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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 16

Yes, by God, Clint thought as he heard the report from the Warsaw fireman. That means they’ve made contact. This is going to work yet!

He kept the emotion out of his voice as he called, “Hoselton C-3 from Birdwatcher Hill Command. How close are you to being able to pump both engines?”

“Hoselton has its half of the wet line established,” Jay replied. “A few minutes yet for Warsaw, they’ve got to get a couple connections made. As soon as they get pumping, we’re going to need tankers.”

“We’ve got tankers for you,” Clint replied. “We’re holding them outside the smoke area until you need them. No need to wait around in that stuff. Call when you’re about ready for one, and it’ll only be a couple minutes off.”

“Clear on that,” Jay replied. “Hoselton 2 is dumping the last of its water into the holding tank now.”

“Roger,” Clint replied. “Break, next tanker in line, I don’t know who you are, get on down there and get set to dump.”

“Spearfish Lake four, clear on that,” came a voice that Clint didn’t recognize.

“Roger,” Clint replied, and added, “Break, all tankers. As soon as you’re empty, head back out to the road and down to the draft trucks at Shaundessy’s. This is going to turn into a water hauling project now. Be careful on the access road, we’re going to be having two way traffic on a path that’s only one lane wide. Break, Birdwatcher Hill Command to Spearfish 31.”

“Spearfish 31,” Sheriff Stoneslinger replied.

“Spearfish 31, have any tankers still at Shaundessy’s get moving in this direction. Tell the draft trucks they’re about to be put to work.”

“Clear on that,” Stoneslinger replied. “How about pumpers?”

Clint thought about it for a moment. Right now he didn’t need pumpers; the two down in the edge of the bog ought to be more than enough to hold the wet line. He glanced around the little clearing at the top of the hill; yeah, there was plenty of room for them here. “How many are still there?” he asked finally.

“Not sure, let me find out,” Stoneslinger replied. “Break, Spearfish 31 to any truck at Shaundessy’s. How many pumpers are waiting there?”

Clint couldn’t hear the response directly, of course, but in a few seconds Stoneslinger replied, “They have two sitting down there.”

“Might as well get them moving too,” Clint replied. Having the pumpers closer at hand would mean they would be available when needed, and that could happen as the fire approached the graded fire line. Besides, if water became an issue, the rural pumpers carried a fair amount of water themselves, and could be used as a tanker in a pinch. “Tankers first, then the pumpers. Have everyone stop at Support 6 when they get here so I can give them details. Send what men you can get on the trucks. We need to start rotating people off the wet line. Leave enough people with the draft rigs to be able to handle them efficiently.”

“Roger, clear on all that,” Stoneslinger replied. “I’ll get them moving for you.”

Clint heard the sheriff relaying the orders to the equipment and men waiting at Wood Duck Lake. It would tie up the one frequency everyone was operating on for a few seconds, so that gave him some time to think.

*   *   *

There was no time or inclination for a big celebration down at the east end of the wet line where Junior Kuralt stood watching as the Hoselton grass rig moved on past, followed by the big yellow road grader. Up in the cab of the grader, Randy knew that the job was only partly done; he still needed to clean out at least a minimal fire line around the edge of the bog in case the fire jumped the wet line. It was of lower priority than the hasty fire line that he’d just cleared, but it was still something that needed to be done. “Hoselton 7 from the grader,” he called on the radio. “Bend it back to the right. I think I want you to stay ahead of me. Keep your eyes open, we don’t want to run into the bog again.”

“Roger that,” Chad radioed back. “I think maybe we ought to back off from the bog just a bit, to be on the safe side.”

“Works for me,” Randy told him. “You have any idea if we’re going to be hitting bigger trees?”

“We found some when we were out there earlier,” came the reply from the truck, “but we’re not in quite the same place as we were then.”

“Cat, why don’t you stay with us,” Randy said. “Between us we may be able to move along pretty fast. Let’s just clear things out for now. That way we can come back and work on it if the fire jumps the wet line.”

“I can do that,” Ed radioed from the bulldozer. “Let’s do it to it.”

By now Chad had made his turn to the right; Randy just turned to more or less follow him, clearing the path. With the bulldozer there with them he could press on more quickly than he had before, since he wouldn’t have to stop and do some of the cleanup work he’d done earlier. The smoke was thick there, and the sooner they could get the fire line around the far side of the bog the better he was going to like it. There was clear air out there somewhere and he was getting tired of breathing the heavy smoke.

