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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 18

For complicated reasons that date back to some of Helga Matson’s sometimes weird ideas and prejudices, golf carts aren’t allowed on the golf course at the West Turtle Lake Club. The golf course had been designed by Ursula Mandenberg Clark, Ryan’s mother, and for over half a century golfers had agreed that it would have been a lot less treacherous if Ursula had actually bothered to learn how to play golf. “You can really lose your balls out there,” was the standard West Turtle Lake Club joke, and club members were fully aware of the double meaning.

Though golf carts are prohibited on the course, over the years club members had discovered that they were very convenient for running around the club for reasons other than golf, so there were a lot of them there. In response to Jackie’s hurried phone call, Carrie and Becca were just pulling up to the landing area in Carrie’s golf cart when the little white Cessna touched down and taxied quickly up the airstrip.

Jackie hadn’t bothered to pick up much altitude on her way over to the airstrip at the West Turtle Lake Club. It was only two or three miles as the Cessna flies, so she didn’t see much point in it. She’d swung a little wide to make a straight-in approach to the grass strip at the club, and didn’t want to waste any more time than necessary, since the sky was looking more threatening by the minute.

She taxied Rocinante up to the truck that Ryan had driven down to the airstrip earlier, stopping the engine just as the golf cart arrived at the same spot. She glanced over at the golf cart to see that, unsurprisingly, Becca was now dressed, if the term may be allowed, the same as Carrie. “The little snot went through with it,” she grinned to Ryan. “I figured it was fifty-fifty at best.”

“Never underestimate Carrie,” Ryan laughed as he got out of the door. “I’ll talk to you later, Jackie, when this is over with, but for now, thanks.”

“Glad I could help,” she smiled.

Becca and Carrie were waiting as Ryan got out of the plane, and in only seconds Becca was climbing inside, carrying a plastic grocery store bag that clearly held her clothes and shoes. “How’d it go?” Jackie asked.

“Great!” Becca beamed, starting to fasten the seat belt. “I had a wonderful time.”

“Glad to have been able to have you,” Carrie grinned. “Come out and visit again sometime.”

“I sure want to,” Becca grinned. “I’ll see about Saturday. Aunt Jackie, what’s the rush, anyway? I had to break off a perfectly good game!”

“Weather moving in, we’re going to have to race to beat it back home,” Jackie explained. “Carrie, I’ll call you later so we can settle any damages.”

“Oh, it worked out fine,” Carrie laughed. “I love to see people that enthusiastic, so I’m glad she got to visit. I’m sure she’ll tell you about Saturday.”

“Whatever it is, I’ll call you later,” Jackie said, wondering what this was all about. “We’ve got to get moving. This is supposed to be a bad one.”

“Glad you told me, I’ll start telling people to batten down the hatches.” She gave a little wave as Becca shut the door, and then backed off to the golf cart so Jackie could start the Cessna’s engine.

In a minute or two they were in the air again. Jackie banked Rocinante away from the club to head for the home airstrip north of town, and once again didn’t bother to get very high. “All right,” she said as soon as they were on a course for home, “What’s this deal about Saturday?”

“Jackie, I had no idea Myleen went out there.”

“Myleen? Myleen Kluske, the girl on your basketball and volleyball teams? What has that got to do with anything?”

“Well, it turns out that there aren’t a lot of kids out there, it’s mostly older people,” Becca explained. “Most of the kids just hang out and play a lot of sand court volleyball. Well, they were short a kid, so I teamed up with Myleen and we were cleaning house on everybody. I mean, she’s so-so on hardwood, but in sand she’s something else. We kicked some serious ass.”

“Dare I say, ‘yeah, so?’” Jackie smiled. “What does that have to do with Saturday?”

“Well, they’re having their annual championships on Saturday,” Becca grinned. “Myleen doesn’t have anyone to partner with, so I told her that I’d partner with her if I could come out.”

Jackie rolled her eyes. She knew what that was all about; she’d heard from friends that there were some serious cut-throat sand court volleyball players out there. One of them had told her years before that the level of volleyball was better than what he’d experienced at the state university. “Well, I suppose something could be worked out,” she smiled, realizing some of the implications. “I mean, if you really want to.”

