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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 22

Jack and the Sheriff arrived back on the top of Birdwatcher Hill a few minutes later, to find both of the pickups backed up to the open back of the van. Several people were busy unloading stuff from the van into the pickups; Jack could see that Vixen was one of them, while Stas sat back and watched. Clint was standing away from the production, talking on his portable; Jack drove right up next to him. “Wow,” Clint said, eyeing the Jeep and its muddy riders, which included the sheriff in his normally immaculate uniform. “I don’t need you to tell me how bad it was. Just looking at that Jeep tells me all I need to know.”

“Bad,” Jack said, shaking his head. “We barely made it out of the first real mud hole and there have to be worse ones out on the way to the road. I don’t see how you’ll be able to use it for days.”

“We’re not going to try,” Clint told him. “Look, one big question. I know you drove up the North Country Trail to the top of Turtle Hill earlier. Can these pickups make it up there?”

“Sure,” Jack said. “There’s some real tight spots where they’re going to want to take their time, maybe have to back and fill a little bit, but they can make it.”

“Good,” Clint told the two of them. “We’re going to leave Support Six here. It’s not going anywhere until we can get a wrecker back here. We’re going to move to the top of the hill in this Jeep and the pickups and set up the command post there. You know the way, you can lead, but I think we want to stick together. Once we get to the top of the hill we can use cell phones, and there’s some stuff we need to do up there as quick as we can. How soon can you leave?”

“Ready when you are,” Jack told him. “Maybe I’d better have Vixen and Stas with me. How did you get him out from under all those fire suits?”

“Not so much get him out as it was we took the stuff off of him,” Clint smiled, “but now that the storm is pretty well gone Vixen has been able to calm him down.”

“I’m here, I’ll ride with Jack,” the sheriff offered. “Unless you need me somewhere else.”

“No, here’s fine. Oh, I just thought, I haven’t called down to tell your deputy to keep the road closed.”

“I’ll do it,” the sheriff offered, pulling out his portable. “Maybe I can have him get some barricades from the County Road Commission and have them set up.”

“Do that,” Clint told him. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we have to use that road again before the peat bog fire is out, and there’s no point in having it torn up any more than necessary. Catch you in a minute, I’ve got a couple calls to make before we get moving.”

“I’ll get Vixen and Stas, turn around, and get pointed out,” Jack said. “Let me know when you’re ready to go.”

“Will do,” Clint said, and took a couple steps away from the Jeep, which pulled ahead to turn around. He raised the portable again and called. “Birdwatcher Hill Command to all units. We’re going to bump the command post up to the top of Turtle Hill. You may or may not be able to reach us for the next few minutes. If you can’t, Hoselton C-3 will be in charge. Guard the flanks, don’t let it burn through the new fire line after it’s been carved, but continue to conserve water. The access road is definitely closed and impassible until further notice, which could be as much as a couple days. We’re working on an alternate water source, but it may take a while. The general plan is to try to keep the fire on as narrow a front as possible and then establish a real solid fire line at the railroad grade to the south. Hoselton C-3, I’ll check in as soon as we get established on the top of the hill.”

“Birdwatcher Hill, this is C-3,” Jay replied. “We’ll take care of things for you.”

Clint looked around; it appeared they were ready to go. Vixen and the dog were in the Jeep now, Allen and Ryan in the Clark Construction pickup, and Dave and Tom in the DNR pickup. He could squeeze into one of those, but there was an open seat in the back of the Jeep, next to Vixen and the dog. That looked as good as anywhere. He took the few steps over to the Jeep, hoisted himself over the side, swung into the seat and said to Jack, “OK, let’s go.”

“Seat belts, please,” Jack said. “This isn’t the smoothest track in the world, and it would be too easy to be busted for allowing passengers to go without belts considering who I’ve got sitting next to me.”

“Jack,” the sheriff grinned, “did anyone ever tell you that you’re a real smart-ass?”

“Well, Vixen does now and then,” Jack laughed as he let up on the clutch and began to move down the hill, “but I let her get away with it.”

It only took a few minutes for the little convoy to reach the North Country Trail crossing. Jack slowed down, put the Jeep back into four-wheel drive, and turned up the path. As before, the trail was narrow, with growth crowding in from both sides, but the basic treadway was wide enough for the vehicles. Since the trail up the hill went southwesterly, Jack wasn’t worried about running into wet spots, since the rain line had been just north of the trail crossing. He couldn’t go real fast, partly because the pickups behind him had to be even more careful about crashing through the overhanging limbs and brush than he was. As before, the trail was up and down, but up a lot more than it was down as it moved up onto the long rise that led to the top of the hill.

