Posts Tagged With: Wildland Fire Fighting

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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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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