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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 27

The Rock and the fire train were up and down the half-mile of track next to the backfire for over an hour. By the time the backfire had pretty well died out, the main fire was coming up to it – and dying down when it ran into areas where there was nothing to burn. For the most part the firemen on Spearfish Lake One could pretty well have sat back and watched the fire die out. They were prepared to do just that until Josh told Joe that the tank car would have to be put back in line empty, so they might as well drain it out where they were.

After that, the Rock and the fire train went back and forth across the dying head of the fire, with the firemen handling Spearfish Lake 1’s deluge guns reaching out at maximum elevation to snuff out what remained of the fire, and what burning hot spots they could reach with the high pressure sticks of water. It became almost a training exercise after a while; every fireman on the train got to use the deluge guns, and get a little practice with them. It was quite a while before the pumper reached the point where they were sucking air from the big black tank car, and going on was pointless.

“OK, Josh,” Joe radioed finally. “We might as well head back to the barn. We’re out of water, and it would be nice to get these trucks unloaded so the guys on the loading dock can put their warehouse back together.”

“All right, we’re on the way,” Josh replied. “I’m going to take it slow until we’re across 919, and then pick it up a bit. Peddler, do you read 301?”

“Roger that,” Dave on the way freight replied.

“What’s your location?”

“We’re just pulling into Warsaw and deciding where we want to eat.”

“Negative on the chow, bring it home. We’re just your side of the 919 crossing but heading back to Clark. We should be off the main by the time you get past 919. Don’t come past 919 until you’ve heard we’re at Clark.”

“Roger that,” Dave replied. “Guess I’d better call my wife and tell her I’m going to be home for dinner after all.”

“Cheaper than eating in Warsaw,” Josh replied jokingly. “And less heartburn.”

“You don’t know my wife’s cooking,” Dave replied. “See you later.”

“Roger that,” Josh replied. “Beepit, do you read 301?”

“Five by five, Josh,” Chris replied from the rock train, now coming back from Camden empty. “Coming up on Blair.”

“Might as well head it on in,” Josh told him. “Get into Spearfish Lake, do the crew change and the engine change. We had to use 602 for a bit but it should be topped back off. You’ll have to stay in the hole till Peddler gets in.”

“Shouldn’t be much of a wait,” Chris replied. “Dinner at home is looking pretty good from this end.”

“Yeah, it does,” Josh replied. “I guess I’ll have a story to tell the kids tonight.”

*   *   *

“Guess I might as well head on back home,” Tom told Clint.

“Oh, stick around and have a bite with us,” Ryan told him. “There aren’t many chances to visit Commons and keep your clothes on, it’s a sight you really shouldn’t miss.”

“I guess I’ll head on down with you,” Clint said. “Dave, you should be able to handle overwatch from here. I’ll ride down there with the kids, and when I’m done you can have a shot at dinner. I’ll be on the radio if you need me for anything, although I can’t imagine you will for a while.”

“Have a good dinner,” Dave told him. “Just don’t stay too long. Ryan tells me they don’t have that much meat down there, and I’d hate to have them run out before I get a shot at it.”

“I’ll try not to,” Clint told him. “We’ll probably have to keep people here for a while until some of the hot spots die down, but we ought to be able to release some tonight.”

“Mr. Clark,” Jack said. “Are you sure it’s going to be OK for us to go down there?”

“No problem tonight,” Ryan told him. “You kids have done more than most to help out today; the least you can do is have dinner with us.”

“Well, all right,” Vixen said. “I sure hope my mom doesn’t hear about it, though. She’d have a heart attack if she knew we were having dinner at the nudist place.”

“Just for tonight, it’s not a nudist place,” Ryan laughed. “It probably will be again tomorrow. Vixen, if your mother gives you any static, have her call me and I’ll set things straight with her.”

Ryan drove down the hill in Randy’s pickup, and Tom drove the state truck. Clint rode with Jack, Vixen, and Stas in the Jeep, leaving Dave and Allen behind with a radio and Allen’s pickup. Clint figured he would have to leave an overwatch on Turtle Hill overnight, and called to Hoselton for someone to bring out a vehicle with a radio for the job; Wally said he’d drive it out himself.

It only took a few minutes for the little convoy to drive down the hill, and up 919 to the turn into the West Turtle Lake Club. The vehicles all went through the gate without stopping, and Ryan led everyone up to the big, beautiful log building his mother had designed half a century and more before. He could hardly ever see it without thinking of her, dead for many years now. Parked outside was a rather muddy, dirty, smoke-stained big yellow John Deere grader, so Ryan figured Randy must be around somewhere.

