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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 23

Only twice in the sixty-year history of the West Turtle Lake Club had a “clothing required” day been declared during the summer months, and one of those was at a cottage fire that several departments had responded to. Carrie hadn’t been around that day and couldn’t clearly remember when it was, but it had been a long time ago. Now, with lots of fire departments and strangers showing up, it was definitely time for another one.

Carrie wasn’t actually the club manager – they hired someone to do that detail work – but as Chairman of the Board Carrie swung a lot of weight around the club. It only took one phone call and some quick explanations to the manager to have the word being passed that there were going to be strangers present. Carrie figured that it was a good move under the circumstances – there was no need to have the firemen distracted as they went about their business. Carrie finished her call just as she drove the golf cart up to the door of the rather modest little cottage she and Gil had shared for over half a century. It really wasn’t all that much – her mother had laid down some rules about members not being pretentious that still stood after all that time – but it was comfortable and served all their needs. While Carrie had become used to spending the winters living in her motor home, her summers had been spent here for the most part since Gil retired from the Army, and that was longer ago than she wanted to think about.

It didn’t take her long to slide into some shorts and a tank top, which would be enough to preserve propriety with the firemen around, then got back on her golf cart and headed for the front gate. What with everything, she made it out to the gate before the fire trucks got there, but she found Jack and Vixen waiting in the Jeep. She knew them from seeing them around town, but not real well. “Can I ask what you kids are doing here?” she said, a little suspiciously.

“Waiting for the fire trucks,” Jack said. “We’ve got some aerial photos of the two-ruts out on the far side of the lake that ought to let us guide the trucks out to the fire.”

“Why would you be having something like that?” she asked, still a little suspicious.

“We were poking around out around Turtle Hill when we discovered the fire,” Jack explained. “We were trying to find a route back to an eagle’s nest east of here.”

“Oh, yeah, the eagle’s nest,” Carrie replied, making the connection. Jack Erikson was well known around Spearfish Lake as being a birdwatching fanatic. “I’ve heard about that, we have a couple birders here. I hate to tell you this, but I’ve heard they’re not using the nest this year.”

“Well, nuts,” Jack said. “I was afraid of that. Still, I’m glad we went out looking or we wouldn’t have discovered the fire. We’ve been helping out where we can ever since.”

“Well, good for you,” she said, a little more relaxed. She still wasn’t sure she should let the kids onto the club – unaccompanied minors were especially not welcome – but this was a special circumstance and, after all, she had declared a clothing-required day even though the word probably hadn’t gotten all around the place yet.

They were still talking when a red and white pickup truck with a large pump mounted in the back pulled up behind them. The driver parked it, got out, and walked up to the Jeep. “Are you the two kids that we’re supposed to meet down here?” he asked.

“Right,” Jack said. “I’ve got maps that should get us close to the fire. Aerial photos, actually.”

“Let’s get moving, then,” he said. “I understand they’re crying for water out at the fire.”

“Good enough,” Jack said. “We’ve got a portable, our call sign is just ‘Jeep.’ We’ve been trying to not use the radio, though.”

“Spearfish Lake 10 will be good enough for us,” the guy said, “but I agree, we can stop and talk things over face to face if we have to. Ma’am, are you the person we’re supposed to meet and lead us to the road around the lake?”

“Yes, I am,” Carrie said as a second red pickup truck pulled up behind them. “I’d just ask you guys to not drive directly on the golf course, but around the edge on the route I’m going to take you on.”

“Let’s get going, then,” the guy said, and turned back to the truck.

Carrie took a minute to raise the gate and put a bolt in the mechanism to keep it open, then got in her golf cart and began to lead the group back into the club grounds.

*   *   *

Somewhere or other, Jack had heard that they had a real nice place back in here at the club, even though he’d never been there. The stories were true; though Carrie didn’t take them through the heart of the place, they could look over at the big log building called “Commons” that had a reputation of being very luxurious and impressive. From up fairly close in the seat of the Jeep, it looked all of that and more.

“Wow,” Vixen commented. “It sure is neat back here. Would you look at that building?”

“Sure would like to go through it some time,” Jack commented. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get the chance to, but it really looks like something.”

“Yeah, it does,” she agreed. “Hey, I just noticed something.”

“What’s that?”

“This is supposed to be a nudist place, isn’t it? I don’t see anyone who doesn’t have clothes on.”

“Yeah, you’re right, now that you mention it,” he agreed with a laugh. “That’s about the last thing I expected to see back here.”

“What were you expecting to see?” she grinned.

