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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 15

The West Turtle Lake Club is a private club, and they are careful to guard their privacy, for any number of good reasons and some not so good. Many of the members would much rather that the world in general didn’t know of their membership. There were a number of things done for the sake of security, and one of the more obvious ones is a rather solid card-key controlled gate at the main entrance.

Ryan wasn’t technically a member of the club anymore, and hadn’t been for a good many years, but he was aware of a carefully guarded secret: there was an “unofficial” – but known to most of the members – “back way” into the club that was completely unguarded. It went back to the days when Garth Matson ruled the place with an iron fist and locked the main gate each night at ten PM to prevent unwanted intrusions. However, for any number of reasons some of the members had a reason to stay out later than that, and over the years a rough, narrow two-rut trail evolved from a rather unobtrusive spot south of Turtle Hill, emerging near the far end of the airstrip. It was still there, years after the card-controlled gate had been put into place, because people forgot their cards or sometimes didn’t care to have their comings and goings on computer records. Perhaps once every other year Ryan had reason to go out there without warning, and he knew that the back way was still kept open.

Within seconds of finishing his call with Jackie, he was in Allen’s truck – that way Allen could still have the company radio to contact the grader if he needed to – and was headed down the hill, driving like a young maniac while calling Carrie on his cell phone. He slid out onto 919 without slowing, and had his foot in it hard for the mile or so it took him to get to the hidden entrance to the back way. The unofficial route was intentionally kept bumpy, to discourage unauthorized use, but Ryan knew that if you go over rough roads real fast the suspension of a vehicle doesn’t have the time to react to everything, so it can actually be a smoother ride. This is to say that he was going a lot faster than would normally be considered sane down the narrow two-rut road. It was most of a mile up the two-rut and he covered it in record time, coming out on the far end of the airstrip from the club. Knowing that Jackie was inbound in the Cessna, he kept to one side of the airstrip, racing right along, and skidded to a stop at the club end of the strip just as Carrie drove up in her golf cart wearing the normal non-uniform of the day, naturally. “Good grief, Ryan,” she said as he got out of Allen’s truck. “I thought you couldn’t go faster than the speed of light.”

“Didn’t want Jackie waiting on me,” he said. “They’re in a tricky spot over at the fire.”

“Any danger to us here?”

“No, it’s like I told you on top of the hill,” he said to his nude friend. He actually hadn’t seen her nude in a while but she still looked pretty good to him, even at her age. “You’re actually protected pretty well here, and the fire is heading the other way, anyway. But it’s my trees it’s going to be burning.”

*   *   *

Even though Becca put a brave face on it, she was obviously grumpy at the idea of having to sit on the ground for a couple hours with nothing much to do. If there had been any way she could have gotten back to her video game she would have made a case for it, but there was no room for argument. Thus it was that she wasn’t paying much attention to where Jackie was landing the plane until it was close to the end of its landing roll, when she looked around and realized that this wasn’t some little dirt landing strip out in the middle of nowhere. Then she saw the golf cart with the nude woman sitting in it and realized where she was.

“Aunt Jackie!” she exclaimed, coming alive like someone had lighted a firecracker under her butt. “I can’t believe it! Wow! You’re bringing me here!”

“Yep, and here we are,” Jackie said. “The woman waiting for you is an old friend; she’s going to show you around. I’m breaking a couple rules by leaving you here, so I want you to listen to her and be on your best behavior, OK? One complaint out of her and it’s the last time you come out here.”

“Yeah, sure,” she replied as Jackie taxied the Cessna up to where Ryan and Carrie were waiting. “Neat! Thank you, Aunt Jackie.”

Jackie shut down the engine, and as it windmilled to a stop Becca was out the right side door, excited as all get-out and wondering what to do next. “Becca,” Jackie said as Ryan got into the plane. “This is Mrs. Evachevski, she’ll show you around. Carrie, I’ll give you a call on your cell number when I’m ready to head back, so you can have her here.”

“Good enough,” Carrie smiled. “I think we’ll have a good time.”

“Thanks, Aunt Jackie, Thanks, Mrs. Evachevski,” Becca bubbled as Ryan fastened the seat belt. “Mrs. Evachevski, I’ve wanted to come out here ever since I heard about it.”

“It’s probably not what you think,” Carrie smiled, “but I guess we’ll see, won’t we?”

