A Slice of Life, Part 5

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The photo above is not from the Pine Hills fire of 1967 but an image from the Cedar Fire of 2003. Like the 1967 fire it was pushed by Santa Ana winds. Photo taken by a friend G Kochel.

With the plan in place we, with many other engines set up along the dirt road, this time we faced our engine away from the station and back out towards the highway. While the distance was a few miles the thought was that it would be a safer escape route than retreating back to the Pine Hills Ranger Station. The engine was parked as close to the shoulder as possible to allow other smaller units the ability to drive around. The land continued to fall away to the west before leveling somewhat. No matter how you looked at it, it was tight on that dirt road. There were a couple of engines that were set up towards the ranger station, facing that way, and within sight others towards the highway. I truly have no idea how many were involved with this dangerous situation, but it was a desperate attempt to keep the fire contained, which up to this time all past attempts to confine the fire had failed. Still we had that anchor point that provided some safety and that road. Again, our planned escape route was towards the highway, with a secondary safety zone as the ranger station. All of us hoped that we would have no need of the safety zones, and we would stop the fire here.

It was late afternoon when the plan was initiated, with dusk a short time off. Where we were located was on the south edge of the burn from the spot fire that we had extinguished earlier that same day. Within this burn was an old snag – a widow maker as these dead trees were also known. Somehow it had escaped burning when the spot fire made its run down to the road. Equipment continued to pour in and our ranks swelled. While at the point where we were hotshot crews began the trek along the edge of this existing burn, and soon a caterpillar also headed up to assist the hotshot crews. By the time all of the hand crews and heavy equipment had moved up the heavily wooded hill into the burn and out of sight it was dark. After a while we could no longer hear this equipment, nor did we have a clue how far up the hill they had progressed or whether they had progressed pass the burn. Again rumors of trouble for the hotshots and dozer came down to us. Whether in fact this was true I never learned, since shortly we would have our own hands full.

Where we sat was close to a sharp curve that ran towards the highway and we could only see 1 engine in that direction. Back towards the ranger station we could see the 2 other engines that covered the distance all the way back and out to that meadow. Their purpose to control any fire that got past the anchor point, knowing that while the meadow could sustain a fire, it wouldn’t sustain one for very long. The winds were roaring and we could see the trees bending in the winds. All the equipment had spot lights burning allowing us to see the surrounding trees. Still at the same time the lights created islands of deep shadow where the light didn’t penetrate. Giving us, at times, a ghostly view of the branches and trees as they bent and moved into and out of the light and shadows, because of these strong winds.

Because we were unable to truly know what was taking place up that hillside where the hand crews and tractor were located it left us with both worry for them, and anticipation for what we knew we were about to face. Still the night moved on, and nothing – just the roar of the wind with the stronger gusts pushing us around. Humidities were extremely low, and it was a warm night, with the winds responsible for both the warmth and the low humidities. Word would come down now and then that it wouldn’t be long so be prepared – as if we weren’t. As I stated at the close of part 4, I was expecting a similar fight when we attacked the spot fire and was confident that with the additional equipment that we would keep the fire confined and stop it here. Again we were dealing with 1 of the situations that shout watch out – “You are making a frontal attack on a fire.”

Other than the trucks idling and the wind blowing through the trees it was quiet. No real conversation, we, all of us, were concentrating on the areas where we expected the head of the fire to come from. The first warning we had wasn’t the actual fire. It was full dark, other than the lights of the equipment, with pumps engaged, there was only darkness. The smoke generated from the fire covered the night sky not allowing any light from the stars to get through. So dark in fact that one wouldn’t have been able to see their hands in front of their face if it wasn’t for our own artificial lights including headlamps that were attached to our hard hats. It began raining, and it was beautiful. I suspect that it was doing this to a lesser degree earlier in the day during the daylight, but because of the daylight was invisible to us. What I’m speaking of here is not water but burning embers. We were being showered heavily with them and their orange glow against the night sky were spectacular, but very dangerous.

Immediately, as these embers began to land, we were seeing spot fires start in a number of places. We desperately fought these new fires,rapidly running to each new start and extinguishing it, only to have new ones start immediately. We couldn’t keep up with all the new spot fires. The spot fires began to combine creating a number of larger fires across our line and making it difficult to control. These larger fires began to combine increasing the pressure on us to stop the fire’s spread. Then the main fire made it run on us. In a very short time we were caught between two fires and all the equipment had to abandon the attempt. The fire had won and hardly slowed down. Now across our line the whole area was beginning to burn. No longer was any light needed as the fire provided all that was necessary.

We were informed by radio that the fire had already jumped the line in the direction of the highway – the very direction that we were to leave in an emergency. This meant that it was no longer safe to head out towards our safety zone. This left heading back towards the station. The only problem with this was again that road. It was single lane and wasn’t really wide enough to turn around a fire truck, but we had no choice in the matter. Turn it around or take the risk of being burned if we traveled in the original direction. (It’s not that we never drove down roads that were surrounded by fire. It is something that as a wildland firefighter you face quite often. Many times it is necessary to be able to reach your point of attack, or to move on when a stand failed.)

