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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 20

“Ryan?” Clint asked again. He’d been expecting Clark to say something when he admitted that they might not be able to hold the fire line, but got no reply.

“I think he went over to talk to that DNR guy,” Dave commented helpfully.

“Oh, OK,” Clint replied. “That’s probably better than just having him listen to me worry out loud.” He glanced up to see that Clark was walking over to the state-owned pickup. “Better him than me, I guess.”

*   *   *

Like his son, Ryan was a reasonable man, but, also like his son, he had his limits, too. He was a little unsure how to handle this. He didn’t know the DNR guy and didn’t know what had been said, but from what he’d learned from Clint it obviously hadn’t been handled very diplomatically on either side. As far as Ryan was concerned, Clint had the right idea in terms of goals, and to hear Clint’s side of it, the DNR guy didn’t have a clue.

When he got over to the DNR truck, he found the DNR guy fiddling with his cell phone, but unable to get a signal. “It’d be nice if someone sprung for a repeater out on the top of the hill,” Ryan offered, “but really, there’s no one out here to use it, so why bother?”

“Yeah, I guess,” the guy said, tossing the cell phone on the seat and looking dejected. “Doesn’t matter, I guess. They’re not going to listen to me, anyway. I guess the local big shot who owns this place doesn’t want to listen to what would be the best thing.”

Oh, Ryan smiled to himself. He doesn’t know me from Adam! That might make this a little easier. “You mean about the let-burn policy?”

“Yeah,” the DNR guy snorted. “Damn it, fire is part of the natural progression of a forest. I mean, despite all the Smoky Bear shit it’s needed for a healthy forest. Some people don’t understand that.”

“Actually, I think more people understand it than you’d think,” Ryan offered. “We were talking about it on the way in here. The thing you have to remember is that what we have around here isn’t a natural forest. This is a farm field, just about the same thing as a cornfield down in Iowa. It just takes longer to grow. A natural forest, yeah, the fuel load has to be reduced once in a while so new growth has a chance to regenerate. But look around you. You don’t see many mature trees, do you?”

“Well, no,” the DNR guy said, warming up a little. “I guess it must have been burned over a while back. That’s part of the cycle of nature. It’s our policy to let nature take its course, and I think it’s a good policy.”

“That’s all well and good in terms of land that’s being managed to be wild,” Ryan told him. “But as a matter of fact, this area wasn’t burned over, it was cut over, oh, must have been twenty to thirty years ago if I’m remembering right. There’s been some natural regeneration, especially in the aspens, but for the most part these are nursery trees that were planted out here. Some of it’s getting close to cutting, but some of it’s going to take a while. Even the DNR land out here was harvested, under contract to the DNR, and was also replanted under contract to them. Although it looks sort of wild, this is no more wilderness than a suburban front lawn.”

“You seem to know something about this,” the DNR guy said, paying a little more attention now. “You work for Clark Plywood?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Ryan smiled. “Most everyone out here either works for Clark, or makes their living from the company directly or indirectly. I suppose they have a right to be touchy if someone they don’t know comes in from outside and tells them to let their jobs go up in smoke as a result of some policy that’s set down in the state capital with no knowledge of or regard for local conditions.”

“Yeah, I guess,” the DNR guy sighed. “I guess I’m more used to working with people who understand management of state lands. That’s not the same thing as a company tree farm.”

“No, it’s not,” Ryan agreed. “I imagine that you find people pulling in a lot different directions.”

“Yeah, this group wants this, that group wants that, and policy changes more than we’d like it to,” the DNR guy admitted. “Maybe it’s a little simpler here where you don’t have to deal with the bigger picture.”

So far, so good, Ryan thought, even though this guy could get me pissed off big time if he even half tried. But not letting him know who I am has kept this reasonable. “Oh, there’s a bigger picture here, too,” Ryan told him. “In a broader sense, these lands are managed for sustained yield. When Wayne Clark bought all of the countryside the company owns around here, back before you or I were born, there wasn’t much you could call it but a cut over wasteland that was worth about the pennies per acre he paid for it. Since that time it’s been able to produce a couple of crops of trees, and if managed wisely it’ll continue to do it for centuries after we’re gone. Wayne died when I was just a kid, but the older I get the more I realize just how wise he was. People talk today about green management and wise use, but he was decades ahead of them.”

“I suppose,” the DNR guy said, “but at least you don’t have to deal with recreational users and all the hassles they have.”

