work in there, thick enough that it was easy for someone to lose their way if they weren’t careful. Jay had the impression that the fire was still a ways away but getting closer, but at least he had a good defensive wetting down towards the fire from the anchor point, so that counted for something. It was equally hard to tell just how far they had managed to get a hose line through the bog in front of the fire, but at least they were a ways through it. There was at least one line fully stretched out with an extension being laid. As soon as a second pumper got down here, Jay planned on setting out a second line while continuing to lay the first out as far as it could be run. Gaining on it a little, he thought. We might have time to make this work yet.

For the moment, there was no point in standing around. He hooked the radio back on his load bearing equipment, and went to help the guys haul logs out into the bog.

*   *   *

Jack and Vixen hadn’t been down the access track to 919 since the grader had come through and cleared it out, and that seemed like a long time before. They’d been on the tracks the grader had cut since, but this track seemed much better than they remembered it from earlier. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Jack was flying down the rough trail, but he was moving pretty good, much faster than any of the earlier trips. The changes made the path seem unfamiliar; Jack was a little surprised to see the North Country Trail crossing come up on them so quickly. He didn’t slow down for it, and kept pressing on.

They had to be getting near the road, he thought, when they came around a corner and found a fire engine coming the other way. He stood on the brakes, and pointed the Jeep out into a convenient hole in the brush. It turned out to not be just one fire engine, but three, two tankers and a pumper; he and Vixen just sat there while the three trucks passed. As soon as the trail appeared to be clear, they got back out on it and continued on out toward the road.

They reached it a few minutes later, to discover the sheriff there by himself, sitting on the hood of his car with the radio in his hand. “You kids made good time,” he said. “Chris ought to be along any minute now. You been down to the fire?”

“Yeah, we were there for a few minutes, not real long ago,” Jack told him. “The smoke is awful thick in there.”

“I thought it must be,” Stoneslinger said. “I can smell it all over you kids. How do you think they’re coming?”

“Hard to say,” Jack admitted. “We haven’t been real plugged into what’s going on. We’ve mostly been trying to stay back out of the way.”

“Probably a good move,” the sheriff said. “You’ve already done a lot on this, and done real well.”

“Glad to know you think so,” Jack told him.

About that time, their attention was diverted by the flashing lights and the siren of a police car heading their way pretty fast. The three of them stood and watched as the car drew closer, then slid to a stop in front of them. The deputy driving the thing popped the trunk with the inside latch, then got out. “You wanted fast, Steve, you got fast,” he said as he headed around to the trunk of the car.

“Yeah, Chris, you did pretty good,” Stoneslinger smiled. “I don’t suppose you exceeded fifty-five on the way here.”

“Not by much,” the deputy admitted with a huge grin. By then, the sheriff had reached the trunk, and between the two of them they gathered up the piles of snowshoes and hauled them over to the Jeep. “Now, can I ask what this is all about?” he asked.

“They’re having a lot of trouble dragging hoses through the bog back there,” the sheriff explained. “They want to see if these will help.”

“Oh, makes sense, I guess,” Chris said as he dumped his armload of snowshoes into the back seat, next to Stas, who immediately gave them a sniff to check them out. “That’s all of them.”

“All right, Jack,” the sheriff said. “See you later.”

“See ya,” Jack said, then got the Jeep moving back up the access path.

As Jack hurried the Jeep back to the south as fast as he dared, Vixen turned to him. “Jack, have you got a pocket knife?” she asked.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Give it here,” she replied. “Those snowshoes are still tied together and have the labels on them. I might as well get them off so the firemen don’t have to do it down in the smoke.”

“Yeah, good thinking,” he said, slowing a bit while he dug in his pocket to bring out the knife. “They’ve got enough to do; they don’t need to deal with that when you can do it for them.”

Vixen set to work with the pocket knife on the snowshoes as Jack kept moving south. They hadn’t gotten very far before they heard the sheriff’s voice over the little portable radio that Clint had loaned to them: “Birdwatcher Hill Command from Spearfish 31. The Jeep is southbound with the snowshoes.”

“Good enough,” Clint replied. “Break. Birdwatcher Hill Command to any units southbound from 919. If a camouflage color Jeep comes up behind you, pull over and let him pass. They’ve got a priority load.”

“Jeez,” Jack said, not taking his eyes off the track. “They must want those things down there pretty bad.”

“Sounds like it,” Vixen agreed. “It sounds crazy to me, but it might just work.”

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To be continued . . .

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