WildlandFire Fighting

Final Fire Day

Today proved to be our final fire day of the season. We were up at dawn again, and hiked out through the ash and patrolled the fire line one more time. No new smoke had popped up overnight. Stretch radioed in his report that our section of line was 100 percent secure. We were instructed to pack up our gear and wait for the helicopters to bring us out.
As we waited for the helicopter, Stretch asked the Yosemite firefighter if he still had the branch they were going to identify when they got back.

“Uhh…no. I must have lost it somewhere.”

“I don’t believe this. I gave you just one thing to do, and you couldn’t even do that. What am I going to do with you?!”

Yo2 was recombined at Crane Flat. After the last fires we had worked, Yosemite Fire had us keep all of the fire gear we had been issued. They thought they might have needed us again…and they were right…and they figured it would save time if they didn’t have to re-issue gear. This time, however, we did a full demob, or demobilization. We were scheduled to be moving up to the high country soon and would not be available to come down for any more fires. We went back down to the main fire house in Yosemite Valley and turned in all of our fire gear.

Except for a few headlamps. Those were going to come in handy in the High Country.

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Full Day of Fire

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.

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First Afternoon of Fire

That first afternoon we completed a patrol around our assigned section of the entire fire perimeter. The fire line was a literal line scratched onto the forest floor through the duff down to the mineral soil. It’s critical to get this line down to dirt and rock…stuff that will not burn, or else the fire will just mosey on through the line and keep burning. Everything outside of the fire line is green…trees, grass, brush. Most everything inside the line is black. ‘Most everything’ because not everything in a ‘burn area’ necessarily burns. Wisps of smoke rose from the ground and from charred trees everywhere inside the line. We attacked the more significant ones right away. We dug into the dirt with the grubbing edge of a Pulaski to expose and cool off the hot material. We broke up smoldering pieces of wood and duff to dissipate the heat and cool them down. Flames licked from the ground up into bushes that were not yet fully consumed. One of us would go over and root out the burning material and spread it out as well. One of us carrying a piss pump would wet down the flames and hot smoldering material.

We did not spend too much time right now on any particular area. Stretch’s main job for us that afternoon was to see in the daylight the entire terrain we would be covering. We hiked our assigned section of the perimeter several times. Stretch pointed out to us things we would be addressing the next day, such as the few trees that needed to be felled back into the burn area. These trees needed to be dropped because if they caught fire and fell across the fire line, the fire would escape and take off again. The Hot Shot crew had tackled most of those trees, but there were still a few for us to fall.

The two Yosemite fire fighter ‘grunts’ had a hard time keeping up with us as we moved around the perimeter. Listening to Stretch talk to them, it soon was obvious that this was their first season as fire fighters. Whether they would be back for a second season was open for debate right now. We Corpies would be right behind Stretch as he legged his way up and down the steep grades. This was the part of firefighting that we already knew all about! Every so often one of his guys could be heard from way behind “Stretch! Wait up!” Stretch started getting irritated with them. “Geez! C’mon! These guys are keeping up with me just fine, and they’re not even fire fighters! Get with it!” And then he would not slow down.

By sundown we had made several trips back and forth across our perimeter. No open flames remained…at this time. Stretch had a plan for the next day. We went back to our campsite for dinner. Dinner on these fires was MREs. Army rations. MRE stands for Meal Ready to Eat. Each meal comes in a big heavy-gauge plastic bag. Each bag contains a main course, a side dish, dessert, instant coffee, plastic utensils, toilet paper, and chewing gum. Each part was in its own little plastic pouch. The concept was simple. Tear the top off the pouch, add hot water, let it sit several minutes, and there you had it. An instant dinner. That first MRE went down pretty well. We had worked up quite an appetite.

We sat around talking for a while, and then everybody turned in for the night, two to a sleeping pit on the uphill side of a tree. As I crawled into my sleeping bag next to Glen, I took my boots off and set them carefully right next to my bag. I fell asleep to the sight of stars and the smell of smoke.

