A True Account of Forest Firefighting on the Timber Basin Fire
by Chuck Day
8/14/01 - Notification to go to fire!
It was 6:30 in the evening I had just gotten off the computer from writing my girlfriend Kathy an email of that day's activities. Stan called. I instantly knew what this meant. The fire season had been a bad one and most of the office had been on at least one fire this year already. People like me make managers uneasy, I'm considered a possible problem when sent because I always question how things are done. No one wants to change how operations are done. I usually will always stand my ground and I'm considered an old timer. So the young bucks see me as something in their way.
I really didn't care if I went or not. My close friend Dave Buchholtz had just died of liver cancer and I really wanted to go to his funeral. Dave loved fighting fire and loved to tell stories of his work on fires. So this story is dedicated to the memory of Dave Buchholtz: Surveyor, Forester, Forest Firefighter and Good Friend.
I told Stan yes, I could go but I hated missing Dave's funeral. I told him I would get my gear and head out by 7:40 P.M. That would put me into Monument, Oregon by 2:30 A.M. I scrambled to assemble my firefighting gear and get the paperwork at the office. The new alarm system was a hassle and I didn't even know if I had correctly activated it! So I left a message for my boss to come check it out after I left!
I had loaded everything I thought I might need into my assigned 4x4 pickup at the office. The drive was a long one and nighttime road construction projects had traffic slowed in many places along the route. When I reached the John Day River valley, I noticed how much smoke was accumulating in the valley as I drove through the mountains toward Monument. The smell of a forest fire is distinctive, for forest firefighters they get a little jolt of energy from the smell knowing that action is just ahead. I imagine the same rush flows through veins of soldiers before combat in a hot situation. I finally rolled into Monument at 2:30 A.M. I hadn't taken a dinner break or anything--just thrown things in the truck and left. The Fire Camp had been set up at the school in Monument. I checked into timekeeping and was told I would be on the next day's day shift plan. I crashed for a nap in my truck in the parking lot in front of the school. I had set my watch to 4 A.M. for my alarm to wake me up but slept through it. My "bladder" back up alarm woke me up anyway about ten minutes later than I wanted to wake up. The adrenaline rush from a project fire was kicking in, too. Even though I had two hours sleep I was ready to go.
I had been sent to be a Division Supervisor Trainee, (Div. Sup) because it had been over 3 years since I had been sent to a fire in that position. The paperwork I carried wasn't deemed sufficient to send me out as a Division Supervisor Trainee. I was instead sent as a Task Force Leader (TUFL). I didn't much care because I thought the paper work would get straightened out along the way!
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8/15/01 Day 1 of the fire for me.
I was assigned, along with Dave, another firefighter, to work with Dan, the Division Supervisor of the "Timber Basin" fire approximately 500 acres in size. This was a real fire, not just a bunch of sagebrush and juniper flaming across high desert. This was a stand of mature pine and fir with houses mixed into the fray. The first objective was to save the homes and structures in the area, then fight the fire. Kind of a backward method of fighting a fire in my estimation. A tremendous amount of effort and resources are tied up protecting structures that could be used to keep the fire much smaller. I realize that this statement will not set well with homeowners in forest settings, but no one forced them to build in these areas or conditions. So they need to either pay extra for fire protection and/or suffer the consequences of fires burning near their homes.
We were given assignments at the morning briefing; it starts at 4:30 A.M. and is usually over by 5:30 A.M. Literally everything was in short supply, Dan asked me to pick up some double A batteries for radios at staging then get 6 cases of water and 6 lunches. I also had to get my radio cloned. That's a process where the radio technician creates the same frequencies on your radios as the Fire Camp. I had my truck and the handheld radio I had brought from my District both cloned. Each fire is given it's own radio frequencies to keep communications open and clear. Keeping hydrated is really important especially when you're under the stress of an active fire--the main reason to take along extra water. I had a blistering headache but figured it would go away with the activity.
After loading up the available equipment and getting the radios worked on I caught up with Dan as he prepared to leave out of Operations. We followed the convoy of trucks and equipment toward the fire location in the morning darkness. It was a rag tag bunch of vehicles heading into the darkness. We were to meet two crews at Kimberly (a spot in the Road Town). We stopped in front of the general store where two full vans of firefighters sat. We discussed the fire and had a tailgate safety meeting; I stressed safety above all and keeping hydrated. I hadn't been on a fire in so long I felt a little out of place, with my large presence and my graying beard I probably looked and sounded more experienced than I am. Well, I have experience but times had changed and so had I, from years of being left out of the fire program. From the description of the fire and the surrounding area I knew we were in for an interesting next few days. I hoped what I said about safety had sunk in at least a little.
As we turned off the main road up Dick Creek we began to meet the night shift coming off the line. They were an even more rag tag bunch coming down the dusty road. I recognized several of the people coming out as other Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) personnel. I stopped and talked to Keith, an ODF forester from Tillamook. Keith is a pretty laid back individual and he was definitely tired from the long night. Basically all I got out of him was they didn't have a clue as to how big a job we had ahead of us.
We pulled into the driveway (I think the sign said Koffman's) the last house on the right side of the road before the road got really bad. Ribbons and signs with "To fire" pointed the way. We pulled into the yard of a nice home, situated back 4 miles from nowhere. Daylight was breaking and evidence of how close the fire came to this home was right in front of us. The brush and tall dead grass barely 100 feet from the house were painted orange by the airdrops made by the air tankers the previous day. Trees smoldered and small fires ignited along downed wood and brush pockets. Nothing to get excited about, just the fire creeping around in the morning cool trying to stay alive to start rapid burning again when the sun was full in the heat of the day.