For safety (right), I was required to act as a guide to be sure that as the engine backed in the maneuvers necessary to turn around that the driver did not drive off the dirt road and become stuck. The process was slow as there wasn’t much distance to work with. The fire didn’t care as all the fuels – brush, grasses and trees began to burn. We sat in an island of no fire with absolutely everything else burning. I have to admit that while a dangerous serious situation for us, at the same time, it was beautiful. With all that was happening there was no time for fear to creep in. All concentration was on getting that engine turned around and facing back towards the ranger station. Eventually once successful the driver signaled that all of us was to enter the cab, no matter how cramped. Since I was the one directing the turn around I was the last to enter the cab. (One last point here. In a sense a fire is a living thing.  It requires oxygen to sustain itself, so it is using great quantities of air to maintain itself. This means that there will be pockets of air that will have none.  If you drive through these pockets it can kill your engine. The way to avoid this danger is to keep your vehicle in a lower gear having the engine run at higher rpm’s, giving time for you to pass through these pockets and not have the engine die.)

As I entered the cab we could feel the heat all the way through the closed doors. The whole area now in flames and as the driver drove us out we had fire flashing over the hood and if any of us had been in the crew area that was out in the open we would have been burned severely as the fire rolled over the truck. With the motor revving he was able to get us out and beyond the danger, out into the clear to that same meadow that we had stopped briefly when we first arrived earlier that same day. Since there was little to nothing that we could do we watched as the fire raged on and away from where we had attempted to make our stand barely slowing the forward progress. The following day the winds began to slow with the westerly influence beginning to  return, and without those winds the fire was stopped. That night when the fire rolled over us, beaten and tired we entered the fire camp now set up at the station. And as we ate our meals and tried to get some rest we could see the fire burning to the west backing into that wind consuming everything it touched.

If you are picking this up at part 5, parts 1 thru 3 are under August 2013, with parts 4, and of course part 5 are listed under September 2013. If there happens to be anything here that wasn’t understood, please let me know and I’ll attempt to define or explain it further. Many of the earlier parts have links that takes you to fuller explanations.

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Published in: on September 28, 2013 at 8:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Slice of Life, Part 4

Eventually, the spot fire that began to travel across that overgrazed meadow was blown out by the winds. It became obvious that this would not be the only spot fire we would be facing and shortly we could see smoke rising to the north and east of us signaling another spot fire. This one did not have the disadvantage of the previous spot fire that had attempted to spread across that meadow. This one was in prime burning fuels. The captain decided that we needed to hold this new fire at the road east of the station if at all possible. It was a line drawn that stated we were not going to allow the fire to burn any further than this road. Fortunately, up to this time, this fire and the resulting spot fires were burning in unpopulated areas. If this fire or any of the spot fires managed to jump this dirt road, then there were miles of open unbroken forest for it to burn before reaching populated areas. Yet, with these winds it wouldn’t take a fire like this to travel those miles in a very short span of time. (An example of what I’m describing here is a fire that began 5 years later in the Laguna Mountains which became known as the Laguna fire. At the time it was the largest fire in California history at 186,000 acres. Since then there has been a number of fires that were significantly larger. The Laguna Mountains are at least 45 miles inland from the coast and in the 5 days of active burning it burned all the way to the coast.)

We had that old burn from 11 years prior to the west, and the regrowth was still light, and if we lost it here then it was hoped that these lighter fuels would allow us to stop the wildfire.  Like I stated this fire was heading into the area where the Inaja fire had burned 11 years earlier and again if one had followed the links to that tragedy it was where firefighters lost their lives. (If one missed that link I will place it here once again: http://www.coloradofirecamp.com/cedar_fire/inaja_fire_introduction.htm) In any extreme situation as this, it is easy for things to go from what appears to be a relatively safe operation to everything going to hell in seconds. When you are overrun you must react immediately and your decision and direction you choose can mean the difference between survival or death. It is one of the reasons for determining safe zones and being aware of their locations, but sometimes even these areas can turn out to be death traps. Also since the time that I fought these wildfires there has been additional safety equipment available to firefighters and this is the deployable fire tent meant to give the firefighters a chance to survive a blowup. As has been shown with the deaths in Colorado in the near past, these tents do not necessarily mean survival but it is better than what we had which was nothing.

One of the problems that we faced was that dirt road. It was a manmade barrier, but the distance across to other fuels wasn’t great. So while it was a barrier it wasn’t a strong one. If we could stop this growing spot fire from crossing the road then this would provide an anchor point from which to work when the main fire approached this location. Still before that possibility could happen, this one had to be stopped. We positioned the engine facing back towards the Ranger Station giving us our escape route if we failed in our attempt to stop the spot fire. By this time we had other engines arriving with many heading in to where the main fire was advancing. We, with a second unit, became the forward position dealing with those additional spot fires and as time moved on we added a couple of other engines to help make our stand. In retrospect one realizes that with at least 2 major fires burning in the region that manpower and equipment became a premium until additional men and equipment could be brought in from outside of areas where these fires burned.

