Behind the fires 

A writer recounts his tour of duty on Montana's fire lines.

Like any resident of the Missoula Valley, I had more than a passing interest in the fires of this summer. The hot hazy days that left us stewing inside houses sealed against the smoke, and the forest closures that left us no place to exercise ourselves, made me keenly aware of the vicissitudes of life in western Montana—arguably the Last Best Place one week, and a smoky claustrophobic chimney the next. And so in August, finding myself unemployed, with what amounted to a war effort going on, I signed up as an emergency firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service and was placed on a Type 2 Crew.

The fifty or so men and women who comprised our crew were all familiar faces from the “pack test” I had undergone—a three-mile timed hike taken while toting a 45-pound pack—as well as from my three days of classroom training. In many ways we represented a fair cross-section of the underemployed Missoula population. It was easy, for example, to discern at least two species of tree lovers: There were the crunchy enviro types who were clearly pained by the destruction they saw and wanted to preserve the forests they love to visit (one guy had been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail when he heard about the fires, and the call for manpower in Tahoe, so he left his wife and friends and took a bus up to Missoula so he could lend a hand). Then there were the loggers and truck drivers who were pinched by being shut out of the woods during the end of the most lucrative time of the year; they were eager to help put the fire out so they could return to the work of removing trees. There were also former Forest Service employees called back into the ranks, and lots of guys just out of high school or with only a year or two of local college, for whom a minimum wage job and living at home made the prospect of being gone for the next fourteen days sound straight thrilling. There were a couple of grad students, a few people who claimed to write, some ex-military guys, some doers of odd jobs, a guy who said that he slept in the Bucks Club parking lot the night before, and a Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman. Basically, we were the lumpenproletariat—the unskilled labor mass sent to plug the manpower gap that was widening, as the fires gained on Montana’s personnel and resources.

Imagine a summer camp for grown men and women who have almost unlimited access to gear and provisions, and you can appreciate why Pattee Canyon was known as The Hilton of Fire Camps. There were four phone booths with free local calls. There was a shower truck—one whole tractor trailer that had been converted into a two-level shower set up that boasted six sinks and eight showers—and then there was the food set-up. Waiting in line for your catered meal, which could consist of anything from baby back ribs to strip steaks to chicken a-la-king or the creative vegetarian option, you could not escape the four-at-a-time hand washing station—hot water, anti-bacterial soap and paper towels all affixed to a chest-high series of sinks on the side of a truck—and closely monitored by an older guy with a radio, rumored to be part of an oral-fecal hygiene strike force. The rumors you may have heard about 8,000 calories a day were all wonderfully true. Salad bar, bread, milk, ice cream and good restaurant-style coffee at every meal.

After dinner, kicking back in my sleeping bag under the stars, reading or just enjoying the healthy ache of fatigued hands, feet and muscles, my body would eventually forget the beginning of the day, when, at 6 a.m. I started off trying to work tender, bruised feet into cold, stiff, damp boots, then stumbled down the road to get something to eat.

Too often, the work of firefighters is portrayed as either a glamorous, high-risk enterprise performed by men and women of unusual character, or as the work of typical government employees. When people say that the devil, or God, is in the details, they mean that the truth or the essence of the experience lies in understanding those things that escape those clichés. As I recorded my experiences on the fire line, I have not tried to provide a comprehensive analysis of this year’s epic fire season, nor the job of the firefighter. Rather, I have tried to communicate the stories, facts and details as I would have wanted to know them.

Monday, August 14: Mopping up at Lockwood

We learned that we would be “mopping up,” which are dirty words in fire adrenaline-junkie circles, but vital especially in this case because three times this fire had been declared controlled, and three times flared up again (it would do so several more times before the summer ended). We had to be shuttled the last several miles by pickup truck because the buses couldn’t make it to the top of Lockwood Point high above the Blackfoot River. The hillside was blackened and patches of still-smoldering trees and brush were dotted across the slope. Where the fire had burned hottest, deep ash covered stump holes, joint-torqueing rocks and hot embers.

We began the day by “cold-trailing,” one of the least glamorous but most necessary aspects of firefighting. Reading over the description of this duty during my course training, I had assumed that there was a typo in the sentence that said “your glove must be off when cold trailing” (italics mine). Why would you be issued gloves if you weren’t going to be wearing them, especially when you were sticking your hands into ash piles looking for heat? Obviously, this means you reach inside a pile and bingo, you grab a hot coal and burn the bejeezus out of your hand that is going to be swinging Pulaski for the next fortnight. But that is exactly the point. You can’t declare a fire to be out unless it is totally cold; you can’t know that it is cold until you put your hand in it.