“Carrie said she’d be glad to let me come as a guest, or as Myleen’s guest,” Becca added helpfully. “It really sounds like fun! I think Myleen and I can really kick some ass.”

“Like I said, we’ll see if we can work something out,” Jackie conceded, then changed the subject a little. “Hey, I know I had to call and ask you to leave in a hurry, but maybe you ought to think about getting some clothes on.”

“Aw, do I have to?” Becca pouted. “It’d be tough to get dressed in here anyway as tight as it is, but I thought it might be fun to see what Bree says when I get out of the plane with no clothes on.”

“Becca, you’re cruel sometimes, you know that?” Jackie laughed.

“Yep,” Becca replied smugly. “You know what would really be fun?”

“I’m almost afraid to ask.”

“What would happen if we told Bree that she had to come out and watch?”

Jackie shook her head. “Cruel and unusual punishment, that’s for sure. It’s not nice to give your sister a heart attack when she’s only fourteen.”

*   *   *

Clint stood by the side of Support 6, the microphone still in his hand, looking out at the fire area. Whatever happened in storm conditions, the wet line was going to have to take care of itself. He could keep water coming to them, but there was nothing he could do but reinforce them and figure that whatever happened the wind was likely to go apeshit. In conditions like that it could blow hard from any direction long enough to drop a brand outside the fire line in any direction. Kicking it over in his mind, he realized that his initial reaction had been about the only possible one – harden up the lines as much as possible, get all the equipment possible down on the hard-ground fire lines and hope for the best. Maybe it would be good enough.

He was thinking hard about what else he could do in the hour or so he had left before he could expect the storm to hit when he noticed Jimmy Woodruff drive up with a Bork Logging semi and lowboy, the skidder loaded on the back. He’d told Jimmy what seemed like hours before to bring the skidder over from the job near Hoselton, since its blade could be useful in clearing the fire line even if it wasn’t as effective as the bulldozer. Well, it still would be useful. He threw the microphone on the seat of Support 6 and hustled over to the semi, where Jimmy was swinging out of the cab. “Good deal, Jimmy,” he said as he got within talking distance. “You made it back quicker than I thought.”

“After I left here, I got on the radio and had Joe drive it out to the highway,” Jimmy reported. “That saved a bunch of time. I brought Joe with me.”

“Good deal,” Clint replied, glancing up to see Joe Langford coming around the front of the semi. “Jimmy, you and Joe get that thing unloaded as quick as you can. Joe, as soon as you can get it going, head down this access road, go right around the fire on the fire line. You’ll find Ed working the dozer over there expanding the line. Try to help him.”

“OK, I can do that,” Joe replied.

“Quick as you can, guys,” Clint warned. “We’ve got weather moving in, and we need to harden up those lines as quick as possible. Jimmy, come see me once you get Joe and the skidder heading down the hill.”

“Will do,” Jimmy nodded. “Best get to it.”

Clint turned around to walk back to Support 6 when he saw a green pickup headed up the hill. Oh, shit, he thought. That’s got to be the DNR guy. We’ve got this son of a bitch contained and it would have stayed contained if it weren’t for the weather. Now some goddamn bureaucrat is here to tell me how to take everything up and start over, when they haven’t contributed a goddamn thing to putting this fire out, except for wasting our time in telling us how they ain’t going to help us with it. This is all I goddamn need.

DNR or no DNR, Clint headed back to the van, where Dave was sitting by the radio. “Anything come down while I was gone?” he asked.

“Nope, been quiet, except that they emptied the tanker down at the wet line. It’s on the way out now and another one is dumping.”

“Well, that’s something,” Clint sighed. “Now I guess I got to be nice to the bigwig in the greenies.” He glanced up, to see that the DNR guy had parked his truck right in the middle of the graded track. He leaned out of the support van and yelled, “Hey, move that truck! There’s going to be a tanker coming flying over the hill in about one minute! Park it the hell somewhere out of the graded track!”