As is the way it goes in most desperate situations, there was a period of idleness as we prepared for the spot fire’s arrival. Again for safety we remained on the dirt road and did not advance towards the spot fire through the “green” as it is called. Simply this means that if you are going through vegetation to reach your fire you are leaving yourself vulnerable to the fire, so it is something one tries to avoid. After all the goal is to stop the fire, not get yourself injured or killed. To keep us as mobile as possible, even though as a class 1 engine or pumper, once the pump is engaged it becomes immobile, we only pulled our hard lines. If we were unable to prevent this spot fire from crossing this manmade barrier then we would need to vacate the area as quickly as possible.

When fighting an active fires such as this, time really means very little. You have the time of waiting, and the time that you are actually engaged with the fire, with a second by second adjustment in your methods of attack as the fire advances on you. It has been stated that when you first arrive on a major wildfire that the only thing initially organized is the fire. Even though this spot fire wasn’t as large as the original fire it had the potential to become that way and for us it was a desperate fight as we had fire burning down from the hillside towards us, pushed by the same Santa Ana winds and a number of spot fires starting to burn across our line being generated from this spot fire. The hours flew by and at one point an ember blew up under my hard-hat and burned me on the top of the head – it hurt! But I couldn’t take it off since that would expose me to more of the same.

We could feel the intense heat, and the roar, from the spot fire, which now covered many acres (On the final major fire that I fought in 1975 we had to protect an honor camp which was in the direct line of the fire, again pushed by these same winds. When it went by us it sounded like a freight train passing by.), as it approached our position and after a desperate struggle from all who was involved we were able to extinguish it. We remained here for a while to insure that there wasn’t a rekindle, did an initial mop up operation, and eventually when it was determined that we had stopped this advance headed back to the station to refill our tank. Pine Hills station became the fire camp location as things became organized. While it was ahead of the fire it was felt that with the success of the spot fire being extinguished and the failure of the other spot fire to travel across that meadow, it was a safe location. Also it appeared that once the main fire approached this location that there was a good chance that it would burn to the east of the fire camp.

The word came down late in the day that with the successes earlier that we and other units would again make a stand using the burned area from the spot fire as an anchor point and attempt to hold the original fire there. If one had followed the links back from part 1, it covered “situations that shout watch out”, and here was one of those, “You are making a frontal attack on a fire.”, which was exactly what we would be doing. Most of this work would be done by the engines, although with the anchor point set the plan was also to start moving hotshot crews up along the edge of the burn and try to establish a working fire line, attempting to establish another break to force the fire to remain to the east and south and keep it from spreading to the north, and hopefully slow its spread to the west.

And as we move on to part 5 and the final part I found myself back at the waiting game with rumors of the fire situation flying all around me. And if I had thought that the fight we had fought against that spot fire was difficult, I learned that it was nothing in comparison to the main fire. Here I provide the link back to part 3 which has the links to parts 1 and 2: https://windmillsmetaphor4writing.wordpress.com/2013/08/31/a-slice-of-life-part-3/

A Slice of Life, Part 3

Again, if you had followed the links in the previous post it talks about indices which are predictive tools for a fire’s potential. It is based on taking the weather from certain stations on a ranger district. You have a minimum – maximum temperature, dry bulb – wet bulb measurements, which determines relative humidity, wind speed and direction, and fuel stick weight. With the provided conversion charts, you report this to the dispatcher. Today this is done automatically, in my day it was a manual operation. Probably most of these operations would be familiar to most out there except the fuel stick. The purpose of the fuel stick is to determine moisture content in the dead fuels. It has a certain weight when perfectly dry for which the scale is adjusted to a zero point. Then as it absorbs moisture the weight changes which converts into fuel moisture content. At that time and presently all these figures give you the 3 indices that predict a wildfire’s possible rate of spread, intensity, and its potential.

We headed east of the station before turning north on Hwy 79 that would take us close to the fire origin. Suddenly the engine pulled over before we reached a point where doing this maneuver would be impossible for many miles. For the brief time that we were stopped I asked what was going on. I was informed that there had been a report of another fire and we were being turned around to attack the new fire. This one was on our district. Part of the problem we now faced was that two-lane blacktop road that had been closed because of the winds. This meant that we had to travel this dangerous section of road. Fortunately we were the only ones on it. I say fortunately because the winds were so strong that the engineer or driver could not keep that heavy engine in his lane as we responded. We were continually pushed deep into the eastbound lane as we headed west.

Eventually we passed through the most dangerous section of the road dropping down in altitude rounding a curve where the mountain that the road had been built blocked our views to the north. Once the mountain fell away we saw what had been reported, and I have to admit that in all the years that I fought wildfires, this was the only time I witnessed this phenomena. On major wildfires there is what is called a defined convection column that rises high into the atmosphere. If one was to look at these columns of smoke they would appear to weather radar as a thunderhead or a developing thunderstorm. In fact it is not uncommon for thunderheads to develop on top of these columns of smoke. So the expectation was to see just that. But this was not what we witnessed. The smoke column wasn’t rising into the sky as normal but being funneled down the canyon, the winds were so strong that the smoke couldn’t climb into the sky, and like a chimney was being drawn westerly through that major canyon complex. To the ones who lived in the area where this phenomena was taking place it gave the appearance of another fire.

