Saturday, August 25, 2012

looking for a place to land

"I think I can land there," Brian says. He is looking at an old road a few hundred yards below the fire. It looks unused, brushed in, but there might be just enough space in between the trees for us to drop the rotors into. I watch the left side: there is a little tree too close, but there is room to scoot the helicopter a little to the right and uphill. I scan for rocks and logs where the left skid will come to rest. Everything looks good, so A. and I unroll the 100 foot longline and attach the bucket while B. takes off the two right doors. As the helicopter rattles away to start dropping water on the fire, B. and A. gather their gear: line packs, tools, chainsaw, gas and oil. They hike away uphill, leaving me in the helispot.

It's impossible to count the times I have done this in a helicopter: scanning the ground, looking for somewhere to land. Usually, implausibly, the forest opens up just enough to slide the helicopter into. Old roads, small meadows, gravel pits; once even straddling the railroad tracks. We perch on pinnacles and rest on gravel bars in rivers. There's almost always a way. We don't trust the recon planes' assessments; they mean well but it's hard to locate a good helispot when you are flying that fast and that high. "There's no LZs," they will report, but we find them. Or they say, "There's a helispot right next to the fire," but when we get there it's too slopey, too marshy, or the brush is too tall.

Some helispots provide a sense of adventure. There was the one that was so close to a cliff that I had to employ some rock climbing moves to get from one side of the helicopter to another. In one place in  the wilderness, the passengers had to take off their boots and wade to the lakeshore from the gravel bar we used as a landing area. A family of bears was enjoying the only open area near a fire as some of my crewmembers peered down from the helicopter, preparing to rappel. In Alaska, we would get out in what looked like a pleasant green meadow, only to sink in a bog up to our knees.

At the fire, I wait at the helispot. The pilot returns with a bucket problem which I quickly fix. Two engines barrel through on the supposedly unusable road. The shadows lengthen and the pilot needs fuel. We gather up the gear and fly away. They will be able to get a hoselay up to the fire from the engines, so we won't be needed here tomorrow. We lift off, and I look back one last time. Someday we may fly over, on our way to another fire, and say "I think we landed there once," but we won't really be that curious about it. The grass that was flattened by the skids is already springing back up. The forest is reclaiming it, just another small opening in the woods, found and then lost again. We are gone, as suddenly as we arrived.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

notes from summer camp

There are a lot of places that firefighters don't mind leaving. Helibases that turn into windy dust bowls. Miserable fire camps overrun by the "camp crud". Sections of firelines covered with poison ivy. Mosquito-ridden helispots. But every so often, you encounter a seemingly magical place. This is a spot where people are friendly and the pace is slower. Cabins are scattered throughout the forest. There are hiking trails. There is no cell service. There might even be a cook there.

The only way to get to this one is by flying or hiking. I wish I could work there.

I recently spend four days at such a place. I was there ostensibly to be the incident commander on a fire; however, my fire, deep in the wilderness, was happily going about the business of putting itself out with no human intervention. So, between helicopter flights every couple of days and the occasional conference call and minor flurries of paperwork, I had time to enjoy the place. I took a loaner dog for walks down to the river. I helped make breakfast for the crew that unloaded a hay delivery. I rode my bike and ran at dusk from my campsite above the river. I took time to notice the silence.

I saw a big elk crossing this river.

There is a similar place in Alaska, a fly-in station that firefighters talk about wistfully. It took leaving Alaska for me to get an assignment there. The helibase was busy with helicopters coming and going, yet in the morning there was time to run 5 miles to the dump and back. In the evening, everyone gathered in the mess hall where there were actual cooks and wireless internet. Later, a few of us adjourned to the sauna the smokejumpers had built. We walked to town and poked around in strange stores. We watched the river go by.

The sauna

To the people who live and work in these remote stations, it's probably just another place to stay. Maybe they wish they were closer to a town, that they actually had time to go somewhere else on their days off. But for those of us who are just visiting, these places make up for the rattlesnake-infested fire camps and the nights in tent farms. I'm already plotting ways to get back.

Monday, August 13, 2012

things we lose when we aren't looking

When you're a firefighter, as with any job that keeps you on the move and on the road, there are things you lose. Usually this happens when you aren't paying attention, gradually piece by piece until one day you wake up and realize that something precious is gone or has changed so much you don't recognize it. Things like relationships, if they aren't strong enough. Plans you once had, to travel, have kids, to climb Mt. Everest one day. Your young, resilient body: just ask someone who's been a hotshot or smokejumper for years. Something always hurts. They learn to live with it.

When I look back across the years I've fought fire, I see a trail of lost friends. It's mostly my doing; my incessant, restless urge to move on after a few years. If they are also firefighters, eventually we run across each other in a fire camp or on the line somewhere. We reminisce a little before walking on. Remember when we had to run through the fire, and the helicopter came just in time, we say, or, Whatever happened to G? She was so funny. But the ones who didn't fight fire, or who quit after a few seasons, were harder to hold on to. They went back to school, got real jobs, got married. Their lives seemed so different after awhile.

I haven't seen my friends J, D and M since May. It's now August and it's been a busy summer of fire and flight. It would have been easy to just go home; after all, I have to leave early for another fire in the morning. But they had been there for me during a difficult winter. So I put on a dress and drive over. My sweet friends give me cookies and wine and tell me stories about their summer adventures. "I'm happy now," I say. And I am. I've let too many things go, but not this: sitting with good friends in the soft summer twilight, laughing and talking. This, I need to keep.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

dirty august

George was 60, and he had been around for awhile, since the days when you got hired on a helitack crew because you didn't weigh much and wouldn't overload the helicopter. Around this time of year he would look around and and tell people to watch out. It was Dirty August.

Dirty August happens when you've been working long hours on fires and there's no end in sight. It's when tempers flare and people's feelings get hurt easily. It's when the whining begins, when people start to want days off, when the true fire season in the northwest usually begins.

My crew still rolls in to work early looking somewhat eager. They realize that the lack of sleep and rushing around combined with long periods of inactivity while waiting for smoke to appear will translate into money that will help carry them through the winter. "We only have seven paychecks left," one says, flipping through her Smokey Bear calendar.

Around the forest, though, some people are starting to falter. Gossiping is rampant. Mysterious new policies appear, yet cannot be substantiated in writing or even quoted. Firefighters' decisions are questioned by those who haven't set foot on the incident. It's Dirty August at its finest.

And yet. There is new snow on some of the mountaintops as we fly down the reservoir. People are starting to get ready to go back to school. Burn periods are starting to shorten.

Dirty August can't last forever. And when it's over, we'll look back and remember the fires and the flights we took over the wilderness, not the backstabbing and attacks of the crazies that occurred. Summer is slipping away faster than we can imagine. It's time to savor its sweetness before it's too late.

The reservoir through the helicopter window