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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 14

Jackie and Becca weren’t real high up as they passed over West Turtle Lake, perhaps a thousand feet, not much more than that. Jackie thought that the fire seemed a little bit bigger now; at least the smoke cloud was covering a bigger area. It was getting a little bouncy compared to earlier, and Jackie glanced over at Becca for a moment, wondering how the kid was doing. She was a little surprised to see that Becca wasn’t looking at the fire, but looking straight down at the club. “Boy,” she could hear the girl say, “I wonder what that’s like?”

“Pretty much like anywhere else,” Jackie told her with a smile. They’d had this discussion before. “Just no clothes.” It wasn’t the first time this had come up, and Jackie knew why. While Becca liked basketball, she liked volleyball even better – and they both had it on good authority that the level of play of sand court volleyball at the club was far away the highest in the area. Becca wanted a piece of that, and if it involved not wearing any clothes, it was no big deal to her.

“I sure would like to check it out sometime,” Becca said wistfully, twisting a little to look back at the club as they started to get past it.

“I’m sure it would blow Bree’s mind if you did,” Jackie laughed.

“Let her,” Becca replied with a smile, twisting back around to look at the fire as they got closer to it. “It’d be good for her. She’s kind of straight like that, you know.”

Boy, do I ever know that, Jackie thought ruefully. Still, she had to admit that it would be fun to watch Bree oscillate when she found out about it. While Becca needed to settle down a little, Bree really needed to loosen up about the same amount. “Maybe we’ll have to work it out some time,” Jackie replied tentatively.

“Oh, that would be so neat!” Becca grinned with anticipation. She looked out at the fire and said, “Boy, it sure is putting out a lot of smoke, isn’t it?”

*   *   *

Although Clint could see the fire from the support truck on the top of Birdwatcher Hill, he couldn’t see as much as he wanted to. He particularly felt that he ought to be at the anchor point, helping with the struggle down there, and he felt out of place sitting back here and watching. That was the bad part about being a supervisor – you had to supervise, and sometimes that wasn’t as satisfying as actually doing something.

The cat, the grader, and Hoselton 7 were lost in the smoke on the far side of the fire now. It had been a while since he’d been over there in the grass rig, and he was getting a little curious on how far the fire could have spread. Easy enough to find out; he keyed the microphone and called, “Hoselton 7 from Birdwatcher Hill Command. How fast is the fire spreading over there?”

“Hard to say,” Chad called back. “It’s definitely spread from when we were here earlier, maybe a little faster than it is over on your side. I think the wind is bringing it to us a little.”

“Could be,” Clint observed. He looked around at the trees near the edge of the clearing atop Birdwatcher Hill. Aspen leaves tend to flutter in the lightest of breezes, and they were fluttering now. But it was a little hard to tell what direction the wind was blowing. “We’ll keep an eye on it.”

“Good enough,” Chad told him, then asked, “Do you want us to cut in behind the leading edge and see if we can contact the wet line?”

“Yeah, if you can.” Clint stopped to think for a moment, then continued. “I’m not sure how you’re going to make contact with the wet line, though. I need to think about it.”

“I have no idea where it is from where we’re at.” Chad said. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near close yet.”

“I can’t see jack squat from here to guide you,” Clint told him. “Let me think about it and I’ll get right back with you.”

*   *   *

Jack had made about his best time yet coming in to Birdwatcher Hill from 919, while Vixen worked to get the snowshoes out of the bindings that tied the pairs of them together and to get rid of the tags and labels. He hadn’t been looking at his watch when they burst out of the woods and up the hill, but he knew that they’d been going good. “Unless he calls or waves us down, I’m going to go right through,” he told Vixen. “How are you coming with those?”

“Last pair,” she replied. “This isn’t easy, you know.”

