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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 24

Josh Archer couldn’t go right straight out and get on an engine; there were things he needed to do first.

One of the problems with running multiple trains on a single track railroad is making sure that two trains aren’t trying to occupy the same track at the same time. While most of the time Josh could make moves around the railroad yard without having to think about that issue too much, he’d have to get out on the main line for a ways to make it over to the siding network at Clark Plywood. Again, that wouldn’t be much of a problem most of the time, but he knew that it was about time for the downbound rock train, called “Beepit” since it hauled aggregate out of Big Pit east of Walsenberg, to come through. Fortunately, the railroad had radio repeaters that covered the length of the line – something they hadn’t had at the time of the Warsaw Fire – and Josh used the radio now. “Beepit from base,” he called. “What’s your 20?”

“Just coming up on the 919 crossing southbound,” Chris replied immediately from the rock train. “Boy, they must have one hell of a fire over there. We can hardly see through the smoke on the tracks.”

“That’s what I’m told,” Josh told him. “Keep on coming and make your run down to the docks. However, on the way back, if you haven’t heard from me otherwise, pull it into the yard here and wait till you hear from me. Hopefully it’ll all be over by the time you make it back up this way.”

“Right, no problem,” Chris replied from the cab of one of the big SD-40s that handled the rock trains. “Continue southbound, make the turn at the docks, but head into the yard at the office unless otherwise ordered.”

“Affirmative on that,” Josh said. “Peddler, what’s your 20?”

“Just turned northbound on the Kremmling section,” Dave replied from the GP-9 engine set on the other C&SL train that was active at the moment. “Got held up switching at Warsaw. Somehow they managed to have it all bleeped up there again. It’d be nice if you could jump on someone’s case about that again.”

“Not right now, I don’t have the time for it” Josh told him. “For right now, run on down and make your exchange at Lordston. On the way back, do not pass Hoselton without further word.”

“Roger, hold at Hoselton southbound till further notice,” Dave said. “You realize that if we get held there very long we’re gonna have to have a dogcatcher, don’t you?”

“It’ll probably have to be me,” Josh told him. Under federal law, if the crew went over twelve hours’ service, they couldn’t continue working, and someone else would have to drive out to bring the train in. “This is a fire-related issue, I don’t have any idea of how long it’s going to take.”

“If it’s that late, hows about we hold up in Warsaw?” Dave asked. “That way we could at least get some dinner.”

“Fine with me, whatever you want,” Josh told him. “I shouldn’t be too far from a radio, and I’ll be on my cell.”

That much done, Josh picked up the phone and called over to Spearfish Lake Furniture and Appliance. “Danny,” he said as soon as the owner picked up the phone. “You too busy to do some emergency switching with me?”

“There ain’t jack shit happening around here this afternoon,” Danny replied, half in disgust. He was Josh’s long-term best friend; they’d been buddies off and on since grade school. While Danny ran the furniture store, he’d also worked as a brakeman for the C&SL now and then over the years and usually was the first person Josh called on for fill-in brakeman duties in a pinch. “Dad just called, he’s on his way back from Camden. I can put up the sign in the door and call him to have him watch the place when he gets back.”

“OK,” Josh said. “Call him, then get over here. We’ve got some switching to do. I’ll explain it when you get here.”

*   *   *

Joe McGuinness got some goofy looks from arriving Spearfish Lake firemen when he said what he wanted to do with Spearfish Lake 1, but once he explained his thinking, most of the firemen agreed he might have an idea there. He only got one bit of static: “Joe,” Ron Penzance, the third assistant chief, said, “I really hate to point this out, but you ain’t the chief anymore.”

“I know that,” Joe said, “but I’m the best person around to coordinate with the railroad and Clark Plywood. Don’t worry, Ron, I’ll let you fight the fire.”

“We’re going to need someone here to run the radio,” Ron protested.

“I know that, too,” Joe told him. “I already called Pat Hathaway to come over and do it. He’s not going to be fighting a fire with that broken leg of his, but he can sit in a chair and push the mike button.”

“All right,” Ron sighed. “Guess you can’t keep an old fire horse in his stable.”

“For sure on that,” Joe said. “Look, you know what we’re going to have to do, so load up anything you think we may need. I know we’re going to want some drip torches. There are some upstairs but I haven’t had time to go get them. We’re going to need fuel for them, too.”

“I’m pretty sure there isn’t any,” Ron said. “The last chief we had used to have a shit fit about our storing fuel in the building.”

“Yeah, I did, didn’t I?” Joe replied ruefully. “Well, you’ve got time enough to send someone down to the Fiesta station for what we need. I know they’ve got some diesel but as I recall it would be nice to thicken it up some.”