“Oh, that’s not true,” Ryan smiled. “We were talking about that on the way in here, too, and sometimes it’s caused real problems. Clark policy has always been to allow public access and use of the timber lands. It couldn’t be stopped, in any case. But you’re right, it’s allowed as a privilege, not the right it is on public lands. When it’s abused, there has to be a stop put to it, because the land and the timber come first. They have to. That’s one of the things that Wayne taught all of us. That’s why that fire can’t be allowed to run wild. It looked like these guys had it contained, but with this storm coming anything could happen.”

“Yeah, if it hits wrong it could turn into a nasty bastard,” the DNR guy said, “and it looks like it could hit any minute now. You want to get in the cab with me? This looks like too good a spot for a lightning strike.”

Ryan thought he had the guy pretty well calmed down, although he wasn’t sure he was going to win him over to his way of thinking in one session, so he wasn’t sure he wanted to be stuck in a pickup cab in the middle of a thunderstorm with him. But it was turning into an interesting discussion, and he was stating in words some things that he’d mostly learned the hard way and felt in his gut. “Yeah, might as well,” he said genially. “Thanks for offering.” He stepped back from the truck window, walked around to the far side of the cab, opened the door and got in.

“By the way,” the DNR guy said. “I don’t think I ever introduced myself. I’m Tom Downing, the Assistant Regional Fire Control Officer.”

Well, he was caught now. Might as well make the best of it, “Ryan Clark,” Ryan smiled, sticking out his hand.

“The local big shot who owns this land?” Tom grinned. “I guess I stuck my foot in my mouth again, didn’t I?”

“Well, I don’t own it, not directly,” Ryan temporized. “I have a big chunk of stock in Clark Plywood, but by no means all of it. The family lets me run it, at least most of the time.”

*   *   *

The light breeze that had blown out of the south all day had gone quiet now. For the first time the smoke from the fire was rising more or less straight into the sky, if thickly and sluggishly. Now, from the van on the top of Birdwatcher Hill they could see the extent of the fire on the north side for the first time, not that it would matter much in a few minutes. “The calm before the storm,” Dave commented from his seat behind the wheel of Support 6.

“No shit,” Clint agreed. He glanced back over his shoulder to see that Halifax, the sheriff, Jack, Vixen, and Stas were in the back out of the weather. He could see that Ryan and the DNR guy were in the DNR pickup, and that accounted for everyone on top of the hill. “God, I can feel the hairs on my neck standing on end. I’ll just bet . . . ”

There was a huge BOOM!!! and flash of light coming all at once. The light was so bright that it almost blinded Clint, even coming out the corner of his eye. The noise made his ears ring. “Shit, I think we took a direct hit,” he said. “Everybody all right?”

“Yeah, shit! Wow!” he heard Allen say.

Clint turned further around, to see that everyone was upright and accounted for except for the dog, who was doing his best to burrow under Clint and Dave’s turnout gear piled in the back. “Everyone but Stas,” Vixen said. “I don’t think he likes lightning.”

“Shit, he may be the only one of us with any sense,” Clint snorted. He keyed the microphone and said, “Heads up everyone, here it comes.” He frowned a couple times, keyed the mike again, then looked at the radio panel, which was empty of lights. “Oh, hell, we may be all right but I think the radio took a hit. It looks deader than hell.”

“Crap,” Dave frowned. He reached out and turned the key in the truck’s ignition. The engine turned over, but there was no sign of it trying to start. “Shit, looks like the electronic ignition got fried,” he commented. “There ain’t no way I’m getting out and getting under the hood to find out right now, though.”

“The wind is picking up hard,” Stoneslinger observed from over Clint’s shoulder. “Looks like it’s swinging around to the north.”

“Anybody got a portable that works?” Clint asked.

Dave handed him his own, which had been sitting on the dash turned off. Clint turned it on, and got lights from it. “All units from Birdwatcher Hill Command,” he called. “Heads up, here it comes. We just took a direct lightning hit. Be careful.”

There was no reply. After a few seconds, Clint called, “Hoselton C-3, do you read?”

“Roger,” Jay replied. “Your signal is weak, but we’re under cover.”

“I’m on a portable, inside the truck” Clint replied “We took a lightning hit, I think we fried our truck radio.”

There just wasn’t anything much else to say, either on the radio or off of it. All anyone in the crippled truck could do was sit and look out the windshield at the fire a quarter mile or so away. They could see the gust of wind hit the smoke column and lay it over sideways, blowing away from them. Wordlessly, Clint took the binoculars Jack had loaned him earlier and pointed them out through the glass. At this distance he couldn’t see if any burning brands were being carried with it, not that there was anything he could do now if there were. Whatever happened with the fire was going to be nature’s decision.

