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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 19

Sheriff Steve Stoneslinger was just a little curious at what the call from Clint Bork had been all about. He had his suspicions. Considering that it was about the time that the DNR guy would have arrived at Birdwatcher Hill, and that Ryan Clark had been called for, he could make a couple pretty logical assumptions. On the other hand, staying out here by the road and being nothing much more than a radio relay was boring, too. It would be nice to have a little better idea of what was going on back there, he thought; it was hard sending people back there without knowing the conditions himself. By the time Chris Aaronsen made it back to the road head in Spearfish 33, he’d pretty well made up his mind to ride up there with Clark just for the sake of doing it.

Clark hadn’t shown up yet, so the sheriff snagged a Coke from Aaronsen and drank it quickly. It was warmer than he liked and gave him a hell of a burp, but it tasted good – he’d been thirstier than he thought. He gave Chris a couple instructions about relaying messages from Birdwatcher Hill, then went out to stand by the side of the road to wait for Ryan’s arrival.

Sure enough, Clark was only a couple minutes behind Aaronsen, driving a Clark Construction pickup. It turned out that there was already someone in the cab with Ryan, but there was room enough in the front seat of the pickup for three. There was no time to change his plans, so the sheriff took the outside and Ryan headed back down the path Randy had cut with the grader a few hours before.

Ryan didn’t know Sheriff Stoneslinger as well as he had his predecessor – they’d been good friends – but they knew each other and were friendly. “Three in the front,” the sheriff laughed as he settled into his seat. “You guys know why a real cowboy chooses the middle seat?”

“I’ll bite,” Allen laughed. He was the one in the middle.

“Well, the guy on the left gets to drive, and the guy on the right has to open the gates,” Stoneslinger smiled. “The guy in the middle gets control of the radio. Of course, the other two guys will be pissed if he doesn’t pick country music.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a cowboy, all right,” Ryan laughed. “Unless it’s the gate back up to Randy’s little hideout you’re talking about. That’s a little different.”

“What’s this?” Stoneslinger laughed.

“Long story,” Ryan smiled. “My son Randy, he does whitewater kayaking among other things. There’s a little patch of nice whitewater back up on the Little Spearfish, up north of here a few miles. It only runs in the spring but he goes out there with some friends every now and then and has a ball. Since it’s on Clark land, Randy has been thinking about building a little hideaway cabin out there, but he’s never gotten around to it. Well, anyway, you know how it is. One kayaker knows another, who tells another, who tells another, and all of a sudden the place is on some damn website about ‘Best Midwestern Whitewater.’“

“Somebody trashed it, right?” the sheriff surmised.

“Yeah, big time, a couple years ago,” Ryan replied, not amused in the least. “They had a big beer bust and bonfire, beer cans and trash and shit all over the place, and then they took off leaving the fire burning. Of course, it got away from them and burned off a couple acres, fortunately nothing too serious. It was spring and there wasn’t a high fire index.”

“I remember hearing about that,” Stoneslinger nodded.

“Well, Randy is a nice kid but he has his limits to how nice he’s going to be,” Ryan laughed. “The very next morning about half of Clark Construction’s equipment is out at the access road to that place, building a gate that has about even odds of stopping an M-1 tank, plus a nice deep ditch to keep someone from driving around the gate. Hell, I don’t even have a key to it. We have a policy of allowing recreational use of Clark lands, hell, there’s no way we could stop it if we wanted to, but like I said, there are limits, and you don’t fuck with Randy’s special whitewater spot without screwing the pooch for everyone.”

“Well, you have your limits, too,” Allen snickered. “I mean, that Hartman guy. That was downright malevolent.”

“He deserved it,” Ryan snorted. “Look, Steve,” Ryan said, “you know and Allen knows that Clark Plywood tries to be responsible and conservative forest owners, right? We try to not piss people off. Well, a few years ago, right after Allen came here, we had a section out northwest of town we wanted to harvest. We planned to do it conservatively, just take the major trees, leave something there so it wasn’t turned into a wasteland. Well, there was this one landlocked 40-acre plot this guy Hartman had a hunting cabin on, so to be courteous we told him we were going to be logging to one side of his parcel. Well, he blew a fuse, said he’d have us in court if we touched one tree around there. I guess he thought it was state land, or his land or something.”

“He was a real asshole about it, too,” Allen added. “I don’t remember meeting a more obnoxious person in my life.”

“I remember a couple,” Ryan said, “but I was in Vietnam at the time, I had an M-16 and they were on the other side. But to get back to the story, this Hartman joker came into the office one day right after deer season and said some things that really pissed me off. I mean, he had to go out of his way to do it. Hell, we were trying to do the right thing by him and he threw it back in our faces. So, being rather pissed at the time, I told Allen to go out there and log a round forty. I’m actually a little proud of that. I may be the first logging company owner in a hundred years to tell someone that.”