There weren’t a lot of people standing around at the command post area, so Jack hardly slowed as he went past the support van, except to beep his horn a couple times to let Clint know that they were passing. In only another two or three minutes they were down on the edge of the fire line, where the smoke wasn’t quite as bad as before. It was almost clear air as they headed north up the fire line, but when they reached the spur that led back to the anchor point, they were in the smoke again, and it was as thick as ever.

“I sure am glad we don’t have to stay in this stuff very long,” Jack said, slowing the Jeep considerably so he could see where he was going.

“Me either,” Vixen agreed. “I don’t understand how those guys can even breathe this shit.”

“Badly, probably,” Jack said. “It’s not my idea of fun, that’s for sure.”

In spite of having to go relatively slowly, it did not take long to get up to the anchor point, which seemed even busier than it had been a few minutes before. There were more trucks and more men there now. He drove right up close, looked around for the guy he had talked to before and didn’t see him. “Snowshoes are here,” he yelled.

“Good deal, kid,” he heard the guy he’d talked to earlier say as he hustled over to the Jeep. “I sure hope these work.”

*   *   *

Clint heard the beeping of the horn as Jack raced past the support van. That didn’t take long, he thought, then went back to being concerned about the far side of the fire and how to have the grader meet up with the wet line. It still came down to the fact that he couldn’t see anything on the far side of the fire from where he was. “Damn,” he said out loud. “I wish I was up higher, I might be able to get a better idea where they’re at.”

“Who?” Dave Jorgensen said from the back of the van.

“The grader and Seven,” Clint explained. “They’re over on the far side of the fire, and I’m trying to figure out some way to figure out where the leading edge and the wet line are. It’d be easier if I was up higher.”

“How about that guy up on the top of Turtle Hill?” Dave asked. “Do you think he might have a better view?”

Shit, Clint thought. He’d put the whole idea of Ryan Clark being up there out of his mind, as if he ignored him he might go away. “Worth a try,” he admitted grudgingly. He keyed the microphone and called, “Life 20, Birdwatcher Hill Command.”

“Life 20,” Clark replied almost instantly.

“Can you see the grader from where you’re at? I can’t make them out from here at all.”

“Not real good, but some of the time,” came back over the radio.

“Can you get any idea of where they are with relation to the leading edge of the fire, to the north side?”

“It’s not real clear,” Clark said. “Occasionally I can see some flames, but the smoke is real thick.”

“Keep your eyes on it and work on it,” Clint told him. “I’d like to be able to tell them where to cut back into the smoke.”

“Roger that, Birdwatcher Hill. I’ll do what I can.”

“Birdwatcher Hill, out,” Clint radioed, then turn to Dave. “Well, maybe that will help a little. Good idea, Dave.”

*   *   *

I sure as hell hope this crazy idea works, Jay thought as he took the armload of snowshoes out of the Jeep. Otherwise this thing is going to get past us for sure.

As the Jeep disappeared back into the smoke, Jay hauled the snowshoes over to Hoselton 1, which was still pumping on the inch and a half lines but not on the two and a halfs. That told him about as well as anything that stretching the hose line into the bog wasn’t going as well as he would like it to. He knew that the group with the chainsaws had only gotten a good start on the plankway. They hadn’t gotten all that far – perhaps a hundred feet – and he could see that extending it was going to be even slower the farther they got into the bog. If this worked, things could go a lot faster.

He caught a couple firemen coming back from hauling logs out for the plankway – they were Albany River guys, and he knew the faces but not the names. “Here, put these on,” he told them. “Then grab a length of two and a half and carry it out to the end of the hose line.”

“Snowshoes?” one of the Albany River guys said. “Shit, that might not be the dumbest idea I ever saw.” He quickly grabbed a pair, and bent over to put one of them on. Fortunately, the snowshoes had bindings that were easily adjustable and designed to fit over the outside of winter overboots, so it didn’t take long for him to get them on over the fire boots. “Let’s see how this works,” he said, grabbing a roll of two and a half inch hose and throwing it over his shoulder.

