Thursday, September 25, 2014

the mystery of the itchy left elbows

Back at work from California, I absently scratched my left elbow.  "I think I got poison oak when I was out there," I said.  "But just on my elbow."

My assistant looked at me incredulously.  "ME TOO!" he yelled, displaying a rash in the same spot.  I had taken over the California assignment from him.  We approached the employee who had been managing the helicopter before both of us and asked the question.

"Yes, but I just thought I had dry skin," he said, distracted by the prescribed burn we were supporting.

We looked at each other.  It had to be something on the armrest of the vehicle that we had all driven.  We eyed K., our usual carrier monkey, but this time he was blameless; he hadn't been anywhere near the car.

I sent a voice message over the Voxer app to the person who currently had the car.  "Do you have an itchy left elbow?" I asked.

"What? NO!" he answered, sounding apprehensive.

"Well, it's probably in the mail," I said.  "You might want to clean off the armrest."

We are at a loss.  Was it poison oak, and if so, how did it get in the car, and only on the armrest?  Managing the helicopter, you typically do not encounter poisonous plants like you do on the fireline. Here is where our CSI skills fail us.  What else could it be?

Any ideas?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

going farther

You can always turn around, I told myself as I charged up the trail.  There was nobody around.  It had rained earlier that morning, and clouds hung damply over the mountains.  A cold wind swept through the trees.  The leaves were red and gold.  I don't like to turn around.

You started too late, I thought.  A thirteen mile hike was probably too long to undertake starting at noon.  What if I had to hike back as it was getting dark?  I imagined bears lurking around every corner as the sun set.
There's no trail to this lake, but you could scramble to it.
  I decided to hike to the first lake and then decide.  Birch Lake was deserted today.  I'd go a little farther.
Birch Lake, about 3 miles in
The trail narrowed and got rockier.  The air felt like winter.  I should probably go back, I thought.  But I kept going, and there it was:  a blue jewel set among granite peaks.
Crater Lake
I took some pictures and headed back, seeing no other hikers, only a few mountain goats clinging to cliffs across the valley.  Back at the trailhead, I was surprised to find that I had completed the 13 miles in four hours.

Sometimes it's good to keep going.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

prayers for California

The Courtney Fire, Oakhurst, 40 homes burned, 9/14/14

photo courtesy of the Madera County Sheriff

The Boles Fire, Weed, 100 structures burned, 9/15/14

photo by Greg Barnette/Record Searchlight

The Dog Bar Fire, Alta Sierra,  5 structures lost, 9/13/14

photo from the
The state is hot, dry, and ready to burn.  While there's snow in the mountains of Montana and it's autumn many places, it's not over here yet.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


We are on the edge of Yosemite National Park, fighting a fire near Half Dome.  The lucky pilots get to see the Yosemite valley every time they launch with water bucket in tow.  Since they are not allowed to carry passengers, i.e. me, this is what I see:

This is okay though.  It is cool in the mornings, and there are 6 other helicopters coming and going.  Currently I am gazing at a hill with the name of the nearby town on it, spelled out in white rocks, trying to figure out the best way to get up there.  Tarantulas come out at night, to our horrified fascination. The town is cute and looks to have some running possibilities.

One of the best parts of this job is the places we get to go, places where people save up for months to visit. I've spent nights on wilderness fires in Yellowstone and Glacier, hiking past hidden hot springs and hearing wolves howl across a quiet lake. I've seen backcountry Anasazi ruins in the southwest and muskox on the north slope of Alaska.  I've landed on the shores of alpine lakes that would ordinarily take climbing equipment to visit.  Even the most desolate, windswept places have given me good stories.

The pilots will fly several hours today, and tie down the aircraft in the darkness.  We will look for spiders and watch the Supermoon rise.  Tomorrow we will be here again, or we won't.  Either way, if we see each other again, we will talk about it, remembering some things and forgetting others.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

against the wind

My assistant has a slightly glazed look in his eyes as I hand him the rental car keys and prepare to take over managing the Type 1 helicopter for two weeks. "I'm ready to get out of here!" he says, before fleeing to the airport and his freedom flight home.

We are a few short miles from LA, but this is not the land of movie stars and palm trees.  This is real desert, the kind that would kill you pretty fast if you wandered out in it without water or a backup plan.  It is hot, and we don't fly, because despite the conditions, there are no fires.  People drive aggressively on the freeway.  There is an air conditioned pilot lounge, but we sit outside in small patches of shade, not wanting to impose.  But even all that isn't so bad.

It's the wind that gets to us.  It is unrelenting.  You might have an hour or so in the morning before it starts, but then it rolls out of the hills with a vengeance. It's like being blasted with a giant, 20 mile an hour blow dryer.

I've read stories, possibly apocryphal, about how the wind on the prairies drove pioneers insane. I can kind of see it.

The helicopter next to us has been here all summer.  One of the mechanics confesses that near the end of his tour, he starts getting mad at people and wanting to throw things.  He blames the wind.

It makes us exhausted.  We collapse at night as if we have worked a 16 hour shift.  When I drag myself to the hotel exercise room in the morning, I still feel tired.

Still, it could be worse, and we know it.  We are lucky to be out, in this slow fire season.  The crew and I amuse ourselves by naming worse places we could be.  We perk up at the sight of a bunny, and wander among old aircraft that flew in here and will never leave.  It's as good as any, really, in a job where you deal with rain, snow, smoke, and of course fire.

The wind is increasing as I write this.  It blows across the desert like it has for thousands of years.  To it, we are just an obstacle in its path, soon gone as if we were never here.
Old planes in the desert