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Second Round

Round Two of our Yosemite fire experience saw us return to Crane Flat Fire Lookout. We saw our old pals Hal and crew again. There was one big difference this time, though. The first time we were here, the helicopters were a JetRanger and a BullCow. (Well…we thought they said BullCow. Years later I realized they were saying ‘Bölkow’.

This time there was a BullCow and a Huey!

Ever since I was a little boy in Illinois, my favorite sound in the world had been Huey helicopters. Not just any helicopters…just the Huey! The rotor blades were designed in such a way that they made an incredibly bass chopping sound as they cut through the air. The sound is distinctive.

The only other helicopter a Huey’s sound can be mistaken for is a Chinook, which has twin rotors and engines and rotors that are the same as a Huey’s. (A Chinook just sounds like two Hueys!) I was stoked just to be on the same helipad as one. Dave Amaral’s dad had flown Hueys in Viet Nam. He might have been more stoked than I was!

This time around the fires we were being assigned to were different, too. No silly smolders this time! WE were going to be relieving a Hot Shot crew. They had a 100% line around this fire on the top of a mountain just a five minute flight away from Crane Flat. We were going to continue to mop it up, freeing the Hot Shots to go attack another fire. As before, Yo 2 was split into two teams. I was in the team with Glen as crew leader, Mark, Dave, and Chris. We were assigned to a Yosemite fire boss, ‘Stretch’ Stephenson, and two Yosemite fire fighters. We were going to the high side fire line. Moose took the test of the crew with a Yosemite fire boss to the low side fire line.

The first group to shuttle out to the fire flew in the BullCow. The Huey sat silently on the helipad. The word was that we were all going to go in on the BullCow. What a let down that was, with the beautiful Huey sitting right there.

Then the BullCow had a mechanical problem. It limped on back to Crane Flat and then had to be sent down to Fresno for repairs. Everybody else was going to go in on the Huey! Woo-HOO!

I loaded into the Huey with Glen and Dave. The doors closed. The rotors spun up with that ol’ Huey ‘whup-whup-whup’. As we lifted off, Glen, Dave and I simultaneously howled out “Fucki-i-i-i-ing Bueno-o-o-o-o!”

The flight was over in no time. We left the Huey and some Hot Shots got on. Stretch was already there, coordinating the turn over with the Hot Shot boss. It wasn’t long before our whole team was in place and all of the Hot Shots were gone. Stretch’s first order of business for us was to set up a camp. He picked a place just over the ridge from the helispot. There was no level ground anywhere on that mountain. We wound up digging out sleeping pits on the uphill sides of trees. We made them as level as we could, and made room for two sleeping bags in each pit. I was going to be partnered up with Glen.

(Note: It seems obvious to me, but this nagging in the back of my head says that I need to point out none of the helicopter videos in this post are of Yo 2. I found them all on YouTube simply to illustrate the post, so readers can see and hear the things that I am talking about. Thanks.)

Categories: Backcountry, Camping, CCC, Helicopters, WildlandFire Fighting, Yosemite | 1 Comment

May 12, 1987: Fires, Day 3

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Crane Flat Fire Lookout

06:45—We’re awaiting the helicopters to start flying at about 08:00 to bring us some water so we can finish this job. We got a line around the smoldering trees last night, but couldn’t extinguish them because we had no water to do it with.

08:57—Well, we’re still waiting for the helicopter. It seems that the helicopter isn’t even going to be in the park until 09:15. To kill some time we went over and stirred the coals a bit and found a couple of hot spots.

I’ve really tried to be optimistic through this whole thing. I reasoned that even though we’re being sent on snag fires, we’re freeing up people to go out on the important blazes. But I can’t help but wonder what good we’re really doing. I realize that even one smoldering tree can spring into a full-blown fire, but these things have taken so little effort that I wonder if they were worth the time and money that was put into them.