Perversely, right at that moment Randy wanted a cigarette about as much as anything. He smoked very little, but every now and then lighting one up gave him the opportunity to stop, chill, and think things out. It wasn’t as if a cigarette could hurt him all that much, considering how much smoke filled the cab of the John Deere, but he didn’t have any with him; the nearest he had were back in Spearfish Lake. By God, he was going to enjoy one when he had the chance, just like the cold beer he promised himself for when this was over with.

*   *   *

Things had quieted down on the radio after a burst of activity lasting several minutes. In that time, Jackie and Ryan had just circled overhead, mostly with their attention on the north end of the fire, not that there was a lot of guidance that they could give Randy now.

Finally, when thing seemed quiet, Ryan picked up the radio again and called Birdwatcher Hill Command. “Do you have any further need for the plane?” he asked.

Immediately Clint radioed back, “I’d appreciate it if you could take a swing around the south side and see how close the fire is getting to the fire line. We haven’t been keeping a real close eye on it.”

“Roger that,” Ryan radioed. “This shouldn’t take long.”

Ryan turned to Jackie. “Did you get that?” he asked.

“I did,” she told him. “I’ll just circle to the right outside the fire, that way you can be the one to do the close looking.”

It probably took Jackie half a minute to get the plane oriented so Ryan could have a look at the fire line south of the fire. If there had been any question before, it was clear now that the fire was expanding, as it had burnt up to the fire line in several areas, most notably in a stretch close to a hundred yards long on the southwestern side. He called Clint again and reported what he’d been seeing. “There doesn’t seem to be any place that it’s threatening to cross the fire line,” Ryan told him, “but it’s right up to it in a lot of places.”

“Roger that,” Clint replied. “Break, Birdwatcher Hill command to Hoselton C-3. Can you turn loose any of the grass rigs you have with you?”

“They’ve mostly been supplying manpower,” Jay reported. “Now that we’ve got hoses run, I can release them.”

“Let them go, then. Hoselton 7 stays with the grader, the other three get out and work the fire line around the south side of the fire. We don’t want anything jumping that fire line. I’ll get pumpers down there to assist if needed.”

“Clear on that, we’ll get them moving.”

“Life 20, can you keep circling the fire for a while until the grass rigs get into position?”

Ryan looked over at Jackie, who nodded her head. “Roger that,” he replied. “We can hang around for a while.”

*   *   *

Tom Downing in his DNR pickup was getting closer now. He was getting close to the fire and figured on being to the general area of it in the next half hour. He had no idea where the command point was, but figured he would find out soon enough.

He wondered how the local units were coming on the fire. He’d had essentially no news about it at all since leaving his office nearly an hour and a half before, and there didn’t appear to be any good way to get any without getting there. He figured the odds were about even that they had the fire contained or that it had escaped and was running wild. There was no way of telling. He’d had his radio tuned to the local fire frequency ever since he got into the county, but there just hadn’t been much on it. Once in a while he could hear Spearfish County Central talking to someone, but the one side of the conversations he heard occasionally didn’t provide any useful information.

While there was a good two-way radio in the pickup, it only had a cheap AM-FM radio to listen to out on the highway, and there weren’t a lot of radio stations to be heard. Most of them had country music or lots of inane talk shows, mostly going round and round on subjects that he didn’t much care for, so he spent a lot of time flipping from station to station but not finding much that was at all interesting. It was getting near the top of the hour and there was the possibility of hearing some news.

Finally, he settled on a station from Camden that wasn’t coming in very clearly, but seemed a little more intelligent than the local babble, all too much of which was political and bitching about the governor or the president, or else second-guessing football. He could understand wanting to bitch about any of them and had been known to do so himself, but he really wasn’t interested in hearing more of it than he already had. At least there was the prospect of some halfway decent news on the Camden station.

He turned the volume up to hear the news a little better, but in the first few seconds he realized that it was going to be more of the same old stuff he’d already heard – nothing really new about it. More trouble in the Middle East, like that was news – there had been ongoing trouble in the Middle East as long as he could remember and nothing ever really changed. On the local news, some mayor had made an ass of himself again, and it sounded like it was nothing new. He was just about to change the channel, but decided to hang on to hear the weather. When it came on, there wasn’t much detail there, either: “High this afternoon 92, low tonight 64. Likelihood of thunderstorms and increasing winds this afternoon. High tomorrow 74, low tomorrow night 57. Turning to sports, the Packers . . . ”

Tom turned the radio off. The last thing he wanted to hear about was more crap about the Packers. He was more of a Vikings fan to the extent that he followed football at all, and thought the Packers were both overrated and arrogant. Cooler tomorrow, though, he thought. That’d be nice. Along about this time of year you could expect a big cold front coming through, and all of a sudden it was fall. What with this being the end of August, it was getting to be about time for it, too. With the high dropping to the low seventies tomorrow, this had to be a pretty solid cold front, so maybe this was it. And what was that about thunderstorms? That might affect the fire. If the front had that much of a temperature change, maybe it would be dropping a pretty good shot of rain, and that might dampen things down right there. It would take a real toad drowner to put out a peat bog fire, but a good storm would roll it back pretty good. Maybe he’d be home tonight, after all.

