Monday, August 22, 2016

Fifteen Days in a Field

Usually when you're assigned to a Type 1 helicopter (the big ones), you don't stay anywhere for long.  These helicopters are in demand, because they can carry a lot of water and because they are national contracts, meaning they can go to any state.  When I was with the helicopter in June, we went to five states in two weeks, and I drove over 3500 miles.

I didn't expect this assignment to be any different.  When I showed up, the helicopter was sitting in a field.  I could see the fire on a nearby hillside.  It was pretty big, but I figured we'd be there a few days, maybe a week at the most. Then it rained, and some of the other helicopters left.  The team managing the fire left.  The helicopter didn't fly for six days.  It wouldn't be long now, I thought.

Then the fire came back to life.  Before I knew it, I had spent 15 days in that field.

There wasn't a lot to do when the helicopters were out flying.  The temperatures were in the 90s,  Sadly, a Ford Escape does not create much shade.  We caught up on our paperwork.  I discovered how long you can actually run an inverter without depleting said Ford Escape's battery (not long).  On breaks, the pilots and mechanics sat in their trailer, watching the Olympics.  Unnecessary eating often took place; one pilot claimed he had to go running to avoid the "fire season fifteen." When it cooled down, they emerged to play spirited games of foursquare on the tarmac.

The other helibase personnel tried to stay busy as well.  The New Mexico helitack crew happily collected garbage and delivered bags of ice to the helipads. S. arrived with a miserable case of poison ivy, contracted on his last fire.  "It's really not that bad," he said optimistically, trying not to scratch.  The helibase manager trainee discovered a swimming hole in the local river.  After shift, some of us jumped in.  The Alaskan set up camp there, starting a small fire and cooking dinner.  "This place is keeping me sane," he declared.
Swimming hole!
Out of inertia, I mostly camped in the field.  My routine of work all day, go for a run, jump in the river, and set up my tent, became normal, so much so that when my replacement showed up, I felt oddly reluctant to go.  I wanted to go home, to finally take a shower, and hike with my friends.  But I had made this field my place. I would sort of miss it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Goldilocks goes camping

Don't get me wrong, I can sleep about anywhere and I have: on crew buggies headed for fires, at high mountain base camps, on a ship wallowing through waves in the Drake Passage, and in a bivy bag on the shore in Antarctica, to name a few.  But if I have a choice, I've realized I can actually be somewhat (gasp!) picky about where I sleep.

I sighed when I realized where my fire assignment was this time.  Loud trains rattle by at all hours in this place; there's really no escaping them. I knew I would have to choose wisely.

Fire camp was out.  Not only are fire camps usually a hotbed of sickness ('camp crud" runs rampant), but there are generators, bright lights, cell phone talkers, and a bastion of snorers who seem to always plunk their tent right next door.  Plus, camp was half an hour's drive away from the helibase on a highway rife with kamikaze deer.  The helibase seemed logical, if it weren't for the aforementioned trains (22 a day, the district ranger gleefully informed us), and a particularly annoying airport beacon. There was also a local dog that barked all night as if it was its job.  A campsite recon was required.

A site high on a bluff had potential, but was inhabited by cows and was even closer to the train.  I drove down another dirt road and found a free campground.  Green and quiet, it was a paradise with a creek running through it.  I happily settled in.
Dark, quiet, no people. Perfect.
However, when I went back the next night, other people had moved in.  A man with seemingly all his possessions piled in the back of  a decrepit car eyed me suspiciously through an aggressive campfire.  It wasn't the same;  the magic was gone.  I dejectedly left.  Back to the helibase it was.

I experimented with a few things.  I found that a person 5"5" or under CAN sleep in the back of a Ford Escape; however there is a daunting ridge that must be padded with clothes, tent bags, or anything at hand.  I discovered that putting up my tent behind the mechanic trailer blocked the beacon.  As for the trains, the noisiest one came by at about 10:30; after that they were somewhat bearable.

Best of all, staying there allowed more time for running on the trails I found and for a refreshing jump in the river.  So while I didn't find that campsite that was "just right," it was tolerable.  A camping Goldilocks like me could live with it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

still out here

I chose this.  I set my feet on this road years ago and I followed it although in many ways it almost broke me. 

It would have been easier to quit, some days; to stop waking up before dawn in a cold fire camp, then later burning from the sun on a high mountain ridge.  I had so many opportunities to take another way, to move into a higher level job, or to change careers entirely.  I could have done it, but something held me back. 

"I should never have gotten out of the left front seat," B. said, referring to the job he had on the helicopter, the one I still have.  Going into a management position, he fought against the bureaucracy and his own demons.  He was found in a hotel room far from home dead by his own hand; I can only imagine the dark cloud that he lived inside during his final days.  Maybe staying out on the fireline would have saved him; nobody will ever know.