“What do you think I was expecting to see?” he snorted. “The same thing you expected to see, if I know you at all.”

They didn’t get much time to look around, since Carrie was moving along pretty good with her golf cart. Jack was a little surprised that it was as fast as it was, because in less than half a minute they passed the last of the cute little cottages that clustered around Commons, and drove out of the woods where the golf course was in view. Carrie led them around the end of it on what looked like a narrow access path, then down one side of a fairway that bordered the lake. “Well, we were talking about taking a swim somewhere,” Jack grinned. “I suppose we could do it here once we get done with this chore.”

“You’re just trying to get my clothes off, aren’t you?” she grinned. “I mean, bringing me to a nudist club and all. Boy, is my mother ever going to shit when she hears I’ve been out here.”

“Won’t be the first time she’ll have done it since you’ve been hanging out with me,” he said, deflecting her obvious tease, “and I don’t recall needing a nudist club to get your clothes off in the past. I’m not so sure I’d want to do it here, anyway. I think it’s a lot more fun at that little pond we went out to with Alan and Summer last week.”

“Yeah, that’s a little different,” she agreed. “We’re going to have to get out there with them again before we head back to school.”

Down near the green, a nice grassy path turned off into the woods, running around the north side of the lake, which was visible through the trees now and again. They followed the golf cart along it clear around the northern tip, and came to a stop next to it in a small grassy area with a nice beach. They glanced across the lake and could see Commons and the cottages in the distance. “I know that people drive out that way to go hunting and the like,” Carrie said, pointing at a break in the trees. Beyond it, they could see the same kind of scrubby brush that they’d been dealing with to the north. “The tree line is roughly at the end of the club property. I really don’t know what’s out there. It’s been years since I’ve been out that way.”

“I suppose we better take a look at the map again before we get started,” Jack said. “The roads out there are pretty clear from the aerials, but they’ll probably be a bit confusing on the ground.”

*   *   *

Back in the radio room of the Spearfish Lake fire station, Joe McGuinness was not a happy camper. He was feeling more bored and left out than ever before. Because the fire was behind Turtle Hill he wasn’t hearing a lot of radio traffic from the fire, but what little he was hearing told him that there was a really wild one out there. Yet here he was, stuck in the radio room, feeling very old and left out and useless. This getting-old business sure sucks to beat the band, he thought. Maybe he ought to give up running the radio, just so he wouldn’t feel so near and yet so far away when something like this came down.

He knew he would much rather be out on the line than sitting back and letting others deal with the fire. Over the years he’d been to a lot of fires, but the biggest one in his mind had been back in the early ’80s, when the Jerusalem Paper plant in Warsaw had caught fire in the middle of the worst snowstorm of the decade. Between the storm and a couple bridges being out, it had been an extremely tough fire to fight, mostly because access to the town was so limited. The whole town would have burned to the ground if the Camden and Spearfish Lake Railroad hadn’t managed to somehow haul twelve departments to the town on flatcars, and a lot of it burned anyway. Joe had been badly injured in that fire, from just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even though he was a year or more recovering from it and still knew when there was a change in the weather coming from the feeling in his bones, he could look back on the experience and recall that he’d never felt quite as alive as he had in the three days of that memorable battle.

Those days were gone now, and he was sitting in the radio room, wishing he were young again, young enough to be out fighting a desperate forest fire instead of listening to a radio that hardly ever had any word on it. This, he thought, was one hell of a way to wind up. He was thinking that depressing thought, or something close to it, when the phone in the fire station rang. He picked it up and said, “Spearfish Lake Fire Department, McGuinness.”

“Joe, Clint Bork here,” he heard on the phone. “What’s happening down there?”

“Not a damn thing,” Joe grumped. “How about out there?”

“We’ve got trouble, I’m afraid.” Clint told him. “In a nutshell, the fire got away from us when that storm went through. It’s now blowing south on us. Our access route was cut in the process, so we don’t have any water. We’re trying to get a new access route set up but it’s still iffy. The only thing I can see to do is to set up a real solid fire line and put in a backfire along the railroad grade, but right for the moment we can’t use any of the equipment we have here. What do you have there?”

“No pumpers here right now. I can whistle one up from Albany River if you need it,” Joe replied. “A couple tankers, one from Albany River, one from Three Pines. The only pumper around right now is Spearfish Lake 1, not that it counts anything for what you need it for.”

