Tuesday, October 23, 2012

snow and silence

The weather has taken a hard turn. Summer started late but lingered in the valleys for awhile, stirring up the late season fires. But the helicopter left yesterday, just ahead of a storm. The seasonals are done for the year. Some of them cleaned out their lockers like they don't intend to return, but in February it may be a different story.

There are three of us left. We make lists and handle the last tasks before winter. I haul the crash rescue equipment into the hangar, while B. works on some chainsaws.  We have vehicles to winterize and buildings to clean. We get caught up on paperwork, trying to remember what we did on each fire.
There were so many this summer.  Inevitably there is a problem with one employee's paperwork, and he won't get paid unless I take care of it. Left on hold, I multitask, compiling helicopter statistics for the season (673 passengers! 146,000 gallons of water!)

Soon the others will be gone too, and I will be the only one here. Unless I have a meeting in town at the main office, I will come here in the dark mornings and shovel the sidewalks. I might not talk to anyone all day.

I go for a run on the trails behind the office. In the summer, these old roads are hot and dusty and I hug the shade. Often I encounter another firefighter descending Hamburger Hill, or locals racing around the sand hills on dirt bikes. Now, the forest is taking over. Yellow leaves lie drowning in mud puddles as I splash past. A recent windstorm has toppled trees across some of the paths; I crawl over and under them. A bear has walked here recently; warily I follow its tracks.

It's time for a transition, time to let the season go and embrace the slow slide of autumn into winter. Paperwork instead of flying. Meetings and training instead of sizing up fires and wilderness packouts. Silence.

I pass the ineffective jersey barrier and start on the last half mile. It starts to snow, first lightly and then big flakes. Nobody else is out here.  I keep running through the cold forest, and it slowly turns to white. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

season's end

In the wilderness in mid-October we are on the edge of winter. New snow sifts through the rocks at 7000 feet. The fire lookouts sit lonely in the cold wind and clouds. Season-ending rain is expected the next morning. And yet we fly toward a fire that runs up a ridge, cutting off two people and their dog above it. A few days from now, we will wait for the call to assist in the search for two lost hikers in the park, missing on trails covered in knee-deep snow. Today though, we fly low over a burning forest.

The two men have made it to an open area. It is the only semi-flat spot for miles. They are lucky: we will be able to land there and pick them up. The helicopter settles into a meadow below. I get out and drag out the 60 pound bucket, my pack; anything else non-essential. A line of fire a hundred yards away chews steadily through the dry grass. The helicopter lifts; Brian and Shawn head back up to pick up the men. Back at the meadow, they spill out of the helicopter in relief. Not normally smokers, they ask Shawn for some of his tobacco. We watch the fire spiral through the trees.

It is the last fire of the season. Our small group stands, talking and laughing like people do who have experienced something important, something we will remember into the winter snow and darkness. It's a good way to end it.

Friday, October 5, 2012

zen and the art of type 1 helicopter management

I'm on the road with the type 1 helicopter. While this may sound exciting (Big helicopter! Travel to new and exciting places!), in reality there can be a downside (Big = noisy = relegated to an airport, lots of travel = lots of driving for the manager).  For someone who is used to jumping in an initial attack helicopter at a moment's notice, it can be a little disconcerting to go on an assignment where most of the time you, well, sit around. The first few days were difficult. I paced around. I bothered the mechanics. I started my paperwork early for something to do.

Then I realized I was going about it all wrong. Instead of fighting against it, I needed to embrace the madness. You can learn a lot in the helicopter manager class about administering contracts and filling out paperwork. But here, for any new managers headed out to the type 1 life, are a few other, essential things I've learned:

1. Get to your area and look around. What would make it better? Being men, the previous managers had not thought to order a porta potty. Noting the lack of cover and proximity to an active runway, I immediately procured one. A nice chair is also a must.

Note the lack of cover. Behind the hangars was a rodeo arena.

2. Make friends. The mechanics were sometimes bored (this is a good thing). They liked to talk. As a general rule, mechanics also love cookies. As a result of some chatting and cookie procurement, I would arrive at the airport to find my chair set up and my extension cord for my computer already in place. Thanks, guys!

The entourage

3. Kindle books. Buy some. I'm on day 9 of my assignment and I've read four already. Or, People or Toyota Owner magazines. No judgement here.

My mobile office. I also have a printer.

4. Beware the sport eating! This can lead to the dreaded "heli-butt", or worse! Bring your workout clothes. At times I roamed the neighborhoods around the airport, possibly scaring dogs and small children because of my all-black attire (One of the mechanics called me "Johnny Cash.") I also attempted to eat healthy foods to counteract the cookies I had to try to make sure they were fit for the mechanics to eat.

5. Two words: Flip flops. Essential for those long drives to catch up with the helicopter. Staring down the barrel of a 16 hour drive in a well-used Forest Service truck with only an AM/FM radio? Well, I am, and at least my FEET will be comfy.

6. Relax already! Slap on some sunscreen and a boonie hat and just hang out. It's been a long fire season. You deserve it!