“Yeah Jack, you’re right,” Clint said from the back seat before they were barely under way. “There’s no way in hell you could get a fire truck up this thing. Looks like it might be a tight squeeze for the pickups.”

“They should be able to get through,” Jack told him. “I’ve heard a guy uses a farm tractor and brush hog to clean this out every now and then. If he can get through with a tractor the pickups ought to be able to make it.”

“Yeah, I hope so,” Clint said, thinking less about the trip up the hill than about what had to get accomplished when he got there. There was more to it than just establishing a new command post; it was going to involve developing a whole new attack on the fire. At least the access might be a little easier if Ryan could get the nudists to cooperate. Still, until a new access path was cut into the fire area there was no way they were going to be able to use any of the equipment currently on the fire line to establish the line along the railroad grade and safely set up a backfire along it. That meant he was going to have to call for more assistance, but there was no point in doing it until Ryan had the opportunity to talk to some people.

Clint shook his head. When Ryan had first shown up at the fire he’d been just a little bit ticked at the idea of having him looking over his shoulder, but he’d done a whale of a job coordinating things, and especially in getting the DNR guy off his back. Now, his involvement seemed even more critical, and Clint decided he wanted Ryan to be close at hand until things were under control.

*   *   *

“Spearfish Lake 7, Hoselton C-3,” Jay radioed.

“Spearfish 7, go,” Mike Trevetheck replied. He was still on the east side of the fire, mostly following the skidder and the bulldozer south as they tried to open up a fire line. The two were working together well, but the going was slower than he had hoped. They still hadn’t caught up with the head of the fire yet, but it looked like they might be gaining on it a little.

“What’s your status over there?”

“We’re still getting spot fires outside the new fire line,” Mike told him. “I don’t think they’re new, they seem to be a little more developed. They probably started when the wind was out of the northwest for a while.”

“Knock them down,” C-3 told him. “Do the best you can, but remember, we don’t have any more water until who knows when.”

“Clear on that,” Mike told him. “We’re trying to use fire rakes and piss pumps when we can. As far as I can tell the worst of them aren’t too far out in the boonies, but we don’t need any flare-ups outside the fire line. What’s happening over there?”

“Things are a little better,” Jay told him. “The wind didn’t carry anything to the southwest, so the grader was able to pinch in on it a little while it was still out of the northwest. Since it’s switched around, we’re not gaining anything on the flanks, though. We’re not using much water but we don’t have much to use. I’ve got about half a tanker load up my sleeve from the wet line if you absolutely have to have it, but it’d take a while to get it over to you since it’d have to go around the north side of the bog.”

“I haven’t looked recently,” Mike admitted, “but I think we could use the old fire line on the south side of the bog now if we really had to. I think it’s starting to get burned out.”

“Could be, but I haven’t looked either,” Jay told him. “We’ll bear that in mind.”

*   *   *

The trees on the ridge were a little more developed than those out on the pine barrens, where they’d been fighting the fire. This could probably be logged over, Clint thought, but you’d have to be awful damn careful with the cutter-stripper, which would probably be more trouble than it was worth in harvesting this stuff. There probably hadn’t been any cutting to speak of in here since the big lumber boom of a century before, he realized; these were some nice trees. There were still some big old stumps out there that had to have been left over from the lumbering era, all rotted and wasted away, but still showing how big those old white pine must have been. Now, they were just more obstacles to bump around on the drive upward, but Jack was getting around them all right, as were the pickups following them.

After a while the big hardwoods thinned out a bit. They drove into another patch of aspen, where the trail was even more crooked, although still passable. Still the trail wound upward, and eventually broke into a clearing at the top of the hill. Jack followed the trail right to the top, where Clint could see the two-ruts and beaten out ground of where the local kids came to park with their girls. Hell, he’d even come up here with his girl years before, more years than he wanted to think about. Damn, that was a long time ago, he thought.

“All right,” Jack said, pulling to a stop at the edge of the clearing, where the hill dropped off to the southeast with a great view of the fire area. “We’re here, and we had good cell coverage the last time we were up here.”

“Good enough,” Clint said. “This ought to work for a while.” He slid up onto the fender of the Jeep and twisted to get out. He lifted Jack’s binoculars, which he still had hanging around his neck, and scanned the fire. From here they were farther away and even with the optics it was hard to make out detail, but he could see that the grader had pulled ahead of the fire a little, but not very much. It still seemed like a long way to the railroad grade, which was clearly in view to the southeast beyond West Turtle Lake. Yes, this was the perfect location for a while, at least until they got to mopping up.