It was reported to the dispatcher that fortunately we did not have a new fire. We were then turned around and headed for the original fire. Again we faced those wicked winds as we wound our way back up the mountainside along that section of closed roads still having difficulty staying on the road, let along in our own lane. Eventually we left that road and retraced our route that we had begun before being turned around. Again this wasn’t an easy drive since this was a winding twisting road leading one deep into the national forest. Again the winds affected the engine and the driver had difficulty keeping it on the roadway. Eventually we turned off of this main road through the forest onto a side road and began our drive towards the actual fire location. The road was only blacktop for a short distance and then became the standard backcountry, forest dirt road that only one vehicle could drive at a time. If one met another then a pullout would have to be located so that one could safely pass another.

As we had climbed in altitude the winds had become stronger, and were roaring with an intensity drowning out any other sounds that may have existed. Because we were now on dirt we had to slow considerably, not that these engines were fast by any means. Still once one started down one of these dirt roads speed was the last thing one could obtain if one wanted to reach their destination safely. At this point we were on the south side of the mountain with the fire on the north side of the same range. Because of our proximity to the mountain nothing of the fire or its potential was visible to us. Eventually we turned to the north side and was struck by a stronger wind that had been partially blocked from us by the ridge. We now sat above looking down into the general area of the fire and could see the smoke boiling. Here the captain or station foreman had the engine stop to get an overview of what was happening. For me I was looking forward to the fight that would be ahead of us shortly.

After looking it over the captain reported to the dispatcher what he was seeing and we then proceeded on down the road to the Pine Hills Ranger Station (the engine from this station was the first to be dispatched and the station was vacant), which was surrounded by an overgrazed meadow, showing tuffs of wild grass with much separation between the dead plants, grazed down to the point of any barely remaining above the ground. The weather station located here had been blown over by the winds and destroyed – so strong were the gusts. We only stopped briefly here. We continued on down the dirt road towards the origin of the fire, and somewhere along this direction of travel the captain realized that we would be in the direct path of the advancing fire. So once again we stopped. At this point one could hear the roar of the fire in the distance. It was louder than the winds which were deafening in itself. One could hear pines exploding from being superheated. We were dealing with a perfect fire ladder with fire in the ground vegetation, mid-growth and crowns of the trees. In other words, everything that could burn was burning intensely.

To explain a fire ladder is this. If we start out at the ground where the annual wild grasses have cured we have the flash fuels. Above this is mixed vegetation of chamise, scrub oak, shumac, manzanita, and others such plants that are usually dormant and have low fuel moistures. These can, and do grow high enough to be in the lower branches of the trees. With this combination we have a perfect ladder for the fire to transfer from the grasses, to the brush, to the trees, and on this and other fires is exactly what the fire accomplished.

We retreated back to that meadow outside of the Pine Hills station and watched from there. The winds at this point were so strong that if you opened the door to the engine the wind would whip it out of your hand, and anything loose in the cab would be blown away before anyone could react to prevent it from happening. We could see the smoke funneling down the canyon just to the north of us and shortly a spot fire began to burn, possibly at the head of that same canyon where it rose up to meet the meadow where we were. It was then I experienced something again that was unexpected – that fire began to burn across that overgrazed meadow. With the distance between the tuffs of grass I swore that it was impossible but again I was proved to be wrong.

On major fires or in conditions similar to this, spot fires are a common occurrence. Simply stated, a spot fire is another fire starting usually ahead of the main fire and this fire is caused by the main fire. With the heat generated the fire lifts hot ashes and coals into the atmosphere which eventually drops back down and can start new fires. On this particular fire it produced a spot fire approximately 5 miles ahead of its location. It is one of the factors that makes it so difficult to control these fires. And usually when they reach this size then you generally go from the offense to the defense trying to save whatever you can. When the fire begins to spot, then it will be nature that will allow control, not man and his machines.

For us it was becoming a desperate situation. As we continue this story, next time I’ll talk about one of those major spot fires that we fought the rest of that day to prevent it from crossing that dirt road that we had driven, to reach the station and this wildfire.

If you are just reading this for the first time, here are the links to parts 1 and 2. https://windmillsmetaphor4writing.wordpress.com/2013/08/03/a-slice-of-life-part-1/

https://windmillsmetaphor4writing.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/a-slice-of-life-part-2-2/

Published in: on August 31, 2013 at 8:07 am  Comments (1)  
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A Slice of Life, Part 2

If one had followed the link back to the Loop Fire disaster, one of the terms that they used was “cold trailing”. They stated, which is absolutely true, that this is one of the safest operations that one works on a fire line. Basically this operation is to tie in open fireline where the fire has already passed and there is no active fire, very few of, what is referred to as smokes, and with most the open area cold. The nature of fire is such that it can find ways to get past open line, even in such areas as described here, and start burning actively once again. So line construction, plus working a certain number of feet within the burn is performed to both tie in the open lines, and ensure that nothing can blow beyond the newly constructed line. It also discussed the 10 firefighting orders and there are a second set that is called “Situations that Shout Watch Out.”  http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/safety/10_18/10_18.html