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May 11, 1987: Helicool!

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Tammi Garner ready to fly!

Today was my first helicopter ride. It was helicool. Right now I’m sitting in the middle of a forest writing by the light of a headlamp. The fire here was just another snag.
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You can see the path the electricity took from the top of the tree where the lightning struck to the bottom of the tree where it went to ground.

I’m going to have some killer camping stories for the folks back in Illinois when I get there for Christmas. Building trail and fighting fires. No one is gonna believe this.

Actually, I got 2 chopper rides today. When the first one took off, the generator went out, so we had to land it again right away and wait for the first bird to get back.

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One Swell Feller

We drove out of Crane Flat to the first fire. We followed Frank out to the site. The report said it was a smoldering tree. We found the road and drove all the way out to the end. We didn’t see anything except live, non-smoldering trees.

Frank had to communicate with the helicopter through the dispatcher. The chopper crew gave Frank some landmarks to look for, and we drove back down along the road, all the way to the beginning. Nothing.

They decided that the chopper would hover over the smoldering tree. We found the chopper. Actually, we heard it long before we saw it hovering off the road. Then we still had to fan out and hunt around for the smolder. When we stumbled across it, we barely saw any smoke even when we got right on top of it. This smolder felt anti-climactic. But…it was smoldering, and the forest was burning all around the county, so this little smolder needed to be stopped in its tracks.

The first step for isolating the burning was to drop the tree. The smoldering tree was actually kind of big, bigger than any saw we had, so Frank had to call for a felling crew. Then we waited around some more for the fellers to arrive. A two person team eventually showed up. One was a young woman who seemed to be a rookie. The other was a craggy old commercial tree feller. The rookie brushed out around the tree. Then the pro stepped in.

Most of us Corpies had fallen trees before, or had at least seen the process up close. In the simplest terms, the feller decides which way the tree needs to go down, then cuts a pie shaped wedge out of that side of the tree. Then a back cut is made from the opposite side of the tree. When the back cut is deep enough, the tree falls in the direction of the pie cut. Normally, the feller makes a back cut until the tree starts to go over, and then he/she pulls the saw out and calmly retreats from the tree as it goes over.

This craggy old pro made his pie cut. Then he made his back cut. However…when he stopped cutting, the tree hadn’t even started to move. The feller walked away from the tree, shut his saw off, and set it on the ground. The tree stood absolutely still. As he pulled his gloves off, he barked out “Tim-BERRR!” And then the tree popped. It popped again…and then started to go. As the tree crashed to the ground, the feller was rolling a cigarette.

That tree felling demonstration was worth every bit of waiting we had to do to see it.

Then our crew went to work. Using our hand tools, we grubbed a vegetation-free line all around the downed tree. When the tree had hit the ground, it had broken open around the smoldering end. Exposed to the air, the smolder finally broke out into some open flame. We were now able to use our smaller saws to cut off the burning parts of the trunk and split them open. By exposing the pieces to open air, breaking them into smaller pieces, and keeping all of those pieces contained inside our fire line, we were able to make the fire go out quicker.

In a couple of hours, we were done, and headed back to Crane Flat.

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May 10, 1987: A Real Fire. Sorta.

Yosemite Fire photo yosemitefire.jpg

My first day fighting fires was a lot like what I’ve read of first combat experiences. I was really excited when we got up and headed for the Valley this morning. It was great when we got our gear issued, then we waited a little bit before heading out for Crane Flat Fire Lookout. Then we got to fill water bottles and sharpen tools while we waited some more. Then Group B headed out while we (Group A) ate lunch and waited still more. After a while we got to go out. Not on a helicopter, as we expected to. We drove out all the way to the end of some fire road and looked around for the fire. Having no luck, we backtracked and had a helicopter hover over it a couple of times. We finally found it.