“I’ll send someone down to get ten gallons or so,” Ron told him. “That ought to be way more than enough.”

“Good enough,” Joe told him. “I’m going to drive my car over to the plant and see how they’re coming for arrangements for loading. You might want to keep someone here with a pickup or something in case we think of something else we might need.”

“I’ll tell you something we’re going to need,” Ron commented, “and that’s more water. If I understand your thinking, we’re only going to be able to take two tankers with us, and when we’re out of that there’s not going to be any way to get more to the pumper.”

“I can think of a way to do it,” Joe said, “but it would be slow as snot. We’d have to back the whole rig up to the crossing and fill from another tanker there. Let me work on it, maybe I can think of something creative.”

“Sometimes, Joe,” Ron shook his head, “you’re just a little too damn creative for your own good, and if this whole lashup doesn’t prove it I don’t know what can.”

*   *   *

Josh was just climbing aboard the blue and white engine lettered “301” when Danny pulled up in the Spearfish Lake Furniture and Appliance van. He hopped out and headed for the engine. “Taking the Rock, huh?” he said. “Isn’t there a stud sitting around?”

“Stud” was the Camden and Spearfish Lake’s slang term for the three big SD-40s that powered the rock trains. The “Rock” was a very elderly and much smaller GP-7 that had once toiled for the long gone and legendary Rock Island Railroad. Nowadays, it mostly did switching around the yard and the Clark Plywood plant, often with Josh running it. Occasionally they had to use it to replace one of the GP-9s that ran “Peddler,” the way freight that handled everything for the railroad except the trainloads of stone they hauled down to the barge loader at Camden.

“Yeah, but I’d rather take the Rock to a fire than a stud,” Josh told him. “This is going to be sort of like the Warsaw fire revisited. We’re going to load up a pumper and a couple tankers over at the plant and set a fire line out on the grade beyond West Turtle Lake.”

“OK, I can understand why you wouldn’t want to risk a stud at a fire,” Danny nodded

“Well, that too,” Josh smiled. “If these engines have souls, and sometimes I think they do, then the Rock has one that knows what to do around a fire.”

Danny needed no explanation of that. Nearly thirty years before, this same engine had been the key to the survival of Warsaw in the big fire there. It was a much respected and revered memory, and the Warsaw village council had long had dibs on the engine for the city park if the C&SL ever decided to retire it. Josh had long been of the opinion that if the Rock was retired, it wouldn’t be while he was running the railroad. Even though it was still more or less a working engine, the Rock was the C&SL’s good luck charm, and that was that. If it wasn’t broke there was no point in fixing it.

One of the things that Josh liked about the Rock was that it was an easy starter, and always had been. In only seconds, he had the old EMD 567 engine purring like a kitten. He let it idle for only a couple minutes to warm it up, then got it moving down the yard throat toward the main. “Gonna have to hold up for Beepit to pass,” Josh said, “but they ought to be here any minute.”

*   *   *

Clark Plywood was a big, noisy plant – the biggest building in the county by far – but Joe knew his way around it about as well as anyone who didn’t actually work there. Since it was such an economic lynchpin for the community, he’d spent a lot of time there over the years doing fire planning and risk assessment. He didn’t waste time parking in the visitor parking lot; he drove right to the back of the plant and found an out-of-the-way place to park near the door to the loading dock. He headed right inside – the doors were open to allow some air to blow through on this still-warm summer day – and inside found a madhouse. There were half a dozen fork trucks madly moving pallets of product out of the way of the big overhead door at the side of the building, clearing a path to the rail loading dock.

A person could get his ass run over real easy back here, Joe thought as he looked around the area, trying to find someone he knew. After a brief look around, he saw Steve Augsberg, the plant manager, keeping an eye on things on the far side of the madhouse. It took Joe a couple minutes to get over to him, mostly because he had to watch out for speeding fork trucks that might not be able to see where they were going very well.

Finally, Joe made it over to Steve. “Boy, you got right on it,” he commented.

“Yeah, it’s going to take a while to get everything sorted out again,” Steve shook his head. “We’ve got computer tags on each skid so we can find it when we want it, so I just told everyone to clear a path and not worry about where they stacked product.”

“Well, Jeez, thanks,” Joe said. “I figured you guys would be cooperative, but I didn’t expect that.”

“Ryan called and said to do it, so we’re getting it done,” Steve told him. “He knows what a fucked up mess this is going to be, so he wouldn’t have called for it if he thought he didn’t need this done.”

“I raced over here because I didn’t want you guys to have to fuck things up too much until I was pretty sure that we were going to be able to load the equipment or what,” Joe said. “I sure as hell would hate to have you go to all this trouble for nothing.”