In part 1 I stated that in those first 3 years of living in the country we were almost burned out. In a way it is interesting to realize that the first fire we faced, the Inaja Fire of 1956, and the first major fire I would face, the Pine Hills fire of 1967, would burn in close proximity to each other albeit 11 years apart. The former, like the Loop fire of 1966 caught a hotshot honor camp crew with line bosses, leading to 11 members, in the area of the flashover or blowup, perishing. Again, below is a link that compares the 2 fires. Understand this, any who are unfamiliar with these wildfires have an mistaken belief that one can outrun such fires if they are caught, are in for a shock. Let’s use some simple math to dispel such thoughts. Basically if we look at the latter fire we find that it burned 7000 acres (rounded to make this easier) in 2 days, or 48 hours. So let’s take and divide the acreage by 48 and see how many acres it burned per hour. This comes out to an average of 145.3 acres an hour. Yes when it first started it burned slower, and there was a time where it consumed much more than this figure. We will now divide this by 60 to get the average acres per minute. This average is 2.43 acres per minute. I’m sorry but personally I’m just not that fast of a runner. (Comparing of the 2 fires – link.)  http://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_rn183/psw_rn183.pdf  And here is the link to the Inaja fire tragedy.  http://www.coloradofirecamp.com/cedar_fire/inaja_fire_introduction.htm

Now on to the continuation of what transpired (Again it is important that the terms be understood, otherwise this information could  leave one scratching their head). We remained glued to the radio, so to speak, during our standby hours, and slowly the radio chatter died as the equipment went beyond the repeaters that allowed us to hear. We retired to the barracks, something common during that time, and something that doesn’t generally exist for the stations with engines in the present time. Again our day back then was 15 hours. 8 hours regular schedule, and 7 hours of standby for which we received 25% of our base pay. During that time when one responded to a fire and was active on that fire you also received a 10% hazard duty pay. This was based on what you were earning at the time. So if you responded and attacked a fire, for the time you were on that fire up to the time of control, you would receive that bonus. Although, your pay would remain in standby mode if a fire began during that time, and that 10% would be based on your standby pay. Again at this time there was no overtime, so one ever earned a lot even with a running fire. As an example, I earned less than $2 an hour.

With the dawn we were alerted by the 3 beeps that meant a dispatch was eminent. The alert immediately pulled us out of our sleep and all of us waited to see which units would be dispatched and where the fire was. Again much has changed since that time. With the advances in communications equipment, only the stations that need to respond are alerted instead of a general forest wide alert. I was a crewman and as such was required to ride on the back of the class 1 engine. Again at this time the engines were either class 1 or class 2 with the prevention units classified as class 3. Simply stated the class I engines used a power takeoff unit to drive the pump, A single stage centrifugal pump, while allowing better pumping qualities it meant that once the pump was engaged that your engine became stationary. Again with time this has changed and now these same engines can do both, operate the pump and if necessary do a running attack.

Time to understand what this means: Running attack. In the city, most of the time such is unnecessary, since fire departments within a city normally deal with structures, so being able to move while fighting a fire isn’t necessary(Although in the present many cities have rigs that will be able to perform a running attack). In wildfires, many times, you need the ability to have the engine move with you so that you can attack the moving fire with you advancing with it, using your hard line or lines, simply the hard rubber hose on rollers, to attack the flanks of the fire. The canvas looking hose is known as CJRL meaning Cotton Jacket Rubber Lined, with 2 sizes being standard within wildland firefighting – inch and inch and one-half. City departments generally use a two and one-half inch hose or larger.

Class II units were flatbed trucks with a slide-on unit that had an independent pump and 4 cycle motor that drove the pump, making them ideal for running attacks. Of course the air cooled motor wasn’t as strong pushing the single stage centrifugal pump as the class ones, so the heavier pumping jobs were always left to the class I units. In the district that I worked we had 6 units, 3 class I, and 3 class II, with the class II’s being placed in the more remote areas, leaving the class I’s located either in or close to rural communities. For many, the USFS, and their volunteer departments were their only fire protection. Of course the Forest Service was famous for saving the foundations, which was always an inside joke, although it did carry a kernel of truth to the statement. After all, the distances to many of the residences were too great to be able to arrive in a timely manner, to save the structure.

The unit that I was assigned was in the middle of a rural community, and the reason that it was one of the class I units. Again because we were also the district office we had a mother or nurse tanker, simply a unit whose only purpose was to provide water to the engines and not be directly involved in fighting the fire, although it could if necessary. All the engines during that time carried 300 gallons of water, which isn’t a lot of water. This was also the reason for the type of pump. We did not have the unlimited water supplies that the cities have. So you learned to conserve what you had, and that nurse or mother tanker was critical in maintaining your attack on the wildfire.