A lot of my fire brothers are still out here.  We run across each other on fires all over the west, or I'll get a call from one of them out of the blue.  Most of them still love it; some are just putting their time in until they can retire.  But most of my sisters are gone, the ones who started when I did, back in 1988 when Yellowstone, and everywhere else it seemed, was on fire.

Many of them quit to have families, or to do something else.  Firefighting was just a sideline for them, a stepping stone until their real lives started.  Some stayed close to it, but they moved into administrative positions, to dispatch, or went out on assignments a couple times a year on a break from their regular jobs.  Very few of them are still out there on the fireline with me.

I'm still out here.  I walk the line with people young enough to be the children I never had.  Some of my best and my worst moments have been out here.  A helicopter crash on a bright autumn day, and the exhilaration of survival.  Running through flames to escape the freight train sound of death coming over the ridge.  A man who smiled at me as we stepped off a mountain to let the fire go by.  All the faces of the people who didn't make it through the fire or the accidents or the black thoughts they held inside.  Houses I helped save and ones I couldn't and watched burn into ashes in the dark night.  Fiery sunsets from a wilderness camp and big starry skies.

Sometimes it's lonely out here.  I love my fire brothers but they don't get it, what it's like to be a woman still doing this after 29 years.  Their wives and their girlfriends are very different from me; they are who I might have been if I hadn't chosen this path.

Still.  Every summer I pick up a pulaski and I walk the fireline.  I lean out of helicopters spreading fire from the sky and searching for hidden smoke.  I still do it.  I'm still here.

Baker River Hotshots, 1992

Wyoming, 2012

Monday, August 1, 2016

Gum, Attack Trees, and Ice Cream

"There's probably 60 trees across the trail," my source at the park said optimistically.  We already knew we had to ford a river and a creek and gain a lot of elevation, in an area frequented by bears.  But really, how bad could it be? We decided to go. It would be an adventure!

We parked in an unmarked pullout by the railroad tracks, obediently looking both ways as we scampered across.  Eventually after a little wandering we found a good place to cross the river.  Earlier in the year it runs too high and the lookout gets a ride across in a raft; it was only about knee deep now.
S. is  a lot taller than me, but it wasn't very deep.
Unwisely leaving our river sandals on, we immediately plunged into dense brush.  We couldn't see our feet, but we seemed to be on something of a trail.  "Hey bear," we yelled; bears could have been two feet away and we wouldn't see them.  Large trees lay across the "trail," requiring creative climbing techniques.  Suddenly, I sensed disaster.  The plug in my Camelbak hose had disappeared into the brush. Unless I held the bite valve upright, water spilled out, and I couldn't drink from it.

J. eyed the problem and produced the solution, giving me a piece of gum. The gum blocked the hole and saved me from begging water from others, dehydration, or possible giardia from desperate stream drinking.  Of course, all the water I drank from then on tasted strongly of Trident, but water beggars can't be choosers.  We continued on to our next obstacle, a creek crossing.

Clambering up the steep bank, we started climbing steeply.  Shouts of "Hey Bear" and "Hey Kitty" (after we spied mountain lion scat) rang through the woods.  As the brush thinned out, the fallen trees increased.  An intent bear could have followed our progress by the cries of "Ow! ow!" as branches and twigs did their best to stab, puncture, and scrape us. I skulked along, as this hike had been my idea.

It was beautiful though.

Finally we rounded the last corner and saw the lookout.

My hiking companions are on the catwalk.  We saw two other people on the trail.  It's not well used.

Disappointingly, the person staffing this post was gone on days off.  Since S. had hauled up ice cream bars packed in dry ice for the lookout, we became the lucky recipients.

All the hard work of getting there was worth it.

We started counting the fallen trees on the way down.  You'd think we'd be more graceful on the way down, having already crossed them once.  You'd be wrong.  One hundred ninety-five trees later, we arrived back at the river.  Back in the brush, S. shrieked behind us.  Thinking she had seen a bear, we all jumped, only to find her holding something up.  "I found it!" she yelled.  Somehow she had spotted my missing Camelbak plug.

Back at the car, we assessed the situation.  J. thoughtfully remarked that nobody broke any bones and we didn't, after all, lose anything. Although our legs looked like they had been clawed by bears, we were happy.  We had pulled off another adventure.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Tales of a Reluctant Road Warrior

When I took the fire assignment last month, I thought I knew what to expect.  After all, I'd been managing Type 1 (large) helicopters for years.  There's always some driving, but generally after awhile you settle in at a fire camp or airport, returning to a motel room or tent every night.  You get to know your surroundings: the "musical road" in Lancaster, California for example, or the trail down the road from the airstrip in Dixie, Idaho.  Life is somewhat predictable, at least for awhile.