Both Joe and Clint knew that Spearfish Lake 1was an extremely odd duck for a pumper in a town the size of Spearfish Lake. Virtually all the pumpers in any department this side of Camden were at least partly tankers, carrying an on-board water tank that was typically a 1000 or 1500 gallons. Spearfish Lake 1 was the exception – it only had a small surge tank, and mostly was used when hooked to fire hydrants. While it was at least technically a pumper, it was more an aerial ladder truck. There wasn’t much call for a beast like that around Spearfish Lake, but in the wake of the Warsaw fire years before it had become clear that an aerial truck would have been extremely useful. It would be just as useful if a fire broke out at the new Jerusalem Paper plant in Warsaw, or at Clark Plywood, about the only buildings around that really called for something that could work that high. It had two big deluge guns, one mounted on the deck and the other on the end of the ladder. Since spare change for equipment like that was extremely hard to come by in Warsaw after the big fire there in the early ’80s, the Spearfish Lake department had taken on the responsibility of getting the truck – with Clark Plywood assistance, of course.

It first arrived in Spearfish Lake the summer following the Warsaw fire; some urban department somewhere had to cancel their order with the truck halfway built, so Spearfish Lake was able to get it cheap, although it was not quite what they wanted. Numbered “1” mostly because it was the first new truck to show up after the departure of the department’s oldest pumper, it was now the oldest piece of equipment on the department, and the least used as well. The only aerial truck for miles around, it could be counted a busy year if it went to as many as two fires. It was mostly used for training, demonstrations, and parades, but it was generally agreed that while it would only be wanted rarely, when it was wanted it would be wanted bad.

“The tankers would do for a start but I wouldn’t mind having more,” Clint told him. “Figure on getting those heading this way and get that pumper rolling up from Albany River, then see what you can do about finding some more. The way the wind is blowing out there I want to be real careful with a back fire. We can’t let anything get past the grade.”

“I’ll get them moving,” Joe replied. “It may take a few minutes; I think some people are out for a late lunch.”

“No huge hurry,” Clint told him. “The fire isn’t moving south all that fast. I’m guessing we have an hour at least. If you can get your hands on some drip torches, it would help for lighting the back fire.”

“We’ve got some around somewhere,” Joe told him. “I’ll send them out. You’re saying you want them to go right up the rail grade, right? You’d better talk to the railroad and make sure that there aren’t any trains coming through.”

“Ryan Clark is talking to them right now,” Clint told him. “I’d say to have everyone hold up at the 919 crossing until we’re sure the trains are stopped.”

“OK, I’ll get on it,” Joe said. “Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Will do,” Clint told him. “Catch you later.”

Well, at least there was something useful to do for a minute, he thought. He got up from his seat at the radio and walked out into the station. The doors were open, and the three fire trucks were sitting outside. “OK, you guys,” he told the handful of firemen assembled there, mostly sitting around where they could, holding cans of pop in their hands. “Got a job for you. The Albany River tanker goes out to the 919 rail crossing, the Three Pines tanker, too. Don’t leave just yet, they want some drip torches out there. I know there are some upstairs, but I’ll have to find them.”

“I’ll come help you with them,” one of the Three Pines guys said. “You got any fuel for them?”

“Shit, I don’t know,” Joe told him. “If not, somebody’s going to have to stop at the Fiesta station or something and get some fuel oil.”

There was an equipment room upstairs at the station. Joe and the Three Pines guy headed for it, but before he could get to the stairs he heard the phone ringing again. “I better get that,” he said to the Three Pines guy. “Back in a minute.” He rushed back into the radio room and grabbed the phone again. “Spearfish Lake Fire Department, McGuinness,” he said into the phone again.

“Joe, Clint again,” he heard. “Hold off on sending those guys, we’re going to have to think of something else. Ryan just got off the phone with Josh Archer. There’s something goofy with the bridge over the West Turtle Lake outlet, we’re not going to be able to run heavy trucks over it. See if you can scrape up some brush rigs somewhere, maybe if we can get our new access route we can use a couple of them we have here.”

“Aw, shit,” Joe said. “What’s this problem with the bridge? It can’t be too weak for a fire truck, they run those heavy rock trains over it every day.”

“I’m not clear on that,” Clint told him. “Ryan said something about it being too narrow. Josh is afraid we could lose a truck over the edge.”

“Yeah, now that you mention it, I remember it is sort of narrow,” Joe told him. “I’ve been over that line with Josh a few times, clear back to the Warsaw fire . . . hey!”

“Hey, what?”

“Hey, I’ll get back to you in a few. I’ve got to call Josh. Talk to you as quick as I can.”