From the dispatch office we learned that a fire had broken out on the district next to ours, so our initial assumption was that we would be sitting by the sidelines once again, listening, as another fire raged out of control, but to our surprise we were included in the initial dispatch, because we were actually the next closest unit to the fire origin. All the engines in those days had open crew seating, which meant you were open to the elements. While the driver or engineer, and the foreman or captain were inside, with another crewman sitting between the two. Also because of the earlier fire, there was a minimal crew for this dispatch. And being the junior crewman I was on the back of the unit where I could hear nothing of what was transpiring between the engine and dispatch. We left “red light and siren” and headed east out of the station. The winds were blowing hard and were cold. I was freezing, grabbing a wool blanket and wrapped up in it. Adrenaline was flowing, after all this wouldn’t be a small fire. These conditions made sure of that.

So began my experience on my first large wildland fire. As we continued east the grayness of dawn began to fade and soon the sun would be rising over the mountains with another day in the backcountry ahead and an unknown future for me. And if you missed part 1, here is the link back.  https://windmillsmetaphor4writing.wordpress.com/2013/08/03/a-slice-of-life-part-1/

Part 3 will be just ahead in a future post as I continue describing a slice of my personal past.

A Slice of Life, Part 1

All of us, young or old, have a history. If you are only 5 years old your personal history may not seem to be very long, but that isn’t necessarily so. After all your history actually reaches back through your unknown ancestors. And if those ancestors hadn’t come together as they had, you wouldn’t be you. I know, for example, that my father was seriously interested in another woman before he met my mother. Circumstances were such that this first relationship failed. Had it not I wouldn’t exist, or if I did, it would be as a completely different individual, not knowing that the one writing these words could ever exist. And the chances that you became you seems to diminish as you go down your personal family tree. In the end this is probably what makes ancestry searches and such so popular. The problem with these searches is that you usually end up with a name, and if lucky maybe a picture. Who they truly were, how they lived, the problems they faced, and so much more remains a mystery. Sometimes though, you find a famous person and other times a villain, such is life.

So with these thoughts I decided to write this post and others in the following weeks showing a small part of my life, long before I found my life mate, before I was drafted, at a time where I had one goal after leaving high school, and that was to become a wildland firefighter. Of course, at that time in our history, these fires were not called by such. These fires were simply known as forest fires and you fought the same. Yet, since language is flexible, it is always changing, with words falling into favor and just as quickly falling out of favor once more. Again, with any who have followed this blog for any length of time it is known that I claim to be a country hick and proud of it. But my history begins as a city kid who moved to the country, to a remote piece of property with no power, no phone, and a windmill for water, when I was turning 7.

What an adventure that was for my brothers and myself. So much to do, so much to explore, so much to experience, and we did. In those first 3 years we came close to being burned out by some of those wildfires, and 47 years later it did finally happen. I feel that these early experiences pushed me in that direction of wanting to fight these fires. I became a seasonal employee of the USFS and did just that. I learned, fought small fires, and found that I really loved this kind of life and work. The Forest Service was for me and I reveled in the lifestyle. It was a time where many of the distance ranger stations had no phones, and some had only temporary power. A system of hand crank phones had been used so that these stations could contact or be contacted by the district office. It really made it seem like these stations were really isolated. In later years I was stationed at some of these locations and they truly were not that isolated – so goes one’s perception.

In the area where I grew up there are weather conditions that develop that can lead to these deadly wildfires. If one really thinks about it, almost anywhere one lives there is something either from the weather or the earth itself that can lead to natural disasters. It was at that time, in the fall, where highs and lows would form in such a way to create hot dry easterly winds. Many times the winds could easily gust to 100 mph (hurricane strength) with steady winds clocked at around 60 mph. Add to this mix a long hot dry summer, and humidities easily falling into the single digits, this meant that the wildlands were set for disaster. Again at this time, freeways did not exist, and it was usually that 2-lane blacktop road that had to be traveled. When these winds would arrive the roads would be closed – just too dangerous to travel.

These were the conditions that first year of firefighting, and of course, it still exists today. A large fire had broken out far north of us and equipment was being funneled to help (A common practice still used today). Again we had the winds and they had been clocked at 60 mph (from the station in Alpine), with the gusts pushing upwards to 90 (at the location of the fire origin that we responded to), logged at the Pine Hills station – an extreme situation. We all hoped that nothing would start where we were. After all, with the equipment pulled for another fire we were spread quite thin. All of us gathered around the radio to listen to what we could as to what was transpiring with the known fire. Of course we could only catch a little, and the rest was speculation and rumor. The way radio transmissions works for the USFS has to do with what they call repeaters. These are located on high peaks throughout the districts and National Forests. At the time one would manually switch between the repeaters to catch what was being said. Of course many would be pointed away from our location and so we could only catch one side or maybe a part of the conversation. When an engine would go so far in a particular direction it would change to the nearest repeater and we would lose the conversation.