“Hey, we’re in the wood products business and it’s our wood that’s burning,” Steve shrugged. “It’s worth the risk. Let’s go have a look at the loading dock. While we’re at it, let’s take the long way around so we don’t get run over by a fork truck.”

“That strikes me as a real good idea,” Joe told him. “You’re going to have to lead, I’m not sure I know the way.”

Steve led Joe right out of the shipping and loading area, into an area where machines were doing something, Joe wasn’t real sure what, to a conveyer belt full of pulp logs. It was a very noisy area, and most of the workers were wearing ear protectors. Steve led them through some back ways and byways, and somehow emerged at a small personnel door that led out onto the loading dock. “We’re clearing away in front of this door down here,” Steve explained. “There’s usually enough room for loading, but it’s going to be a little tight for getting fire engines loaded.”

“Yeah,” Joe said, eyeing the narrow loading dock. It was going to be damn tight, especially for Spearfish Lake 1, as big as it was. Maybe he ought to dump the idea of using the big ladder truck while it was still easy to do. The Albany River pumper couldn’t be all that far away, and it was smaller. He pulled out the portable radio he’d snagged out of the gear locker in the radio room, and raised it to talk. “Spearfish Lake C-4, Former C-1,” he called, not being able to think of a better call sign.

“Former C-1, go ahead,” he heard Penzance reply.

“Go ahead and send that Albany River pumper out here,” he said. “I’m not real sure that we’re going to be able to squeejaw Spearfish Lake One onto the flat cars here.”

“Uh, negative on that,” Penzance replied. “We were just informed that unit was diverted to a fire down there. We’ve got another pumper coming from Three Pines, but they’re like plus forty.”

“Go ahead and send Spearfish Lake One, then,” Joe said. “We’ll just have to make it work.”

“Roger, they’re on the way already.”

*   *   *

The network of paths out beyond West Turtle Lake was just as complicated as it looked from the aerial photos. While one of the draft trucks began to set up at the beach on West Turtle Lake, Jack headed out down the path Carrie had pointed out.

The problem was that everything looked just about the same in the brushy maze, everything was just high enough that there wasn’t much to be seen in the distance, and there was nothing much that made any particular corner stand out. “Shit,” Jack commented after the second time they’d made a turn that he believed to be the wrong one, and was proved right. “These paths aren’t all that bad, but this is going to take us all damn afternoon.” He stopped the Jeep again, took out the pieced-together aerial photomosaic, and tried to figure out where he was.

“Jack,” Vixen said, “Would it help if I drove and you just kept your eyes on the map? These paths are pretty good, I don’t think I’d have any problems and I could stop if something looked tricky.”

“Good idea,” he said. “The problem is that once we find out where we’re going, then we’re going to have to find our way out again. I’m going to go back and talk to those guys in the truck. You might as well get over here while I’m gone.”

He got out of the Jeep and walked back the few steps to the draft truck behind him. “Lost again?” the driver asked.

“Well, not exactly found,” Jack told him. “I’m pretty sure I know where I am now, but the network of trails out here is crazy. It doesn’t make any sense! The going is a lot easier than I expected, but the paths just go all over the place. I can’t imagine this place being beaten out like this for a few guys going out deer hunting now and then like we were told.”

“I can,” the driver said. “There’ve got to be a bunch of kids with quadrunners and stuff that come out here and tear around. They beat out a pretty good trail, but since they’re not going anywhere they don’t have to go anywhere in particular.”

“Now that you mention it, that makes sense,” Jack said. “I still think we can find our way through here. I’m going to let my girlfriend drive the Jeep so I can pay more attention to the map, and that should help a lot. But if other people are going to be coming through it’s going to be all too easy to get lost. I was wondering, do you have any of that yellow flagging tape you guys spread around fire scenes?”

“Yeah, there’s a roll or two in the back,” the driver said. “You’re saying to block off the trails that don’t go where we want to go?”

“Yeah, that’s it exactly,” Jack said. “You think you guys could do that while I study the map?”

“We can do that,” the guy said. “Just don’t go too fast or you’re going to lose us. I can see spending the rest of the afternoon trying to figure out how to get out of here.”

*   *   *

Danny was up and down off the Rock a couple times throwing switches to get them onto the Clark Plywood tracks once Beepit had passed heading southbound with its full rock hoppers. As soon as Josh got the Rock onto the Clark lead-in track, Josh called on the railroad radio, “Clark loading dock from the Rock.”

“Yeah, Josh,” someone replied from the loading dock.

“Are you ready for us to move those boxes out of there so we can get the flats in?”

