Monday, July 30, 2012

the adventures of Norm the firefighting gnome

This year the helicopter showed up with a mascot. His name is Norm, and he is a firefighting gnome. He even carries a shovel. He is on loan, or kidnapped, from somewhere: the story isn't quite clear.

Norm on the tarmac, ready to go

Norm generally rides in the helicopter in the compartment where the pilot keeps some gear and the tie-downs. We try to keep an eye on him because sometimes he escapes to the fuel truck. "Where's Norm?" can be heard frequently among the crew. It is our mission to take pictures of Norm in as many places as possible this summer. He has yet to make it to an actual fire this summer, mostly because nobody really wants to carry him in their pack as he is made of metal. However, he has been to several helispots so far.

Norm at an airstrip. If you look closely, he is living dangerously, with a cigarette in hand.

Having Norm along makes things a little more fun, and we're not unique in feeling this way. A pilot I once worked with always had to have two matching stuffed animals sitting on the dashboard. One year he picked some plush vaguely insect-looking creatures, who when squeezed, yelled "Don't bug me!" The "Bug-Mes" rode along happily in the helicopter until the next year when they were replaced by some other toys. The tanker base in Billings has its own mascot, an electronic parrot that watches over the place and can copy what they say. The pilots and staff excitedly chipped in money to buy it.

Does this mean we are just kids at heart? I hope so. In the meantime, Norm lurks in the cargo compartment, ready for his next big adventure.

Monday, July 23, 2012

scenes from a fire camp

On Saturday night the crew spent the night on a 30 acre fire. We slept in a field under falling stars. Here is what it looked like:

Helitack, engines, and hotshots in perfect harmony

Early morning on the Dry Blood Fire

Saturday, July 21, 2012

all the world's a stage (sometimes)

Staging. The very word can strike fear and loathing into the hearts of most firefighters. Everyone has a bad staging story. In 1994, my 20 person hand crew sat for several days under a yellow tarp in the 100 degree heat in Fruita, Colorado, along with several other crews. Adding insult to injury, our hours were cut to 8 a day, giving the place the name "Straight Eight Staging." At first we whiled away our time by using the gym at the school where we were stationed, but were soon exiled, due to someone from another crew stealing some weights and ruining it for everyone. Every so often an official looking person would wander through the maze of tarps with a clipboard, and we would see crews, suddenly energized, tearing down their tent and heading out for an assignment. After seeing some contract crews leaving before us, we suspected we had become lost in the shuffle, and began assigning each crewmember to sit under the tarp for an hour a day, looking hopeful and hardworking, in case the clipboard-toting man came by. Any crewmembers who were absent when we made the assignments drew the hottest part of the day to be "Tent Mom."

Eventually we escaped Straight Eight Staging for a rehab assignment, which we embraced wholeheartedly, happy to be out of there. Through the years I have visited many other staging areas. They are an unfortunate necessity of firefighter life: a central place to gather resources from which they can be quickly dispersed as needed. Sometimes this never happens though, and you and your crew become residents, lurking around a field, school, or dispatch lawn like a strange group of homeless people who dress in nomex pants and fire boots.

"You guys are going to be really busy here!" the Forest Aviation Officer says. We look at the lightning map. Seven thousand strikes! We excitedly board the helicopter and embark on a three hour recon. At first we look diligently for smokes. After awhile though, seeing nothing but green vegetation, the trainee helicopter manager starts looking at places where he could take his snowmachine, and I look at frozen lakes and hiking trails and ask the pilot to drop me off. We drift through sunshine and rain, a red helicopter among twelve- thousand foot peaks.

Days pass. We go on a couple of wild fire chases, finding a culprit coal mine throwing up dust but no fires. It is 100 degrees. The crew finds innovative places to hunker and read Kindle books. A Canadian pilot is obsessed with Bigfoot, which we find mildly amusing. "There's sightings all over, eh," he exclaims. We go to a Halestorm concert. I run on a ridgetop trail in the mornings and one of my crewmembers finds some rocks to boulder on. Like territorial dogs, we growl when another helicopter shows up. "Why are they here," we mutter.

It's the staging life. But there are no complaints. It's raining at home. There will be plenty of time to sit at our helibase waiting for a fire call. Until then, we wait for the smoke to rise and an order to come through. We'll be ready.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

walking the line

Five am. Time to get up. After 10 days on this fire, I have a routine. I survey fire camp. It's smoky today, meaning that there will be an inversion over the fire for awhile this morning. I go to briefing, and hang around the division breakouts, but I'm not really assigned anywhere. I corral my supervisor, the Situation Unit Leader. He waves vaguely at the map. "We don't have this line GPSed yet," he says, indicating a large swath that covers two divisions. To the uninitiated, this might look like a trail I could skip happily along, but from being out here I can tell it will be two days of hard hiking, contouring around rock cliffs and slogging through a black forest.