Walking in snowshoes isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do without practice, but like a lot of people in that part of the country it wasn’t the first time the Albany River guy had put snowshoes on. Jay followed him out to the edge of the bog since the smoke was still thick there, and he could see that they were doing the trick! Even with the heavy hose thrown over his shoulder, the guy wasn’t sinking in very much, and was making much better time than just postholing through the soft ground. It was going to work!

Jay hurried back to the pumper, where the rest of the snowshoes were sitting. The other Albany River guy had his snowshoes on by now, and was heading out toward the bog, carrying another length of hose, this one with a nozzle. “Gonna help them get that first line stretched,” he told Jay in passing.

“Good deal, the snowshoes seem to be working. Hop to it.”

Only six pair of snowshoes, and two of them were already in use. I’m going to have to think how to do this, he thought. He saw a Spearfish Lake guy coming past, and told him to get on a pair of snowshoes. “Take a length of hose with a nozzle and a wye fitting out to the end of the first hose line,” he said.

The other pumper – this one was from Warsaw – was just getting settled in. He carried the snowshoes over to it. “Gonna have about three lengths of hose out from the other pumper,” he told the captain, Fred Rumsey. The Hoselton and Warsaw departments had backed each other up on any number of fires over the years, clear back before the big paper plant fire in Warsaw years and years before, so the Hoselton and Warsaw guys knew each other about as well as if they had been on the same department. “Start running hose out into the bog to extend the wet line, hopefully to at least the far side of the bog. Get out about six lengths before you cut in a wye. The going out there is real bad, but these snowshoes seem to help. Be careful with them, there’s only a handful of them and there ain’t no more where they came from.”

“Good enough,” Fred nodded. “We can do that.”

Jay figured the best thing to do was to get out of Fred’s way, and besides, he needed to report in to Clint, who probably was getting pretty antsy up there on the hill. He walked a few steps away, pulled out his portable, and radioed, “Birdwatcher Hill from C-3. The snowshoes seem to be working.”

“Good,” Clint replied instantly. “What progress are you making?”

“Hoselton has several lengths of hose line out on this side of the bog and into it. We can get started moving water in a few minutes. Warsaw is just starting to run out a long hose line to try and find the far side.”

“Clear on that,” Clint told him. “The grader is northbound on the east side of the fire. We’re trying to figure out a way for him to contact the wet line.”

“No idea on that,” Jay replied. “We’re not even sure how far away the other side of the bog is. Warsaw is looking for it now. I’d say that once he knows he’s near the leading edge, have him angle in as close as he dares, and we’ll just have to find the fire line he cuts.”

“Not real sure on that,” Clint radioed back. “With the smoke direction what it is, it could be even farther into the smoke than it was on this side. It may not be easy for them to find the leading edge. Tell Warsaw to get someone across the bog as quick as they can, so we can at least have an idea of how far it is.”

*   *   *

Ryan was out of the truck now, taking a look down at the fire. Occasionally he could see the leading edge of the fire or the grader, but the smoke was thick enough that he couldn’t really tell how much farther north Randy had to drive the John Deere before cutting into the wet line, which was at least a ways past the leading edge of the fire.

It was very frustrating. In the last few minutes the fire had moved from being totally uncontained to nearly being surrounded, but there was that gap in the northeast section where the fire could still get past the firemen without being noticed.

“Randy can’t be able to see very far in that smoke,” he told Allen. “I don’t see how he can tell where he’s going anyway. If I could just get a better angle on it, I could probably see a lot more.”

“Too bad you can’t fly over it, like those people are doing,” Allen commented.

“Huh? What?” Ryan said, and took his eyes away from the binoculars. There, two or three miles away and a little higher than he was, he saw a little white plane. “Holy shit!” he said, putting the binoculars on the plane. He was already pretty sure whose plane it was, but a glance in the eyepieces confirmed it. “Yeah!”

Now it was Allen’s turn to say “Huh?” as Ryan handed him the binoculars and reached for his cell phone. The number he needed was on autodial; within seconds he was saying, “Jackie, how’s the fire looking now?”