Satisfied, he raised the portable. “All units from Birdwatcher Hill Command, we are now located on top of Turtle Hill. Hoselton C-3, status report.”

“Still pushing fire lines south,” Jay reported. “No breakthroughs on the flanks, even though the wind has been a little shifty. It seems to have settled down from the north, now. As far as I know the grader is getting a little ahead of the fire on the west side, but the skidder and Cat aren’t doing quite as well on the east side.”

“Roger, copy that,” Clint said, as the Clark Construction pickup driven by Ryan pulled up and stopped alongside.

“Looks a little different up here than it did an hour or so ago,” Ryan told him.

“Yeah, it looks like we’ve got some time to do it right,” Clint told him. “Why don’t you contact your person down in the nudist place and see what the chances are we can use their place as a drafting point and access road? If so, maybe we can work on getting that opened up.”

“All right,” Ryan said, pulling out his cell phone. Carrie was on an autodial number, and it only took a few seconds to be talking to her. “Carrie, it’s Ryan,” he said.

“Good to hear from you,” she said. “How are they doing on the fire?”

“Not so good,” Ryan told her. “You’re still safe; you’ve got the lake and the golf course to protect you. But the storm washed out the access road the fire crews have been using, and the fire is now burning south toward the rail grade.”

“Oh, dear,” Carrie said. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

“Yeah, there’s lots,” Ryan told her. “When I was a kid, there was a two-rut around the north end of the lake. I haven’t been out there for years, and I’m wondering if it’s still there. We might be able to use it for a new access path.”

“Sure, it’s still there,” she told him. “In fact, it’s a little more than a two-rut these days. It’s still not very good, but there’s a few guys from the club who use it in the fall to get to some deer blinds out there.”

“Good deal,” Ryan said. “Is there any way we can get trucks in there to pump water out of the lake?”

“Yeah, sure,” she replied. “There’s a little beach over there that kids sometimes go to when they want to be alone, if you know what I mean. It’s not real big but the bottom is firm.”

“How about trails or roads out into the pine barrens to the northeast of the lake?”

“There are some but I don’t know much about them,” she replied. “I know Gil has one of those tower deer stands out there, not that the big softie would ever shoot a deer. He drives out there in a car, so it can’t be too bad.”

“OK, Carrie, wait a second,” he said. He turned to Clint. “Good news. There is a trail around the north end of the lake and it’s better than the two-rut I remember. There’s a good drafting point on the northeast corner of the lake. There are apparently some car-passable two-ruts out toward the direction of the fire, but I don’t know anything about them.”

“Yeah,” Clint said. “That’s damn good news. Are they going to let us onto their place?”

“I didn’t ask quite like that but it sounded like it,” Ryan said. “I’ll find out for sure.” He picked the phone up again and said, “Carrie, we need to set up to draw water out of the lake, and that means we’re going to have to come through the club to get there. We’re also going to try to work a new access path up to the fire to get there. Any problems with that?”

“No, get to it,” Carrie told him. “I’ll lock the front gate open so you won’t have to worry about that. I’d really rather that we didn’t have trucks driving directly across the fairway, but there’s a path behind the first tee to get them around so they can drive around the edge.”

“Good enough,” Ryan told her. “If they tear it up too much, after this is over with I’ll have Randy come out with a roller or something to flatten it out. Now, is there anybody around who knows anything about the network of two-ruts northeast of the lake?”

“No, not that I can think of,” she said. “There aren’t more than three or four people who hunt out there, and they don’t talk about it much. A lot of the other people here aren’t very keen on hunting.”

“I can understand,” Ryan told her. “Let me see how long it’s going to be before we have trucks over there.” Once again he put the cell phone down, a finger over the mouthpiece. “OK, it’s all clear,” Ryan said. “She can lock the front gate open and show people how to get on the route around the lake. How soon can we have someone there?”

“Pretty quick,” Clint said. He picked up the portable and called. “Birdwatcher Hill Command to the draft trucks at Shaundessy’s. We’re going to move the drafting point over to the northeast corner of West Turtle Lake. Take up now, head on up the road to the West Turtle Lake Club, there’ll be someone there to guide you in.”

“Roger, Spearfish Lake Draft 10 is clear on that,” he heard from the speaker. “It shouldn’t take long to pick up and be moving.”

“OK,” Ryan said, and picked the phone up again. “Carrie, there’ll be someone there shortly, I’d guess ten to fifteen minutes.”

