We were up at daybreak the next day…which comes pretty early in June! After a quick MRE breakfast, we were back patrolling the line. Everybody’s pretty yellow Yosemite Fire nomex shirts were getting pretty gritty with black ash by now. Stretch’s goal for today was simple: the fire needed to be 100% out for 100 feet into the burn. We spent all day digging and stirring.
Dave Amaral started cutting with a chain saw on one of the trees that Stretch wanted to fall back into the burn. It wasn’t a real big tree, maybe 18 inches in diameter. It was black from the fire and looked like it was dead, anyway. Stretch let Dave cut it while Stretch swamped for him. As Dave made his pie cut and got into the heartwood, we were all shocked to see flame shoot out from inside the tree! It was hollow inside, and when the superheated inside was exposed to the air outside, the fire triangle was completed and…flame on! At the same time Stretch hollered “Water! Get a piggy!” one of us was already grabbing a piss pump and sprinting for the tree. He sprayed the flames as Dave continued his cutting. Pie cut finished, we kept spraying the inside of the tree as Dave made his back cut and dropped the tree into the burn.
After we dropped this tree, Stretch told us to continue the 100% mop up in this section while he went over to the LZ for a minute. It didn’t take us long to finish mopping up everywhere we could see from here. We hesitated about moving on. We didn’t want Stretch to get back and find us gone and have to guess about which way we went. Since the two Yosemite fire fighters were the only ‘real’ fire fighters with the group, we asked them, “Okay. This is out. What now?”
“Now we wait for Stretch to get back with further instructions.”
Really? Okay. We can do that. But I could only take so much of listening to these two guys bragging on their firefighting exploits so far this season. After a while I got up and said, “I’m gonna go see if Stretch has anything else for us to do.” The firefighters just shrugged.
I found Stretch right over the ridge, at the LZ just like he said he was going to be. “Stretch! We’re one hundred percent in that section. What next?”
“Good job! Just keep moving on up the hill. I’ll catch up to you.”
I got back to the crew and passed on “He wants us to continue up the hill. He’ll catch up.”
The Corpies moved out right away. I got dirty looks from the firefighters. Go figure.
We eventually broke for an MRE lunch. I noticed that we were getting low on water. The only water we had for drinking, MREs, and putting out fire was in the five gallon plastic cubes, or ‘cubies’, that had been flown in by helicopter.
As we ate lunch, the other firefighters were quizzed by Stretch on the types of trees that were around. There was an issue over one particular tree was a Douglas fir or not. Stretch broke off a piece of branch and handed it to one of the firefighters. “Here. Hold on to this. We’ll look it up when we get back to the station.”
After about six more hours of marching around in the burn, making sure the fire was 100% out to 100 feet inside the fire line, our nomex was pretty black. Our uniforms weren’t the only think that had turned black, either. I had to blow my nose several times, and what came out was pretty black, too, from breathing in all of the ash thrown into the air as we dug and cut and stirred coals.
We went back to our camp for dinner. Yup. MREs. The novelty of the ‘Army rations’ had worn off by now. And now the water was really low. I had no idea how long we were going to be here before we got more. I eyed the freeze dried brick that was inside the MRE pouch. I decided to see if they were edible without water and started gnawing on the brick. Lovely dinner.
In the middle of our MRE feast, we heard a helicopter coming into the LZ. Stretch looked just as surprised as the rest of us. He said, “I wonder what that’s all about. Nobody told me a chopper was coming in. And nobody called anything in to me right now.” He got up and started over the ridge to the LZ. I got up and followed. We cleared the top of the ridge in time to see a guy wave at us and give us a thumbs up before climbing back into the JetRanger. As the helicopter spun up and lifted off, we saw the ice chest and stainless steel tureens they had left behind. Stretch looked just as surprised as I was. We ran over. Inside the tureens were…roasted chicken! Fresh cooked peas! The ice chest was loaded with quarts of milk! Woo-HOO! The ice chest was so big that it took both of us to lift it and get it back to camp.
Dinner had become a real feast!
After summer was over and I went back to Del Norte Center, I met Del Norte’s newest staff member, John Calkins. He was a special corpsmember, assigned to the evening staff. He was one helluva guy. After I promoted to crew leader I spent many enjoyable night dutys hanging out with John and swapping war stories. He had worked in Yosemite the summer of ’87, too. I eventually learned that on that fire John had worked in logistics…and that he had been instrumental in arranging those chicken dinners to be made at the Awahnee Lodge and flown out to the fire crews! He realized that a lot of those fire crews had been working on the lines for weeks with no hot chow. He did what he needed to do to correct that situation. He really was one helluva guy! John suddenly became one of my heroes. Thanks, John!
We spent our second night back in our sleeping pits. I woke up once, and it was starting to drizzle. I pulled my boots inside my sleeping back with me and pulled a tarp over our sleeping bags. And all was right with the world.