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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 26

Clint was being kept informed of what was happening in Spearfish Lake. He had been initially dismayed to hear of the problem with getting engines across the bridge at the West Turtle Lake outlet. When Joe McGuinness told him that the problem was solved and that the railroad would be bringing a strong crew there soon, his concern was backed off quite a bit.

From his perch on top of Turtle Hill he could see that the main fire head was still advancing southward, being pushed along in the high winds, but it was clear that they still had some time before it got down to the railroad grade. That would give them time to do a backfire along the grade, and if nothing else went wrong that should pretty well solve the problem. The flanks of the fire seemed to be held by the fire lines, although not easily; spot fires were jumping up here and there, but there were enough people and rigs down on the flanks to keep them from getting out of hand. His main concern was the one he’d had since he’d realized the old access road had been cut behind them: not enough water to do the job properly.

Now, that worry seemed to be coming to an end. From the top of Turtle Hill, the yellow grader stuck out pretty well in the binoculars, even though it was at a pretty good distance. Jack had been dead right, there was no picking the camouflage painted Jeep out of that mess of brush. He knew from listening to the radio chatter that the Spearfish Lake draft truck was close to the Jeep, and he could pick its flashing red and blue lights out easily.

Finally the urge to do something kept him off the radio no longer. “Grader from Birdwatcher Hill Command,” he called. “Keep an eye out to the front. You should be picking up the flashing red lights of the Spearfish Lake draft truck more or less in front of you pretty soon.”

“Oh, is that what it is?” Randy called back. “I’ve been seeing flashing lights up ahead and to my right for a while now.”

“Any idea of the distance?”

“A quarter mile, maybe less,” Randy told him. “You want me to head for him?”

“No, maintain your course. You’re ahead of the fire and the wind seems to be settling down, now. Break, any empty tankers, get over onto the west fire line and follow the grader southward. Don’t get too close to him, he has to back up and punt every now and then.”

“Birdwatcher Hill, Warsaw 2, clear on that, we’re heading out,” a voice called back.

“Birdwatcher Hill, Hoselton Tanker 3, we’ve still got some left, but we’re getting low.”

“Stay there till you’re out,” Clint told him. “Even when the grader breaks through to the new route it’s going to take a while to get tankers full.”

“Spearfish Lake Tanker 5, we’re empty, we’re heading out.”

“Albany River Tanker 4, we’re about half full. We’ll top off the pumpers on the west side and then head out in a few minutes.”

Clint hung the radio back on his belt and turned to the small crew remaining on top of the hill with him. “Guess we’re cutting it a little closer than I’d hoped, but we should make it.”

*   *   *

“Twenty-eight years,” Joe McGuinness said from the brakeman’s seat up in the cab of the Rock.

“What’s that?” Josh asked as he powered the ancient GP-7 up and began to work his way out of the Clark Plywood loading siding.

“Twenty-eight years and about seven months, I figure, since this engine has gone to a fire.”

“I wouldn’t know without looking it up,” Josh smiled. “I was just a little kid when the Warsaw fire happened.”

“I was there,” Joe shook his head. “Christ, Josh, I was about your age, give or take, and I never figured I’d get this old.”

“Well, if it will make you feel any better, I never figured I’d be taking this engine to a fire at all,” Josh smiled. “It’s not the normal thing to happen on a railroad, even though this is no Warsaw fire.”

“That it isn’t,” Joe agreed. “It is probably the largest forest fire we’ve had to deal with in a few years, but it’s nothing like that mess the Warsaw fire was. Anyway, this is going to be a little different. Back then, we never actually fought the fire from a train.”

“I’ve heard stories of tank cars of water being hauled to fight fires out west,” Josh nodded, “but I’ve never heard about it happening around here. Which makes me think.” He reached for the microphone. “Six-oh-whichever-it-is, this is 301,” he called.

“602 in the yard,” Danny replied. “Just about to get going, Josh.”

“Danny, we’re going to head straight out. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll pass on throwing the Clark lead switch on the main. I know that’s not how it’s supposed to be done, but it’s going to be easier for you than it is for me.”