“A round forty?” Stoneslinger frowned. “That’s a new one on me.”

“In the old days, the white pine days, a logging company owner would go out and buy a patch of land to log, and then tell his crews to go out there and log around forty acres,” Ryan laughed. “Big joke at the time, the crews would go out and log the forty acres to the north, the forty to the east, to the south, and so on. Logging around the forty acres the lumberman owned, especially if it wasn’t their land.”

Stoneslinger shook his head. “So you logged all around his place?”

“Damn straight,” Ryan laughed. “Hell, it was our land. I sent a survey crew out to make sure we didn’t touch any of his, but we cleaned the place out, not just north, south, east and west, but northeast, southeast, and like that. We cleaned it up good, didn’t even leave any slash, turned it all into wood chips and hauled it off.”

“It looked like a desert out there the next summer,” Allen laughed. “All that sand, I expected to see camels any moment.”

“So what did this guy do?”

“Oh, he sued us, of course. That’s what we hire lawyers for, after all. It got thrown out of four, five different courts before he finally realized he didn’t have a leg to stand on and gave up. He probably spent more money on lawyers than the land was worth. After that died down, we sent crews out there and planted aspen and red pine. We’re a few years from harvesting the first of it, but if we hadn’t cut it there we would have somewhere else. That’s what we grow it for, after all. People sometimes forget this isn’t a wilderness, it’s a commercial forest. There is a hell of a difference.”

“Yeah, sometimes it’s hard to remember that,” Stoneslinger agreed. “I mean, this looks like good deer country but that’s not what it’s here for.”

“That’s right,” Ryan said. “I grant you, we haven’t done any logging back here for years, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to do it some more.”

“The first harvest in this area is probably three years off,” Allen said. “Then we’ll be cutting on it in various spots for another ten years or so. I guess I’m just as glad I got the chance to get back here and see what’s here.”

“So Steve,” Ryan asked, “do you have any idea what Clint wanted me down at his command post for?”

“Not really,” Stoneslinger replied, “but if I had to guess, based on the fact that it was about twenty minutes after the DNR guy headed back there, I suspect the DNR guy told him to let it burn and Clint blew a fuse.”

“Oh, I didn’t know the DNR finally decided to get out of their doughnut shop and come visit us,” Ryan snorted. “If that’s what happened, then Clint did the right thing.”

“Don’t jump to any conclusions,” the sheriff warned. “It might not be that at all.”

“But the odds are that it is.”

“I didn’t say that,” Stoneslinger shook his head. “Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

*   *   *

Twenty miles to the west, the storm seemed just about too close for comfort to Jackie and Becca in the little Cessna. Jackie didn’t waste any time on the landing; she cut her pattern as tight as she dared, landed as far down the airstrip as seemed comfortable, and taxied to within a hundred yards of the hangar. She turned the plane toward it, saying to Becca, “We’re just going to shove the plane in the hangar and get the door closed this time. I don’t think we want to take the time fueling it.”

“Fine with me,” Becca said. “The storm looks scary.”

“Becca, it looks scary to me, too,” Jackie told her. “I’ve had enough encounters with thunderstorms in this plane to have reason to be scared of them. I’ll swing it around in front of the hangar and shut it down, and then we’ll just roll it inside.”

Which is what she did. She taxied up in front of the hangar, stomped hard on the right brake and let the plane swivel down as she pulled out the throttle and cut the mags. The prop was still windmilling to a stop when the nude Becca was out the right side door, heading back to the tail of the plane to push it into the hangar. Jackie spent a few seconds throwing switches to their off position before throwing the master switch, and then she was out of the plane too, pulling on a strut to help Becca get the little Cessna inside. Just as she got started pushing, she was aware of Bree coming around the hangar, and going to the right side of the plane to help push.

With the three of them working at it, it was only a few seconds before the plane was in the hangar and the overhead doors were being closed. “Made it,” Jackie said, with obvious relief, now that Rocinante was safe inside. “I don’t know if you girls left any windows open in the house, but if there are they’d better get closed.”

“I closed them,” Bree announced. “I was really starting to get worried about you two.” She looked at Becca; her jaw dropped, and she blinked, not able to believe her eyes. “Becca!” she yelled. “What happened to your clothes?”

“Oh, they’re in the plane,” Becca replied smugly. “Back behind the seat.”

“But why aren’t you wearing them?”

“Well, you don’t usually wear clothes at a nudist club,” Becca grinned.

Becca! What were you doing at that nudist place?

“Playing volleyball,” Becca replied calmly, enjoying seeing her sister in a twitter. “Kicked some serious butt, too. It’s lots of fun that way. I never realized just how much wearing clothes restricts your movements.”

But Becca!” Bree protested. “Aunt Jackie took you to the nudist place?”