We took a look at what was on site and made a quick inventory. Portable tanks, hose, and pumps had been dropped off in the yard. We had no knowledge of how big the fire really was. I looked at the map given to us at the morning briefing and couldn't seem to get any of the landmarks to line up! My thought was they had given us the wrong map. I drove as much of the fire as I could in the morning light. Dan was still lining out crews and finding equipment. I was sent inventorying where equipment was and which way I would attack the fire. I met a landowner, Chet, from the Eastside of the fire boundary. Chet had been on the fire from the very beginning. He had been with the ODF initial attack crew. Chet had an issue with the methods being used and wanted to use me as a sounding board. One of the ODF initial crewmembers had attempted to set a backfire without a fire line to burn from. Chet said we almost had the fire under control then (the ODF person) set the backfire and away the fire went. He wanted me to know this in case there needed to be an investigation. I told Chet that I would follow up on this information after we had the fire under control. Chet was so animate about the situation he took me to the spot where the backfire was set. I told him I could see why he was concerned and then again assured him that his concerns would be heard later. The day was beginning to heat up so I drove back over the local boulder patch that served as a road back to the Southwest corner of the fire where I had begun my travel. Dan wanted to start a hose lay on the Southwest corner of the fire near the ridge. Dan had already sent Dave back down the road working with the structural firefighters to work around the home sites back down the road. I loaded a portable tank, a pump and some hose on the back of my truck. I drove up an old skid road to a saddle on the ridge near where dozers had cut fire line around the fires edge the day before. This was a good location where water tinders could easily turn around. Dan called me on my truck radio asking my location.
Dan wanted me to stay at my location he was sending me a D7 dozer up the ridge to my location. The fire was beginning to build on the slope directly above the house where we had first came into the fire. Trees were torching and the fire was headed up slope. We knew if the fire crested the ridge, we would have a much larger fire on this front of the fire. I parked my truck well in "the black" and left my keys in the ignition so the truck could be used to move men or equipment to safety. I finally put my boots on, I hated booting up, I knew my old leather boots were 9 years old and not very forgiving anymore, Dan caught up to me as I finished. He told me he wanted me to be a Dozer boss for him at this time. A Dozer boss in the beginning of a fire can be a real challenge. Lots of walking and trail scouting while you're blind to what is going on, since you don't know the size or shape of the fire. Just a little knowledge helps a lot but without accurate topographical maps or prior knowledge of the terrain you just have to stay close to the fire's edge and hope you can tie into something out in front of you. I reached into the glove compartment of my truck and pulled out the disposable camera I kept there for documentation of accidents. I pulled off the wrapper and stuck it in the pocket of my fire shirt. I had my web belt on with 2 quarts of water and my fire shelter. I also had my handheld radio. I had stuffed a couple of rolls of ribbon in my pocket knowing I would be marking lots of cat line the rest of the day. I was still pretty clean, only having set up a portable tank.
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The dozer operator was a 61-year-old young man named Lee. He was experienced and knowledgeable of the country. I liked that it gave me hope we could do some good. Lee asked me how I wanted to do this? I told him I would walk ahead and tie ribbon where I wanted him to clear the dozer line down to bare soil. I wanted the fire line at least a blade width wide along the line and pushing the up rooted trees away from the fire line. I told him to be very careful not to push dirt over any burning debris and not push any fire out of the lines. I started up the ridge tying this fire line into where the last of the fire line had been made the previous day. The wind was blowing up the slope toward the top of the ridge as Lee and I worked the line up the ridge. Helicopters droned over head and began asking for instructions as to where they could most effectively drop their loads of water. I had left my compass in my truck, a mistake I determined I wouldn't make again. The smoke was so thick I could only vaguely make out the helicopters overhead. I knew I was on the Southwest corner of the fire so helicopters coming from up the slope had to be to the North of me. I could hear the helicopters but the smoke was so thick I couldn't see them hovering over our position. Finally I could see a blurry silhouette just above our location. I told them to go head and drop their load. 1000 gallons of water rained down through the treetops and smoke. The cool mist felt good as it wafted across the slope in a fast disappearing mist. I instructed drops as close to the dozer as I could, I knew Lee was taking a lot heat and smoke through the cab of the dozer. I couldn't see the dozer from less than 50 feet from me in the streaming dust, smoke, and fire. Lee backed up and made another push, trees crashed down at my heels as I as I sprinted up the slope. My old boots bit my feet unmercifully, there was no time to retie them, just keep running. I knew Lee couldn't see me and I was on my own until he was out of harms way. I saw flames leap horizontal across the trail igniting the thick smoke flowing through the cab of Lee's dozer. This was firefighting at its best and most dangerous situation imaginable. Fire jumped across the line. Lee backed up and rerouted around the new spot. The helicopters dropped on the site where the flames licked at our side. Lee moved the dozer on the backside of the slope we had been driven from the crest and now would try to catch the fire before it could back down the slope.
We worked on the ridge for good reason--fire tends to slow as it changes over the top of the slope. The air drafting into the fire from the opposite side of the hill feeds the fire air but it slows the fire and some of the sparks and embers are blown back into the fire itself. The fire usually drops to the ground and spreads across the top of the slope on the ground then climbing back into the trees. The fire behavior was very erratic and explosive. We had been right along the front edge of the fire, as the fire swept up the lower slope consuming the forest at a terrific rate. I knew there was no fire in front of us down the slope to the Southwest and we could escape there as long as we kept the fire from crossing behind us and into the draw. We were also headed toward open country at the end of the ridge. The timbered valley to the North and on the right side of the ridge was lost. We were attempting to cut a fire line almost due West to keep the fire from expanding farther South. A strong East wind was determined to help the fire jump past our line.
As we slipped around the end of the ridge the fire intensity greatly dropped. I knew this was a time we had to go back and see what we had lost. I needed to know if our line was holding, with the intensity of the fire and the ladder fuels I doubted we could hold this fire with a single blade width of fire trail. I left Lee on the ridge and walked back along the line. Crowning trees (crowning is the trees bursting into flames kind of like a crown of flame) had caused the fire to jump the line in several places. The fire was burning slower on this backside of the ridge. The reason we had cut the line so close to the fire on the ridge was an attempt to take the fuel away from the fire. We had succeeded in slowing but not stopping the fire build up. I ran back the quarter mile we had just cut line on and told Lee we needed to go back and try again. I told him to widen the line that was still good and I would mark the places where the line needed to be made. This line went faster because we had slowed the fires build up and it was now trying to burn down slope. We had lost another 150 feet of width along the ridge but we were gaining control of this section. The ladder fuels allowed the flames to literally leap from the ground up through the tree's limbs. I told Lee he needed to make the fire line wider and knock down trees that had heavy ladder fuels that were near the fire line.