Any further discussion was broken off as Ryan closed the door. “Wow,” he said. “She sure seems enthusiastic, doesn’t she?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jackie said, seeing that Carrie and Becca were back near the golf cart so it was safe to start the engine. “It’s her sister who would freak out in this situation.” She popped open the window, yelled, “Clear the prop!” then continued the conversation as she hit the starter and the engine came to life. “Becca has been wanting to come out here for a while, but I’ve never been quite sure whether she wanted to do it for its own sake, or for sand court volleyball, or whether it was to tease her sister, who is going to go absolutely ballistic when she finds out.” Jackie laughed as she turned the plane around, checked the mags, then shoved the throttle forward. “At least that settled that question.”

“It’s been a while since I’ve spent much time out here,” Ryan laughed as the plane raced down the runway, then broke ground. “But I never remember a teenage girl being that enthusiastic about her first visit.”

“Hell, I wasn’t that enthusiastic about mine, and I’d already been to nude beaches with Mark,” Jackie grinned as the plane broke ground. She let it get up a little ways, much less than she normally would, and banked toward the fire. “But that was a little different, I ran out of sky in the glider and had no choice but to land here. So what’s the deal on what we’re doing?”

“Pretty simple. Randy’s driving the construction company’s grader, trying to cut a fire line. The problem is that the smoke is so thick they can’t tell where they are in relation to the fire. I thought we’d try spotting for them. I can’t believe it’s going to take more than a half hour or so.”

“No problem, then,” Jackie grinned thinking of how Bree was going to react to the latest news of what her sister had done. It was going to break her heart to not have anyone but Mark to rat her out to. “That’s over in the same area we were before, the east side of the fire?”

“Right. If you can circle that area to the right I think I have some idea of what I’m looking for.”

“OK, I’ll keep it down low, but I can pick it up some if you think we need to.”

*   *   *

“Grader, this is the Cat,” Ed called. “I’m right behind you, if you want to stop for a second I’ll get in front.”

“Sure, glad to have you,” Randy replied. “I could stand a breather.” He found a place that was a little wider than most and stopped, taking the big John Deere out of gear. “I think we’re starting to run out of this bigger stuff, if you can knock it down I’ll get on point again.”

“Sounds fair, we’ll tag-team them,” Ed told him.

Randy opened the cab door to let some of the smoke out, not that it was any less smoky outside than it was inside. It couldn’t be called fresh air, in any case, but it was a break from the cab. He’d been there for at least three hours now – he wasn’t sure how long – and needed the break. He happened to notice that the grass rig had stopped next to him, so he decided to head over and talk with Chad for a moment. They’d talked back and forth on the radio a lot for the last hour or more, but he’d never actually talked to the guy face to face.

Chad was sitting in the truck, and waved Randy on in. Randy was pleasantly surprised to discover that Chad had the truck’s air conditioning on. It didn’t make the air in the truck any less smoky but the coolness was refreshing. “Glad he showed up,” Randy commented about Ed knocking some bigger trees down with the Cat. “I’ve been worrying that I’d take on something a little too big and bust something, and then where would we be?”

“Yeah,” Chad agreed. “I’m really impressed with the way that you’ve moved through this stuff. That knocks down bigger stuff than I thought it would. Can you see any better from the cab than I can from down here?”

“Maybe a little when the brush is the right height,” Randy told him. “The smoke isn’t helping a damn bit. Hey, you wouldn’t happen to have any drinking water on this thing, would you?”

“There’s a few bottles in the back,” Chad said. “I’m afraid it’s going to be warm.”

“Warm, shit, so long as it’s wet,” Randy said. “I never thought about that when I left Spearfish Lake. Hell, I never thought I was even going to be running that thing out here. The guy who was supposed to run it had an accident coming this way, and didn’t make it.”

“Aw, shit,” Chad said. “Sorry to hear that. Let me get you a bottle or two, you’ve earned it.” He popped open the door and got out while Randy just leaned back against the seat and tried to mentally chill out.

This had been by far the toughest thing he’d ever tried to do with the John Deere, or with any heavy equipment, for that matter. It was not as easy as it looked, even when he sort of knew what he was doing. There was no telling how much longer he would be doing it, either; they were at best halfway around the fire, and when they got the rest of the way around, the line would have to be widened and firmed up. At a minimum, he figured he was going to be out there for several more hours.

He was still trying to clear his mind, just chill, when Chad got back in the truck, carrying a couple bottles of water that looked like they’d been bouncing around in the back for a while. He took one, popped the cap, and took a long drink. It was flat and piss-warm at best, but right then it tasted damn good. “Thanks, man,” he said. “I needed that.”