“No problem, but thanks for letting me know,” Danny told him. “Don’t know how long it’s going to be, but I’ll be bringing the tank car just as soon as they’re ready.”

“Good enough,” Josh told him. He hung the microphone up and shook his head. “Jeez, a stud for one tank car. That’s about like a semi hauling around a yard cart.”

“So long as it gets the job done,” Joe told him. “We might be able to do this job with two tankers, but it’ll be damn good to know that we’ve got enough water to do it right. Can we go any faster?”

“Not on this switching lead,” Josh told him. “Considering that those trucks aren’t tied down at all, I’m probably going as fast as I should here. Once we get out on the main I can open it up some. We’ll just have to see how the trucks are riding to tell us how fast we can go.”

*   *   *

Only a good natural sense of direction and the taped-up aerial photos kept Jack going anywhere near close to the direction he felt they ought to be traveling. Even then, every once in a while he had Vixen stop so he could climb up on the hood in hopes of being to see where he wanted to go a little more clearly. “We’ve got to be right about here,” he said, pointing at a spot on the chart, “but I have no idea where that is in relation to the grader, other than the fact that I can hear his engine out that way.” He pointed vaguely to the left.

“So call and ask,” she suggested.

“That’s what I was about to do,” he nodded, and picked up the portable. “Birdwatcher Hill, this is the Jeep,” he called. “I think we can hear the grader. Are we almost there yet?”

“You sound like my kids,” he heard Clint wisecrack. “You are getting close. The grader reports he’s been able to pick out the draft truck part of the time, and it’s almost ahead of him and getting close.”

“We’re ahead of the draft truck,” Jack replied, then said to Vixen. “We might be a little closer than we want to be. It looks a little more open on top of that little rise up ahead. Pull up there and stop, then I’ll climb up on the hood again.”

It only took a few seconds for Vixen to pull up to where Jack indicated. As she stopped, he stood up and looked off to the left. There, just behind and to the left of the Jeep, he saw the yellow cab of the grader peeking over the top of the brush. He bent over, picked up the radio and said. “Jeep to the grader, you’re only about thirty yards from crossing behind us.”

“Still don’t see you,” Randy called. “Are you out of my way?”

“As long as you keep going straight ahead, you’ll be fine,” Jack told him.

“Good enough, be there shortly,” Randy said.

Jack hopped down from the Jeep, and walked a few steps behind it, listening to the roar of the big yellow John Deere get closer and closer. Now he could see the cab as it worked its way southward, and in a few seconds it roared across the spot where they’d been sitting in the Jeep moments before. It stopped dead across the path; the cab door opened and Randy got out. “You again, huh?” he called to Jack.

“Bad penny,” Jack said. “Vixen and I keep turning up around here.”

“Am I going to have to go down and grade any of the path you guys have down to the lake?”

“Shouldn’t have to,” Jack told him. “It’s confusing as hell, but we’ve put out flagging tape and there aren’t any tight turns to speak of.”

“Good enough, I’m going to keep pressing the fire line south,” Randy told him. “I’ll call in to Clint. Good job again, kids!”

“You’re the one who’s done a hell of a good job,” Jack told him. “Catch you later.”

Randy gave him a wave and turned back to the cab, while Jack headed back to the Jeep, to discover that Vixen had turned it around and had slid back over to the right seat. He listened to Randy reporting to Birdwatcher Hill Command with the report they’d just talked over. “OK, Break,” Clint called. “Spearfish Lake Draft 10, head back to the new draft point and get set up. Jeep, there should be a couple tankers right behind the grader, guide them down to the draft point. If you don’t think the trail is marked clearly, get some flagging tape from one of the draft trucks, then go back and mark it.”

“Roger, Spearfish Lake 10 is clear on that,” they heard.

“Jeep is clear,” Jack replied. He’d started to pick up some of the lingo. “We’ll keep you posted.”

*   *   *

“Former C-1 to Spearfish Lake One,” Joe called on the fire frequency. “How are you riding back there?”