“Oh. Sorry,” the DNR guy said, turning around and taking his damn time, Clint thought, in heading back over to his pickup.

“Dave,” Clint shook his head. “You know what ‘DNR’ stands for?”

“Do Nothing about Resources?” Dave smirked.

“No shit,” Clint shook his head. “I used to think that was a joke, but I don’t any more. Six will get you two he’s here to tell us to let it burn.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Dave agreed.

Clint looked back over his shoulder and saw that Jimmy and Joe were making good progress getting the skidder unloaded, although it was clear that it was going to take a few more minutes. He twisted around a little further, and saw that the clouds looked even closer and nastier. He glanced down the hill, and could see that there were now no tankers left in line to either head into the wet line or around to the southeast side of the fire. Everything had now been committed. “Spearfish 31 from Birdwatcher Hill Command,” he radioed the sheriff. “Call down to Shaundessy’s and find out if we have tankers coming this way.”

“One just headed in off 919,” the sheriff reported. “I’ll see what they’ve got down there.”

“Roger that,” Clint said. There was no telling where he would want to send that tanker, and for the moment nowhere was an option. They ought to have enough water down on the southeast side to knock things down there. If and when the wind kicked up it’d be just as well to have all the water he could on hand because there was no telling where or how bad it would be needed. It was just hard to say.

He was still mentally exploring options when the DNR guy walked up to the side of the van. “Hi,” he said. “Are you the in-charge?”

“Yeah,” Clint grunted. “Clint Bork, Hoselton Fire Department.”

“I’m Tom Downing, assistant DNR Regional Fire Coordinator,” the DNR guy said. “What’s your status?”

“Right at the moment we have it contained,” Clint told him. “We had a mild breakthrough on the southeast side of the fire line, but I guess they’re getting it since I haven’t heard anyone screaming for help. We have a fire line graded clear around the fire and the bog, with a wet line running across the center of the bog where we can’t run equipment.”

“I see you had to put in an access trail,” Tom said. “Or was that already there?”

“No, we got lucky,” Clint told him. “We had a guy show up with a great big ass road grader, and you would not believe how quick he put in the access route and the fire line. It’s no good on big trees, but it sure tears up this brushy stuff nicely. We’d still be thinking about how to get back to here if someone hadn’t had their head screwed on and sent him out.”

“Well, good,” Tom replied. “Frankly, you’ve done better than I was expecting.”

“Hope it holds,” Clint replied. “We’re expecting to be hit with a big storm in about an hour, and what’ll happen then is just about anybody’s guess. We could get a shit pot full of rain and it’d shut everything down, or we could get a shit pot full of wind and set everything on fire for miles. We’re trying to knock things down as much as we can and harden up the fire lines before the storm hits.”

“Have you got any idea what started this?” the DNR man asked.

“Not a clue,” Clint told him as the radio squawked; it was one of the Spearfish Lake guys calling from down on the southeast side. “Sorry, got to take this,” Clint said, keyed the microphone and said, “Birdwatcher Hill Command, go,”

“We’re starting to get this knocked down a little,” the Spearfish Lake guy told him. “But we need more water and apparently there isn’t a tanker waiting.”

“Hold on, one’s on the way,” Clint replied. “Gonna be a few minutes.”

“Roger, clear on that,” came the reply from the speaker.

“Break, Birdwatcher Hill Command to Spearfish 31,” Clint called. “Contact Central and get some more tankers heading this way. I know there are move-ups in Spearfish Lake and Hoselton. Get some move-ups to their stations. No telling what’s going to happen with this storm moving in.”

He heard Stoneslinger reply in the affirmative. “Life would be a little simpler if this wasn’t a radio hole,” Clint explained to the DNR man. “I can get the Hoselton station sometimes, sometimes not, so I’ve mostly quit trying. Central, no way.”

“Yeah, the sheriff said you can’t get cell coverage back here, either,” Tom nodded. “Like I was saying, do you have any idea what started this?”