We made our way back across the slope and I felt much better about our chances of control on this segment of line. I was drinking water whenever I got a chance to slow down and pull a water bottle out. As we approached our original jump off location I found Kevin walking across the slope toward me. He told me he had been sent by Dan to help us build line with his dozer on this portion of line. I asked him where the dozer was he said he had been following our line and was just over the ridge on the line where the fire had jumped the line. I didn't know we had lost our helicopter support to the other side of the fire but it didn't seem to matter at this time. They had helped us hold the saddle on the ridge. Our lines held the backside of the slope and around the end of the ridge.
I lined both the dozer's to widen the new line and we headed back toward the leading edge of the fire. When we reached the last area that Lee and I had worked we took the line back to the ridge top. We cut the fire's access to the scab flat on the end of the ridge. (A scab flat is open ground with scattered rock grass and sagebrush, usually almost treeless). We successfully hooked the end of the ridge and headed to the top. I could finally get communications on my radio. The wind that had been blowing hard to the South had changed. It now was blowing from the West toward the Southeast. This was a pretty quick turn around and the fire had evidently surprised the crews. A call on the radio from the ridge top and I was told not to try to return back on the trail we had just built. The end South of where we had jumped off from had been lost and the fire was turning back around to the South. I talked to the Lee and Kevin and ask if they thought we could flank the fire by going North and back around to the Northwestern most part of the fire. From our vantage point it was evident the rim rock ridge leading a half mile to the Northwest was effectively stopping the fire. We would simply slip behind the ridge and make our way back around to the fire. I estimated we would need to cross country the dozer's for about 3 miles.
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Little did I know another dozer operator, Bob, was in the middle of a life and death situation, he had been sent down a narrow over grown road in the bottom of a canyon. Had he started at daylight this would have been a good road to open up but now it was nearing noon. The winds had kept the fire on the Northwest side of the road. Bob maneuvered his John Deere 650 down the road pushing the trees away from the road. The wind was swirling and he knew this was a bad sign, Bob had doubted the plan from the beginning. Yes, he knew the road was there but would it do any good and what if the wind changed? Still, Chet had assured him that the road was open so all he had to do was open it up wider to stop the fire.
We spent the next three hours making our way around the long ridge where we had built fire line to the top. My feet were killing me. I sometimes walked sometimes rode on the lead dozer across the slopes. I ran out of water by 4 P.M. and Lee offered me a cold soda from his lunch box. I really appreciated the cold refreshing soda. My right foot had a blister about the size of a quarter on top of my foot where my over tightened laces had worn into my arch. My left foot had a smaller blister on a toe still a little hide loss was to be expected in a battle like this. I had walked almost 6 miles that day in boots that hadn't been worn in 2 years. I got what I deserved from these old boots. I knew I had another pair of boots in my truck, not exactly regulation boots but that would be much easier on my poor blistered feet. I hobbled across the slope when we finally tied back into the fire line. It was a ridge top just above a newly constructed Yurt.
I met up with Dave, my counterpart, who had been working around the structures lining out crews and protecting the private lands. Dave had been kept busy on the line around the houses, setting up portable tanks and spreading out the crews as they arrived on site. Dave was guiding a D6 up the slope toward my position and happy to see me back on site and I released the dozers over to Dave. I left Lee and Kevin on the ridge and walked down to the Yurt. I bummed a ride from one of the falling crews back around to the house I had started from early that morning. It was close to 7:00 P.M. by the time I arrived back at the house. Hand crews were leaving heading out for Fire Camp. I still had a half-mile walk back to my truck parked on the ridge. I got back and called Dan on my truck radio, my handheld radio batteries had died hours ago so I had been out of touch for quite a while. I knew I needed to give him my status and find out about the night crews. Dan was still sorting out the tangle from his East edge fire location.
After we filled out the shift paper work and signed everybody off, Dan told me to head in and get something to eat, I had eaten enough smoke. I wasn't very hungry that night. Besides back at Fire Camp they were still trying to set up the food service kitchen. They had been using the school's small kitchen, which was quickly overwhelmed by the volume of people now being processed though with each shift. It was a 40-mile drive back to Fire Camp in the evening darkness. I arrived back at 9 P.M., checked into timekeeping, and checked to see if my status had changed--it hadn't. I just went ahead and found a place to park my truck, took off my boots, lay back across the seat and fell asleep. My bladder alarm wakened me to get up at 4 A.M. I changed my socks pulling a quarter-sized patch of skin off with the sock! Ouch, that got my attention. From my wallet I pull out a bandage and put it on the top of my foot. I dug out my hunting boots from behind my seat. They weren't tall enough to be regulation boots but with my pant legs over the tops no one would know, besides they were so much easier on my feet. They weighed less than half what my old vibram boots and were 10 times easier on my feet.
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Bob's story on the Monument Fire.
(As recounted to Chuck D. on the close of the fire as he waited to try to straighten out his equipment and personnel time reports in the Fire Camp at the Monument School.)
A small man with dark hair and sparkling eyes, Bob is in his 60's, but still very vibrant. Bob was working in the area with his John Deere 650 when the lighting strikes started the Timber Basin fire. Bob was one of the first dozer operators to begin building fire trail on the fire the first night. Bob was a friend of Chet and Willis. Willis was the forester for a local wood products company, an intense man with strong opinions and little patience with incompetent people. Reading his face you instantly knew what he thought of your ideas. Chet is a friendly smiling man who you instantly like, Chet is a landowner of a small timber section at the bottom of the canyon on the Southeast edge of the fire bordered by BLM on the West and the wood products company's land on the North.
The lightning strikes had been on BLM land on the ridge above the inhabited areas of the mountain. It had spread quickly to the Northwest but also backing down all around the strike points. A backfire attempt may have helped the fire to leap over the area and race over the ridge down toward the houses on the Southwest edge of the fire. Air tankers swooping in low, making numerous drops and almost on top of the houses, halted the fires approach to the dwellings the first night. The homeowners had quickly grabbed what they could and escaped down Dick Creek Road. Bob had worked the West edge of the fire up and over the hill down toward the homes. He had built nearly a mile of line before the night was over. He headed back over the hill and tracked back down to Chet's cabin where his truck was parked. Exhausted, he headed home to return in 4 hours to continue the battle.