“Nice and solid,” someone replied. “We haven’t shifted at all. As far as we’re concerned they can pick it up some.”

“Good enough,” Josh said, opening the throttle of the Rock. They’d been going about thirty; another ten miles an hour would take them up to the accepted limit on this track. “Shouldn’t be much longer, twenty minutes or so,” Josh told him.

“Former C-1, this is Birdwatcher Hill Command,” they heard from Joe’s portable. “Did I just hear you say ‘Spearfish Lake 1?’“

“Affirmative,” Joe replied.

“I’m surprised you could break it out of the cobwebs,” Clint replied, his good mood evident in his voice. “ETA to West Turtle Lake?”

“About twenty minutes,” Joe told him.

“Can you stop at the 919 crossing so we can do some coordination?”

Joe glanced over at Josh, who gave him a thumbs up. “That’s affirmative,” Joe replied.

“Good enough, I’ll be waiting for you.”

*   *   *

Clint and Tom, the DNR representative were waiting at the 919 railroad crossing when the Rock eased to a stop just shy of the crossing, bringing the three pulpwood flatcars loaded with fire engines with it. The strangest sight of the already strange looking affair was the last flatcar, where the big urban ladder truck was sitting, with a hose already run to it from the nearest tanker. “That,” Tom commented, “May be the strangest forest fire fighting arrangement I’ve ever seen. The heck of it is, it should be able to do a good job of protecting the railroad grade.”

“Don’t know much about it myself,” Clint admitted. “I know the former chief of the Spearfish Lake department threw that whole train thing together in about half an hour. I’ll give him marks for quick thinking, that’s for sure.”

Josh and Joe climbed down from the railroad engine and waited as Ron Penzance came up alongside the tracks from Spearfish Lake One. “Sort of reminds me of another train ride I had with a fire engine,” Clint commented to Joe.

“Hell, I think only you and I were there out of this whole damn crowd,” Joe replied. “It’s a hell of a lot warmer than it was then, even if we are a hell of a lot older.”

“What’s this?” Tom asked.

“Long story,” Clint replied. Somehow the hatchet between the two of them had been buried in the last hour or so. “The real short version is that this railroad engine hauled a bunch of fire engines and firemen into the big Warsaw fire, what was it, thirty years ago?”

“Twenty-eight,” Joe said. “I was thinking about it on the way out here.”

Just about then Ron made it up to them. “OK, Clint, we’re here,” he said. “What’s the plan?”

“The fire is burning south, I’d guess half an hour to an hour from the rail grade,” Clint told him. “We’re getting good fire lines on the flanks, but in this breeze I want to get a good downwind fire line for it to run in to. That means a backfire, but you’re going to have to protect your coverage, guard against spot fires, and work fast.”

“We talked about it,” Ron said. “I think Joe had a good idea. We can cover a lot more ground quickly with those two deluge guns than we can with hoses.”

“I’d be concerned that you’re going to run out of water,” Tom pointed out.

“Not going to happen,” Ron smiled. “Joe here has more on the way, a full tank load.”

“One tanker isn’t going to make much of a difference.”

Ron laughed out loud. “You’re not thinking big enough. I meant one tank car load. That’s about twenty thousand gallons; it’s about half an hour behind us.”

“Hell yes, that puts a different spin on it,” Tom said. “I’d say to establish a wet line about where we expect the grader to come out, and then get going with the drip torches a good bit upwind. We’ve got enough water for fire suppression to not let a backfire get out of hand, and if push comes to shove you should be able to lay down a wet line for the head of the fire to run into.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Ron said. “We don’t get to lay down backfires very often. You like to come along and make sure we’re on the right track?”

“Yeah, sure. Why don’t you ride with us on the pumper?”

“I’ll go on the pumper, too,” Joe said. “I’ve got a brakeman radio, I can talk to Josh to tell him what we need the train to do.”

“Let’s do it to it, then,” Ron said. “Clint, you going along?”