“She had to take someone for a ride over the fire,” Becca explained, as Jackie stood back watching the exchange with a grin on her face. “So she left me off there and I got to play some volleyball. I’m going back out there Saturday, I’m going to play in a tournament with a kid I met out there.”

Aunt Jackie!” Bree replied, almost panicked at the thought. “I can’t believe you would take Becca out there.”

“Oh, she had a good time,” Jackie replied, deciding to twist the needle a little. “I was thinking about it on the way back. You and Mark and I ought to go over there with her. We don’t get to see enough of her games and the chance to go somewhere together would be fun.”

Oh, my God!” Bree screamed, wide-eyed. “You aren’t going to make me do that, are you?”

“Relax, Bree,” Jackie grinned. “We won’t make you take your clothes off.”

“Yeah, but my God!” Bree replied, almost hysterical. “There’ll be all those other naked people around.”

“True,” Jackie agreed with a smug grin of her own. “Trust me on this one, Bree. You’ll feel more out of place with clothes on around a bunch of nudists than a nudist would feel around a bunch of people wearing clothes. Now, I think maybe we’d better get over to the house before the storm hits.”

“Sounds good to me,” Becca agreed, turning toward the door into the shop, the quickest way toward the house.

Becca!” Bree said, nearly in panic. “Aren’t you going to put your clothes on?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Becca turned and drawled, her grin expansive. “I might as well get in practice, you know. You might try it yourself.”

“Aunt Jackie,” Bree replied in exasperation, “I’m going to have to tell Uncle Mark about this.”

“Go ahead,” Jackie laughed. “He’ll think it’s a good idea.”

“Oh, my God, I’m going to just die.”

Jackie shook her head. “Becca, don’t look too smug at this. Your turn will come. Now let’s get in the house before the storm hits.”

“Well, if it does,” Becca laughed, “it’s not like I’ll be the one to get my clothes wet.”

*   *   *

Clint was satisfied for the moment. The DNR guy was standing back out of the way, not bothering him any, which was to the good. Clint had warned everyone on the radio to get prepared for the storm to hit, and to expect anything. “If things get crazy,” he warned, “you may be better off heading into a burned over area rather than letting the fire overrun you, but remember there’s a lot of bog there. You’ll probably be all right around the edges, but you can sink out of sight if you get too far into it.”

He really wished there was more he could tell the firemen from the four departments out on the fire line, but there wasn’t, and that was that. They were just going to have to take it like it came, hope the wind wouldn’t get the fire out of hand, and hope that there would be rain enough to drown the countryside if it did. A good thunderstorm could dump more water in a minute than the tankers they had could manage all week.

Now, there wasn’t much he could do but wait for the storm to hit. Jimmy was headed back toward the road in the semi, although without instructions of what to bring next. Clint figured that he’d have a better idea of what he needed after the storm hit. Really, Bork Logging didn’t have much more equipment that would be useful, but he figured if he needed another bulldozer or skidder he’d be able to borrow one from someone in Hoselton.

The Bork Logging skidder with Joe at the wheel was down on the fire line with the Cat by now, working to expand it even though he’d just gotten there. The skidder was being used as a sort of bulldozer – it had a lightweight blade on the front since it was occasionally used for grading rough trails in the woods, but the big rubber-tired machine was normally used to drag logs that were a little big for the cutter-stripper to handle, along with other odd jobs. It wasn’t needed for most of Bork Logging’s work, but was invaluable for the remainder.

There were more tankers heading back in from 919, the standby tankers that had been at the Spearfish Lake and Hoselton stations. Clint wasn’t real sure what he was going to do with them at the moment, but as soon as he found out what the fire was going to do he figured there would be a use for them. At least it gave him a reserve to draw on.

What else? He looked around the top of the hill. This wasn’t all that great a place to be in a thunderstorm but there weren’t many other choices, and being in a vehicle would be a lot safer than being outside. He saw Jack and Vixen sitting in the Jeep, mostly looking at the storm, and realized those two kids weren’t in a covered vehicle, and would get wet where they were. “Hey!” he yelled over to them. “You might want to throw a tarp over that thing, but you want to be over here in the van when the storm hits.”

“Don’t have a tarp,” Jack yelled back.

“Got one over here,” Clint told him. “Come get it, tie it on, and then get over here. You don’t want to be out in the open if we get a lightning strike.”

“Be right over,” Jack told him, then headed over to the support van.

“That goes for everyone else out here,” Clint yelled. “When the storm hits, be in a vehicle. This is not a good spot to be in if we get lightning, and we could start getting it pretty soon now.”

“We’ve got a few minutes, I think,” Dave said, looking at the storm. “Not a lot of them, though.”

“Might be,” Clint said, turning to look at the storm. “On the other hand, it might not be as close as it looks.” He turned around and brought the microphone out of the support van. “Spearfish 31 from Birdwatcher Hill Command,” he called. “Call Central and find out if the storm has hit them yet.”