Firefighters often work long hours with little sleep and arduous work to be accomplished. The action of the running fire and the activity associated with the fire gives them almost super endurance to accomplish these tasks. It is the fact that you can make a difference and you get instant satisfaction knowing you stopped a fire, keeping it from destroying the trees and environment around you. You can see the trees and how everything is growing and alive. After a hot fire consumes an area just the dead lifeless trunks of trees and logs remain. They look like skeletons. We firefighters often fail to realize that this burning clears the way for new growth, a renewal of the forest. We are slaves to the idea that nothing should change, sort of how we would like to see ourselves never changing, living forever. Fire is an important part of this renewal of the forest, the problem is we live and work in this same environment. Without control of the fires we would have little left of our forest homes and the loss of timber would make timber production impossible. Controlled burning years prior to this forest fire could have greatly diminished the need for firefighting in this area. The very thick under brush and young conifers build ladders up into the tree canopy allowing fires to climb up into the tops of the biggest trees.
Bob returned to the fire in time to see the damage done the night before. It was still early in the morning and his dozer was still parked at Chet's cabin, along with his water tender and other equipment. Chet was organizing the attack of the fire on the North and East flanks of the fire. Dan was conferring with Chet, trying to get a lay of the land and an idea of how to bring the fire under control. Chet had already talked with me and I had been sent off up the ridge on the Southwest corner of the fire. The fire's growth was slow in the morning's cool, still it was bursting into action in places. This was a dirty burn, there was a tremendous amount of fuel, some had been consumed in the original fire but long stringers of now heat-dried timber were scattered all through the fire area. Re-burning of the area was a definite possibility. This is a problem because usually being in the black is the safest place on a fire. If you have a dirty fire that isn't necessarily true. You have to pick an area where there has been complete combustion of the fuels (a clean burned area). The leading edge of a fire works along the fine tinder in the cool hours of the morning, keeping itself alive. Smoldering stumps logs and snags hold fire to rekindle and begin the fire anew each morning. Sometimes the fire will actively burn all night long and keep moving.
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This fire was doing everything at once, some areas actively burning, some smoldering, some re-burning of burnt-over materials. This was a dangerous fire because it could move quickly in any direction depending on which way the wind was blowing or the fuels fed it. Chet wanted to protect a canyon above his cabin. It was a favorite hunting area for deer and elk. It also had a lot of valuable timber and was against the West edge of his property. Chet and Dan had Bob walk his dozer up Franks Creek Road to the top of the road intersection with Dick Creek Road. This was the Northwest corner and virtually the top of the fire. The fire spread to the South, East and West from here. The plan was for Bob to open and old road that traversed the North edge of the fire then swung to the East down Franks Creek canyon to Chet's cabin. The road came out right behind Chet's cabin, so Bob knew where he was going, but not how far it was or what the situation would be in the canyon. The fire had been backing down from the road above all night. Chet knew that if the fire jumped the canyon bottom, the fire would virtually double in size quickly. It would also bring the fire racing down upon his cabin and the surrounding area.
Bob headed his dozer down the old road through the 100-foot conifer trees on either side. This is a situation that forest firefighters call a "watchout" situation. Building fire trail downhill with an actively burning fire below you. This is true for both hand crews and dozer crews. Actually dozer operators tend to think they can push or clear their way out of any situation so they need to be more careful than hand crews. Often they mistakenly believe their big chunk of iron will protect them in any situation. Bob knew he was headed into a dangerous situation and he had his antenna up. It was too bad he didn't have a radio or a ground guide. There were no radios available and there were no extra personnel to help guide and scout out ahead for him, like I was doing for the other dozer operators on the opposite side of the fire. Bob was on his own. He just had to have faith that Chet was right and he could get the road opened up before the fire reached it!
Bob guided the dozer down the old road and saw the fire on his right was intensifying at an alarming rate as he widened the road out pushing over trees and pushing the brush away from the roadside. Still he thought the small drainage would hold enough moisture to keep it cool enough to keep working. Bob had noticed that it looked like the fire was across the road and already on the ridge in front of him. If this were true, his mission was already a failure and his only way out would be back up the road he had come in on. Bob began to worry as the fire burned right down to the road right behind him. He wanted to turn around and push it back but in an instant the fire jumped the road and began to vigorously burn up the slope on the other side. Bob knew he was in trouble, big trouble! He stopped clearing the road and shifted the dozer into high gear heading down the brush-covered road. He prayed Chet was right that there wasn't anything in the way down the old road.
This was a race--a hesitation or wrong move at this point could cost him his life! Bob's dozer roared down the road as black smoke billowed out of the stack. Looking down the road now there was a straight section of road the fire on the right had already reached the roadside. It also had spotted across the road about 75 feet up the slope, it was racing up the slope and backing back down to the road at the same time on the left side of the road. Bob knew he would be in and unlivable inferno if he stayed where he was. Bob pushed the throttle to full open, pulled his coat up over his face with his gloved right hand and drove along the left edge of the old road as fast as the dozer would go. Shielding his face from the intense heat with his coat and arm, his gloved hand and arm began to smoke and he could feel the intense heat. The dozer clinked along at top speed, the roar of the dozers engine partly masked the roar of the raging fire. The heat was so hot he couldn't look out, he had to pray a tree wasn't across the roadway to deflect his dozer off the road and into the inferno.
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The race lasted about 150 yards but it seemed like eternity to Bob. When the dozer slipped past the last of the fire along the side of the road, Bob dropped down the coat from his face. He had won the race. He took off his hot right glove and dropped his hand against the side of the dozer. He jerked his hand back instantly the side of the dozer was so hot, he couldn't touch it with out burning his hand. He had been seconds away from not making it out alive. Bob estimated that if he had to travel another 100 feet along the fire's edge he wouldn't have made it! He or his dozer would have burst into flames.
Dan was concerned when Chet suggested sending Bob down the road to flank the fire without a radio or anyone to scout for him. It was still early in the day and Dan had a hundred things to do and he had to organize a fire that he knew little or nothing about. The map provided was worthless. Someone had copied the wrong basin as the location of the fire. The road looked somewhat familiar but the surrounding topography didn't match that on the ground. Dan was at the mercy of those with local knowledge, he needed them to tell him where things were and then make a plan on how they might get this growing monster under control. In this situation he had to rely on Chet to help him line out personnel and equipment to the best it could be done. Especially since there was so little manpower available. Helicopters were flying the area, making drops trying to concentrate on the hotspots. Spotter planes flew the area relaying back information to Fire camp.