As the day warmed up, the fuels dried out and small flare-ups became more common. It made me pretty nervous at first to be standing near a log that was shooting flames out near a patch of unburned bushes, so I attacked these with rookie vigor, one of the Common Denominators of Fire Tragedy ringing in my head like the voice of an authoritative PSA: “Sometimes, tragedies occur in the mop-up stage.” Our more experienced crew members seemed remarkably blasé, and that helped me get a handle on the thing that you have to learn for yourself in any new situation on any job: how to assess the difference between a situation getting out of hand, and normal occupational hazards.

Working mostly in two- or three-man teams we spent the day mopping up. This consisted of one guy hacking up burning stumps or flipping them over to expose the hot spots while the other guy pumped a stream of our precious water out of a backpack pump that worked like a bicycle hand pump.

Sometimes the stumps had burned down to the roots, and the tough dense wood of the roots burned underground away from the stump. These roots had to be followed, exposed and cooled; often the entire 8 gallons of a pump was emptied on one stump, to no real effect.

Working high on the steep hillside in the afternoon sun, wearing fifteen pounds of equipment and Nomex, which breathes about as well as a Hefty bag, I was covered in dust and soot which films teeth, glasses, clothes and sweating skin. Having uncovered a hot spot whose radiant heat makes its way through my clothing, I felt cool from the sweat pouring down my chest and hot from the air temperature; puzzling over this not unpleasant sensation, I was back to digging, chopping the stump and sucking dirty smoky air. Work like this made for days that would induce a man to gorge himself at dinner and sleep the sleep of the righteous at night.

Saturday, August 19th: Grass fire in Bonner

After only a few days of the fire camp life, I was assigned to a newly created task force that operated out of Missoula Rural Fire Station No. 4 in Bonner. We were one of four quick-strike teams located at the four compass points of the Missoula area: Bonner, North Reserve Street, Frenchtown, and Lolo. Each task force was to be in a constant state of readiness to catch a fire near town before it could get into the hills surrounding town, or into one of the 40 one-way-in-one-way-out drainages that dot the Missoula area.

Devoting the amount of resources necessary to man these task forces was an expensive, unprecedented proposition, according to Steve Holden, the Southwest Area Fire Program Manager for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. It was instituted by the severity of the fire season and the fear that a fire near town could quickly get out of control.

Assembled in Bonner were: two Type 6 engines, or brush trucks; a Type 1 engine, which is basically a structural fire engine with a powerful pump (1,200 gallons per minute) and a crew of three; a water tender that carried 2,700 gallons of water; and a bulldozer on a trailer pulled by a semi. The leader of the task force, Otto Carlson, had the ability to order up air support in the form of Blackhawks, Skycranes, or retardant bombers.

Experienced hands on the crew estimated that our crew carried a cost of at least $5,000 a day.

I don’t know who first told me that a lawn chair was essential equipment on engine duty, but I do remember thinking I was having my leg pulled. But watching the old dogs, who have seen many fires and are more likely to get riled up over missing lunch than they are over some flaming brush, I realized that a lawn chair does solve a lot of the problems you encounter when stationed on an engine. Because we were designated as an initial attack resource, we always had to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. We had to be ready to stay at a fire until it was either under control or totally out of control. In order to be always ready, you can’t be doing anything especially involved. So for about three weeks I became a firefighter on call.

Although it was frustrating to reflect on how we could be helping out at Ryan Gulch or anywhere in the Bitterroot, I had to view it philosophically, which means that I had resigned myself to being a cog in the wheel with a certain amount of faith in the overall plan. And, having that settled, I sat back in my deck chair and worked on annihilating the time between calls.

Then came Sunday afternoon. Report of a wildland grassfire in Bonner came over the dispatch. We were paged out and rolling down the road “going code” within 30 seconds. As Keith Lerback, engine operator and driver of the Winnebago-sized American LaFrance diesel engine blasted through the Y in front of the mill, I could feel the tires pushing through the sand and gravel for purchase. Rolling down the middle of the road, lights flashing and sirens wailing over the Blackfoot with cars stopped on either side, the radio squawked: “Flames four to six feet high, 400 yards burned so far.”

We could soon see the smoke and the fire, which had started by the road that leads to the dam, burning alongside Highway 200 about a mile east of Bonner. Apparently the passenger-side wheel on someone’s trailer blew its bearings, sending hot metal into the field by the road and igniting the tinder-dry grasses. Quickly we were in the smoke and we drove past the police cars right to the front of the action. The fire was burning along the road, a quick-thinking local citizen using a road grader had bladed in a hasty fire line on the far side; neighbors had their garden hoses strung all over the road like green spaghetti.