“How much farther do you think we’ve got?”

“Hard to say,” Randy replied. “Can’t be more than another couple hundred yards or so till we’re up to the leading edge, and no way of telling how far until we can get around the north end of the bog. You’ve been there, haven’t you?”

“Yeah, before you showed up. We wound up going farther south than we did when I went around earlier. Less than a mile south to north back then, although it seemed like a hell of a lot more.”

“Well, hell, nothing to do but to do it,” Randy shrugged and took another long pull on the water bottle. “Guess I’d better get back up there. It’s not going to take him long to deal with what’s left of those trees.”

“There’s a couple more spots ahead with trees this big,” Chad told him. “We’re probably going to want to keep the cat close.”

“Good, glad to know it,” Randy nodded. He took a final long pull on the bottle, draining it. “I’m afraid this shit is just going to get thicker until we get back around to the other side.”

“That’s about how I figure it,” Chad agreed. “The sooner we get it done, the sooner we can breathe some clean air.”

“Makes you appreciate it,” Randy said, opening his door and getting out, taking the other water bottle with him. “Thanks much for this. It really helps.”

The John Deere was still idling a few feet away. Randy climbed back up to the cab, which seemed hotter and smokier than ever. The air conditioner in the truck had felt good, if only for the few minutes he’d been in it. Too bad this thing didn’t have one . . .


It did have one. He’d totally forgotten about it. What’s more, it had an air filter that was there to be used on dusty job sites. He’d never once thought about it, but then, he’d been just so damn busy driving this big honker and working the controls, of which there were more than he had hands, that the thought of it never crossed his mind. The controls for the air conditioner were a little out of the way, but in seconds he found them and had it running. That helped – oh yes indeed, it helped. Even moving the air around in the cab helped, and in a few seconds he could feel cold air blowing.

“Grader, this is the Cat,” he heard from the portable. “Do you think you can handle this stuff that’s left?”

“Yeah, looks like it,” he replied. “But stay close, I’m told there’s more of this stuff up ahead.”

*   *   *

“Hoselton 1, C-16,” Clint heard over the radio. “Give me some flow on the two and a half.”

“Roger that,” came the reply.

That could only mean one thing, he thought. They were finally able to start watering down at least half of the wet line in the swamp. It was hard to say, but if Warsaw was doing any good with getting hose to the far side of the bog, they might be able to have the whole thing in before very long.

Getting the wet line in was the key to the thing, since that was where the fire was moving the most quickly, but at least on the west side of the wet line, they’d beaten the fire. Gaining on it a little, that was good. He was damn tempted to call Jay and ask what the story was with the Warsaw pumper, but he realized there was no point in it. Jay and the Warsaw guys would be working on getting that line in as quick as they could, so it couldn’t be very long now. Get a few tanker loads of water on that line and the most immediate threat would be taken care of.

This thing was still a long way from being over with, Clint knew. The peat had to be burning in the bog, hell, you could smell it from here and there wasn’t even much smoke coming in this direction. That would not be put out easily, the only thing you could do was drown it. That was going to take an awful long time – days, weeks maybe, if the weather stayed dry.

*   *   *

In some ways the fire wasn’t quite as impressive viewed from overhead, Ryan thought as Jackie headed directly over the fire to get to the far side where the grader was working. There was a lot of fire down there, but it only seemed particularly active near the edges. In the center of the burned area there was very little flame showing in the blackened area, although there was lots of smoke. It was clear that the peat bog was smoldering; here and there he could see some active flame burning above ground, but amazingly enough, not a lot of it. He really didn’t spend a lot of time looking at that, since he was more interested in where the grader was in relation to the leading edge.

Very quickly they were over the area where the leading edge of the fire had to be. Since Ryan had some idea of what to look for, he could pick out much more active flame. However, he couldn’t see where the wet line was, except to know that it was somewhere downwind of the flames he could see. Needing better information, he took the portable and called, “Hoselton C-3, Life 20 in the air above you. How far is the wet line downwind of the leading edge?”

“Not real sure,” Jay replied to the strange voice entering the radio circuit. “Got to be getting close and we’re seeing some hints of it, but it’s not up to us yet.”

“Clear on that,” Ryan replied, knowing now that from his viewpoint the wet line wasn’t far ahead of the fire. “Jackie, circle to the right so I can get a better look,” he asked.

“Right, I can do that,” she replied, banking the little Cessna to the right.

