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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 21

“Shit,” Clint said ruefully. This was something else he hadn’t thought about. Wouldn’t that just take the fur-lined pee pot? He shook his head and keyed the microphone. “Uh, Spearfish 33, do you think you can give me a reading on the access track conditions?”

“Looks very sloppy,” Aaronsen replied almost immediately. “I don’t think I’d want to drive a car down it. I’ll take a closer look in a second and get back with you.”

“Roger that,” Clint sighed, then turned to the group in the van. “Boy, I don’t know,” he said. “I came in ahead of the grader, I don’t have any idea what the path is like with that much rain on it. Anybody else got a guess?”

“I’d like to say it’d be all right,” Jack said sheepishly, “but there are some spots there that would worry me, not having seen it now. And I’m the one with the Jeep. I’d have real doubts about two wheel drive trucks, especially loaded, without taking a look at it.”

“I’m just guessing,” Clint said, “but I think the worst of the lightning danger is past, and I don’t think we’re going to get much rain now. Would you be willing to go take a look?”

“Yeah, sure,” Jack said.

“Sheriff, why don’t you go with him? Jack, you could leave Vixen and the dog here. That way we can get the sheriff back to his car if you can get through, and back up your opinion if you can’t make it. But give me a word one way or the other as quick as you can.”

“Sounds good,” Jack agreed. “Vixen, why don’t you come and help me get the tarp off the Jeep?”

“Sure, let’s go.” The three of them piled out the back of Support 6 and headed over to the Jeep. There was still a hint of rain in the air and the wind was wild, whipping around unpredictably. Clint slid back the door of the van, and stepped outside. It was clear the worst of the storm had passed now, but the air seemed cool, damp and crisp, a relief after the dank humidity of not long before.

The fire looked a lot different now, with the wind blowing out of the north. The smoke cloud was now lying low and being blown south; there were hundreds of spots out in the bog that had smoke blowing out of them. Clint took the binoculars and looked to the south end of what he could see of the fire. There wasn’t a lot of equipment on this side of the fire that he could see, just the grader, and the Warsaw pumper starting to head his way. He picked up the binoculars and took a closer look. There was a lot of fire to the south, now. Because of the bog, the fire line had to be set well back from the nearest burning gap, leaving a lot of unburned fuel. It was burning now, blazing high in the strong winds. “There ain’t no way we’re going to be able to hold that south line,” he said to no one in particular as he noticed the Jeep leaving down the hill toward the north.

“Doubt it like hell,” Allen agreed; he’d come out of the van behind him.

Clint continued to scan with the binoculars. “Nope, it’s lost already,” he said. “It’s burning like a son of a bitch between the bog and the old fire line. I can see burning beyond the fire line from here, and there ain’t no telling what it’s like back in the smoke.” He put down the binoculars and raised his portable. “Spearfish Lake 7, Birdwatcher Hill Command. What’s the status over there now?”

“We’ve definitely got fire outside the fire line, but fairly close in,” Trevetheck reported from the southeast side of the bog. “We can knock down some of it, but some of it is spreading south rapidly. We can see serious fire outside the fire line to the south, and no idea what it’s like beyond that.”

“Roger that,” Clint replied. He thought about it for a moment. Really, there was only one way to go. “All units from Birdwatcher Hill Command. We’re going to have to catch it now. Cat, skidder, and grader, start trying to drive a fire line south from your locations, Cat and skidder on the east, grader on the west. Try to get ahead of it, hold the flanks and pinch it in some, but don’t get in front of the fire just yet. All units, conserve water. We may have lost the access road into this place, we’re trying to find out for sure. If we’ve lost it, we’re going to have to get by with what water we have. I don’t see how we can try to get around front of the fire until we know we’ve got water. Grader, skidder, Cat, are you clear on all that?”

“Grader, roger that,” came the reply from Randy. “I’m already chasing it south.”

“Skidder and Cat are clear on that,” Yarwowski reported. “We’ve been sitting out the storm in the cab of the skidder, but we’ll get right moving.”

“Good enough, now get moving,” Clint replied as he noticed Ryan and the DNR guy, whatever his name was, come up to him. He didn’t have time for them at the moment. “Break, Spearfish 33 from Birdwatcher Hill. Have any vehicles left your location to come in here since the storm?”

“Negative on that,” Aaronsen reported. “Nothing has come through here at all.”

“Good. Do not, I say again, do not allow anyone to come down from 919 until we find out if we’ve still got a passable access road. Call down to Shaundessy’s, find out what they have there, and tell them to hold any tankers there until further notice.”

“Roger, copy that,” Aaronsen said.