It was a time of PBY’s and TBM’s as retardant drop planes (These were WWII surplus torpedo bombers converted to fight wildfires). A time where they could only be ordered into service once a fire had taken off with no control in sight. Today most retardant planes are included in the initial dispatch or response so that a fire can be stopped as quickly as possible. But there are limitations to what they can and cannot do. Once the winds start blowing with any strength, like what is being described here, they are grounded. Helitac  was just beginning and wasn’t a big factor, while today it is one of the major tools in fire suppression. This isn’t saying that they were not used, because they were. Hand crews, hotshots if you like, were transported into remote areas to work the lines, constructing fireline both where the fire is active and where it has already passed. In fact in one disaster it was determined that the helicopter was one of the influences. http://www.coloradofirecamp.com/fire-origins/loop-fire-brief.htm

It doesn’t matter whether you are part of an initial attack, or hotshots that come in later, once a fire has become large, this type of firefighting, not that any type of firefighting isn’t, is dangerous. In the link above this crew was doing one of the safest operations that one could do, but it still cost lives. Yet, when one attacks one of these wildfires such thoughts don’t enter one’s mind. It is you against nature as she rages out of control. It is hot dirty work and in my time, again today much is different, one could be on the fireline for as long as it takes. My longest shift was 36 hours, and that’s a long time to be fighting an active wildfire. On this particular fire where we had that 36 hour shift, we came off the fire for 4 hours and then returned for another 12 hour shift.

Still, I have to admit that I loved it. Loved the time of working the forest, fighting the fires, and all aspects that isn’t being mentioned here. Eventually an injury forced me out and I had to change my life direction. But for any of us that isn’t something that is unusual. None of us know what our future is, and that still applies today. As I stated above, In the following weeks I’ll continue with this, adding links, defining or explaining what is meant and will cover my first major fire and what happened. And in addition, I promise, for those who are unfamiliar with the terms that I will use, that I will attempt to explain them. After all every field and industry has its own terms usually only known to those who work within. We are presently in the middle of fire season and have already had one of those tragedies, similar to the link above, happen this year and these tragedies are never expected or wanted but are also a part of life. And with that I’ll close this week’s post with the narrative continuing next week and the following weeks.

Published in: on August 3, 2013 at 7:48 am  Comments (2)  
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Fire Season

Any place that one lives, there is some type of natural disaster that they can face. In the west it is earthquakes and fires, and with the northwest you can add volcanoes, the central part of our country it is tornadoes, flooding and blizzards, and the east coast hurricanes and with the northeast there is the chance of blizzards also . Where I lived most of my life, and the ones who’ve read my short bio also know, that wildfires and earthquakes, plus the fact that I also fought wildfires for a number of years, are the natural disasters I faced. I do have a few pictures that I’ve taken over that time, and the many memories that these pictures bring back to me, and I will, from time to time, tap into these memories for use in my fictional worlds. The next 2 weeks I’ll be posting a short story in 2 parts, that deals with this subject of wildfire, and the unsatisfactory outcome that many face.

In the area where I grew up, fire season ran from April, and ended in December, with some of the worst fires happening in late September or October. For many who live in areas with lots of rain, they would consider the area where I lived as desert. But it truly is not so, since I’ve visited and enjoyed the desert, and there is no comparison between the two regions. Where I presently live, we have at least 9 months of winter, and many times more, and barely any other season. This is quite different from most of my life, where it was completely reversed. Rainfall was measured on the coast, and an average year was around 9 to 10″. Winter ran for around 3 months and even through that time, there would be weeks of sunny beautiful days. In the mountains the area rainfall could average into the 30’s, and there could actually be snow at the highest elevations. But the snow never remained very long – a couple of weekends to a month, and it was usually gone.

So with such a low amount of rain the vegetation has adapted and much of it goes dormant once past the wet season. Then, as summer advances, and temperatures rise, sometimes reaching the 100’s that could run for a couple of weeks, this would lead to the vegetation drying out even further. In the area where I presently am, if there is no rain for a week, they are in a drought. And if temps rise and stay a couple of days in the high 90’s then they are having a heat wave. Of course we who are from a drier climate, laugh at this. Again the area I grew up in has been running an 11 year drought – creating a tinderbox, just waiting for something to light it off. Then, as summer winds down, and fall arrives, most of the time with little or no rain, a weather condition usually developes with  high pressure over the four corners region and  low pressure off the coast – santa ana winds. These winds can reach hurricane force, and generally blow out of the 3 directions of the east, changing as the high and low shift locations. Temperatures rise, and humidities drop, sometimes into the single digit range. This sets the stage for conflagrations.

I’ve heard people, who really know nothing about these fires say, “I don’t worry about them. I’m sure that if I saw one I could outrun it and be safe.” All I can do is shake my head because of their ignorance. Let’s look, for a moment, at a fire that was pushed by these winds back in the 70’s on the west coast, and until the 2000’s was the largest fire in California’s history. It burned 186,000 acres. Here’s some averages for you. This fire did this damage in 5 days, and that averages out to 25.83 acres a minute. That’s an average, so when it first started it would be burning less than this, and at its full intensity more. I know of no one who runs that fast. In the wildlands, fire spreads exponentially. And here is what this means: If, in the first 5 minutes a fire burns 1 acre, then in the next 5 minutes it will burn 2, and then 4, and then eight, especially when pushed by santa ana winds. Another example of this was back in 1975. A fire was reported by the lookout, and the first engine on the scene arrived only 5 minutes after the initial report, and it was already at least 2 acres in size and running. We were dispatched and was somewhere between 30 to 45 minutes away, yet, by the time we arrived on scene, it was probably at least 500 acres in size, and flat running over anything in its way. in the 2 days that it burned, it consumed over 7,000 acres before suppression efforts stopped its advance.