*   *   *

Down in the thick smoke by the peat bog, Jay was more concerned about getting the Warsaw pumper started on establishing its half of the wet line than he was getting the grass rigs moving. The guys with the grass trucks had pitched in with the struggle to establish the hose lines, so they were scattered all over the place. Most of them would have heard Clint’s call on their portables, so he wasn’t too worried about passing the word. Besides, the fire was starting to get close now; they could pick up hints of flames through the thick smoke, so it couldn’t be far away. The right side of the fire wasn’t likely to get past the Hoselton side of the wet line; it had been established for a while now, but up to this point the Warsaw pumper hadn’t actually moved any water that he knew about.

Deciding he’d better check it out, he headed over to the Warsaw truck, which was only a few yards away from the Hoselton truck where he’d been standing. There was a guy at the controls by the side of the truck, so he was a good one to ask, “You guys about ready to get pumping.”

“I’m ready when everyone else is,” the guy told him. “We tried pumping a few minutes ago but the end of the line wasn’t getting much pressure. I think someone must have put in a wye and left an open leg on it. They’re out checking on it now.”

“Well, shit,” Jay said, frustrated. “Ain’t that the way it always happens?”

“Sometimes,” the Warsaw fireman said. “Sorry this has taken so long.”

“As long as it doesn’t take much longer,” Jay replied.

“Warsaw Two from Warsaw C-17,” the call went over the radio. “Try it now.”

“About time,” the guy said, turning to the control panel, where he powered up the pump and opened a valve. As he did, Jay could see a limp two and a half inch hose by his feet become firm as it filled with pressurized water. The Warsaw fireman picked up his portable and said merely, “Here it comes.”

“Roger that, we’re waiting.”

“God, I hope that was it,” the Warsaw guy said to Jay as they stood there waiting. “We don’t need anything else going wrong today.”

A few more seconds passed as the Warsaw truck’s motor loaded down like it was working. “Two, C-17, we got pressure,” the call came over the radio. “Keep it coming, the fire isn’t far off now.”

*   *   *

Mike Trevetheck and Rex Millikan were the two Spearfish Lake firemen who had come down into the smoke to establish the wet line. As luck would have it both were fairly near the Spearfish Lake grass rig when the call to get out on the south fire line came down. The two of them were in the pickup’s cab in only a few seconds, and had it moving down the access track in only a few seconds more. They had been in the smoke as long as anyone, and it had been as unpleasant for them as it had been for everyone else. Now they had the prospect of getting out into some relatively fresh air, and it was not too soon for either of them.

The smoke cleared rapidly as they drove down the access track, and by the time they turned onto the fire line that had been cut by the grader they were all but out of it. Mike was driving, and in the clear air and the relatively open track they made good time. They’d only gone a couple hundred yards to the south before they found fire burning close to the fire line, but right here it wasn’t a big danger at the moment, and from what Mike had overheard on the radio a few minutes before it was worse elsewhere.

It seems a little counter-intuitive to think of them just driving past the fire to their left side, but the fire line was doing its job, at least for the moment. The passage of the grader had removed most of the burnable sod and duff from the ground, stacking it to one side. What was left was bare soil, mostly sand, that wouldn’t support fire except in the odd places where the grader had done a less than perfect job. The fire could be allowed to burn the flammable material on its side of the fire line; in this area that material would soon be exhausted and the fire would die down.

The real concern was that if the fire somehow jumped the fire line, perhaps at some imperfection of the ground clearing, or that wind would carry a burning brand across the gap. Given that the gap was only ten feet or so wide, there was a real danger of that happening, even with the mild wind that was blowing at the moment. Although what wind there was actually was blowing toward the fire, winds can get strange around fires and have all sorts of local wind shifts, some of which can be relatively violent.