Fire Camp informed Dan of the build up of fire in the canyon where he had sent Bob! Dan began to worry about Bob, had he just killed this likable character sending him into an inferno? Dan had to believe Bob would be O.K. The blow up came fast and furious and the wind change was sudden and abrupt. The wind had been blowing 5 to 10 mph to the South Southwest. Now it was blowing 10 to 15 mph to the East and swirling back up the canyon to the North. The heat of the fire was beginning to develop it's own weather. Drifting in, the wind from different directions following the heat up the slopes. Fire Camp told Dan to pull back his men, get them out of the canyon behind Chet's. Dan did as he was told, knowing this could cost Chet his cabin. Chet told Dan he was staying with his two dozers and his crews would protect his cabin. Dan had his orders and Dan follows orders, so he pulled the ODF equipment and crews out, leaving Chet and his crew to fight the fire alone.
Helicopters kept dropping water and the spotter planes flew the area. The battle was pitched, Chet bladed and cleared the dead grass and debris away from around the cabin. His crew with the other dozer built additional fire trails behind the cabin. Fire swept down the South side of canyon and leapt to the North side. Fortunately it was a backing fire in the lower area or Chet and his crew would have been burned alive. The smoke and heat were terrible and everyone's eyes burned. As the battle went on Bob joined the fight from the backside of the fire. Chet was greatly relieved and even took Bob's scolding of "you damn near got me burnt up!" with a sigh of relief! Dan was greatly relieved when news filtered back to him that Bob was safe and sound at Chet's cabin.
ODF got a bad black-eye that day, they had chosen to run in the face of the fire on orders from Fire Camp. Was it a mistake to run? Maybe, but it would only have taken a little wind change to have lost all of Chet's crews and himself, as luck would have it this day was his! As for me, this is exactly why I'm not on a fire team, for I would have stayed and fought with Chet and his crew. My problem is I think someone on the ground knows more about the situation than someone flying over the fire. Fire Camp in my opinion should advise, not order ground personnel around. I will take a lot of heat for this statement, too!
The night crews arrived to replace the dog-tired dayshift. A lot of ground had been lost on the South, East and North lines. Only the lines around the houses had held to the day's blow up conditions. This was mostly because those were the lines most completely manned and equipped. Firefighters were on scene setting up portable tanks and pumps. Making hose lays and suppressing the fire's approach. There was a cost--we were losing more ground to the fire on the other fronts. The decision to protect dwellings at all cost was made at the top. The Governor directed it and the State Forester stands behind him. The night crew found a different fire than the one they had left. It was now twice the size it had been and the North canyon was on fire burning to the Northeast, as was the Southeast corner was burning to the East. Only the West line and the Southwest corner held that first day. We had been getting our collective butts kicked this day! It took night crew half the night to orient themselves with the new fire lines. They dispersed the arriving equipment the best they could do in the darkness of the night.
Dan said nothing to me of Bob's close call. I was not told anything of the situation only that the line assignments were changing. All the newly arriving equipment was being routed to Chet's cabin as a drop-off point. Willis was at the cabin with crews from the wood products company, since the fire was now on their property. He was the landowner contact for the North side of the fire. New correct maps showed us difficult terrain and a tremendous potential to the North and East if the fire were to get away. I was sent with 2 dozers, two 20-man crews and a tree faller to the Northeast corner of the fire. To the same road Bob had been sent down the previous day
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8/16/01 Day 2
The day started with my meeting Dan in the hall outside the briefing room. The fire was now an estimated 1,100 acres. Dan said situation had changed, the dozer line I had supervised building seemed to be holding. He was leaving Dave and a new man Dan B., a retired Forest Service employee (I like to tease the Forest Service, calling them the Forest Circus) to work on the Southwest corner. Dan B. was to supervise the Inmate crews from Powder River and Snake River. The fire's direction had swung around to the North and East and he was assigning me, two 20-man hand crews, and two dozers and a faller to build a line around the Northeast side of the fire. Dan was staying on the Eastside of the fire working with the landowners Chet and Willis. Dan warned me about the witching hour, 2 P.M,. that was the time that the fire build up became unstable and explosive. The fire would make long runs and jump fire lines. Getting out of the morning briefing at 5:30 A.M I then ran around and picked up equipment and batteries and had my radios cloned again (this was to correct a problem from the first day). I got a bite of breakfast as quick as I could. Picked up 4 lunches and some extra drinks for the hand crews. It was 8:30 A.M before I could get on the fire line. I hated the thought of losing those best hours to start building control lines. I met Dan on Franks Creek Road that went down to Chet's cabin. I had already met with my hand crews and had them following me. I also had picked up a couple of portable tanks and pumps and some fire hose. I knew I would need to set up some kind of base area to begin my battle again. Dan took me up Franks Creek Road to where it junctions with Dick Creek Road. An old road dives into the head of the canyon at the bottom.
I instantly didn't like this location, I could feel the hair raise on the back of my neck and a voice in the back of my mind (I like to think it was the sprit of my friend Dave Buchholtz) telling me this was not a good place to be. Maybe it was just all my training and experience but I knew this wasn't a good place to be during a fire situation. Tall thick heavy timber on both sides of the road down in a canyon with fire below me was not a place I really wanted my crews. Dan told me to build a fire line down the road, then back up the other side to the top of the ridge. He said he would route a water tender my direction to fill my portable tanks as soon as he had one available. This was a bad situation. There was no escape route if the fire cut the road off there was no safety zone. The timber was so heavy, even if you had a safety zone you would still be cooked in a shelter. It was evident that Dan had not been down the road and didn't know the situation at the bottom.
I had been given the North end of the fire. I now had to figure out how I would defend my position safely. The fire had started on the middle ridge South of the canyon it had burned Southwest first toward the houses. Then swung South and Southeast, finally swinging East toward the Northwest toward Rudio Mountain. This fire had changed directions almost 270 degrees, mostly wind driven but eating up as much big timber as it could find. Heavy timber tends to create a lot of heat when it burns and causes the wind to draft into the fire. This can be a very explosive and dangerous situation. The Haines index on fire behavior was at a 6. This is the top of the index meaning erratic fire behavior and a very dangerous situation for firefighters. The humidity was in single digits daytime temperatures were over 100 degrees. One ember across a fire line could cause an inferno in mere minutes. For firefighting it didn't get any tougher than this, unless the wind kicked up. If it did, the only thing to do would be to run!