On that same fire there was a small rural community directly in its path, and it did burn through it. There was a few structures lost, but not from lack of trying to protect them. The intensity of the fire, plus the thickness of the smoke hindered efforts. At one home we were protecting we put 2 lines of water into the fire to knock it down, and it did nothing. The fire was so intense, that initially the water was evaporating before reaching the fire. Eventually as it consumed the fuels it had to burn, it lost its intensity, and we were able to save the house – you always wish that you could save them all, but it is something that is quite impossible.

So, once again, this year the southwest received less than average amounts of rainfall. And, as already being demonstrated, this fire season will be another tough and severe one – with comments from people who do not live in these areas, saying that “They would never live where natural disasters could affect them”, forgetting, that no matter where you live you can face nature’s fury.

So, in the next 2 weeks I’ll be posting a short fictional story, parts 1 and 2, that deals with the other side of this. Not from a suppression point of view, but of ones trying to save their home, unsuccessfully, from one of these santa ana pushed fires. While fictional, it is very close to the reality that many in the backcountry face or have faced in the past. And one further note, “Time of Isolation“, has an official release date as an e-book, of June 20, 2012, and will be available in all e-book formats. The genre is Science Fiction and is the first in the Survival series.

Overrun!

Late in 1967 I was hired by the USPS as a seasonal employee. As positions opened because other seasonals’ were heading back to college, it gave me an opportunity to see if indeed wildland fire fighting would be something that I would enjoy. I had just turned 18 and reached the minimum age to be able to work for the government. Up until this time, studying and working in the local volunteer fire department had been the extent of my experience.

I always looked back to that crash of the military jet on our property in 1958 as the influence to become a fire fighter. The aircraft flew into our area during a foggy night, flying much too low. He hit a pile of boulders and exploded, with the front wing tearing off the aircraft and  continuing on its original path, flying over our house and then landing on the hillside behind the house. We were surrounded by fire – back to the incident.

The winds began to blow out of the east with gusts hitting 90 miles per hour. Then a major fire started, north on another forest, and equipment was being pulled to help suppress that fire. Our district was stripped leaving half the equipment it normally had. (This was, and still is, a normal procedure when other areas have a major incident break.) Then early next morning there was a new report of a fire breaking in the next district over from us. We were the closest unit out of our district and were dispatched along with what had been dispatched in that other district.

At the time there was only a 2 lane black top road as the main road through the county, and when these winds would blow the road would be shut down. We were the only vehicle on the road and the winds were blowing us all over the road. It was impossible to keep the fire truck in our own lane. Half way to the reported fire we were turned around with a report of another start. Heading back down the road we were still all over the road as the winds were now hitting us in the rear. Eventually when we got to where this report had been we could see that there was no new fire. What was being seen was the heavy dark smoke from the fire we were originally dispatched. Because of the strength of the winds the smoke was funneling down through the canyons and not rising in a defined convection column.

We finally arrived in the area of this major incident and immediately attacked a spot fire. Once under control we headed for a large overgrazed meadow next to the forest service station that had made the initial attack on the fire. The weather station that was there had been blown over and destroyed. The winds were so strong that if one opened the door on the fire engine that it was immediately grabbed out of one’s hands and either thrown wide open or slammed shut. Anything loose in the cab was grabbed and then thrown out and lost. As the fire continued to throw out spot fires we attacked them as we could. I watched fire travel across that meadow where I believed no fire could go.

One of the safety commands that must be learned is, “Situations that shout Watch Out!” This one states this: “You are making a frontal attack on a fire.” Followed by Standard Fire Fighting Order #4, which states, “Have Escape Routes for everyone and make them known.” That night anchoring off a spot fire that had been suppressed, we awaited the main fire along with a lot of other equipment. Hand crews had used the black area from the suppressed spot fire, and had worked their way into the danger zone and out of sight from where we were situated, which was on a single lane dirt road. Our escape route was down that road and away from the station that we had been close to earlier that day.

The fire hit us all at once. First the night sky lit up with falling burning embers which fell like rain and were falling across our line and began igniting spot fires. We were desperately attempting to keep up the sheer number of new fires starting. They were starting so fast that it became impossible to put them out and they began to combine. Just about this time the head of the main fire approached from the opposite direction and we found ourselves between the main fire and the combining spot fires. The fire had gone by us with no effort at all, leaving us surrounded by fire. Word had come down that the direction we had set up for our escape was now blocked as the fire had jumped the road in that direction earlier. Now facing a rising danger I was directed to assist in turning around the engine so that we could head back to that meadow area. As I directed the truck in the change of direction the whole area now was on fire. Everywhere I looked all vegetation was fully involved and the area lit up with an eerie orange-red glow, with flames everywhere. Once turned around we all got into the cab, and when we finally were able to leave, we had flames curling around the hood, and had any of us been in the outside back seat, we would have been burned, and had the fire engine stalled all would have perished.

And this was my introduction to wildland fire fighting. I found that I truly loved it and continued for a number of years until an injury took me out of it forever.

Published in: on October 17, 2011 at 10:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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