“Yeah, come on and get them. You’ll have to re-spot them when this is over with.”

“Can do,” Josh told him, and turned to Danny, “Let’s just move them onto the outer track here, that’ll be the simplest move. Then we can go get the flats.”

“Switch is lined the wrong way, wouldn’t you have guessed it?” Danny said. He was dressed a little too nice for railroading, slacks and a polo shirt, but they were just going to have to get dirty.

“That’s the way it always works, isn’t it?” Josh grinned, as he slowed the engine down so Danny could get down and throw the switch.

Danny was an experienced brakeman, despite his main occupation of running a furniture and appliance store. Within a couple minutes the Rock was nuzzled up against the boxcars that had to be moved. Danny hooked up the brake lines since they’d need air pressure to be moved, and as soon as they were hooked up Josh started air moving to them. Fortunately, the four cars wouldn’t need much air to lift the brakes, and within a couple minutes Josh was backing them away from the loading dock. A couple more quick moves, and the cars were parked out of the way.

The pulp log flatcars that Josh remembered were located in a different part of the building, and it took a few more switch moves to get over to them. “Shit, only three,” Josh said. “I thought they’d have had the fourth one cleared by now. I guess three is all we have to work with. They’re just going to have to like it.”

Danny had to hike down and bust the three empty flatcars from the one full one, but that was just a hike and a throw of a lever. By the time he got back to the Rock, Josh had the air up enough to move the flats, and then it was just a matter of a couple more switch moves to have them parked at the loading dock. That was that, he thought, as he set the throttle to let the engine idle.

Joe was waiting for them on the loading dock, and stepped onto the Rock almost before he stopped. “Boy, those are messy sons of bitches, aren’t they?” he said, referring to the flat cars.

“Pulp cars aren’t anything else, except maybe when they’re new,” Josh shrugged. “How are we coming?”

“The trucks are here now,” Joe told him. “We’re going to try to load Spearfish Lake 1 first. It’s going to be the hardest to load, and we can’t do anything if we can’t get it loaded. It’s going to be a tight squeeze.”

“That’s the big ladder truck, isn’t it?” Josh asked, glancing out at the loading area. “Yeah, it could be a humdinger.”

“While we’re waiting,” Joe said, “I got a question.”


“We’ve only got two tankers with us, that’s about 2500 gallons of water, give or take,” he said. “That might be enough to do us, but if it isn’t we could be hurting. I’ve been trying to figure out some way to have more water with us so we wouldn’t have to back the whole rig up someplace to take on more water. That could take a while, and it’s sure as shit that the moment we run out of water is the moment that we really can’t leave.”

“Well, three flats is all we have, that’s two tankers and the pumper, and that’s all there is,” Josh told him.

“Well, yeah,” Joe said, “but then I’ve been standing there and looking at those tank cars over there,” he said, pointing at a spur track where several black tank cars were parked. “What’s the chances we could fill one of those with water, and either take it with us or have it brought out to us?”

“I don’t know,” Josh told him. “Those aren’t our cars, after all. They belong to an outfit called Northern States Tankage, they’re lease cars and they’re empty. They pay us so much a day to store them on those tracks over there.”

“If they’re empty we could use them, right?”

“In theory,” Josh said, “but only in theory. You’ve got several problems. The biggest one is that God and NSTX are the only ones that know what’s been in them or what they’re set up for. Usually there’s some residuals in a car like that, and I don’t think you’d want to include, say, a hundred gallons of gasoline with the water you use on a fire.”

“Yeah, that could get a little embarrassing, couldn’t it?” Joe grinned. “Especially since the gasoline floats on the water, and if you got a little low you’d be pumping straight gas onto the fire. Any way of finding out?”

“Well, I could give them a call,” Josh told him. “I wouldn’t be surprised that they’d be willing to just let us use them, especially if we paid for the cost of cleaning afterwards. But there’s a second problem. God only knows what the connection fittings are, but I’ll bet you good money that they aren’t something that would connect up to a fire hose. And while I’m at it, the third problem is that it’s going to be empty. Just looking at them, I’d guess those pretty much run eighteen, twenty thousand gallons.”

“Twenty thousand gallons, that’s a lot of damn fire tanker loads,” Joe said. “Give them a call, find out if they’ve got something that will work they can let us use. Six will get you two that someone around here can whomp up an adapter that’ll let us fit a fire hose to it.”

“OK, I can call,” Josh said, “but the odds are against everything working out.”

“No way to find out if you don’t call them and see. If you can get the car we can figure out some way to fill it. Now, I’ve got to go and see about loading Spearfish Lake 1.”

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To be continued . . .

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