I had lined out my crews. My first priority was a safety zone and escape route for my crews. I called the faller, Pete, over to me. He had joined the fire and was a local timber faller. He didn't have much experience on big fires but he seemed to be a very competent and took to felling the trees that needing to be removed around the safety zone and along the access road. I called Jim, who had told me his name was "Animal," over to me. He was a grizzled old firefighter in charge of the Cascade West # 13 crew, a mostly Hispanic crew with some Russians. I ask that he provide one man to use as a swamper for Pete, which he readily did. The only problem with Animal was that he was trying to impress me by telling me about all the fires he had been on and it took too much of my time. I'm a person who is impressed by action, not talk. I can talk as much as anybody but I also gets a ton of work done, too.
It took me until almost 11 A.M. to get everything lined out. With the crews to a point where I felt I could scout the area without putting anyone at risk. I was sure I didn't want the crews in the bottom of this canyon at 2 P.M. I drove my truck back up to the junction then the road turned back over the top of the area where we were building fire line. I knew this was a very good back up line if needed. As I reached the top of the ridge I observed timber stretching out as far as the eye could see to the North and to the East down the canyon. I also could see the fire building on the ridge to the Northeast of my position. A column of smoke spiraled into the sky leaning into the slope. I could see trees burst into flame and knew I was watching the head of the fire make a run up the slope a mile and a half away to the Northeast. This was the place to stop this fire if I could get there. If the fire crossed this ridge we would be chasing this thing through all kinds of country. I knew we had to keep this fire hemmed into this canyon, if it got out and on the long flat areas on top it could spread wildly as it had done to the South! I drove up the road toward the head of the fire. An old logging road ran along the North side of the ridge parallel to the ridge top but back about 500 to 800 feet from the rim. This road veered off from the main road, which ran over the ridge top down into a wide plateau of pine-covered forest and ranches.
I met up with another ODF vehicle, on the old road where George had been scouting the front edge of the fire after flying the fire early in the morning. George was the new "Situation Director" for the Timber Basin fire. Someone else was supposed to be the Situation Director, but he couldn't even get to the Timber Basin fire because the fire was approaching the town of Monument from the North. I told George that I was very uncomfortable in the hole where Dan had me building fire line, especially since I could see the fire getting away on the ridge. I told him I would like to pull my people out of the canyon and deploy them on the ridge. He asked if I thought I could safely get out in front of the fire with my crews. I told him I thought I could but I needed to scout the area first and set up a safety zone to work from. He said he would tell Dan that he had O.K.'d the move but be careful and be sure to keep my escape routes open.
I drove out along the ridge looking for the head of the fire. I took an old spur road heading directly toward the smoke column. As I drove up I could see trees flaming at the edge of the ridge. Trees torched and set trees next to them on fire, I knew this as a make or break situation. The intense heat from the fire was drawing the wind from the slope to the North. The fire would continue to build along this ridgeline until the column started breaking down. Then the fire would spread out and spill over the ridge top and across the vast stretch of timber on the upper plateau I was on. I had to move now and deploy my people now. I didn't have a moment to spare.
I hung flagging out the window of my truck as I drove back out the old roads. Each junction got a couple strips of ribbon to guide my crews back into this area. I hastily drove back down into the canyon. Knowing it would take them the longest time to get there I pulled the dozer operators over and told them to head up the road to the fire front. I ask Pete to head that way, too. "Animal" was immediately relieved that we were getting out of this canyon. I asked him to supervise the taking down and transport of the portable tanks. It was close to noon but there was little time for lunch. I hoped no one would notice. I helped load a portable tank on my truck and threw in a pump and some hose. I headed toward the head of the fire quickly catching the dozers. I ask that both hand crews load up as much equipment as possible and head out to the fire front. "Animal" had been scouting line construction placement and was still coming out of the canyon. I radioed him to stayed and supervise the load out of equipment. Portions of his crew and Antonio of a reforestation crew followed after loading up as much equipment as possible. They left a few people at the drop site so equipment could be hauled.
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I reached the fire head with Pete close on my heels. I told Pete I wanted a safety zone constructed just 200 feet from the fire front. There was a small natural opening that I intended to improve into a safety zone for people and equipment. This was Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land. I knew I would catch hell for making a clear-cut but I didn't see any other choice, safety of my crews was my first concern. I flagged an area about 3 acres in size 300 feet wide and 400 feet long. That's an area as big as two football fields side by side. In timber of this size and density I felt that was my minimum area for safety. The radio cracked "Day" this is "2 Charlie Hotel" I instantly knew this was a helicopter flying over, asking if I was constructing a safety zone. I said yes, he said well there is a natural openingto the North of my position. I told him I appreciated the information but I needed my safety zone close to my people.
2 Charlie Hotel asked if I had any instructions for water drops on the fire. I told him just hit anything that's coming at the line, hopefully we will get a fire line on the ridge to hold it if you can keep it off us for a while. 2 Charlie Hotel replied "I copy" and 72 Delta replied "72 Delta copies." Pete quickly fell a dozen trees as we waited for the dozers to arrive. Malcom was operating a JD 650 and Kevin operated the D7 that he had used the day before. I put Malcom and the JD 650 working on the safety zone. Kevin knew what I wanted done and headed out to the fire's edge. Shortly two vans and a pick up of the hand crews came into the area. They set up the portable tank and pump then dropped several hundred feet of hose in a pile by the tank. Antonio and another assistant came hurriedly up to me with really concerned expressions and eyes very wide open! Antonio said some people forgot something's back at the drop site. I said what did they forget? Antonio said they left their fire shelters back at the drop site. I told him no one without a fire shelter can be in this area! Take those people back to get their shelters and the rest of us will stretch out the hose so we will be ready when the water tinder gets here with some water. I turned to see how Kevin was doing with the dozer, fire was roaring up the lower slope flames jumping 40 feet into the air, trees exploding into fire and raining down firebrands onto the ground. I turned back to see the hand crew vehicles speeding across the opening heading back out the access road.
