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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 17

As they circled overhead, Ryan and Jackie could hear the talk back and forth, and that riveted their attention to the developing drama on the east side of the fire, so their eyes were more on the ground than anywhere else. While their view of the battle on the fire line was obscured by the heavy smoke, they could often make it out reasonably well, but now their attention was especially focused on the developing problem. Since Jackie was still circling to the right, Ryan had a better view of the fire than she did, and he scanned up and down the area where the fire was up against the fire line.

Jackie’s view wasn’t as good, and she was flying the plane, so had a little more awareness of the total situation around her. Still, the fire drew her attention somewhat, and it took a surprisingly long time, she realized in retrospect, to notice that the built-up clouds that had been distant to the west were no longer quite as distant, and they were quite a bit bigger. When she finally did notice it, they focused her attention quickly. It was no longer a line of distant towering cumulus; they had built to full-blown thunderheads, and hadn’t taken long to do so. Since the relatively smooth ride they’d been having, even around the fire, told her well-tuned pilot’s weather sense that there wasn’t a lot of instability in the area, that could only mean that this was a front moving in. She hadn’t been paying much attention to the weather on the morning news, but this flight was something that she hadn’t been expecting either.

Her attention on the approaching storm – and that was clearly what it was – was diverted when she heard Ryan on the portable radio. “Spearfish Lake 7 from Life 20 overhead. You’ve got a small hot spot developing on the downwind side of the fire line about a hundred yards south of you.”

They could just about hear the words, “Oh, shit!” from the grass rig, even though they didn’t come over the radio. What they did hear was Mike Trevetheck’s voice reply in a calm, professional tone, “Ahh, roger that, Life 20. Warsaw 6, can you deal with that? We’re about out of water.”

“We’re on our way,” the Warsaw grass rig reported. “We can be there in a couple minutes.”

“Albany River 5 is leaving the anchor point, should be there shortly,” came the call from the third grass rig that had been down supporting the wet line.

There was a moment’s silence on the radio, then Clint’s voice came over the radio. “Birdwatcher Hill command to whatever tanker is next in line on the access track, break off and head south around the fire. Find a good place on the southeast side of the fire to support the grass rigs.”

“Spearfish Lake 3 is on the way,” came an immediate response.

*   *   *

One of the few things that Tom Downing knew about the fire was that the local units had cut an access into the fire area off County Road 919. He’d spotted the smoke from the fire as he passed well to the south of it on the highway, but from what little he could see from the cab of the DNR pickup, the fire was still some distance off. It was inconvenient to have to drive most of the way around the fire at a distance before he could get near it, but in forest country you have to take roads where you can find them. He turned off the highway onto the gravel of 919, and drove a couple miles north and passed the cool blue of Wood Duck Lake, where a couple of draft trucks were filling tankers near Shaundessy’s Bait Shop. If that’s the drafting point, he thought, the fire can’t be far away.

Downing drove on north for several miles. The road was essentially empty, except for seeing another tanker coming south, lights flashing and siren blaring. That told him that whatever else was going on, someone was actively attacking the fire. Finally, he came around a corner and saw a patrol car sitting by the edge of the road, its lights flashing as well. Tom pulled to a stop beside it, leaned over, and rolled down the right window when he saw the officer coming over to him. “Is this the access to the fire?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s back about four miles,” the sheriff told him. “I haven’t been back there myself; the track has only been cut in the last couple hours. It’s narrow but passable. Watch out for oncoming traffic and get out of the way if you see a tanker coming. They’re bigger than you are. The incident commander is at a fire van about four miles back, the fire is a quarter mile or so beyond.”

“How are they coming with it?”

“From what I can hear on the radio they’re starting to get a handle on it,” the sheriff told him. “They’re down in a radio hole back there, so I’ve been relaying traffic from here.”

“Do you know if there’s a cell signal back there?”

“Not from what I understand,” the sheriff told him. “The kids who found the fire had to drive up on top of that hill over there,” he pointed in the direction of Turtle Hill, “to be able to call in the fire at all. You can get a signal from here, but it’s weak.”

“Guess I’d better check in with the office before I head back there, then,” Tom replied.

“Fine with me, but pull off the road before you do,” the sheriff said. “I’m expecting another tanker anytime now.”

“OK, can do,” Tom replied. “I noticed them filling one at a draft point back at that little lake.”

“Yeah, he’s on the way now.”

“All right, I’d better call in and get moving,” Tom told the Sheriff. “Catch you later.” He pulled the truck ahead a few feet and off to the side of the road in front of the patrol car, then pulled out his cell phone.