“Like I said, not a clue. The start point is back in that bog, at least that’s how the flame progression reads to me. But it had to be somewhere around the south end and I’m not too clear where the bog ends. Until we got the grader in here, it wasn’t easy to get back there. Hell, the kids who found this were back here with a Jeep looking for an eagle’s nest. Jack told me on the way in here that he had the impression that this track we have graded out hadn’t been used for years. Just thinking about it, we had a lightning storm three or four days ago, there could have been a lightning hit that smoldered that long before it blew up. That’s about all I know about it.”

“Do you think those kids could have had anything to do with it?”

“I don’t know, but I doubt it like hell,” Clint said, an ice coming over his voice. “Those two aren’t the sort of punks who would do something like this for fun; they’re good kids, pretty serious, and they’ve been a hell of a lot of help the last few hours. We wouldn’t be anywhere near as far along without them, so don’t even think of accusing them of setting it unless you have goddamn good proof or I will kick your ass from here back to whatever the hell rock it was you came out from under.”

“Just asking,” Tom replied, wincing that the fire chief’s testiness. “Kids have been known to do something like that for fun.”

“Like I just told you,” Clint said, “don’t you go jumping to no goddamn conclusions just because they’re kids. Odds are this was caused by a lightning strike, but I doubt like hell anyone will ever be able to prove it.”

Well, Tom thought, this was going from bad to worse. Might as well get it over with. “I probably ought to remind you,” he said, “that the DNR policy on natural fires is to let them burn.”

“You’re telling me that I should just say fuck it, and let thousands of acres of forest land burn just because of some asshole policy of yours?” Clint snarled, just on the inside edge of physical violence. The DNR guy had already gone out of his way to get him pissed off, and he had to say that.

“Well, on DNR lands it is,” Tom replied defensively. “And that’s DNR land that’s burning down there.”

“Some of it is, I’ll admit that,” Clint said, trying to keep his temper. “But it’s mostly Clark Plywood land, and I think Ryan Clark would be ready to tell you that he’s willing to let it burn only if you’re willing to pay for every goddamn tree of his that gets turned to toast.”

“But it’s DNR policy that when a fire is on joint lands, the DNR is supposed to take charge of the fire.”

“I will give you one minute to get your ass back in that truck of yours and get it out of here,” Clint snarled. “Or I will call the sheriff and Ryan Clark down here and have Ryan swear out a complaint for trespassing and vandalism. You are not coming in here and telling me to let thousands of acres of private lands burn over just because of some fucking asshole policy.”

“Look, it’s not your responsibility, it’s our responsibility.”

Clint just shook his head and picked up the radio. “Birdwatcher Hill Command to Life 20.”

“Life 20,” Ryan replied.

“What’s your location?”

“Just leaving the airstrip at the club.”

“Don’t go back to the top of Turtle Hill, come down here,” Clint told him. “Stop and pick up the sheriff when you come on to the access trail. Break, Spearfish 31, I need you back here. Do you have someone to take over the relay?”

“Spearfish 33 should be here in a couple minutes, he went to get us something to drink.” Stoneslinger replied.

“Roger that,” Clint replied. “Life 20 should be there right behind him, you can ride back here with him if you don’t want to bring the cruiser up the access road.”

“Look,” Tom managed to say, backing off a little. “I didn’t say I was taking over responsibility, I said I could do it.”

“Not on a cold day in hell,” Clint told him. “The only thing the DNR has contributed to putting out this fire is being a pain in the ass. There ain’t one fucking piece of equipment out there that’s green, not one fucking man wearing green. Most of the people working on this fire depend on these woods for their livelihood, which is why they’re out there working their asses off to put this fucking thing out. Now unless you can be useful and not try to throw your fucking weight around, get your ass off of Clark Plywood property. Life 20 happens to be Ryan Clark, who’s the president of Clark Plywood. The guy driving that grader is his son, and I can pull him off the fire line, get him up here and tell him what you just told me. After he gets done with you, you might be able to walk in a year or two if you’re lucky. He’s got more goddamn black belts than your typical politician has lies.”