There was something special going tonight. In front of the building a big charcoal pit had been erected, obviously in quite a hurry, and there were steaks grilling on it. Ryan looked around and saw Carrie monitoring it. “I thought you were going to get into your secret stash,” he teased her.

“I decided not to,” she smiled. “Those things have been frozen so long they’re probably freezer burned, and that wouldn’t be any way to treat our honored guests, would it? I sent someone into the Super Market and had them bring back a hundred pounds of sirloin. Even I know that beats burgers any day.”

“I always knew you had a touch of class,” Ryan teased some more, “but you people have the damnedest kitchen in the county in Commons, so why are you grilling them out here?”

“Several good reasons,” Carrie smiled. “They taste better that way. Besides, we have vegetarians who wouldn’t want the place stunk up with the smell of meat, and besides, if I were to cook steaks inside my mother would be turning over in her grave.”

“Remembering your mother and my mother, I’d have to say that makes a hell of a lot of sense,” Ryan smiled. “We’re eating inside, aren’t we?”

“Of course,” she smiled. “We like to show the building off, even after all these years. Give me your order, head in and get a drink and some appetizers, and we’ll have your steaks to you in a few minutes.”

They headed on inside, where they found Randy, with a frosty mug of a dark substance in his hand; Ryan figured it had to be one of the good German beers that the club was well known for having in stock. “Long day, huh?” Ryan said.

“Believe it or not, I can remember worse,” a dirty, smoke-stained Randy said. “Not a hell of a lot worse and not many, but at least worse.”

“Well, for better or worse, the fire is whipped,” Clint said, “and we’d be in a hell of a lot worse shape if you hadn’t come out here with the grader. I don’t want to say it saved the day, but I don’t want to think about how the day would have gone if you hadn’t showed up.”

“No choice but to do it,” Randy shrugged. “After I heard about Bob, I knew I had to do the best I could to fill in. Any word on what happened to him?”

“Unofficially, I heard it was a heart attack,” Ryan told him. “At least that’s what the sheriff said the ambulance crew thought. We won’t know until an autopsy gets done, though.”

“Well, that makes me feel a little better,” Randy said. “From what I’d heard, he ran off the road or something hurrying to get here, and I’d hate to think that I was the one that told him to step on it. After that, it was mostly a case of just keeping the fire from burning up more of our forest than it had to.”

“Yeah, we lost some as it is, but maybe we can do some salvage logging and save some of it,” Ryan shrugged. “Your crew up for some of that, Clint?”

“Not really,” Clint said. “We’re a little too mechanized to do specialized stuff like that. But we’ve got some guys over in town who are out of work, I think they’d be glad of a little contract to get some wood out. Some of them were out here fighting this fire today. Ed Yarwowski, on the Cat, was one of them.”

“I’ll get Allen with you on that,” Ryan said. “I suppose we’re not going to get anything out of the bog until it freezes up.”

“Probably not, not that there was a lot there to begin with,” Clint said. “None of that stuff was full-growth, although quite a bit of it would be in ten years or so. But that bog, yeah, like you said, not till the ground freezes up and maybe not then. I’m just afraid we’re going to be all damn fall getting the rest of the fire out in there. You don’t get peat like that out unless you really suffocate it.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of,” Ryan said, “and there’s no way in hell I can ask you firemen to spend months over here on your own time to drown the damn thing.”

“No way we could do it,” Clint said. “Hell, we’re all volunteers. We can take a day or two off in an emergency, that’s no big deal and it goes with the territory, but it’s not fair to anyone to take months at it.”

“Maybe I can pull a crew off something else, although that’s not very productive. Or, maybe we could work out something with your unemployed guys.”

“Worth some thought,” Clint said. “That’s for tomorrow, though. We’ve got the worst of it under control.”

“How much water would it take?” Randy asked.

“You mean, to put the thing out?” Clint shrugged. “No idea. A lot, that’s for sure. There’s no way of telling how deep the fire is. If we had a dumper of a storm like this afternoon come over and drop a couple feet on it, well, I wouldn’t worry about it, although I’d want to monitor it right along. But it’s like that storm this afternoon, you can’t depend on the sky doing something for you, especially when you don’t control the rain.”

“Control the rain,” Randy said, obviously thinking. He took a long sip of his dark beer, the gears in his head still grinding. He took the mug away, and smiled. “Rain control. That’s an idea!”

“Naw,” Clint said. “That cloud seeding stuff doesn’t work very well when it works at all.”