“No, I better get back to the top of the hill so I can keep an eye on everything. Tom pretty much knows what’s going on, and I ought to be able to guide you in on where to start the backfire. If I don’t get back up there before you get out there, I’d say to start it about a quarter mile past that bridge over the outlet. Catch you guys later.”

*   *   *

“OK, Josh, let’s go,” Joe radioed as soon as he, Ron and Tom had climbed aboard the flat car with Spearfish Lake One aboard. “We’re going to want to stop somewhere just past the bridge to start the backfire burning.”

“The trick to setting that,” Tom said. “Is going to be to spot the grader, and see where he’s going to come out. We’ll want to start it right about there, but we can’t see high enough over this stuff to be able to pick him out.”

“Well, that’s one we can solve pretty easily,” Ron smiled. “Joe, your thinking of bringing Spearfish Lake 1 just seems better and better. I’ll get someone on top of this thing, we’ll extend the ladder some. If we can’t see the grader from that at full extension, we’re not going to see him.”

“Yeah, hadn’t even thought about that,” Joe admitted. “Might as well get some use out of the thing, after all.”

Somehow Joe got himself elected to ride the end of the ladder. It didn’t have to take him very high before he could see the grader out about a quarter mile north of the tracks, well ahead of the fire, now. “OK, Josh,” he said on the railroad radio. “Stop right along in here.”

Joe could feel the train start to slow immediately. “Anywhere along in here,” he called down to the deck of the pumper.

The top of the ladder proved to be about the best seat in the house, as far as Joe was concerned. He could see three firemen head out into the brush and tall grass carrying burning drip torches to get the backfire going. “Give me some water,” he called. “I’ll get the wet line going to the west of them.”

“On the way,” Ron called back.

Joe could heard the engine on Spearfish Lake 1 switch to a deeper note, could hear the rush of water coming up the service pipe. The big deluge gun burped out a couple trickles of water, then settled down to a steady hard spray.

The deluge gun was designed for this sort of thing – permanently mounted, and with a complicated feed system designed to throw a stick of water a long way, he could lay down a good stream of water a hundred yards away from the position at the end of the ladder. If anything, the stick the deluge gun threw was a little too concentrated at this short a range, but after only a couple minutes the area just west of where the backfires were starting to burn wasn’t going to be set afire anytime soon.

“Joe, why don’t you come down here?” Ron said. “We really shouldn’t have old farts like you out on the end of the ladder like that. Besides, I need you down here to coordinate with the engine.”

“Yeah, all right,” Joe said, not on the radio. “Excuses, excuses.” He hit the control lever to lower and pull back the long extension ladder. A couple minutes later, he was back on the deck.

“What do you think?” Ron asked. “I figure we ought to just sit here until things get going good, then try to keep the peak of the backfire around the range of the deck gun. I’m thinking we might want to send someone out to the end of the ladder to keep an eye downwind. If something breaks through, they’ll be in a position to douse it just as soon as we see it.”

“I suppose that’s a good idea,” Joe admitted, “and you can send someone else up, this time, darn it. At least I got to use the thing for real once.”

*   *   *

Even though Jack drove like mad to get Clint back on top of Turtle Hill, when they got there they could see through the binoculars that the backfire was already burning. “Can’t complain about the location,” Cline said. “That’s just about where the grader is going to come out.”

“They cheated,” Ryan said. “I was watching through binoculars. They put up the ladder to spot the grader.”

“Shit, I should have thought of that myself,” Clint said. “Oh, well, you learn something new every day.” He picked up a pair of binoculars and studied the fire, and the start of the backfire. “I’ll tell you what, Ryan,” he said finally. “In an hour, if nothing else goes wrong, we’re going to be mopping this thing up. We won’t have it licked by any means, but we should have it under control.”

“I was kind of thinking that myself,” Ryan said. It looks like they’re getting water on the east and west side now, and you can see the flanks are starting to die down a little. You can see all sorts of spot fires and smokers in the burned over area, but they’re not likely to go anywhere.”