There weren’t even any flames. Just a smoldering tree and some foliage and small trees around it. We called some fallers in and they took the big tree down, then we built a break around it. It was pretty tame, actually, but I guess it was all right for a first fire.

It reminded me a lot of some soldiers’ first combat. He goes into it all sorts of expectations, then gets the ‘hurry up and wait’ jazz, and goes on endless patrols searching for the enemy, and then his first firefight is some little thing not at all resembling what he was expecting. It’s over before he realizes it.

I think it was really remarkable how fast Frank learned everybody’s name today. Having never met us before today, when he was issuing orders, he always called everyone by their correct name. Amazing.

Gearing Up photo gearingup.jpg
Tammi Garner gearing up.

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First Fire Call

I was half asleep and facing the back wall of the tent when I heard the tent flap open and somebody rush inside. The ‘someone’ banged around in the dark. I heard the lamp grabbed off its hook on the tent ridge pole. The person furiously pumped the plunger to build up pressure in the pot and then struck a match. I heard the ‘woof’ of ignition. Then Dave barked “George! Wake up! We’ve got a fire!”

I bolted upright in my sleeping bag and spun around, expecting to see the lamp engulfed in flame.

The lamp was just glowing normally.

I laid back down in the cot and pulled the sleeping bag back over my head.

“George! Get up!”

“Shut up, Dave.”

Dave came over and pulled my sleeping bag open. “I’m serious. There are lightning fires all over the park. A ranger was just here. We’re going on a fire!”

I bolted upright again as Dave started rummaging through his gear. He started pulling out his web gear harness that he had brought along ‘just in case’ we got to work a fire in the Backcountry. I shot off my cot and threw on a pair of brown Corpie pants and a uniform shirt. Dave attached his canteen covers to his harness. I pulled on two pairs of socks and then my boots.

“We’re supposed to get our gear together as fast as we can and then assemble behind the house,” Dave told me.

I grabbed my daypack and threw in an extra uniform, socks, and underwear. I made sure my regular gear was still in there: work gloves, two canteens, park map, compass, first aid kit, sewing kit, rain gear, and paperback book. I zipped the pack closed and secured my hard hat to a strap on the outside of my pack. I threw the pack over my shoulder and headed out the tent…before Dave.

I was the first one to the assembly area. But everybody else was only a few minutes or less behind me. Moose told us that we actually had not been called out yet. She had received an alert, but we had not been instructed to go anywhere yet. She was still waiting for that call. There was nothing to do now but…wait.

As we were milling around waiting to receive the call, Kevin and his girlfriend roared up on his motorcycle. He looked a little tipsy as he got off the bike. And then he noticed everybody standing around in our uniforms with a pile of gear on the ground…at 10:00 at night!

“What’r you guys doing?! You can’t bust trail at night! You should all be sleeping now!”

“We’re going on a fire!”

Kevin’s jaw dropped. “No way!”

“Yeah, way!”

“No shit?” said Kevin.

“No shit,” Dave said.

“Well, what do ya know,” Kevin said.

Then Moose came out of the house. “OK…the park ranger called.”

“Woo-HOO!”

“Yeah!”

“Here we go!”

Moose continued, “And they don’t need us right now.”

“What?!”

“Aww…ma-a-a-n!”

Moose said, “But they want us to keep a radio close by. Their crews are stretched thin, and they might need us in the next few days.”

Kevin started laughing. As he led his girlfriend in the house, he cackled “Get back to bed! You got rocks to roll in the morning! You ain’t no fire crew! You’re a trail crew!”

Well, it was hard getting to sleep after that, all right. The next morning, Thursday, everybody played closer attention to the radio than normal. Any time the radio squawked, everybody’s head would snap around and stare at it, willing the call to come across for us to roll on a fire. And we rolled rocks all day Thursday. Lunch time came and went. We rolled more rocks while the fires grew. We could start to see smoke in the air around the sequoias. Friday morning came, and still no call. Friday lunchtime came and went.

On Friday afternoon, we got the call.

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