“Bigger than it was earlier,” he heard Jackie say. “Half again the size, maybe twice the size. It’s a little hard to tell.”

“Jackie, I’m on Turtle Hill,” Ryan told her. Look on the east side of the fire, a ways north of where the smoke starts. Can you see the fire line on that side of the fire?”

“A path that looks sort of graded out? Yeah, I see it.”

“Do you see the grader that’s cutting it?”

“Just a second, it’s on the far side of the plane, and I can’t get a good look,” she replied. He watched as the plane banked steeply and turned. In only a few seconds, the wings were level again. “OK, I see it,” she said. “It looks like there’s some sort of fire engine with it.”

“Very good,” Ryan said. “Can you pick out the leading edge of the fire?”

There was silence in his ear for a moment; she was obviously looking intently. “I can occasionally see places where the fire looks a little bigger than it does elsewhere, if that’s the leading edge,” she replied slowly. “The grader isn’t up to it yet, but they’re going to run into it if they stay on the course they’re on.”

“Good enough Jackie,” Ryan told her. “Hang on a minute.” He turned to Allen. “Get on the company radio, call Randy and tell him to alter his course to the right a bit or he’s going to run right into the fire.”

“Can do,” Allen told him.

Ryan put the cell phone back to his ear. “Jackie, can you hang around for a bit? We can use someone watching from overhead.”

“Oh, yeah, I can hang around maybe three hours if I need to,” Jackie said. “Not much more than that, though.”

“OK, should be plenty. I’m going to call you back in a couple minutes. Stay around.”

“Will do,” she told him.

Ryan had left the portable on the dash of the truck. He grabbed it and called, “Birdwatcher Hill Command, Life 20.”

“Go ahead Life 20,” he heard Clint say.

“You see that small white plane over the fire? I just talked to the pilot on my cell phone, and she reports that the grader is heading directly into the right flank of the fire from the backside. We’ve already called the grader on company radio and told him to alter course to the right.”

“Clear on that,” Clint told him. “How close are they to the leading edge?”

“I’m not real clear on that,” Ryan said. “But the pilot has agreed to stick around and watch for a while, but she says she’s not real clear on where the leading edge is. Apparently it’s still thick in there.”

“That’s what I’m hearing,” Clint agreed. “Maybe your pilot friend can guide the grader in.”

“That’s what I’m thinking,” Ryan told him. “Look, I can probably have her meet me at the airstrip at West Turtle Lake and be over the fire myself in ten minutes or so.”

“That’d help a lot,” Clint told him. “You’d know what you were looking for.”

“OK,” Ryan replied. “I’ll see if I can set it up.”

*   *   *

The smoke was pretty thick and getting thicker around the grader, which was working its way northward with Hoselton 7 tagging along behind. It was hard for Randy to tell where he was going, but he was glad of the warning from Turtle Hill. As soon as he heard it, he altered the course he was taking about twenty degrees to the right. Since he and his overwatch on Turtle Hill were the only ones on that frequency, they didn’t bother with radio call signs. “Is that going to do it?” he asked.

“Don’t know,” Allen told him. “We’re out of contact with the pilot right at the moment, will check as soon as we can.”

Randy went back to concentrating on guiding the big yellow road grader through the brush. It was harder going than it had been earlier; they were going through a patch of older aspen, and it was about all the grader could do to knock them down. He frequently had to raise the blade, back up and make a second pass to get one of the downed trees out of the way, so things were going slower than normal. The turn to the right didn’t help matters much.

“Grader from Birdwatcher Hill Command,” he heard Clint call. “Are you clear on that recommendation to alter course to the right?”

“Roger, clear on that,” Randy replied into the portable.

“How’s it coming?”

“Very slowly,” he replied. “I’m not sure how close we’re getting to the leading edge, and the trees here are about at the limit of what this thing can handle.”