This assignment was different.  Like a restless bird, the helicopter never stayed in one place more than two days.  I drove to airports in New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana.  I drove almost 4000 miles; as soon as I arrived someplace, it would be time to leave for another.  Entire days went by when I didn't see the pilots.

Early on I realized I needed a routine, even if I had to drive 500 miles that day.  And as I crisscrossed the West, one developed, as weird as it sometimes was:

Wake up at 5 am and stuff my gear into the Ford Escape.  There's a place for everything: my workout clothes, easily accessible snacks, even the big bag of trail mix T. left for me when he finished his stint with the helicopter (stuffed way in the back, so I wouldn't mindlessly eat it). Program the final destination into Gretchen the GPS.  Blearily hit the road.

Stop only when the need for gas and a bathroom arise (hopefully, at the same time).  Buy an energy drink, although they really don't work.  Tell self, don't buy Cheeze-Its. Buy Cheeze-Its.

Break no stopping rule when a particularly beautiful lake appears.  Look longingly at turnoffs for places like the Grand Canyon.  Look at GPS. It still shows 7 hours to go.  Pilot texts that he has arrived at the destination (it only took them 3 hours).
Why wouldn't you stop here?
Try not to be annoyed at other drivers.  Fail.  Fiddle with the radio.  Of course there's no Sirius, so the choices are country, religious, or "top hits." Settle for "top hits." Find yourself singing loudly, "Somethin' bout you makes me feel like a DAAAAANGEROUS WOOOOMAN." Feel slightly horrified; at least you don't have a trainee along.

Arrive at your destination, or, failing that, somewhere ten hours into the journey (all that you are supposed to drive in one day).  Search for a Holiday Inn Express to get the points.  Sometimes settle for something else (The "Retro Inn" comes to mind, although it really was ok). Although it's usually about 9 pm, go to the fitness room and exercise.  Look at Cheeze-Its in disgust; eat a salad. Do paperwork till about 11.

Finally catch up with the pilots the next day; having had lots of rest, they look pretty chipper.  After a couple of hours, get a call from Dispatch. You're headed somewhere else.

This is a strange job.  Sometimes you sit around, sometimes you dig in the dirt.  And sometimes you drive all day.  It's never really the same.  Maybe that's why we keep doing it.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Short Break From Fire

It's really, really green here, very different from last year. It's been raining off and on, and snow patches still linger in the high country. I've been back for a week now and I feel restless.  What to do? Get outside, of course!

On Friday, I drove to a local bridge and dragged my kayak down a steep trail to the river.  This is my favorite section of the river because I never see anyone on it, and there are only a few houses along it.

I had to maneuver around some kayak eating logs.

I like to go against the current on the way up and float back down.

Saturday was rainy but an impressive hailstorm made an appearance.

Sunday was a hiking day.
This lake is called Crater Lake (not the one in Oregon).

So many glacier lilies!
Otherwise, not much to report! I hope everyone is getting out and enjoying summer.

Monday, July 11, 2016


I was four hours away from where the memorial was being held for Brad, our co-worker who was killed by a bear.  I was managing a national helicopter which could be dispatched anywhere in the country at any time.  I knew going back would mean an eight hour round trip drive. But I knew I had to go back to pay my respects and support my friends.

I was honored to ride in the procession of vehicles that stretched for what seemed like miles, all with flashing lights.  People stood along the roadway, some holding American flags. Some construction workers stopped work, holding their hard hats in their hands and watching us pass by.

 We passed under a large flag supported by fire department truck ladders.

The memorial itself was a celebration of life.  Along with bagpipes, honor guards, and Amazing Grace, there were a lot of stories about Brad, some funny, some inspiring. 

Then there was the last call, read by a dispatcher:

"FS 44, Dispatch.
FS 44, Dispatch.
This is the last call for FS 44 Brad Treat.  End of watch June 29, 2016.
Gone but not forgotten.
Rest in peace my friend.
We have the watch from here."

This man was loved by many.  It's all we can really hope for as our legacy.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sometimes there is a bear

The person who tells me is crying. "He was my friend," he says.

I can't say the same, but I saw Brad almost every day I was at the station. He smiled when he said hello, and sometimes we talked, about things that you talk about with people you don't know that well: the weather, fires that were going on, nothing that really matters.  I don't have a part in this story, but I will put my arms around my friends and hear theirs.