*   *   *

Down in the Spearfish Lake grass truck on the southeast side of the fire, Mike Trevetheck didn’t have to wonder whether there was burning stuff being carried over the fire line, because he could see plenty of it. In the last half-hour they’d managed to knock down most of the fire along the edge of the fire line, or it had burnt itself out, so he knew he was in a relatively safe position under the circumstances. There was still fire out in the blackened areas beyond the fire line, but it was in spots, and relatively small.

Mike glanced around. Most of the vehicles on the southeast side of the fire were nearby; their drivers or whoever had come to the same conclusion – that right behind the mostly burned out fire on this side of the fire line was about the safest place to be. As far as Mike could tell everyone was in a truck cab, which is normally about the safest place to be in a lightning storm. Mike didn’t notice any nearby lightning strikes, but there were a number of cracks of thunder and flashes of light that told him that it wasn’t far off.

Although scientists don’t know all there is to know about squall lines and why they persist, the dynamics of simple thunderstorms are fairly well understood. Though they are violent and the winds are very turbulent, the main thrust of a thunderstorm is a strong updraft in the center of the cloud, with strong downdrafts surrounding it. Air headed down can only go so far, and has to spread out, making for strong winds on the ground. Often called a “first gust,” it’s the outer edge of the thunderstorm winds, and generally quite cool. On a hot day, the first gust of a thunderstorm that isn’t too severe can be a cooling and refreshing break from the heat that generated the thunderstorm in the first place.

While this first gust was cool, it was not refreshing. The group of firemen and vehicles clustered on the southeast side of the storm were now dead downwind of the fire, and only the fact that the air was moving much more quickly than before kept the smoke from being as thick as it had been along the wet line only a few minutes before. The visibility dropped dramatically. The strong winds picked up all sorts of little pieces of duff, leaves and branches and whatnot, and carried it over the fire crews. Some of that debris was on fire, and while any given piece of it might not cause more fire beyond the fire line, some of them seemed almost likely to.

To Mike, it seemed like the situation was going to go to hell in a hand basket, and real quick. “Fuckin’ shit,” he said to Rex Millikan, who was in the cab with him.

“My feelings exactly,” Rex agreed. “I don’t think we’re gonna be home for supper tonight.”

“Shit, a peat bog fire, I didn’t think we were going to be home for dinner the rest of this week anyway,” Mike snorted. “Did you see out there before the wind shifted? Hell, you could see smoke coming right out of the ground.”

*   *   *

All the attention to the burnthrough on the southeast side of the fire meant that most of the firemen on the fire line were in that area. Only Randy and the big John Deere grader were on the southwest side. It felt lonely out there, although he felt safe from a lightning strike in the cab of the big yellow machine. When the wind swung around from the south to the northwest and picked up, Randy could look off to the side and see burning debris flying out of the fire area, heading off downwind. Over his radio he’d heard that the wind was likely to back further to the north, and that meant that the south side of the fire was going to be in danger shortly. On his own hook, he’d headed toward the south end of the fire, trying to widen the fire line at what would obviously soon be the new head of the fire. The way the wind was blowing it didn’t seem like he was going to do a lot of good. Still, he was doing the best he could.

He continued working his way counter-clockwise around the fire until he was about to the point of entering the smoke cloud blowing debris across the fire line. He could see that the skidder and the grader had been working in this area, but he worked on ahead as far as he dared as the wind screamed across the fire line. It seemed to him like the wind was going to be backing further, and pointed this direction might not be the best way to go when it happened. He finally decided that it was time to turn around; he might have time for one more pass around the south of the fire before the wind backed further. He found a place to turn the rig around, reset the blade, and began to plow back toward the west as fast as he dared, hoping that it would be enough, but pretty sure it wouldn’t be.

*   *   *

Down on the wet line, Jay Bailey was sitting in the cab of Hoselton 1. It was crowded in there; the two pumpers and one tanker were the only safe places in the lightning for a dozen men who had been working the hoses on the wet line, but Jay had told everyone to drop their hoses where they were and get back to the trucks before the storm hit. It had been a close thing; even with the snowshoes that had been brought out earlier, it still took time for all the hosemen to get back through the bog to the trucks.