“All right,” she said. “I’ll get some clothes on, pass the word, and meet them at the gate. Oh, hey, Ryan, my offer from earlier still stands. If the firemen need food or anything, we can provide it, either out in the field or at Commons.”

“OK, thanks Carrie, you’ve been a big help. I imagine things are going to be too busy for that for the next couple hours but I’m sure it will be appreciated after that. I’ll get back to you if I need anything more, and I’ll be on my cell at the top of Turtle Hill if you need anything.”

Ryan switched off the cell phone and turned to Clint. “OK, that’s settled,” he said. “I forgot to tell you earlier what with everything else going on, but they offered to provide food and refreshments for everyone. I put her off for the moment. I figure we’re going to be a little busy for that for a while.”

“Good deal both ways,” Clint said. “I take it you didn’t learn anything about the two-ruts to the northeast?”

“No,” Ryan shrugged. “She doesn’t seem to think anyone there right now knows anything about them.”

“Damn,” Clint said. “It sure would be nice to know something, it might save a lot of time. There’s nothing on the map about them.”

“There is on the aerials,” Jack told him. “I was looking at that trail network as a way to get out to the eagle’s nest, but I didn’t think the club would let me through.”

“Jack, what are you saying?” Clint said. “You have aerials of that?”

“Yeah, pretty high definition,” he replied. “I made a photomosaic of the aerials I got off the Internet. We never got back that far, but the track we first went in on would have gotten close enough to connect up with them with a little bushwhacking. I was planning on using them to get close to the nest.”

“Jack,” Clint said slowly, “you wouldn’t happen to have that photomosaic with you, would you?”

“Sure do,” Jack smiled. He reached down into a plywood box mounted between the seats of the Jeep where he kept his birding gear and pulled out a plastic folder. Inside was a large photomap made with several sheets of standard sized paper held together with transparent tape. “I haven’t had a chance to look at it since I heard about this, but I was getting set to take a look.”

“Well, shit,” Clint said. “Jack, you continue to surprise me. I don’t know if we’d have laid a drop of water on this fire yet if it hadn’t been for you and your eagles.”

“I hope the activity and the fire don’t drive them off,” Jack said. “Let’s lay this out on the hood so we can get a better look at it.”

In the stiff breeze on the top of the hill the map wanted to get away from him, but there were several sets of hands to hold it in place. The photos were exceptionally large scale, and the network of trails showed up clearly. “From what I can tell they’re not exceptionally good trails,” Jack told them. “But on the overheads they’re quite a bit more clear than the old access road was before it got graded out, so it wouldn’t surprise me if trucks can use them without any further work. They don’t really connect up with the route I came in on, but like I said, I figured on bushwhacking my way onto them. OK,” he pointed. “Here’s the northeast corner of the lake. This has to be the road your friend was talking about, Mr. Clark. This whole map covers an area of not much more than a square mile.” He pointed over into the far corner of the map. “It’s a little hard to tell, but I don’t think the fire is quite onto the map yet, it has to be somewhere up in here.” He waved his hand around at an open spot beyond the far corner.

“Well, I’ll be dipped in shit,” Clint said. “It looks like the grader is going to plow its way right into this network of two ruts.”

“Looks like it to me,” Jack agreed. “It might be off to the west of them a bit, but the network extends out there and I have another aerial that shows that area. The eagle’s nest is on to the east of that one, too, and I have that map as well.”

“This changes everything,” Clint said, feeling a huge weight off of his shoulders. Once again these kids had saved the day. Well, not saved the day but had been a huge help. “Jack, you’re about to make me take up bird watching. You wouldn’t have any trouble finding your way back to this area?” he said, pointing at the trail at the far corner of the photomosaic.

“I shouldn’t,” Jack said. “Hell, I was planning to follow those paths out to the eagle’s nest before this fire cropped up.”

“OK,” Clint said. “Fold this thing up and be careful with it. You and Vixen get your butts down the hill, meet the draft trucks at the gate to the club. We can’t really use the draft trucks until we’re sure we can get tankers down to the new drafting point, so take one of them with you and see if he can get out into this area. See if they think tankers can follow these paths. Look for the grader, we’ll try to guide you two together. I’ll contact one of the draft trucks and let them know what’s coming down.”

“Sure, no problem,” Jack said, starting to carefully fold up the map. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to pick me out in a camouflaged Jeep from up here.”

“That’s why I’m sending a draft truck with you. I’ll tell him to have his overheads on. We may not be able to see you, but we ought to be able to see him.”

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To be continued . . .

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