I've stopped reading the comments on the news stories. When did we become such a society of victim blamers? "Stay out of the woods," one person wrote. "He should have had a gun," someone else typed (because guns solve everything, apparently). I doubt some of these people have ever been on a hiking trail, and probably none of them have ever been close to a grizzly bear and seen how fast it can move, how much power it carries.

"Sometimes your number is up," C. says.  I briefly argue, but give up. It probably makes him feel better to believe this, but I can't.  I can't handle the idea that we move in a predetermined lockstep, our lives and deaths already plotted and programmed  before we are even born.

Here's what I think the truth is.  I think you can do everything right, and one day get on your bike like you have many times before, expecting to come home and see the people you love and go to work the next day.  Maybe at that moment you are thinking how warm the sun is and how good it feels to be moving.  Maybe you feel glad to be alive on such a glorious afternoon. And then there is a bear, and the bear is just being a bear, not malicious or predatory, just a bear that is scared.  And then everything changes.

I think in almost everyone's life there is a bear at some point, something so big and unexpected that all your preparations don't mean anything. You're just out there living your life, and you come around a corner and there it is.  It's not fate or destiny.  It just is.

Rest in peace, Brad.  I wish I had known you better.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Travels with Gretchen

When you're managing a large helicopter, you do a lot of driving.  Not allowed to fly with it, you resign yourself to chasing it; a route that takes the helicopter three hours can take you ten or more. 

Normally we take a trainee along; not only can they do our paperwork for us (ha) but they can help drive and navigate.  On this trip I don't have one though, which isn't bad either.  Since I don't like to stop often when I drive, I can barrel along the road without having to accommodate someone else's food and pee schedule.  I don't have to make small talk or supervise anyone.  Of course, I also miss out on other people's Pandora channels, interesting stories and stealing their Sour Patch Kids.  So there's a tradeoff.

I do have a companion, though.  She's pretty quiet a lot of the time.  If I have 300 miles to drive on the same highway, she won't speak up until there's a turn ahead.  She can get pretty bossy if I decide to deviate from the route she picks.  She occasionally tries to send me on weird shortcuts.  Her voice is pretty robotic.  I've named her Gretchen the GPS.

When I first started driving cross country at about 19, we didn't have Gretchens. I had a well-worn atlas and a series of index cards on which I would write out my route.  Mishaps often occurred if I mixed up or dropped the cards, and I would have to pull over and consult the map.  I also stopped at gas stations and asked for directions (oh, the horror!).  Much later, I used my phone to navigate, but something always went wrong: the program would malfunction, the screen was too small, someone would call.  Still, I never thought about getting a vehicle GPS until, following yet another helicopter, I was surrounded by vehicles catapulting through LA County, a place as different from the small towns I usually visit as possible.  I immediately ordered one.

Now Gretchen tells me exactly where to turn (with some variations).  She doesn't understand detours and gets irritated if I don't follow her directions, but having her along makes the trip much more pleasant.  Most of the time we roll down the highway in silence, both thinking our own thoughts.  I don't know what hers are, maybe "I can't believe she just went that way! What is she DOING? Recalculating...." In any case, I'm happy to have her with me, and we'll keep heading down the road, following the fires.
We saw this. I took a picture. Gretchen didn't say anything.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Fire Season Check In

Last year at this time, we were chasing fire all over the landscape.  We already had visiting helicopters parked at our base, and an active fire just down the road. 

This year couldn't be more different.  The woods are lush and green, and there is still snow in the mountains.  Although the media is playing up a few large fires in the southwest, the truth is that the season is slow to start.  Because we still need to stay busy, we look for something, anything, to do.

A squad leader jumps on the riding mower as often as he can.  He listens to the news as he rides around, manicuring the area and adding as many bonus acres as possible.  J. asks for time off to go backpacking, claiming that he has finally gotten an elusive permit for a wilderness area.  M., tired of being short, decides to build a stool.  She looks up plans for one on Pinterest, and busily starts cutting wood.  Seeing her using all her personal protective equipment, I yell, "I see someone being safe in here!" and ambush her with a safety award, a 32 ounce hydroflask.

Some of the minions have escaped, taking freedom flights or drives to locations that are allegedly burning, or are about to.  One sits in Alaska with scooper aircraft, until it starts to rain there too.  J. is out with the hotshots on a stubborn fire in Arizona; in his first year with us, he may be already converted to their way of life and may need to be deprogrammed when he gets back.  K. is with a crew enduring 120 degree heat; we can't decide whether it is a good deal or not.

It's bound to pick up sooner or later (probably later) but for now, the hills are alive with the sound of weedeaters and hammering.  The rate of paperwork completion is at an all time high. It's pointless to speculate on the season: it depends on the summer rains and the lightning track.  In the meantime, we are here, ready to go.
The woods are green here.