Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Oh hello, Optimistic Wednesday

After spending all summer together, fire crews tend to get, well, kind of moody.  After all, we spend more time with these people during the season than with our real friends and families.  Add in a dose of sleepiness, sprinkle with someone's cold germs and stir, and you get a grumpy crew.

Before my assistant fled to a detail on one of the districts, he sensed these times looming.  After hearing some negativity, he declared that from now on Monday would be called "Positive Monday."  On Positive Monday, everyone had to share something good about the previous week (this also spawned The Word of the Day and The Russian Word of the Day).

Positive Monday caught on, and after he left, other days of the week were named as well.  There was Friendly Tuesday, and because we had so many visiting crews at our base, Hospitable Thursday.  Fantastic Friday and Super Saturday soon followed.  The uplifting theme wasn't always adhered to though: a Grumpy Sunday occurred, as well as a Blame It All On Jason Day.

However, having these names did cause people to stop and think before venting sometimes.  J,. who sometimes had the reputation of being negative, would stop people in their tracks when he heard some whining. "Remember, it's Positive Monday," he would lecture.  Disarmed by his unlikely positivity, the would-be complainer would usually start laughing and abandon their cause.

There were a few grumbles and hurt feelers this season, but no real meltdowns, and so far we still sort of like each other.  It's a good thing, because our helicopter is staying on later than expected, and there are still fires burning in the wilderness.  Smoke blew in this morning from somewhere to the west.  But being that it's Optimistic Wednesday, all I can say is, bring it on, fires, we are ready for you.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

the neverending fire season

I gaze at a new fire on Cedar Peak.  It looks angry, chomping at trees and brush on the hillside.  We can see trees torching from miles away.

The other, older fires are stirring too, not in a dangerous way, but as if they are saying, Look. I'm still here.

We land at an airstrip to find this helicopter sitting there, on standby for the Cedar Peak fire.

Fall is here, but fire season hasn't gotten the memo. 

We'll keep going.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sleep, a love story

Throughout the summer I have cravings.  Not for food or anything else you might expect, but for sleep.  I think about sleep, about closing my eyes and drifting off.  When I'm not working, I curl up like a cat and fall asleep in odd places.

This feels like a weakness, because it seems in our society we aren't supposed to sleep, at least not much.  A lot of people pride themselves on how early they get up and how busy they are.  My firefighter friends and I used to be like this, years ago.  We ground through thousand-hour overtime seasons with a smoky cough and nails that seemed permanently black from sifting through ashes looking for embers.  We said flippant things like "I can sleep when I'm dead."  We learned to catnap anywhere, on rocks, buses, and planes.

I don't like to admit that anything needs to change when you get older.  I don't think, barring injury or medical problems, that you have to slow down, change your ways, or sit on the couch all the time.  But I definitely have a new appreciation for sleep.  On my day off, I think about all the things I *should* do: go hiking, go to the gym, clean the house, pull weeds.  I do some of them, but first, I sleep.  I do some more things and I sleep some more.  And I don't feel bad about it, not really.  It's been a crazy, busy summer.  Even the bears are getting ready to rest. 

 Smoke still rises out of the forest.  It's not quite over here yet, but the real danger has passed.  There will be time for sleep soon.

I look like Sleeping Beauty when I sleep. Not.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


When we fly, we are supposed to be looking for that tricky plume of smoke hidden in the trees, one that perhaps a lookout has reported but can't see again, or maybe where a lightning strike was recorded but the fire is still being born.  And we do this, look closely at the forest to find out its secrets, scan the hillsides and valleys for something that looks different and out of place.

But sometimes my eyes wander.  In the places we fly, it's hard not to do this.  We fly past glaciers and rock spires, mountain goats and grizzly bears.  On days when we are chasing the wisps of fog we call waterdogs, or taking a trail crew in for rehab perhaps, I start tracing the lines of mountains.  I make maps in my mind of places I want to go on foot.

Lakes shimmer in cirques far below; I search the woods for a possible trail.  When I see a lonely path carved into a hillside, I wonder where it goes.  I gaze at fire lookouts as we pass.  I stare at my GPS.  What's that lake, how far is that trail, could I climb that peak?  There are so many possibilities.
Lookout from the air
Sometimes the people I fly with are hunters or backcountry skiers.  "I'm sure there's elk down there," they say, or "I bet that basin would be fun to ski in the winter."  Other people don't quite get it: "Well, we landed up here, so now I don't have to hike it," they say.  To each their own.  I'll continue my scouting.  Someday I'll get there.
I saw this lake from the helicopter when there was a fire there. Finally made it there this spring.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Cleaning up

Usually after fires sputter out and die, there is rehab to do.  Ah, the dreaded rehab: slogging through burned forests to stabilize steep slopes, unwrapping cabins, pulling hose and bundling it up in cargo nets for the flights out.  It's necessary, but not that fun.