Not one person had stayed to help with the fire! I was astounded they had seen the fire in its intensity and ran! I called Dan on the radio trying to head them off to send them back. I told him there was some confusion and they had all left to get their fire shelters. Animal heard my conversation with Dan over his radio when the fleeing crews came driving up. Animal was livid he chewed Antonio out, he ask him if I was scared? He said, no he's loco! The flames are coming up the slope to burn everybody up! Animal asked if there was a safety zone, he said yes. He said that if you ever want to be on a fire again you better get your crew back out there! He then loaded his crews and headed out to help, Antonio's crew followed.
When the crews returned they said there had been a misunderstanding so please just line them out to where they needed to be. I had them set up the second portable tank and hook up and deploy the hose and fittings. The helicopters buzzed the area making drop after drop on the raging fire as it ran toward our position. A water tender appeared at the safety zone and trundled across to the portable tank nearest the safety zone and filled the portable tank. We were now holding the line. I had Kevin on his dozer continue to build fire line North along the leading edge of the fire. I had half the crews start building hand line back toward our original position in the hole where Dan had started us. I knew it was a very long way back to the old location. Antonio's crew made good headway across a rim of boulders that the dozer couldn't push line though. The fire was not moving toward this end of the line any longer. The day was waning and we had made a good start at catching the fire. I posted people along the line as best I could with so few people. One person about every 150 to 200 feet, patrolling watching for spots over the fire line. The D7 pushed open a line along the fire North on the ridge break, Animals crew spread out behind him as he built line. I had Pete help Kevin by felling trees on fire along the line. I was so surprised to see Pete actually cut a burning snag down as I walked by. (I took a quick picture that didn't do the scene justice) We were right in the middle of a really challenging fire. I got a call from George that the fire had spotted over past the safety zone. Malcom quickly cut a line around the fire and I directed several water drops on the spot by helicopter. Several small brush engines arrived on site I started to spread them out along the line. George sent one to the spot fire to 100 percent mop up the spot. I gave Pete my handheld radio and sent him to be my tasks unit force leader (TUFL) with the crews building line back to the original point Dan had started us from.
When 6:30 rolled around I set about signing shift tickets and sending the crews back toward camp. It took most of a half-hour to get the word down the lines and people loaded up for transport. The last of the crews left around 7:15. I knew this was late and getting fed and rested after a day like this was important. The drive was most nearly 40 miles taking the short cut. I had hoped to do more but time, lack of personnel and equipment limited our ability to get any more done. I waited for the night shift relief in the waning light of the evening the helicopters still swirled past about one every 2 minutes. 2 Charlie Hotel and 72 Delta were magnificent in their efficiency in bringing water to the fire. Also an S-64 Erickson Air-Crane jumped into the fray with it's giant mechanical dragonfly looks sweeping past the treetops. Dropping load after load of water on the slopes below our location. They kept the fire from breaching the fire line, by not letting the fire build up a big enough concentration of heat and flames to sweep past the hastily constructed fire line. I watched the fire out across the valley below.
When my night shift relief arrived he was totally surprised at the location I had taken on the ridge. It took over and hour and a half to show him where we were and where I thought we should be doing. He said he would tie into both ends of the line back down to Dan's line by morning. I thought that's a really tall order to try to get done, since I knew it was nearly a mile and a half as the crow flies back to the hole I had started from. I had no idea how far it was out and down over the ridge to the North. I thought it might be a half-mile at the minimum and a mile at the max. I knew the fire wanted to go North, the wind was pushing it North and the fuel was there to carry it on across the countryside.
Helicopters can't put a fire completely out but they can slow the fires progress and they can take heat out of large concentrations if they catch them in time. Helicopter drops do not effect really large concentrations of fire. The intense heat evaporates the water before it reaches the ground. But never take away the new importance of helicopters dropping water to help hold and control fires. Without the help of the helicopters my crews could never have held the ridge they were on. There were just not enough people available to completely man the lines. The helicopters can strike fire build-ups before they become uncontrollable. I felt we were getting a handle on my portion of the fire. I still didn't know how bad it was in Dan's location. The fire had made several runs down and round Chet's cabin. Crossing the main road again and racing across a short ridge. Chet had flagged in an old road that routed tied the main road across the South slopes to the spot where I had begun work on the first day. This road was longer but much better route than trying to drive across the old Dick Creek road, which was nothing more than a boulder patch that I banged the frame of my truck on every time I drove across it!
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8/17/01 Day 3
The fire was close to 1,600 acres or more by now, we were still guessing the infrared flights hadn't been done yet on this fire. The day had started with me routing Animal and his crew to Dan's portion of the fire at the morning briefing. I figured Dan could use the experienced men on his portion of the fire and I didn't need Animal bending my ear for extended periods of time. Don't get me wrong, Animal is a nice guy and hard worker plus a great organizer. He simply didn't need to tell me about his experiences, I just didn't have time to listen. Antonio had turned out to be a good leader of his people and was trying to make up for his having run from the fire. I picked up the two inmate crews less Dan B., which I didn't mind. We headed out to the fire after downing a quick breakfast.
When we arrived at the fire I asked the guy I had turned the fire over to the night before what had been accomplished that night. He told me everything was tied in on both ends all I had to do was widen the lines. If this were true this fire was all but wrapped up. I knew I had to find out first before I dropped my guard. I told the crews to wait at the safety zone and I would return with instructions as to where I wanted them. I first drove North as far as I could get along the fire line. I got out and walked down the line a quarter mile. I found that the line ran up to the edge, then just stopped! Yipes--I had been lied to and now I doubted if the other end was done too! I had a very serious problem on my hands. Dan radioed and asked if I could use a couple more dozers. I told him that I could easily use 2 or 3 more dozers. Dan routed a couple more dozers my direction and an additional water tender. Bill and Kara, a father daughter duo, showed up in H2H2O. Kara really made heads turn being a stunning bond with long-braided hair. She looked and acted right at home in the fire conditions, she could easily have been mistaken for a Viking princess! They quickly became my most reliable water source.