“Like I said, let’s let it go,” Tom replied defensively. “You’re right, we haven’t contributed anything, and what’s worse, we can’t contribute much of anything. We’ve got a hell of a big fire over at Hansen Lake that’s sucking up resources. If you’ll let me stay around, maybe I can help. I can’t help if you throw me out of here.”

“OK,” Clint said, “but consider yourself on notice.” He keyed the microphone and said, “Spearfish 31, you can cancel that call to come back here, but don’t go away. I might still need you.”

“Spearfish 31, affirmative,” Stoneslinger replied.

*   *   *

Feeling like his usefulness was ending, Ryan decided to take a minute to talk with Carrie, an old friend who he hadn’t seen enough of recently – at least in social terms. She was just telling him about Becca and the sand court volleyball game when the call from Birdwatcher Hill Command came over the air. “Guess I better go,” he told her. “Sounds like more trouble.”

“Here,” Carrie said, handing Ryan a key card. “If you’re going to have to come driving in here at ninety miles an hour again, use the front gate. The road is smoother and you have less of a chance of hitting a bump and landing on the seventh green.”

“I wasn’t driving ninety up the back way,” Ryan said defensively to the nude woman.

“Well, sixty, and that’s no fooling,” she smiled. “You think we don’t monitor that route into here? That has to be about the worse kept secret in Spearfish County, but there are reasons to keep it open. You were flying, Ryan, and that’s no joke. I like you too much to let one of those potholes bounce you into orbit.”

“Thanks, Carrie,” he said. “You’re a jewel and I’ve always said you’ve been. You and Gil and Linda and I need to get together sometime, have dinner or something.”

“Yeah, we really should,” she smiled as they walked over toward his truck – actually, Allen’s truck that Ryan had driven off of Turtle Hill. “You’re welcome out here any time, you know. Bring Linda, maybe this weekend, check out the volleyball championships. They are really good.”

“I’ll run it by her,” Ryan promised. “I better go.”

“Hey, if there’s anything we can do to help out on this fire, let me know,” she said. “I can have the kitchen throw together some meals for the firefighters. I can even dip into the secret store of hot dogs and hamburgers if I have to.”

“Shit, you have that now?” Ryan laughed, feeling the need to get moving. “Hell, things sure have changed since I’ve spent any real time out here.”

“Well, we try to not tell people about it too much,” Carrie laughed as he got into the truck. “We still have some people out here as crazy as my mother used to be.”

“I don’t doubt that a bit,” he laughed. He remembered Carrie’s mother very well – crazy as hell, but with an underlying goodness that had carried on to her daughter. “See you later.”

Ryan dropped the truck into gear and drove off toward the main gate – fast, but not trying to break the sound barrier this time. He always enjoyed talking with Carrie; she was one of those really nice people you enjoyed being around, nude or not. And it had been too long.

What the hell was it that Clint needed? He couldn’t help but wonder about it. With the call to the sheriff involved, it sounded like trouble. Well, he’d find out soon enough. He was probably too far around behind Turtle Hill by now to reach Birdwatcher Hill Command, and Clint probably didn’t need to be bothered anyway. He glanced off to the west. God, he thought, I hope Jackie and Becca got out of here in time. That shit looks closer than the guys down in Camden had been saying. He was just as glad he wasn’t heading back onto the top of Turtle Hill; it was probably not a good place to be in a thunderstorm, anyway.

Which made him think. Allen was still up there, and it wouldn’t be a good place for him, either. He pulled out his cell phone and called him. “Allen, with this storm coming, I think you better get off the top of the hill. Meet me at the bottom, and then we’ll head out to Birdwatcher Hill in the truck you have.”

“Fine by me,” Allen replied. “I was thinking that it was getting to be no time like the present to be absent.”

“How are they coming on the fire?”

“Fine from what I can see, but all I know is what I can see. You took the radio with you.”

“Yeah, I guess I did,” Ryan replied. “Sorry about that. Any word from the grader?”

“Nope, been silent, but I guess no news is good news.”

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To be continued . . .

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