“Break, Spearfish Grass 7 from Birdwatcher Hill Command,” Clint radioed. “I don’t know who’s senior down there, but until we figure it out you’re in command on the east side. Send two grass rigs around the north side of the fire to the west side, have them assist the Warsaw pumper and the grader. Again, conserve water. I suggest you use the pumpers as tankers and do any pumping with the grass rigs, they don’t use as much.”

“Clear on that,” Trevetheck replied. “Warsaw Brush 7, Hoselton Grass 7, take up and assist on the east side.”

Clint let out a long sigh and let his arm drop, portable in his hand. “Well, shit,” he said. “It’s like I said a few minutes ago, we got us a whole new ball game and we’re starting about three runs down.”

“What’s this about losing the access road?” Ryan asked.

“Don’t know for sure yet,” Clint shook his head. “It rained like hell to the north of us. The sheriff and the kid with the Jeep headed out to check it out, but it’s a good bet that the storm dropped enough rain to turn it to mud. Until we find out, we don’t dare trying to send tankers up the path or we could really be screwed.”

*   *   *

Jack didn’t mind telling the sheriff to buckle his seat belt – in fact, it felt pretty good – and the sheriff was still struggling with it as Jack took off with the Jeep as hard as he dared up the access track. He’d been up the path several times in the last few hours and was beginning to think he knew it pretty well, so he had his foot down in the old CJ-5. It took them only two or three minutes to reach the North Country Trail crossing, and Jack didn’t slow down a bit. This far, there hadn’t been enough rain to notice; Jack could see in the rear view mirror that the racing Jeep was kicking up dust behind them. He swung around a broad corner, and all of a sudden it was like driving across a beach into a lake. The line between dry and wet was very clearly defined, and in the first few yards of wet the Jeep began throwing up mud. “Getting greasy,” Jack commented, reaching down to throw the Jeep into four-wheel drive.

“If it doesn’t get any worse than this we might be all right,” Stoneslinger observed, “but I’d bet good money that it’ll get worse.”

“That’s what I’m thinking,” Jack agreed.

The Jeep swept around another curve, and then, in a low spot in front of them, they discovered that a lake had formed. “Oh, shit,” the sheriff said. “I’m not sure I like the looks of that.”

“Me, either,” Jack agreed, stomping down hard on the brake. “I think I’d better try to claw through that rather than fly through it.”

“Damn good thinking, kid,” Steve told him. “You might make it through but a truck probably wouldn’t.”

“Wasn’t thinking that,” Jack shook his head. “I’ve got a come-along, but it’s not that big. If I flew into it I could wind up stuck too far from anything to do any good.”

“Yeah, shit, you’re right,” the Sheriff agreed as Jack eased his way forward into the big puddle.

For a few feet it went pretty well, but Jack could feel the Jeep sinking, and the progress wasn’t keeping up with the amount he had his foot in the throttle. “Oh, shit,” he said. “I think we’re gonna need the come-along.”

“Try to get off the path, it may not be as soft and chewed up,” Steve suggested.

“Damn good thinking,” Jack said, turning the wheel to the left. He managed to keep the Jeep moving, four wheels churning up water and mud, in a moment he managed to reach the berm that the grader had thrown up a few hours earlier, and that gave him a little more bite. The Jeep struggled for a moment, managed to claw its way over the berm and up into the brush on the west side of the trail. The going was a little easier here, and Jack dodged some of the larger bushes and trees, continuing to try to turn to the left. “Getting there,” he said.

“We might make it,” the sheriff agreed, “but a truck could get damn good and stuck there,”

“No shit,” Jack said, twisting the wheel to avoid a largish tree. He was twenty or thirty yards off the track by now, had managed to pretty much turn the Jeep around, and was working his way through the wet brush to the dryer part of the grade they’d come up a few seconds before. “I sure as hell wouldn’t be willing to tell the chief to risk a truck there, and I can think of places to the north where it most likely would be worse.”

“I can think of a couple too, and I wasn’t driving when I came in here,” Stoneslinger replied. He took his portable radio from his belt and called, “Birdwatcher Hill Command from Spearfish 31. We are returning to your location. The access track is a no-go. I say again, no go. Jack barely managed to claw his way out of the first mud hole just past the North Country Trail crossing and we’re sure there are worse to the north.”

*   *   *

The smoke was still thick on the southeast side of the bog. “Look,” Ed Yarwowski, the bulldozer driver, told Joe Langford, the skidder driver, “we’re gonna have to work together on this. You understand what he wants done?”

“Yeah, work our way south, clearing a fire line, trying to work to the west a little when we can.” Joe wasn’t a fireman, but had worked in the woods a long time and knew what driving a skidder was all about.