“That wasn’t what I was thinking about,” Randy said. “But, rain control – I drove through a town down south a while back and saw a company by that name, Rain Control. They do irrigation stuff, circle irrigators and that sort of thing.” He took another long sip of beer, and continued. “OK, suppose someone calls them up, or some other outfit like that. We could have them run a feed line over to the bog from the far corner of the lake here, and lay out irrigation lines. Then, they just pump the living crap out of it. There’s your couple feet of rain. It would be too late tonight, but I’ll bet I could call around in the morning and have a couple truckloads of irrigation pipe on the way here by noon.”

“Randy, you might have something there,” Ryan said. “I can tell you it’s not going to be cheap, though.”

“Of course it isn’t going to be cheap,” Randy snorted, “but having a crew of guys out trucking water to that fire all fall isn’t going to be cheap, either, not to mention the fact that they could be doing something to get production out. I can’t tell you what the costs would be because I don’t know. But I can damn well find out first thing in the morning. Since this is a one-time thing, whatever company it is might be willing to take it on by the job on a contract basis rather than our buying all the stuff and doing it ourselves. That might prove to be a cost savings right there.”

“Might work,” Clint said. “In fact, it would work a lot better than having a crew of guys sitting on it all fall. But what’s Carrie and the club here going to say about it?”

“What’s Carrie going to say about what?” Carrie asked, as she came over with a big armload of steaks.

“We were talking about setting up an irrigation system to put the fire out for good,” Randy explained. “That’s peat, if we don’t do something about it, it could burn for years. We’d pretty well have to pump the water out of the lake here, but it shouldn’t be a big deal.”

“I’m not sure how much I want to have a fire burning that close to this place for years,” she said, “but you’re not talking about draining the lake or anything, are you?”

“No, nothing like that,” Randy said. “I know a little bit about irrigation, probably not as much as I should. But look, you guys, how big would you say that bog is? Eighty acres?”

“Maybe that, maybe a little bigger,” Clint said. “You’d know more about it than I would, you spent more time close to it. But for the sake of discussion, let’s call it a hundred acres.”

“OK, then,” Randy said. “People who work in irrigation think in acre-feet. That’s an acre of water a foot deep. Let’s say we have to dump two hundred acre-feet onto the bog. That’s really not all that much. You probably wouldn’t have to dump that much water on the whole thing, but for the sake of worst case let’s say you did. OK, West Turtle Lake here is about three hundred acres. Two hundred acre-feet would draw the lake down here eight inches at the worst. Probably a lot less than that, since this lake is connected to Wood Duck Lake, which is about the same size. So that’s four inches for both lakes. Since you’re probably dumping the water right back into the same aquifer it would tend to recharge the lakes, anyway. Carrie, you’d never notice the lake being down four inches at the best of times, and it’s almost the end of your season. By spring, the sky will have made up that four inches it got sucked down. In other words, in the long run, no big deal.”

“Well, I can’t say yes right off, and I’d have to take it before the board,” Carrie said. “Since the board is here or in town that’s not a big deal. If the tradeoff is between having a stinky fire too close for comfort for years, or drawing the lake down four inches temporarily, I’d say start pumping.”

“Probably can’t do it for a day or two anyway,” Randy shrugged. “Like I said, I’d have to see who can do the job for us, and how quick they could get at it. Besides, I’m not sure how we’d pay for it.”

“Get a rough idea of the cost as soon as you can,” Ryan told him. “We can’t make a decision tonight, anyway. It’s going to come down to Clark paying for it or the state paying for it, and who pays how much is something we hire lawyers to work out. Tom, what do you think about Randy’s idea?”

“It has a heck of a lot of merit,” Tom said. “I can think of peat bog fires where it would have made a lot of sense. Sleeper Lake, a few years ago over around Seney, for example. Hell, they were months putting that out and it cost millions. But that wasn’t quite the same thing. There they had thousands of acres of bog to deal with, not the hundred or so you have here. It might be a little expensive in the short run but probably would work out in the long run.”

“Good enough,” Ryan said. “Carrie, run it by your board, with the understanding we haven’t made a final decision yet. Randy, get those numbers for me. Clint, let’s get those unemployed firemen of yours together and have them deal with the spot fires and stuff, starting in the morning. I think we can probably find a few other odd jobs for them to do, like that salvage logging we were talking about.”

“Sure, I can do that,” Clint said, “but do you guys realize that we’re sitting here shooting the shit while our steaks are getting cold?”

“Right,” Ryan said. “We can deal with this stuff later.”

*   *   *

For officially being vegetarian, the West Turtle Lake Club could put on a heck of a steak feed, and they proved it in the next few minutes. “Thank you, Mrs. Evachevski,” Jack said finally, as he was stuffed to the brim. “That may have been the best steak I ever had.”

