Monday, August 31, 2015

A day in the life

We've been busy here for so long that I can barely remember what it used to be like before all this started about two months ago.  Every day brings new fires.  The minions stare blankly into space, perhaps dreaming of ski season.  There is nothing in my refrigerator except an ancient bottle of apple cider vinegar and some beer that has resided there for months.  I realize one employee is coming back from a 2 week assignment and it feels like he just left. 

This is what life is like lately:

5 am.  Wake up.  Think, a few more minutes.  Wake up again and see it is 6:15.  Oops! Leap up and run through the morning routine; I have it down to less than 10 minutes.  Drive 30 minutes to work.

7 am.  Greet the minions, and watch wistfully as they head off to exercise.  It's been awhile since I've had time to do more than ride my bike in circles around the helibase.  Get on a daily conference call.  Try to explain how helicopter flight hours are calculated in a 6 day period. Give up, and just say they have plenty of hours to fly.

8 am.  Greet the pilots and mechanics as they filter in and begin preflight.  Say hi to the visiting helitack crew, who might as well work here since they've been here so long.  Do a bunch of paperwork I was too tired to do the night before.

8:30 am. Helibase briefing.  Read the weather and take bets on whether what is predicted will really happen.  Don't read the daily situation report; nobody cares about fires in other places because we are here, and will be here till it snows.  Brief the pilots on their missions for the day, if there are any.  If there aren't any, there will be soon.

9 am-9:30 pm.  Wait for fires. If on the helicopter, scribble down the coordinates, grab the iPad with maps on it, corral the minions, and jump in. Navigate to the fire and size it up; unload the minions and their gear.  Either briefly envy them for a good deal fire with a beautiful view, or look in terror at the brushy, steep hike they are facing and feel secretly glad that I put in years and years of this and don't have to necessarily do it anymore. Wrestle the heavy bucket out of the helicopter and attach it so they can have water. Hope they don't need cargo.  They need cargo, so round it all up, attach the hook, and send it in to them.  Grab more minions and head to the next fire.

If running the helibase, answer the phone to find an aviation dispatcher spouting coordinates to a fire.  Assign a helicopter, and walk out to tell them, acquiring a little bit of exercise.  Assign more helicopters to other fires, and hope that they will need to send their chase and fuel trucks, so everyone will be gone and I can get some regular work stuff done.  Think longingly about a nap. Eat candy and feel bad about self.  Hear a helicopter approaching and sprint to the pad to be a parking tender.  Wait for sunset when everyone will return.

Go home, think about doing laundry and don't.  Look at the TV which I haven't turned on for over two weeks. Read a few pages of a book and fall asleep.  Wake up and do it all over again.

There's an end in sight (sort of).  The days are getting shorter and the nights are getting colder. Some of the fires will burn till it snows, but that's not a long way off, at least in the high country.  This fire season is bound to end soon. Then it will be one we talk about for years, after we've had some sleep and all the reports are done and statistics compiled.  Winter always comes; the bears in the high country know it.  So do we.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

In search of helispot heaven

"We'll just find a place to land on the river," Jeff the pilot says.  He likes to drop us off in scenic spots while he is out dropping water on fires, so at least we have something to look at while he is gone.

"Will this work for you?" he asks, hovering over a gravel beach.  The other helitack crew, visitors from Wyoming, are already there, so we will have people to talk to.  As soon as the skids are on the ground, we leap into action, attaching the bucket, taking off doors, and unloading our gear. The helicopter takes off, and we look around.

We are at the junction of several trails.  A patrol cabin sits just down river.  A deep swimming hole is perfect for skipping stones. We have no other tasks other than to communicate with the pilots by radio and wait for them to return.  This place, we decide, ranks right up there on the good helispot list.

Good helispots often become legendary. We land in a lot of gravel pits and pastures, so we remember the places that have some shade, maybe no mosquitoes, and a lack of suspicious, sometimes scary locals wandering by.  High, lonely alpine ridges are always good, as are lakes and fire lookouts. One time we landed right on the railroad, our skids straddling the tracks; another day we touched down in someone's garlic field and everything smelled like Italian food for the rest of the day.

We usually never go back; these spots are mostly used for a day at the most, a place to hook up the bucket and drop off a couple firefighters who will then hike out.  Some of them remain as waypoints in my GPS, a glimpse out of the corner of my eye as we fly by in search of another fire. They wait out there in the mountains and in the forest like half-forgotten memories.  Maybe one day we will land there and once again eat huckleberries and watch the sun on the water and it will be familiar, like seeing an old friend.  One day we might be back.

Monday, August 17, 2015


I haven't seen a fire season like this in years. The woods are scary dry. We are flying from fire to fire, doing what we can. Many fires remain unstaffed. I'll write more when I can.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Million Dollar Flight

We wind our way through the park in the helicopter, looking for smoke.  We fly up and down Bowman and Quartz drainages and the jewel that is Upper Kintla.  We see a bear ; the pilot allegedly sees a wolverine.  Hikers at Numa Lookout take our picture.  Glaciers and hidden, remote lakes appear below us.

"This is a million dollar flight," the pilot says.  Not that a helicopter flight of that length would cost that much; a typical tour that long would run about $200 per person.  But the air tours aren't allowed back here, and they never fly this low.  This flight could not be done, at least not legally.

We are lucky and we know it, as we drift through mountains and canyons.  Moments like this make up for long days on the fireline and missed holidays and events.  Almost nobody gets to see this like we do.  We are amazed, and rich in a way that can't be counted in money.