“That’s how I see it,” Ed said, getting out of the cab. “Look, I have a radio and you don’t, so we’re going to want to stay together as much as we can. I figure you go ahead and clear what you can. If you come up on a tree or something you can’t handle with the skidder, just go around it and I’ll knock it down with the Cat. It’s not going to be real fast but we’re going to want to go as fast as we can to get ahead of the fire. If something comes over the radio I’ll drop what I’m doing and try to catch up with you.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Joe replied as Ed stood on the step of the skidder’s cab.

“Like I said, we’ll try to stay together,” Ed repeated. “If you get cut off by the fire, find the thinnest spot and plow your way right into the burned over area. Once you get out in it a ways it’ll be the safest place around.”

“Figured that,” Joe told him. “I’ve had to do it before. It ain’t fun, I can tell you that.”

“Better than the alternative,” Ed told him. “Let’s get moving.”

“How far south do you think we’ll have to go?”

“Until we stop, that’s all I can tell you.”

*   *   *

Over on the other flank of the fire, Randy was pressing south with the grader. He made good progress at pinching in on the fire at first, but he became aware that the wind was backing even further. The wind wasn’t taking the fire away from him, it was just about running parallel with him, still switching around a bit. There was fire ahead of him, so he decided he’d better turn to the right a little to get clear of it.

With the lackadaisical wind of earlier the fire hadn’t been moving very quickly, but with a strong wind behind it and a different kind of fuel load on the different soil type, things were a lot different now. There wasn’t the worry about getting stuck there had been around the peat bog, and with the strong wind the smoke was being carried off a lot more quickly, so figuring out where he was going was a lot easier. He was gaining on the fire a little he thought, but he realized that they might have to chase it a long way to the south before they could get around in front of it and put in a fire line that would hold in this wind.

Randy may not have been all that practiced with the grader when the day started, but he was a lot better with it now. He still wouldn’t have wanted to try to grade a parking lot to the kind of clearances that were needed over at Three Pines, but he could easily cut a trail through the brush with it. It had been a long day, he thought. The sun had to be setting soon.

Or maybe not. In an easy stretch he stole an instant to glance at his watch. Only a little after two! Could it be that short a time? He didn’t see how it could be – less than five hours ago he’d been sitting in his office, expecting a truly dull day. Well, that hadn’t happened. At least it was good news. He had hours of daylight left, and in daylight he could see where he was going.

*   *   *

The sheriff’s news was not exactly received with joy on the top of Birdwatcher Hill. Most of the people there were clustered around the back of the Clark Construction pickup, where the tailgate was serving as a map board. “Well, that’s it, we’re screwed,” Clint said with resignation. “At least we’ve got several tankers of water, but we’re going to want to be real careful about using it. Allen, do you know the land out here very well?”

“Pretty well,” he replied. “I’ve got maps that are better than you have, but I don’t have them with me.”

“Jack has some pretty good aerial photos that show this area,” Vixen offered. “But they’re in the Jeep.”

“He does?” Allen said. “Where did he get them?”

“Off the Internet,” Vixen told him. “I haven’t gone over them myself very much, though. I figured Jack had some idea of where the eagle’s nest was. I was just along for the ride.”

“We may have to take a look at them when he gets back,” Clint said. “But look Allen, Ryan. Do either of you know of another water source we could get to out here? Maybe something close by?”

“Nope, not a thing,” Allen said. “Probably the nearest water source is West Turtle Lake. The east side of it is two, two and a half miles away. You could probably have the grader cut a path down there fairly quickly.”

“Any way we could get draft trucks around to the east side of the lake?” Clint asked.

“I’m not sure any more,” Ryan said. “There used to be a two-rut that went around to the northeast end of the lake, but that was years ago. I have no idea if it’s been kept open. That’s all West Turtle Lake Club property.”

“You were just over there a while ago,” Clint asked. “Do you know anybody there that could tell us?”

“Yeah, sure,” Ryan told him. “The problem is no cell phone coverage here.”

“You could have Spearfish 33 relay it,” Clint suggested. “But let’s not try just yet. Cutting a line over to West Turtle Lake would solve our water problem, but the magic question is do we want to risk taking the grader away from cutting the fire line to the south to solve it?”

“Well, it’s not like you have to make your mind up just yet,” Ryan observed. “I mean, look at the way the edge of the hill lies there,” he said, pointing to the map. “The grader could get halfway to the railroad grade before he had to cut off to make the path over to the lake. It doesn’t cost you anything either way, now.”

“Yeah, true,” Clint said. “OK, look, let’s change subjects for a second. With no water, let’s assume that we’re not going to catch the fire until it gets down to the railroad grade. It’s been a long damn time since I’ve been up that, but I seem to recall that it’s fairly wide. I mean, isn’t that about the best fire line we’re going to find this side of the highway?”