Joe didn’t even give Clint the chance to hang up, but put his thumb on the switchhook breaking the connection and dialed the railroad office from memory while he yelled at the Three Pines guy to tell everyone to hold off on leaving. It turned out that Josh was in the Camden and Spearfish Lake office, and apparently was the only one there, since he was the one to pick up the phone. Joe had known Josh for a lot of years, had worked with him, had even been on paddling trips with him.

Joe didn’t bother with any small talk. “Josh, Joe. What’s the scoop on this bridge out at West Turtle, anyway?”

“It’s too damn narrow for a fire truck,” Josh replied. “No problem going over it with a high-railer, and a pickup could probably sneak across, but a big truck is wider and the tires would probably only have a couple inches on the ties.”

“Why the hell is the bridge like that, anyway?”

“Beats the crap out of me,” Josh said. “We inherited it from the D&O, like we did everything else. My guess is that it was built back in the war, in the ’40s, and they must have been trying to conserve on wood and creosote. Bud and I have often talked about re-decking it, but it’s still serviceable and never been enough of a pain in the ass before now.”

“You don’t have any problem with them putting a back fire in along the grade, do you?”

“Naw, that’s one of those places we really ought to clean out sometime anyway.”

“OK, I got an idea. I know you’re too damn young to remember the Warsaw fire, but I was in the middle of it. How about if we load a pumper and a couple tankers onto flat cars and monitor the burn from the train?”

“It’s not going to work,” Josh protested. “Granted, I was just a little squirt when that came down, but I know a lot about it. Hell, I’ve heard Bud tell stories about it for twenty years or more. The thing is, Bud happened to have some circus-load piggyback flats here in the yard. I haven’t seen one of those in years. All the trailer loading and unloading is done by crane, now. The only empty flats I know around are three or four bulkheaded pulp flats sitting over at Clark’s. Even if we could clear off the old loading ramp, those bulkheads would get in the way of loading any fire engines.”

“Well, shit,” Joe replied. “Do they have a crane over at Clark that could handle trucks?”

“They’ve got a crane, but it’s rigged for unloading pulpwood,” Josh told him. “I don’t think it would be strong enough to pick up a loaded fire truck anyway. But . . . ”

“But what?”

“Let me think a second.” There was a moment’s silence before Josh said, “Well, it might work.”


“There’s a rail loading dock on one side of the plant,” Josh said. “They load boxcars with huge bundles of composition board and stuff with fork lifts. They have a ramp arrangement they use to bridge the gap between the loading dock and the car, usually a boxcar.”

“Yeah, that’d probably work,” Joe said. “It’d take some backing and filling to get the truck onto the flat square, but it ought to work.”

“The only problem is that the trucks would have to go through the plant to get to the loading dock,” Josh said. “It’d take some cooperation from the plant. It’s usually pretty stacked up in the loading area.”

“That’s one thing we can be sure of,” Joe told him. “It’s Clark land that’s burning out there, I can call Ryan and have him jack somebody up.”

“Still might not work, but it’s worth a try,” Josh said.

“Go crank up an engine and get those pulp flats,” Joe told him. “I’ll call Ryan, have him clear the way for us, and meet you there with some engines. You gonna be on your cell?”

“Yeah, we might as well find out,” Josh agreed.

“Talk to you in a few minutes,” Joe told him, and once again brusquely hung up the phone.

Ryan Clark’s cell number was another one he had in memory without having to look it up on the ambulance roster. “Ryan, Joe,” he said, again without preliminary. “I just talked to Josh. He’s got some pulp flats over at your place, we think we may be able to load a pumper and some tankers on them. The only problem is that we’re going to have to use your outbound loading dock to load them, and Josh thinks it may be a squeeze. We’re going to have to have the way cleared to get to the dock through the plant.”

“Boy, you never really got over the Warsaw fire, did you?” Ryan laughed. “I’ll call Steve down at the plant, get him moving on it. Good idea, Joe. Now let me call Steve.”

Joe hung up the phone, still thinking hard. It might take twenty minutes for the Albany River pumper to get here, and there was no point in wasting the time if he could avoid it. He swung sideways, keyed the microphone on the desk and said, “Central, Spearfish Lake. Get Albany River to move their pumper up to this station, but warn them I may call them to go somewhere else before they get here.” He took a deep breath. Was it worth it? It might work; there were those two big deluge guns, after all, and they could reach out quite a bit. He made up his mind and added, “Also, put out a call for manpower to the station to man Spearfish Lake 1.”

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To be continued . . .

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