Friday, September 28, 2012

playing with fire

We are flying low and slow, just over the treetops. My door is off and I lean out of the helicopter, looking for the trail where I am supposed to start lighting. The main fire chews its way down the slope; we are here to cut it off at a road and slow its progress.

I feed the machine, filling it with spheres containing potassium permanganate, and watch them roll into the gates where they will be injected with glycol and then spit out through a chute. I see them dropping almost lazily, spiralling through the trees. Once on the ground they turn into orange blossoms of fire. The forest is dry, the kind of dry where you walk through it and everything crackles under your feet. Our little fires are hungry and they grow together, running up the hill and climbing into the trees.

 Johnny Cash sings "Ring of Fire" on the pilot's iPod. The firing boss next to him smiles back at me; we like these moments when the fire churns through the forest like an angry living thing.  We light each line, then back off to watch it catch. It only takes seconds. We fly so close that the heat from the fire feels like a sunburn.

Our control of fire is always tenuous. It only takes one spark, lifted by an errant gust of wind, to undo days of work. But now the burn is going just like we wanted it to, and we watch the smoke climb into the sky. A sphere jams the machine and causes a fire in it. "I have a fire," I say, activating the emergency water, but we are done anyway. We drop down to the helibase, and put our feet back on the ground.

Our fire

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

second home

We have been coming to this helibase for over a month, and we know it well. Getting in the helicopter every morning, I know it will be a 30 minute flight, and unless it's too smoky, we will pass over Jewel Basin and Swan Lake on the way. We know the components of every sandwich at Woody's, where our drivers will stop and pick up food, and no longer need to debate: tuna vs. turkey? The odd but appealing pizza sandwich? Heather and I reminisce about one perfect tuna sandwich, once received but never again recreated. We know where the best shade will be at 3 pm, and where the most stinkbugs seem to gather. It's become a routine.

Sometimes we are busy, hooking up the bucket or loading people on the helicopter. Two crewmembers set out on a mission to establish a heliwell. One sits at the radio table, scanning several frequencies and talking to the aircraft. Other helicopters come and go. But this is mostly a helicopter bucket fire, and there are long stretches of inactivity.

We find ways to fill the days. MB, a student part of the week, does her homework. The rest of us are mildly interested in this. Joe takes her table of elements and tries to figure them out. "Sodium," he is heard muttering. "Potassium, helium." People read books of various genres; when we run out we go see the fuel truck driver, who always has reading material, if you don't mind detective novels and war books. We scrutinize each other's food, which ranges from cheesy puffs to hummus, and try to figure out how old the type II pilot's girlfriend is. A bike and money change hands. We lament the lack of a cell tower. Nobody takes on the pickled quail egg eating challenge. If a mission appears, we swarm the helicopter, taking off doors and rolling out the longline. And the hours pass.

Around sunset, we get back in the helicopter for the return flight. Our drivers leave; it will be nearly two hours before we see them again. We are silent except for the pilot's music as we float across the mountains. We will be back tomorrow to retrace these imaginary lines in the sky. The fire, and our helibase, will still be there, waiting for the next day and the next after that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

late season

We circle a fire in the wilderness. It's getting to be late season. A single larch glows golden in a sea of green lodgepole pines. The fire is trying, though: it chews its way steadily down towards a creek, about two acres strong.

I open the helicopter doors and get out on a seven thousand foot peak. I wonder briefly about the fire lookout that once stood here and the lonely life of the people who staffed it. I drag out food boxes and water for the two people who will stay here for a few days and watch the fire. They will report on its proximity to the closest trail, and whether the area needs to be closed to hikers and hunters.

I feel jealous of their assignment, despite the predicted night time temperatures in the 20s and the 18 mile hike out. If I were stationed here, I would wander the ridge and look for traces of the former lookout building. I would hike down to Christopher Lake, glinting invitingly turquoise below. And I would watch the fire, moving around through the forest like it was meant to do, without our interference.

But this isn't my job today, and I close up the cargo compartments and get back in the helicopter for the flight home. In a few days the observers will hike out. The fire will burn for awhile, until a few hard frosts or fall rains put it out. It will become yet another fire scar like so many in this wilderness. We probably won't be back here. Before we go, I mark the peak in my GPS just to say I was here once, that I saw it, before this fire fades into memory like all the rest.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

packing out

I am following C. along a river. We are loaded down with gear. A sleeping bag and hard hat hang off her pack and swing with every step. We carry fire tools, switching them every so often from one hand to the other. The trail unfolds in front of us, mile after mile, seemingly endless.

We left late yesterday, leaving the scorched whitebark pines of our fire at eight thousand feet and dropping off the lonely, trailless ridge through beargrass and scree to an unnamed lake. There we found a trail that wasn't on the map, winding its way along the creek. "Hey, bear," we called out at likely spots, but we didn't see any, just trees and rocks and water and the trail. We passed an outfitter camp, the hunters eyeing us curiously, shadows already pooling in the canyon. At dark we stopped at an old cabin crouched next to Burnt Creek and slept on the porch. The moon, and a little mouse jumping on my head, kept me awake most of the night staring at the sky.

We woke up in the crisp darkness and now the trail stretches before us, silent and knowing. This trail, this forest, this river, they will be here long after the ache in our backs and feet fade away and our footprints melt into the dirt. We are just passing through on our way to the rest of our lives.

C. carefully crosses the creeks on rocks; I give up and splash through. We run into a trail crew rebuilding a bridge: they have just dropped a chainsaw in the river and are staring fixedly at the beams that remain. We inch across on one of the logs. Only a mile and a half to go. It seems to take forever. Finally we see the holy grail of the trailhead sign and collapse in the grass. Some bicyclists pedal by from the campground and look faintly alarmed at the sight of us. C. reads her kindle, having carried it 16 miles. Our ride out will be here soon. We are in the last days of August. Autumn is waiting, just around the next bend in the trail.

View from our fire