“Knock them over and get a hasty line cut,” Clint told him. “We’ve got a bulldozer a ways behind you. I can have him catch up with you and deal with trees if they get worse.”

“Would appreciate it,” Randy told him. “I’m managing for now but probably won’t be able to if these things get any bigger.”

“Clear on that,” Clint replied. “Break, bulldozer, catch up and assist the grader.”

“Clear direct,” Ed’s voice came from the portable he carried on the bulldozer. “I’m on the upwind side so they can’t be far ahead of me.”

*   *   *

Jackie had the cell phone in her hand when it rang again. As she continued to circle over the fire, she flipped it open and clicked it on. “Yeah?” she replied.

“Jackie, got a favor to ask of you,” Ryan said, sounding hurried. “How about if you go land at the airstrip at West Turtle Lake? I can meet you there so you can take me over the fire. They need a better overview than I can give them from here.”

“Just a second,” she replied, a smile crossing her face as she realized that Becca was going to get her wish. Technically speaking Becca wasn’t supposed to be at the club at all without adult supervision – it was the club’s rules, after all. But this was an emergency, and under the circumstances too good a chance to pass up. “Yeah, I can do that,” she said, making up her mind. “I don’t have Carrie’s number on my cell, but could you call her and tell her to meet me at the airstrip? I’ve got Becca with me so there’ll have to be some rules bent.”

“Yeah, sure,” Ryan said. “You’re concerned the kid is going to flip out, right?”

“Exactly the opposite,” Jackie grinned, “but if rules have to be bent, Carrie is the one who can bend them.”

“I’ll call her on my way down the hill,” Ryan promised. “See you in a few minutes.”

Jackie flipped the phone closed. Should she tell Becca, or just surprise her by not saying anything? Well, she could say something and still not give the game away. “Apparently they’ve got some problems with the fire and want me to pick up an observer and fly him over it,” she told the girl as she banked away from the fire and began to let down. She knew she had plenty of time; there was no way Ryan could get down Turtle Hill and over to the club before she could get there. The wind was light enough that it didn’t matter which way she landed on the club’s airstrip, and if she made a low approach and did it right, Becca might not figure out where they were going. “You’ll have to wait on the ground, but it shouldn’t be too long. If I’d known this was going to happen I could have brought Bree’s copy of War and Peace so you’d have something to read, but this is an emergency.”

“Sure, no problem,” Becca said gamely, expecting that she was going to have to sit out in the middle of nowhere and kill time for a couple hours. “It can’t be as bad as reading that thing.”

“No, it won’t be that bad,” Jackie told her. “I’ll make it as quick as I can.”

*   *   *

Jack parked the Jeep and shut it off. Clint was busy on the radio, so he waited the minute or two until he was free. “You got anything else for us to do?” he asked.

“Not right at the moment,” Clint told him. “But stick around, you never know when something extremely helpful is going to come up like that last run.”

“No problem,” Jack told him. “I just thought that if you don’t have anything for us for a while I’ll take the Jeep over and park in that shade,” he said, pointing at some slightly taller trees at the edge of the clearing.

“Might as well,” Clint replied. “As soon as they get the wet line established I want to get a few people out of the smoke zone, give them a break, so I might as well have you hauling them back and forth. When we do that, you might want to leave Vixen and your dog here so there’ll be more seats in the Jeep. I suspect that she’ll be useful here.” He looked around; it was awful hot out there in the sun, and that wouldn’t help hot firemen on a rest break. “In fact, while you’re waiting, I might as well have you help Dave rig a sun shade out here. There’s a tarp and stuff in the van for that kind of thing.”

“Sure, anything to help,” Jack told him. “Are we pulling ahead of it?”

“Maybe some,” Clint told him. “It looks like those snowshoes you kids hauled in are going to help a lot. I can’t say we’ve got it whipped yet, but it looks like things are going our way. You never have one of these things whipped until it’s all the way out.”

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To be continued . . .

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