“Roger, will do,” a strange voice replied.

“What the hell?” Clint said. “Oh, that was probably the deputy; Steve is probably taking a leak or something.”

“Might be on his way in here, too,” Dave pointed out.

“Yeah, maybe,” Clint agreed.

It was a minute or more before Spearfish 31 called back. “Birdwatcher Hill, Central reports that they’re just about to get hit, except that it only looks like they’re going to get the edge of it. It looks like the center part of it is going to pass by to the north.”

“Clear on that,” Clint replied over the radio, then turned to Dave. “Well, you’re right. We’ve got a few minutes, fifteen or twenty maybe. If it’s going north of them we still could get a direct hit. Does it look like it’s going to the north to you?”

“Yeah, maybe a little,” Dave agreed.

“Damn. I wanted a dumper,” Clint shook his head and keyed the mike. “Birdwatcher Hill Command to all units. It looks like we’ve got fifteen or twenty minutes before the storm hits. I still can’t tell you what it’s going to do, so keep pushing on those fire lines and be ready for anything.”

“You know,” Dave said thoughtfully, “if that’s a front, it could mean quite a change behind it. I mean like wind speed and direction. I wonder if there’s anybody west of here who could tell us what’s happening.”

“Hell of a good idea, Dave,” Clint nodded and keyed the radio again. “Spearfish 31, have Central contact Radisson County Central and find out what the wind is doing over there.”

“Clear on that, back with you in a minute,” the strange voice replied.

Clint glanced up and saw a strange pickup truck driving into the cleared area on top of the hill. On the side of the truck was lettered “Clark Construction,” and there were three people inside. “Looks like Clark and the sheriff,” he commented to Dave. “Someone else, too.”

The Clark Construction truck parked next to Support Six, on the far side from the graded area. Clint saw that he was right; Ryan got out of the truck, and the Sheriff emerged from the far side. The third man scrunched out the driver’s side door, and Clint could see it was Allen Halifax, the forest supervisor for Clark Plywood. He actually knew Allen better than the other two since he was who Clint worked with when they worked contracts on Clark Plywood lands. “Hi, Clint,” Ryan said. “So what’s happening?”

“Looks like we’re going to get hit,” Clint told him. “Hey, I really need to thank you for that heads up on the storm. I think everyone else was looking the other way.”

“Don’t thank me, thank Jackie Gravengood,” Ryan said. “I was looking the other way, too. She was the one flying the plane.”

“Well, thank whoever,” Clint replied.

“So Clint,” the sheriff asked, “what’s the problem?”

“Cleared up for the moment,” Clint told him. “The DNR guy told me that their policy was to let it burn and that he could take charge. I told him to shove it up his ass and offered to have him thrown off Clark Plywood property, which this is. He pretty much shut up after that.”

“Good,” Ryan said. “Where’s he at?”

“Sulking around here somewhere,” Clint snorted. “Maybe over at his truck. I ain’t got the time or the energy to deal with him right now.”

“I think maybe I’d better go have a word with him,” Ryan said. “One thing. If he gets pushy with me, are you willing to stay here and fight this no matter what he says?”

“Shit, yes,” Clint told him. “I want to cut this wood, not burn it.”

“My feeling exactly,” Ryan said. “If he gets real pissy I’ll have my lawyers cut him to ribbons after this is over with. I have your back on this one, Clint.”

“Good to know,” Clint told him.

Just then, Aaronsen’s voice came over the radio. “Birdwatcher Hill Command, Spearfish 31. Radisson Central reports that the wind is blowing hard out of the north and has been since the storm passed.”

“Clear on that,” Clint replied. He let up on the microphone button and thought hard. That was going to change things, and change them a lot. He punched the button again and called, “Hoselton C-3, what’s the status on the wet line?”

“The fire is up to it, dying down a little,” Jay replied. “I think I can say we’re holding.”

“Is it dying down enough that Hoselton 1 can hold the line by itself if it takes over Warsaw’s connections?” Clint asked.

“Yeah, probably,” Jay said. “We’re not as worried here as we were half an hour ago.”

“Good enough,” Clint said. “We’re expecting the wind to blow hard out of the north as soon as the storm passes. Keep Warsaw there for now, but have them ready to pull out and head down to the south on a minute’s notice. Tell them to plan on leaving their hose in place, we’ll just have to use their unit as a big grass rig. All units, expect the winds to switch around unpredictably as the storm passes but blow hard out of the north as soon as it’s past. That means we’re going to have to get even more serious about protecting to the south. Grader, skidder, and Cat, get ready to extend fire lines south if we can’t hold the south line we have now.” He let up on the microphone and sighed, “Sorry, Ryan, but I don’t know if we’re going to be able to hold it.”

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To be continued . . .

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