During the turn, he caught sight of the grader, and could see that it was accompanied by a bulldozer and a grass truck. Within half a turn he had a pretty good idea of where the grader was in relation to the fire. “Grader, Life 20 overhead,” he radioed. “I’d say you’re on a good course for now. Move on ahead about another hundred yards, then you can cut about forty-five degrees to the left to intercept the wet line.”

“Roger that,” he heard Randy call from the grader. “You’re planning on guiding me around the flank, right?”

“That’s affirmative,” Ryan replied. “I’m still a little unclear on where the wet line is, but we’ll get you there.”

“Clear on that,” Randy told him. “We should be there in a few minutes.”

As Ryan peered out the side of the Cessna watching the grader work below, it seemed like the people and equipment on the ground were moving very slowly. It seemed to him like this was taking forever. “You want to me keep circling, right?” Jackie asked.

“Yeah, right about here should be fine,” Ryan told her without taking his eyes off the action below.

*   *   *

The going was fairly easy for Randy and the John Deere. They were working their way through an area of fairly young trees, and the grader could knock them down with little difficulty. Ed followed behind in the bulldozer, working to clear the path of downed wood that the grader missed. The smoke was very thick now; Randy was actually a little surprised that his father could see him from overhead. It was good to have an eye in the sky to guide him in, because about all he could do was to do the best he could to go in a straight line.

It only took a couple minutes to cover the hundred yards that had been recommended. “Life 20, I need to cut left around here some place, correct?”

“Affirmative, you’re in a good location. Make about a forty-five-degree angle to your left from where you’re at.”

“Any idea of how far it is to the bog?” Randy asked.

“No idea,” came the word from the airplane overhead.

“Roger that,” Randy replied. “Hoselton 7, get out in front of me and start feeling for the bog. I don’t want to be surprised and run into it.”

“Roger, hold up for a moment so I can get past you,” Chad called.

“Clear on that, come by on my left,” Randy told him as he stopped where he was. “Don’t get too far out ahead of me, I don’t want to lose you in this stuff. Turn on your overheads so I can see you better.”

In a minute Chad had the grass rig out in front of the grader, probing ahead through the low brush, while Randy got moving again and followed along behind, clearing out the path. The smoke was thick enough here that it was hard to see the truck’s flashing overhead lights from only a few yards away. “Life 20, is the grader’s course about right?”

“Looks like it from here,” Ryan reported from the Cessna. “We’re a little out of position, I’ll be able to tell you a little better as soon as we circle back around some.”

*   *   *

It was a hell of a lot easier to move through the bog with the snowshoes on, Warsaw fireman Junior Kuralt thought. Cripe, you’d be all day post holing through that stuff.

Kuralt wasn’t going all that fast, since he was unrolling an inch and a half hose line as he went. This was far enough away from the Warsaw pumper that they’d run out of their own hose and had to borrow a couple lengths from the Hoselton pumper. When they’d run out of that, they’d cut a wye into the line with reducers that would let them run a one and a half inch line, and now even that was running out. If they didn’t find the far edge of the bog on this length, they were going to have to find some more hose somewhere. If they could even get close, if the grader could get close, it might be enough to close the gap. There were a couple wyes cut into the hose back toward the pumper, so several smaller lines could be used to spread water on the wet line.

He still wasn’t sure how far away the fire was, but he couldn’t believe it was very far – he just couldn’t tell in the thick smoke, but somehow he sensed that there was burning going on not far off. What with everything the going was still hard, but he was making progress, even as the hose line was unrolling behind him. Just before he’d used up all the hose, he realized that the ground surface had changed; it wasn’t as soft, and his feet felt more stable. He looked around; it was hard to tell in all the smoke but it looked as if the ground slanted upward a little. By God, he thought, I think we’ve made it.

Even though he felt like he was back on solid ground, he unrolled the hose out to the bitter end, since it had to be uncoiled to be usable. Now he was looking for a good position, too – a spot where someone could stand and cover as much of the ground to either side as possible. Couldn’t be much longer, now.

All of a sudden he realized there was something out there – not fire, but some other kind of flickering. He couldn’t help but wonder what it could be, but as he stood and watched he began to pick red and blue out of the flickers. All of a sudden, he realized what it was – the flashing overhead lights on a fire truck. He tossed the remaining hose to the ground – there was only a few feet of it, and pulled out his portable. “Unit on the east side of the fire,” he radioed, “Warsaw C-17 has you in sight at the east end of the wet line.”

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To be continued . . .

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