It took a few seconds to get connected with his boss. “Andy,” he said, “the sheriff here tells me that there’s no cell signal back at the fire so I figured I’d better call in now. They’re hauling water, so they’ve got an attack under way but I can’t give you any details. It may be a while before I can.”

“Well, keep me informed the best you can,” Andy told him. “The Hansen Lake fire just escaped the fire line, they’re scrambling and I’ve had to call on the Multi-State Compact. We’ve got a helitack crew coming in from the Wisconsin National Guard; it’ll take them a while to get there, but it’s going to be needed. We’re not going to get it out soon. We just don’t have any resources to devote to your fire unless it starts threatening property or something. As far as the DNR is concerned, on DNR land it’s going to have to become a let-burn unless there’s good suspicion that it didn’t start naturally.”

“I understand,” Tom replied. “Do I have the authority to tell them to call it off?”

“Yes and no. On DNR land, yes, but if it threatens to get onto private land it remains the local incident commander’s responsibility. Use your own good judgment, but keep me informed of what’s happening.”

*   *   *

From the seat of Support 6 on top of Birdwatcher Hill, Clint was busy monitoring the situation as best he could. He knew that the grass rig crews down on the southeastern side of the fire could really use a pumper right now, but there was none available and wouldn’t be for a few minutes. Damn, he thought, I booted that one, I should have had one standing by up here half an hour ago. The pumpers hadn’t been coming from Shaundessy’s long enough to be here yet. One rural pumper with a good-sized water tank would make a lot of difference right now, and in fifteen minutes it might be too late. There was no point in radioing to ask how much longer it would take one of the inbound pumpers to get there, since they wouldn’t know – no one on the incoming pumpers would have been back there to have any idea of how long it would take. He couldn’t take one of the pumpers off the wet line, either – they were fully committed to what they were doing.

The grass rigs were just going to have to hold out the best they could for a while, and that was that. There wasn’t that much else he could do.

Well yes, there was. Since he still had the microphone up to his face while he’d been considering the possibilities, he only had to push the button and call, “Grader from Birdwatcher Hill Command. How are you coming over there?”

He had to wait a few seconds for the reply from the road grader. “We’re around the north side of the fire and into mostly clear air, now.”

“Can you close up the fire line without the grass rig?”

“Should be able to. I’m guessing it can’t be much farther.”

“Good enough,” he replied. “Break, Hoselton 7, turn around, go back south on the new section of fire line and assist Spearfish Lake Brush 7 on the fire line on the southeast side of the fire.” One more grass rig and a couple hundred gallons of water in the right place as quickly as possible might well be the difference between success and failure.

“On the way,” came Chad’s voice from the Hoselton grass rig.

“Roger that,” Clint replied. “Break, Grader, when you break through to the fire line you cut earlier, give me a call.”

*   *   *

From overhead, Ryan and Jackie could see the Warsaw grass rig pull up to the breakthrough they’d reported a couple minutes before. The fire was getting pretty solid all along the fire line now and blazing furiously. Ryan knew that the fire right long the fire line wouldn’t last for long; it would soon burn out its fuel and subside. However, while it was going hard was the best chance the fire would have for a breakthrough here. He only paid partial attention to the conversation on the radio, trying to keep his eyes on the fire. “Break, Life 20,” he heard Clint’s voice say, “What’s the status of the breakthrough?”

“A grass rig just arrived and they’re getting on it,” Ryan replied immediately from the antique Cessna. “The main fire is now in contact with the fire line for a couple hundred yards on the southeast side.”

“Roger that,” Clint replied. “Keep an eye open for any more breakthroughs.”

“Don’t see any right now, but we’re not likely to see them if they’re small.”

“Clear on that,” He heard Clint say.

Ryan contemplated the situation for a moment, then commented to Jackie, “It’s not quite as bad as it looks. If they do get breakthroughs along that line they can handle them by attacking them directly. The fuel load isn’t that high, and it’s not as dry as it could be. They’re on solid ground now, so they can get to it with equipment.”

“Good,” Jackie said with an edge in her voice he hadn’t heard before. “Ryan, how long before we can get out of here?”

“Probably not long,” he told her. “Is something the matter?”

“Yeah,” she said, and pointed off to the west. “I don’t like the looks of those clouds. There’s some nasty weather there.”

“Shit! How long has that stuff been there?”

“Not long. I just noticed it myself. There was only a little line in the distance the last time I looked, so it’s moving fast.”

“How long have we got?” he asked.

“Not long,” she said again. “I was just about to call the Flight Service Station in Camden and get a reading on it.”

“Better do it,” he shook his head. “Well, a good heavy rain would pretty well cool things off down there.”