“Quiet, don’t tell anybody,” Carrie smiled. “That’s something I really wouldn’t want to have get out.”

“Fat chance, Carrie,” Ryan laughed.

“I suppose,” she sighed. “Would you kids like to have me show you around this building? Mr. Clark’s mother designed it, and it’s a nationally famous log structure.”

“I’d love to,” Jack said. “I’ve heard about it all my life, but I never thought I’d see it up close.”

“True,” Carrie sighed. “While we’re very proud of it, it might as well be on the back side of the moon for all most people around here know about it.”

“Just a second before you drag these kids off,” Ryan said. “Jack, Vixen, I just wanted to say that the two of you did a heck of a job out there today. Above and beyond, and all that. I really appreciate it, especially for the early warning of the fire you gave and all you did to help deal with it. Now, I have a question. Are you two planning on going to college?”

“Yes,” Jack said. “We both want to get into wildlife biology, and probably move on into ornithology. We’re not sure where we’re going yet, or how we’re going to pay for it, but we really want to do it.”

“Good,” Ryan said. “When you get it worked out, go to your school counselor, both of you, and have her give you applications for a Donna Clark Foundation grant.”

“Are you sure?” Jack said. “We heard those are really hard to get, and the counselor doesn’t even like to pass out the applications.”

“I’ll have to have a word with her about that,” Ryan replied a little harshly, but then grinned. “If she gives you any static about it, just come to me, all right? I like to do these things through channels when I can but I’m perfectly willing to go outside them if I have to. Anyway, the size of the grant will have to depend on what school you’re going to and a few other things, but I’ll let you in on a secret. Do you know who’s on the board of the Donna Clark Foundation?”

“Well, you probably,” Jack grinned. “I mean, the way you were sounding off just now.”

“There’s three people on the board, and all three of them are sitting at this table,” Ryan said. “I think I can speak for both Randy and Carrie when I say that you kids are the kind of kids we’d like to see get the award. Am I right Randy? Carrie?”

“Couldn’t agree more,” Randy said. “Look, you two. When shit like this comes rolling down the hill, you have two choices – help deal with it, or let George do it. You aren’t the kind of kids who step back and let someone else deal with an emergency when you can help. That qualifies you in my book, even if you two didn’t already have the reputation about being pretty serious about what you do, even though a lot of people laugh at you for it. You get the last laugh, and probably a half ride academic and public service scholarship. Right, Dad?”

“We normally don’t go beyond that,” Ryan said, “but going that far is not a problem.”

“Randy, Mr. Clark, Mrs. Evachevski,” Jack shook his head. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Thank you is what to say, Jack,” Vixen said. “I’ll admit to being in shock at this news myself, but thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

“Good enough,” Ryan smiled. “Now, let Carrie take you around this place so you can butter her up while you’re at it.”

*   *   *

Jack and Vixen headed out to the Jeep. Stas was waiting for them – well, not waiting, exactly, he was stuffed to the gills with steak scraps and sound asleep, not that being sound asleep wasn’t a normal state of affairs for him. They didn’t disturb him much when they got in and sat down. “Good grief, what a day,” Jack said. “Not an eagle to show for it, either.”

“But an awful lot else,” Vixen grinned. “I sure never expected any of that to happen.”

“Me, either,” Jack sighed. “Guess we’re going to have to get a little more serious about looking at colleges.”

“Yeah, we are,” she agreed. “Oh well, only a few more days till school starts, and then we can get serious about it. Right now, I just want a swim, and then a bath, and then a shower to wash this smoke out of my hair.”

“I could hack that,” Jack said, eyeing the sun, now low in the western sky. “It’s getting a little late to be heading out to that pond west of town, though.”

“We don’t have to go there,” Vixen smiled. “Carrie said it would be all right if we just went down to the far end of the beach. Can you think of any place better to go skinny dipping than here?”

“To tell you the truth, yes I can,” Jack said. “but maybe we’ll have to take Carrie up on her offer and check this place out sometime next year, when we’re both eighteen. Right now, I’d just as soon it was just you and me.”

“It’s still four weeks, Jack,” she reminded him.

“You mean today wasn’t four weeks long?” he laughed. “Sure seemed like it to me.”

“It did to me, too,” she smiled, “but it was only one day. Let’s just go down to the end of the beach and have a quick swim. We don’t have to do anything else. Not tonight, anyway.”

“But in four weeks . . . ”

“You know we will, Jack,” she replied with a grin that told him she was looking forward to it.

The End
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