“True, but they’re going to take a while to put out,” Clint pointed out. “We can’t just let them burn, or the next time we get a wind shift they could set something going again in the areas beyond the fire lines. And then there’s the peat bog, and there’s not going to be any putting that out easily. I’m afraid we’re going to be out here for a long time dealing with that one. But in an hour the main fire isn’t going to go anywhere. It won’t be long and the wind will be dying down some with the end of the day, and fires usually dial themselves back as it gets cooler and more humid in the evening. We’ll have to keep an eye on it tonight, but we can plan an organized attack on the mop-up for tomorrow.”

“Maybe I ought to call down and tell Carrie to get the burgers thawing,” Ryan said. “She’s made several offers to provide food for everybody.”

“Might as well,” Clint agreed. “We’re not going to be able to break everybody away from the fire line all at once, but we should be able to do it in two or three shifts all right.”

*   *   *

Randy could tell from the smoke and fire ahead and to one side of him that he was getting close to the backfire at the railroad grade. It had pretty well burned down ahead of him, but he’d made up his mind to keep going until he made the connection. He kept pushing through the brush, pushing it to one side, until all of a sudden he could see the blackened side of the railroad grade ahead of him – and then he was out into the area that had recently been burned over. By God, made it, he thought, breathing a big sigh of relief. He picked up the portable and called, “Birdwatcher Hill command, the grader has broken through to the backfire line. What do you want me to do next?”

“Head back up to about where you met the Jeep,” Clint called. “That’ll be a good place for you to sit and wait to see if we need you anywhere else.”

“Roger that,” he called, and shifted the grader into reverse. The backup alarm sounded, as he swung the John Deere around and headed back up the fire line, blade held high. Thank God, time for a break, he thought as he pulled the grader out into the brush in case someone else had to get past him, something that seemed unlikely. He seriously needed just to sit and wind down. He hunted around in the cab, until he found the bottle of water than Chad had given him a long time before. He cracked the cap, then took a swallow. Warm, but it had been warm when Chad gave it to him, and under the circumstances he couldn’t think of anything much better to drink. What a day, but it looked like it was about over with.

*   *   *

“301 from 602,” Danny called. “I’m coming up behind you with the tank car.”

“Good, they’ve been wondering where you were,” Josh told him. “They’ve started griping about running low on water.”

“We’ll take care of that,” Danny said confidently. “You want to stop? I can probably do this on the fly, you’re going slow enough.”

“Wait one,” Josh replied. Danny wasn’t that experienced with the stud, he thought. “We might as well stop,” he said. “They’ll have to run a hose to the tank car anyway.”

“OK, go ahead and stop. I’m about a hundred yards back.”

Josh brought the Rock to a stop and left the brakes off. If Danny hit the train hard with the tank car, it was better to be able to roll a bit. There was nothing much he could do but wait; he couldn’t even see the tank car and stud through the bulkheads on the flat cars. In a few moments, he felt a slight lurch; it couldn’t be anything other than the tank car being coupled up. There was nothing for a minute or more, and then he heard Danny call, “All right, we’re off, the brake line is being hooked up and they’re running the hose line now.”

“OK, great,” Josh said. “Joe, let me know when you want to get moving again. Danny, you might as well take 602 back to the barn. Top off the fuel, they’ll need it when they change engines tonight.”

“Good enough,” Danny called. “I’m heading home, Debbie’s having beef strips and wild rice tonight before I have to head over to football practice.”

“Boy, that sounds good,” Josh replied. “Guess it is getting to be about wild rice season, isn’t it?”

“One of her cousins was pushing the season a little bit, but he says it’s ready,” Danny replied. “Maybe we can get together this weekend.”

“I’d like that,” Josh replied. “Call you about it later.”

“If you two are done discussing wild rice,” Joe broke in, “Josh, you can get this rig moving again. Pick it up a little, we fell behind the peak some when we stopped.”

“Can do,” Josh replied. It was getting thick in the cab; the Rock had been downwind of the backfire, and the engine was going to smell of it for a while. Wouldn’t be the first time, Josh thought. It was a good smell for the Rock.

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To be continued . . .

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