“Yeah, but if it’s moving that fast there’s going to be some wind with it,” she warned. “I don’t think that would help.”

“Shit, no it wouldn’t,” he said, tearing his attention away from the oncoming storm to look at the fire again. “Good, they’re getting it knocked down.”

Now it was Jackie’s turn to not pay much attention. Considering where they did most of their flying, they used the radio in Rocinante very little. She could remember the little twelve-channel Narco that had resided in the panel of the plane back on their honeymoon. It had long been replaced by a much more capable radio, but one that hadn’t been turned on in weeks. Now, she flipped it on, changed the frequency to the aviation weather station in Camden, and called, “Camden FSS, this is Cessna Zero Eight Romeo.”

There was only silence for a reply. She waited a few seconds and called again, “Camden FSS, this is Cessna Zero Eight Romeo.”

Still there was only silence. “I guess we’re too low,” she said, shoving the throttle forward. “We’re going to have to get higher to be able to talk to them.”

“Don’t get any higher than we have to,” Ryan said. “The higher we get the less I can see down there.”

Jackie kept the plane circling as they climbed upward. She couldn’t help but remember being caught by a thunderstorm down in Florida in the early part of her honeymoon with Mark. There had been no running from it, and only a chance spot to put the plane down saved them and the plane. It had led to one of the more memorable adventures of their trip, but it had been very uncomfortable at the time. She glanced off at the thunderstorm, still a ways away. There was still plenty of time to make it back home, she guessed, but if they stayed around too much longer the only option she might have would be to land Rocinante at the West Turtle Lake Club, tie it down and hope for the best. She really didn’t want to have the plane tied down outside in a hailstorm, because that could do a lot of damage to the precious keepsake of a plane. That wasn’t going to happen if she could help it.

A minute or so and a full circle passed; now the plane was higher. Maybe it was time to give it another try. “Camden FSS, this is Cessna Zero Eight Romeo,” she called again.

“Cessna Zero Eight Romeo, this is Camden, go ahead,” came the reply.

“Camden, Cessna Zero Eight Romeo is about twenty northeast of Spearfish Lake,” she replied. “We just noticed that squall line off to the west. How far off is it?”

“The center of the line is about forty miles west of Spearfish Lake, the leading edge is about ten miles closer,” came the reply. “It seems to be moving about thirty miles an hour. It’s still building and might arrive a little sooner than that. We see moderate to severe turbulence on the radar. Reports show heavy but spotty rain and strong winds associated with the squall line and frontal boundary.”

“Ah, roger and thank you,” she radioed back. She put the microphone back on the hook, reached for her cell phone and told Ryan, “We can do one more low pass, and then we’re getting out of here. I’ve got to pick up Becca and get this thing back home.”

*   *   *

Randy only had a vague idea of where the fire line he’d carved earlier must be – it was hard to pick out landmarks, and he hadn’t been paying attention when he’d plowed the wide line earlier – but he knew it had to be up ahead of him somewhere. He didn’t want to stray too near the bog with the grader, just on general principles, but he figured if he stayed fairly close until he was heading more or less southbound, it wouldn’t be any great trick to change course to the right a bit and close the loop.

The going was a lot easier now that Randy could see clearly out of the cab of the John Deere. There was still some smoke around but it was nothing like as bad as it had been in the smoke cloud north of the head of the fire. It was a little inconvenient to have lost the grass rig to scout for him, but he was now in an area where it didn’t matter that much. The going in here was fairly easy, and from his high viewpoint he didn’t see anything in the way of bigger trees that he couldn’t handle with the grader’s blade.

The talk back and forth about the brewing crisis on the southeast section of the fire line got him to thinking, enough so that he picked up the portable and called Clint. “Birdwatcher Hill Command, this is the grader. I can do without the Cat now if he can be of any more use on the southeast side.”

“Roger that,” Clint replied. “Break, Cat, turn around and do what you can to assist on the southeast side.”

“Will do,” Ed replied from the bulldozer. “Don’t know how much I can do but it can’t hurt any.”

“Cat, thanks and good luck,” Randy said. “I’ll buy you a beer sometime.”

“Take you up on that,” he heard come back over the speaker in the little portable. “Good luck to you, too.”

Randy set the radio to the side, and concentrated on his driving. The old fire line couldn’t be far ahead; when he reached it he would have plowed a circle around the fire, with the assistance of Ed, of course. It was still a hasty line, but with it done the fire would be confined, if not exactly what someone could call contained. Then maybe he could take a breather for a minute.