Jay was looking things over and thinking ahead. With this shift in the wind, the danger from this part of the fire had subsided. With the way everything had been soaked down and the wind swinging around to the north there wasn’t going to be much danger of the fire spreading through the air any more. But this was peat, Jay knew, and the fire would continue to spread on the ground and underground. That meant that the wet line was going to have to be maintained to try to minimize the spread of the fire northward, but it wasn’t as big an issue as it had been with the wind out of the south. Jay had ordered the radios in the pumper to shut down out of fear of a lightning strike that had taken out the radio in Support 6, but he still had his portable. He picked it up and called, “Warsaw Two, Hoselton C-3, do you copy?”

“Warsaw C-5, go ahead.”

“As soon as this storm gets past enough that you feel safe from the lightning, make sure your tank is topped up and drop your hose connections where they are. Get out to the southwest side of the fire, they’re going to need help out there bad.”

“Roger that,” came the reply. “I don’t think we want to get out there just yet, though.”

“Me either, but be ready when you think you’re safe.”

*   *   *

Several miles to the north, Spearfish County deputy Chris Aaronsen was sitting behind the wheel of his own car, Spearfish 33. After the word came down that lightning had taken out the radio of Support 6, he decided to shut off his own radio for a few minutes until the worst of the lightning threat seemed to have passed. That wasn’t normal procedure, but this wasn’t exactly a normal traffic stop, either.

It was hard to tell about the lightning threat, because the skies had just opened up and dumped rain like mad. He didn’t want to guess how much rain was coming down, but it was coming down in buckets. He could only barely see the Sheriff’s empty car a few yards away. If it was dumping like this on the fire, he thought, we might be able to get out of here before too long.

*   *   *

“Well, all right, it’s blowing like hell,” Clint said grumpily. “When are we going to get any rain?”

Dave twisted around in his seat, then pulled back the sliding glass window on his side of the Step-Van. “I hate to say it,” he replied. “But it looks like the core of it is going north of us. If we get any, it ain’t gonna be much.”

“Shit,” Clint grumped. Radio traffic had died down to virtually nothing. He was sure most radios in the area had been turned off due to fear of lightning strikes like the one that had crippled Support 6. He’d left Dave’s portable on, just in case there was a call for him, not that there was anything much they could do about it. “Spearfish 33 from Birdwatcher Hill Command,” he called. There was no reply.

After a few seconds, Clint tried again. “Spearfish 33 from Birdwatcher Hill Command, do you copy?”

“Probably has his radio turned off, too,” Stoneslinger commented. “I don’t blame him, under the circumstances.”

“Yeah, well, we can try him again in a few minutes,” Clint said. “Birdwatcher Hill Command to any unit on the southeast side, do you copy?”

“Birdwatcher Hill, this is Spearfish Grass 7,” came the reply.

“Spearfish 7, what’s the status down there?”

“Blowing like mad, we’re seeing a lot of stuff go past us. I can’t believe that something isn’t going to get going beyond the fire line, but we’ll never see it in this smoke, even if it flares up.”

“Roger, copy that,” Clint replied. “Stand by. Break, is there anybody on the south or southeast side?”

“Birdwatcher Hill, this is the grader,” Randy’s voice came over the radio. “I’m the only one over here right now. All is quiet for now but it’s not going to be when the wind shifts around.”

“Roger that,” Clint told him. “Break, all units. I’m dead sure we’ve got a new ball game, but I’m not sure what it is until the wind figures out what it wants to do.”

That pretty well seemed to settle that. Dave kept looking out the open window of the truck, trying to see what the storm was doing. “Well, getting a few drops,” he said after a while. “Not enough to matter, though. Doesn’t look like it’s missing us by much, but it’s missing us.”

“Wind seems to be shifting around to the north, maybe the northeast some.” Clint observed. He slid back the window on his side and leaned out. “Quite a bit cooler,” he said after a moment. “If that was a frontal passage, I think it’s past.” He keyed the mike again and called, “Spearfish 33 from Birdwatcher Hill Command, do you copy?”

“Ah, roger, Birdwatcher Hill,” Aaronsen called back. “The lightning seems to be dying out here and I just turned the radio back on.”

“Did you get much rain up there?”

“Like the proverbial cow and the flat rock,” Aaronsen said. “I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet a couple inches, anyway.”

“Roger, copy that,” Clint said, then took his finger off the microphone button and commented. “Shit, if it had been five miles further south we could just about pack up and go home.”

“Well, no such luck,” Halifax said from the back of the van. “You know, I really hate to bring this up, but that didn’t seem to be all that great a trail coming back here. A lot of it is on sand, but I noticed quite a bit of clay, too. I mean, we made it through all right, but what is two inches of rain going to do to it?”

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To be continued . . .

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