As long as the fire stayed on its side of the line Mike and Rex weren’t going to be very concerned about it. Their real concern was what would happen if somehow a fire got started on the far side of the fire line. They had some water and tools to fight it with, and a radio to call for more help if that happened. They would have to attack anything beyond the fire line quickly, before it could get out of hand. Fires in this material will burn upwind and crosswind, although more slowly than downwind, so if something got past the fire line they had a chance to attack it before things got too bad.

Since they were the first grass truck to come away from the anchor point on the wet line, Mike decided that they’d better get around and see what was happening on the back side of the fire, the east side, where the wind was blowing from the fire across the fire line to some degree. It seemed likely that it would be in this area that the fire would be more likely to try to jump the line.

A little to their surprise, they found no indication of fire at the south end of the fire line. In clear air here, they could see that the actual fire was a hundred yards or so away and didn’t seem to be burning very energetically. “It’s kind of a shame that they couldn’t get the fire line in a little closer here,” Rex commented.

“Yeah, if they could have gotten a little nearer that might be burning out by now,” Mike agreed. “But that damn bog screws things up, I guess they couldn’t get much closer.”

“Boy, that thing is a pain,” Rex agreed. “I mean, look at it. It’s not burning very much, but you can tell it’s smoldering like hell with as much smoke as its putting out. We may be able to get the main fire out pretty quickly but mopping it up is going to take a while.”

“Yeah, that’s going to be a pain in the neck,” Mike agreed. “Better call this in.” He took the microphone and called, “Birdwatcher Hill Command, Spearfish Lake Seven. We’re passing the south end of the fire and it’s not doing very much, but it looks a lot more active north of us. We’re heading over to check it out.”

“Clear on that,” Clint replied. “The plane reports that the fire is up to the fire line in several places along the southeast side, maybe a strip as long as a hundred yards. Check that out and report back.”

“Roger, will do,” Mike told the Hoselton chief. They pressed on into the smoke, now blowing across the fire line from behind them. The visibility went down, although nowhere near as bad as it had been down near the wet line. They could see that the fire to their left was burning furiously, apparently with more fuel to work with than it had earlier.

“Man,” Rex said, “I’m not sure I like the looks of that.”

“Me either,” Mike agreed. “It could get across the fire line here real easy. Let’s push on ahead and see where it’s worst.”

“Yeah, it might be even worse farther on,” Rex agreed.

It was worse farther on. The flames were even higher, and although they couldn’t see any indication of fire on the downwind side of the fire line it might not take long to get it started. “I think we’re going to have to do something about that,” Rex said after a while.

“Yeah, me too,” Mike agreed. “Better call this in.” He picked up the microphone again and radioed Clint: “Birdwatcher Hill Command, Spearfish Lake 7. It’s burning pretty solid over here and there’s a real danger of it crossing the line. We could use some help over here.”

“Roger that,” Clint replied. “Grass rigs, as soon as you can get away from the anchor point, drive counterclockwise around the fire and assist Spearfish Lake 7 on the southwest side of the fire. Seven, there should be a pumper here in a few minutes, I’ll send them along as soon as they can get there.”

“Clear on that,” Mike replied. “If we can knock things down a little bit I think we can probably hold this line.”

A new voice came over the radio. “Spearfish Lake 7, Warsaw 6 is clear of the anchor point and should be with you in a few minutes.”

“Roger that,” Mike said. “We’re going to get down toward the end of this, turn around and work our way back south to do what we can to knock this thing down. Why don’t you come around to the south end of where it’s pretty big and work your way northward.”

“Go ahead and knock it down some,” Clint told them. “Don’t try to stomp on it, and make sure you protect your exposure. We don’t want to let it cross the fire line.”

“Clear on that,” Mike said, then turned to Rex. “I’ll stop and turn around just up here a bit, you can get up on the back when I turn. Fog the fire, we ain’t got the time or the water to be able to stay and stomp it.”

“OK, conserve the water, I got it,” Rex said.

In less than a minute, Mike stopped the truck, and Rex hopped out the door. Mike backed the truck up to the east side of the fire line to turn around, cranked the wheels over and pulled ahead as Rex climbed into the back of the truck and prepared to spray water on the fire right next to them. It didn’t take a great deal of setting up, and in a minute or so he had things going, standing up with the hose in his hand spraying the most energetic parts of the fire. They didn’t have a lot of water to work with, only a couple hundred gallons, and didn’t have any to waste. Still, there was a lot of fire that had to be knocked down, and after a couple of minutes of watching, Mike didn’t think the two facts would be reconciled. There was nothing to do but to call for help. “Birdwatcher Hill Command, Spearfish Lake 7,” he called. “We’re going to need some help here.”

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To be continued . . .

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