It was a damn shame that Bob Coopshaw wasn’t the one here to do this, he thought. Not that Randy felt he hadn’t done a good job, because it was clear that he had. But Bob could have done it better, and he was going to be missed in a lot of ways. Whether Keith could manage to fill in until he’d learned to do the trickier stuff was an open question, and not one that needed to be thought about today. Well, once this hassle was over with he could get off in a corner with Jerry and figure out what to do about getting another grader driver. At least that was a question that could keep until tomorrow.

*   *   *

Getting there, Clint thought. If they could manage to hold that line on the southeast side for a while, they were just about to the point of having this thing contained. From what he could make out the head of the fire was burning up to the wet line, but there was plenty of water there and plenty of hoses. With the wind they had, that should pretty well hold them.

His attention was diverted for a moment by the roar of engines coming up behind him. He stuck his head out of Support 6, to see that the noise was coming from two pumpers – Spearfish Lake Pumper 2 and Albany River Pumper 1. There had been a good many times in his life that he’d been happy to see a pumper show up on a scene, but not many were quite as timely as this one. He slid out of the seat and walked out to the track, waving his arms so that the lead pumper would stop. In a few seconds, it came to a stop next to him. “Glad you’re here,” he said. “We need you bad right now. Head down this trail until you come to a fire line crossing you at right angles. Go right, and that’ll take you around the south side of the fire. We need you over on the southeast side real bad right now.”

“Good enough,” the Spearfish Lake fireman behind the wheel said. “We’ll be there shortly.” Clint stepped back as the pumper pulled away. If he remembered correctly, it carried fifteen hundred gallons of water, which was maybe ten times what one of the grass rigs carried. That ought to be enough to do the job, and under the circumstances, he’d send the Albany River pumper along with them. In five minutes, that should take care of any danger of the fire jumping the southeast side of the line.

Clint stood back and let the Albany River pumper come up to him. His instructions there were even simpler: “Follow the Spearfish Lake truck around to the southeast side of the fire and pitch in to keep it from crossing the fire line.” In a few seconds it was following the other pumper.

Another few minutes, he thought. Another few minutes and the grader should have the hasty fire line complete, and the dangers from the southeast side would be much reduced. Not that the fire was out yet, not by any means, but the worst seemed past, now. Mopping up this mess was going to take a while, but the worst of it ought to be just about past.

Let’s see, he thought. Mopping up. Obviously it was going to take a lot of water, but once the leading edges of the fire had burned themselves down it would be possible to see what was going to be involved in drowning the spots that were left over. He took his time, letting things roll over in his head, as he walked back to Support 6. “Wait one, here he is,” he heard Dan saying into the radio.

“What’s up, Dan?” he asked as he slid back into the seat.

“Stoneslinger called while you were gone, the DNR guy is heading in from 919. And Life 20 was calling for you,” Dan replied, handing him the mike.

“Wonder what he wants now?” he said as he put the microphone up to his face and called, “Life 20, Birdwatcher Hill Command back with you. What’s up, besides you?”

“They seem to have the breakout under control, but we’re going to have to break off up here,” Ryan told him bluntly. “We just talked to aviation weather in Camden, those storms to the west are an hour or so off, give or take, almost certainly less than two. This bird has to fly that way to be put down. I’m going to get dropped off at West Turtle Lake so the pilot can head for home. I’ll head back up to the top of Turtle Hill.”

“Storms to the west?” Clint frowned. “What storms?”

“A big squall line, probably a frontal boundary, about fifty miles west but coming this way fast,” Ryan told him. “You might not be able to see them through Turtle Hill but they are ugly from up here.”

Keeping the microphone in his hand, Clint stepped out of the van and looked behind him. He hadn’t paid much attention to what had been happening out in that direction, but with one glance he could see what Ryan had been talking about. The sky didn’t look very pretty that way anymore.

“Roger that,” he replied, still standing and looking at the storm. “Thank the pilot for the assistance, it’s been a big help.”

Oh, crap, Clint thought. The rain the storm brought would be welcome, but the storm was probably carrying a lot of wind with it, and that was about as welcome as a leaky gasoline tanker at a forest fire. Strong shifting winds could make any sort of plan to hold any of the fire lines a near impossibility. A burning firebrand wouldn’t even have to come from the head of the fire; it could be blown from almost anywhere in the burnt over area where there were any number of small spot fires still burning. This changes everything.

“Birdwatcher Hill Command, this is the grader,” he heard Randy call. “I just broke through onto the old fire line.”

At least that was something he could do something about. “Roger that, and thanks,” he replied. “Head south as quick as you can until you’re past the anchor point, and then start widening the fire line on the southwest side. With this storm blowing in we’re going to want the best fire lines we can get.”

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To be continued . . .

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