But sometimes....
It was an achingly beautiful Indian summer day as we flew into the park to retrieve some temporary radio repeaters.  The brush on the hillsides was turning red and gold.  New snow dusted the peaks.  it was one of those days that makes you keep living in the mountains despite the harsh winters.

We searched the site where one of the repeaters was supposed to be.  The area our coordinates took us to was empty, a pass I once hiked many years ago on the longest day hike I've ever taken, 34 miles.  Today our travel was effortless as we circled the peaks, looking for antennas. Finally I spotted it, partially buried by snow from recent storms.

A large bear had walked here recently.  There were no berries up here; I wondered what it was looking for in this lonely place.
I'd like to think it stopped and admired the view.
It was hard to leave, but we had another site to visit.
The lookout popped out of the cabin as we landed, carrying a heavy pack.  He had three days off, and was hiking the seven miles downhill and fording the river to get to civilization.  "This is the best of all the lookouts," he said; he had only 20 people visit him all summer.

We flew back to the base, our mission complete, our cleanup done.  It's likely we won't land in the mountains until next summer.  The snow on the pass the bear and I walked in won't completely melt until then.  More will fall and cover out tracks, hiding any traces of our presence.  The smoke still rising from the big fires  will finally stop.  The lookout will be boarded up until next year.  The land will start its own cleanup from the fires, bigger in scale and more important than anything we could ever do. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Season ending event

Two of my employees are hiking out of a fire in the wilderness. It is a 21 mile walk.  On the radio I hear them say something about a snowstorm.

The lookouts who are still up call in their morning weather.  Their temperatures are in the 30s and most of them have 3 or 4 inches of snow on the ground.  I imagine them curled up by their woodstoves, looking out their windows at a white world.

Down here it all falls as rain.  Lots of rain, almost an inch in two days, more in some places.  We put the pilots on a two hour callback; there's no need to have them sit here.  We aren't going anywhere, not in a steady downpour with clouds clinging to the hills.

This is it, the season ender, and it didn't creep up on us like it sometimes does, like the autumn colors slowly climb the hillsides until all of a sudden you realize it's fall.  This happened dramatically, all at once.  One day we were fighting fire, and the next we weren't.

There's still fire out there.  A 70,000 acre fire still grumbles around south of here; it'll smolder until we get snow.  It's supposed to warm up back to the 80s by the end of the week. There might be a hunter fire or two in the next few weeks.  But fire season here is over, and everyone knows it.

It's only September though, and if the mountains here are getting ready for winter there are other places that will still burn.  We pack our bags with warm clothes and fly cleanup missions.  We get the prescribed burn equipment ready.  We wait for the next call, to a place that is warmer and to fires that are just getting started. It's not over yet.
Image from  It doesn't quite look like this yet, but a few more weeks and it will.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Sometimes it all works out

We assemble in the cold pre-dawn darkness.  Nobody is joking or laughing, because we have been here before.  We think about the storm two days ago and the flight one of the helicopters took yesterday with no results.  Although we still have hope, it is fading.

The two women set out for their hike on a Sunday.  The forecast wasn't good, but maybe they were excited that the wind had finally scoured the smoke from the valley, and they decided to go for it, the 21 miles off trail through beautiful, open cirques and high valleys.  Then the rain and lightning came in and they were gone, not at work  on Monday, just vanished.

When people go missing on this route, sometimes they are not found for years.  I had a feeling I knew where they were.  A lake sparkles far below the route, looking like a good place to bail out if the weather gets bad or if you are too tired to continue.  From up there, it looks like you can pick your way through the cliff bands and make it out, and you can, if you know where to go and you are careful.  Other people have tried though; their bones were found long after the searches were over.

We are getting ready to launch two helicopters when the phone rings.  Another helicopter has found them, using night vision and thermal imaging.  They are injured and hypothermic, stranded in the cliffs, but alive.  The helicopter hoists them out; we hear the ambulances as they race past us to the hospital.  They will make it.  We can stand down.

The crews scatter, fiddle with gear, go back to paperwork.  We don't say a lot, but we all know: they are lucky.  They probably wouldn't have survived another night.  This is a good day.

photo from