I look at my gear. GPS, check. Map. Plenty of water; while I may pass through helispots, there's no guarantee there will be cubitainers there. The boring, inadequate lunch. A pulaski, although I have yet to use it on this fire. I drive as far as I can toward the fire, stopping where some crew buggies have parked. There is no one around. I scout for the line, marking some dozer line on my GPS that hasn't been mapped. Then I start walking.

My job on this fire, Field Observer, is the best assignment out there. On my first fire, on one of our endless trips into the already burned forest to mop up yet again, we encountered a field observer perched on a rocky outcrop. He was watching fire sweep through a tree-filled basin. He wasn't part of a crew, constantly within hearing distance of 19 other people at all times. He wasn't digging in the dirt. He got to go where the fire front was, and sketch a map of its progress. Someday, I thought, hurrying to catch up with my crew.

Now, I walk the line, alone. There are places where the fireline ties into rocks, and I climb up and around them. Occasionally I run into crews, who seem surprised to see me. Usually the only people who wander the fire alone are crew bosses scouting out ahead of their sawyers, or division supervisors. "FOBS," I say in greeting. I imagine they look a little bit envious. I stop for awhile on top of a 9300' peak and chat with a couple of lookouts. We take weather together and compare notes: yes, the humidity really is down to 3%.

One day my friend Brenda, who is here as a fire behavior analyst, and I hike together. I haven't seen her in 12 years. We walk for hours, pausing to have lunch at a high subalpine helispot. We take a shortcut that doesn't turn out to be one. We get caught up.

On my last day as a FOBS I am assigned to GPS burned and cut fences. Really, there isn't much work left and I know enough to take my time. I listen to music as I walk. It is 95 degrees. I think I hear a rattlesnake, but as I look around I find a small elk antler lying in a group of aspen. I strap it to my pack and walk on.

Later, I will join a 20 person crew, some of whom are my friends. We will save some cabins. We will drive home together and talk and laugh. That will be good too. For now, I have solitude and the sound of my own breathing. I keep going, walking the line.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

fighting fire with fire

Shawn and I drive the ranch road. We pass the engine crews trying unsuccessfully to look busy, and our crew setting up sprinkler systems around cabins. We are deep in Wyoming, on a fire that is marching steadily through the mountains, eating through lodgepole pine, aspen, and sage. We park at the cabin that burned the day before, burned to the ground with a wild ferocity while we watched, unable to save it. The bunkhouse and shop still stand though, surrounded by black, and we feel good about that.

Today we want to get to the two cabins farther up the road, ones we couldn't reach the day before because the fire crossed the road in front of us and ran down the canyon. We are sure they are gone, but we have to see for ourselves. We don't have much time. The fire still lurks in the draw; we can see it, turning green trees into candles of flame. A tree has fallen across the road. We decide to walk the quarter mile fast, enough to see the heartbreaking burned foundations and crumbled chimneys.

We set off at a fast pace, traveling light. A sign, unburned, hangs in a tree: "The Elliotts, 1939." I wonder who they are, and what caused them to build their cabins out here in a pine forest. We turn a corner and there they are, two cabins nestled next to the creek, someone's dream, still intact and perfect.

"The fire's here," Shawn says, and it is. The older cabin, closer to the creek, will survive; the fire has already burned up to it and stopped, running out of fuel. The main fire is ten feet away from the other cabin and reaching for the bark-covered log walls. A thick carpet of pine needles surrounds it. We have about five minutes, only one chance to do something to save it.

Shawn bends and lights the forest floor with a bic lighter. I take a handful of pine needles and light them from the flames, and drag it down one side of the cabin. Together we create a ring of fire around the cabin. It grows and moves greedily through the needle cast, and I scuff a quick line for a fuel break. If this works, our burnout will chew through the needles and small trees next to the cabin and stop the main fire.

A helicopter flies over and we try to snag it for a bucket drop, but it has been promised to another crew in a different division, and it flies away. The fire we made climbs up into the trees and runs through the crowns, away from the cabins, just like we wanted. We look at each other. It worked, our quick, last chance plan. We walk back down the road and call an engine on the radio to come in and cool down the hot spots.

The Elliotts, whoever they are, will probably never know what happened here. They will return to their cabin sometime, maybe this summer, and see the blackened trees and burnt forest that leads up to their front door. They will see that their footbridge and the lean-to that held their solar shower didn't make it, but that their two cabins still sleep uncharred next to the creek. Maybe they will say how lucky they are, that for some reason the fire burned right up to their homestead and then stopped inexplicably. But it doesn't matter that they won't know that we saved their cabin with a lighter and a handful of pine needles, with minutes to spare. We know. We will always remember.