The only thing to do was start spraying water to knock it down. Closer than you would want to be as an observer is where we stopped. By the time I was in the field with the hose charged and spraying, most of the big flames had been knocked down and the fire had been contained. While there were many lingering hot spots to spray, it was basically all over except for the mopping up. Notwithstanding the small size of the fire and the speed at which it was extinguished, it got our blood up. The ignorance of what we were in for, coupled with the urgency of arriving quickly, plus the immediate strenuous work in fight-or-flight mode, told the story behind the number-one cause of structure firefighter fatality—heart attack.

Saturday, August 26: Grass Fire in Bonner

A report of a lightning strike flaring up in Rock Creek sent us rolling at a more subdued pace. As we got off the exit by Rock Creek Lodge we could see the cloud. The sun, dipping below the Sapphire Range, had lit the burgeoning mushroom cloud with purple, orange, burnt umber, and magenta. It was strangely beautiful and awesome. It churned upward, like a furnace. It was first reported at 40 acres; by Sunday morning it would be up to 4,500.

Rock Creek Road is notoriously pot-holed and made for slow going. Our shiny yellow diesel engine with its angular lines and bright multicolored lights got strange looks from the deer browsing sagely in the creek. We were followed by the water tender carrying over 20,000 pounds of water and a semi that pulled a lowboy trailer carrying a bulldozer that dragged over the low spots and squeezed around the corners.

As we convoyed up in the growing dark, the mushroom cloud devoid of its warm colors, just what we were doing struck me as kind of a Pyrrhic victory for our sexy technology. We had started to understand that this fire was out of hand, that all of the trucks and resources and men pushing deep into the Rock Creek drainage were probably not going to check its advance; yet we pushed on. This triumph of technology, this pushing of machinery as far as we could into nature’s innermost recesses, seemed ludicrous and at the same time both challenging and exhilarating. So much of our interaction with nature has revolved around the question of “Can we do it?” rather than “Should we do it?” that it is ingrained to focus on accomplishment and achievement, instead of outcome.

So we found ourselves assigned to protect some structures 22 miles up the canyon, which are all uninsured due to the fact that no insurance company in the world will sell you an affordable policy when you live that far up Rock Creek Road. We ate our sandwiches by truck headlights, watching the fire burn orange and red, as it gradually began to dawn on me that we would be staying up here for the night definitely, the week possibly, and perhaps the rest of the fire season.

The two best things about neglecting to bring my sleeping bag that day were, first, spending my conscious moments watching the phantasmagoric light show caused by the fire’s spectacular run through a large patch of timber that had been downed by a microburst from a thunder cell in 1989. And second, having spent my calories shivering under a tree and walking the field waiting for first light, I was ready for breakfast.

When the supply truck pulled away, we stared at 10 or so identically sized boxes sealed with packing tape. Upon opening we found clean white five-gallon plastic buckets, sealed and surrounded with insulating foam. Inside was breakfast. One contained scrambled eggs, the other, pancakes; the next was half-filled with sausages, another full of juice, another with cantaloupe, another with individual cartons of milk, another with coffee; then there were loaves of bread, tortillas, and every condiment and utensil known to man. We were visited by the incident commander, a Forest Service old-timer whose belt told the tale of meals eaten under very different circumstances—the custom made Tabasco holster nestled at his belt kept his hot sauce within easy reach as long as he was wearing his Nomex pants.

According to John Waverik, District Fire Manager Officer for Lolo National Forest, fire-fighting tactics on the Alder Creek Fire were relatively inexpensive. He estimated that it cost about $1.2 million for a 5,700-acre fire, which works out to about $210 per acre. Waverik was also proud, he told me, that suppression activities had a “minimal impact on natural resources other than the use of chainsaws on the line.” No lines were bulldozed on the fire itself, although several concerned residents of the Miller Flat area received free help in the form of brush clearing and firebreaks on their property. But that only happened after the crew managed to get the dozer around the frail bridge and across the creek: The driver, clearly seeing both the necessity and the implications of steering a piece of heavy machinery across a blue-ribbon trout stream, sagaciously delayed entering the river until “someone in authority had signed off on it.”

We ordered chain saws and received cardboard boxes, each containing one new Stihl saw, chaps, all the necessary tools for adjustment, and cans for gas and oil. The only thing missing was fuel and a sawyer. Some cut trees and others bucked brush while we tried to make the properties more defensible by removing fuels and flammables from around their houses in the event that the fire should come down the ridge. At lunch, we wagered when the fire would crest the ridge.

At the end of the day, we had another round of the bucket buffet and spent the night in a bunk in the Hogback cabin. For the next couple of days, being the only people in western Montana who could be enjoying the outdoors, the only thing to do was to get to a comfortable spot, sit back and watch.

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