“I hate to see it burn that much forest,” Ryan accepted. “But yes, I can see it would be iffy trying to stop it anyplace this side of the rail grade, especially without much water and with this much wind.”

“That’s about how I read it,” Clint said. “Just guessing, I’d say it’s going to burn off several hundred acres before it hits the rail grade, but it’ll be a lot worse if we don’t keep the flanks pressed in. I’d say the best thing to do is to prepare the rail grade to be a real good fire line. Maybe start a backfire to burn a nice, wide fire line.”

“That’s not my land either,” Ryan pointed out. “I don’t doubt the railroad would let us burn a backfire along it to create a wider fire line, but we really ought to ask them first. I mean, they run trains up and down it, and it would be kind of messy to have a grass rig run over by a couple SD-40s hauling a half mile of aggregate.”

“Yeah, true on that,” Clint agreed. “We’ll have to coordinate with them, too. You know anybody at the railroad?”

“Yeah, sure,” Ryan said. “Bud is God knows where, but Josh ought to be around and he can authorize something like that. I’d pretty well have to be the one to talk to him, though.”

“Again, no damn cell phone coverage,” Clint grunted. “That is really getting to be a pain in the ass. I can see either the railroad or the nudists are going to get political real quick and things stand too good a chance of getting screwed up through a relay. I sure wish we could be up on top of that hill where you were earlier. You had good cell coverage, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. Not perfect, I think I was talking over the tower in town, but it was clear,” Ryan agreed. “However if wishes were water we’d have the fire out. We can’t get there from here, now.”

“Sure you can,” Vixen piped up. “That is, if Jack got as far as the North Country Trail crossing before he ran into that mud hole.”

“The sheriff said they did. What do you mean?” Ryan asked.

“Well, when we found the fire earlier, we had the same problem, no cell coverage. To get up on top of the hill quicker, Jack drove up the North Country Trail. He said we weren’t supposed to be on it, but it was an emergency.”

“You didn’t have any trouble getting up there, did you?” Ryan asked.

“No, he was driving so fast he was scaring me,” Vixen told him. “There are some tight spots, a lot worse than the path into the place after it got graded out, but he did it.”

“Good enough,” Ryan said. “Clint, what do you say that as soon as Jack and the sheriff get back that I have him run me up to the top of the hill?”

“Sounds good, but let’s think this through. Let’s see, how many people do we have here? Dave and me, Jack and Vixen, you and Allen, the DNR guy and the sheriff. That’s eight. I’m thinking that with the access track closed this place is just about useless to us now. Vixen, do you think the pickups we have here could make it up the trail like the Jeep did?”

“I don’t see why not,” she said. “There would be some tight spots that you’d want to be careful about, and you might want to ask Jack before you make up your mind. The big fire trucks, no, I really doubt it. There’s some corners that would be just too tight.”

“He ought to be back any time now, so I’ll ask him,” Clint replied. “I don’t know that there’s actually very much in this truck that would be of use to anyone anymore, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. I’m thinking that we load anything we might be need into the pickups, like Dave’s and my turnout gear, stuff like that, and then as soon as the Jeep gets back we move this whole operation up to the top of Turtle Hill. That way we’d have good cell coverage so Ryan, you can coordinate things with the people you know, and I’ll have direct access to Central and anywhere else I need to talk to. Also, with the fire moving south, we’ll have a better lookout position than we have here, and we’ll be on dry ground for access.”

“Frankly, it sounds like a good move to me,” Ryan said. “I can see this place isn’t going to be as useful anymore.”

“I don’t know about using the North Country Trail,” Tom pointed out. “They get pretty pissy about vehicles on their trail.”

“Let ’em get pissy,” Ryan snorted. “It may be their trail, but it’s mostly on Clark lands, and what isn’t is on DNR lands. If they want to get pissy about our using their trail in an emergency, they can damn well put their trail somewhere else.”

“Boy, I’m glad you can say that,” Tom laughed. “I mean, on state land we’d use it in an emergency, too, but we can’t exactly tell them to take their toys and go home.”

“I’ll tell them that if we chew it up too bad, we’ll grade it out for them,” Ryan grinned. “And I know just the grader.” He nodded off in the direction where Randy was busy cutting a fire line to the south with it.

“All right, let’s do it,” Clint said, reaching a decision that had become pretty obvious to him as well as to everyone else, “whether the pickups can make it up the path or not. If they can’t, Jack and the Jeep can make a few round trips to ferry everybody and the stuff up there. Dave, let’s see what we need out of this truck and get it into the pickups.”

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To be continued . . .

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