Dan radioed asking if I had a resource order for equipment, I asked what he was going to order. Dan gave out his list of hose, gated wyes, nozzles, portable tanks and pumps! I told him to just double the order! I could use the same on my line. Dan said you know I kind of figured that! The helicopters ask how they could help I told them if they could keep the fire from crossing the ridge then we just might hold the fire on this fire line. Dan was having control trouble but he already had 7 dozers working for him. By now I had the two "Borges" Gary and Jerry. They were very nice looking dosers with accompanying lowboys. I sent one North down the line and one South down the line. I had now had two D7 dozers working side by side down the top of the ridge to the North one to the South and Malcom at the Safety zone. I spent an hour and a half lining out the line leading back to the South. I had neglected this portion of the line and while I had a little time I worked with Pete and made him the boss over the line to the South. Explaining that we really needed to tie this line back down to the original point we started from in the hole above Franks Creek.
I knew I needed to check on the 2 dozers I had sent North. I raced back out to the fire front along the fire line chasing the 2 D7 dozers that were working the North line. Even with only a few passes over newly constructed fire line road quickly became covered with heavy deep dust. Dan was having control troubles the fire was across his lines and moving Northeast across the lower slopes below my location. My dozers were now in front of the fire, if I could only tie my line into Dan's lines we could really get this monster under control. I caught the dozers as they rounded a point on the ridge. I told them I needed them to try to find a place to get down from the top of the ridge to Dan's line. We were holding the ridge but Dan had lost the lower end below us. At this rate we would end up chasing along this ridge for miles. We needed to catch the front end of this thing. The winds were driving it East then back North. I had the dozer come back to a low spot on the ridge. I could see from my location all the way down the slope to what appeared to be another old road system below. The slope was about 35 to 40 percent. I knew the dozers could go down the slope but they would be limited on the amount of turning they could do. There was no fire below us at this time at this location and the timber was sparse with mostly tall grass and big ponderosa pine. I rolled the dice: yes, I would send them down to help Dan, with instructions that if it got too hot, to head down slope and away from the fire. It was a gamble, not something you really want to do in this situation but the fire was far enough back I was almost sure they could cut a line cross the slope ahead of the approaching flames. The day was waning so the fire intensity was dropping off to some extent I sent them on their way. I wanted to send someone down the slope with them to be their scout. I just didn't have anyone to send with them.
Pete continued working on construction of the line to the South, back to where Dan had started us. Pete had turned out to be my right-hand man who could handle most any situation that was thrown at him. Fire ran right at his location and he held the ground the crews quickly trusted him and his easy going savvy. I sent an arriving dozer Pete's direction. I rerouted Malcom's JD 650 to cover where the D7's had been to patrol the line. Sped from one end of the fire front to the other. Trying to keep the fire from breaching the ridgeline. Sending personnel to the build up locations to watch for sparks over the fire line. I had the hand crew people working with the few engines that had been sent my direction. Spread across nearly 2 miles of fire line. My lines were still not tied into Dan's location Northeast or back to the canyon which seemed to be holding with out any suppression going on in that area. I did know that if left long enough in these weather conditions the fire would kindle and race out of this canyon. George came by, he was assigning drop point positions on the fire. The large safety zone I had had cleared became "drop point 40." He also gave me a signaling mirror for flashing aircraft my position on the ground.
The fire came across the lower slopes faster than I thought it would, it sped across in front of my 2 dozers cutting fire line down the slope. They dropped their blades and cut a line through the grass and speeding flames as they reached the lower side below the fire. One of the operators later told me that if they had only made a small change in direction a few hundred feet above they could have easily caught the fire. They worked in unison back toward Dan's location. At the time I dropped the dozers over the side I had 5 dozers assigned to me. Dan had 9 dozers assigned to him. 14 dozers all were working at the same time on about 4 miles of fire line. That left each dozer about a quarter mile of fire line each to build. The fire had escaped my plan to hem it in but I had taken most of the energy driving the spreading fire. The area outside this portion of line was now only 10 to 15 acres in area and it was in rocky brushy ground. The brushy part was not good but the rocky part meant that the grass component was seriously down. This reduced some of the spotting problems. The fire slowed to crawl up the point. My dozers had hooked under the fire and stopped it from backing down the slope into larger timber. My gamble had not been completely successful but it had seriously limited the fires spread. We had it on the ridge and we had it from below at least temporarily.
The areas above and behind Chet's cabin were burning, spreading across the lower slopes. A road system snaked up the long slope up into the wood product company's lands. The land was broken with many small dry drainages with clumps of dense timber and brush. The average slope was probably 30 to 40 percent. The old logging road hooked into the canyon then switchbacks out to the North under the rim of the ridge. The old road that accessed the company land was farther to the Northeast and had numerous switchbacks and snaked its way up to the other road. The area between these roads was totally involved.
I was exhausted and exhilarated. I checked with Dan to see if my dozers had made it down to his location. I didn't get any confirmation on their making it out until 7:30 P.M. I was sweating bullets until then. Dan had lost several hundred acres on his line but nothing like the day before. Helicopters had dropped tens of thousands of gallons of water on hot concentrations of flame this day. With little or no direction from ground crews ,of course it would have been better to have had someone to direct their drops, but there just wasn't anyone available and the fire was in too many locations. The helicopters dropped where they could be the best help for hand crews and dozers. One of the main problems with directing water drops is that you have to be at the location to do a good job of directing the drop. With the broken terrain it was very difficult to direct drops very far from any location. With the lack of mobility since there were few roads on the steep ground the only directed water drops were those near the fire lines.
Dan had had another bad day, not as bad as the day before but still bad. I met up with Dan on the main road as I waited for the night relief. Dan chided me for sending my two D7 dozers off the ridge down to his location without a ground guide or a radio. I told him if I had had an extra either a radio or a ground guide I would have sent them. Dan said yeah, I know how it is but sometime I'll tell you why it's so sensitive to me. My night relief arrived at 8:30 P.M. It took nearly 2 hours to show him all that was going on, I also chewed him out for telling me the lines were tied together when he hadn't personally seen if the work had been done! He told me it wouldn't happen again. I believed him! I straggled back to Fire Camp at nearly midnight so I could be up at 4:30 A.M. for the next day's morning briefing. I made a brief stop at Operations and Planning. I tried to map out the fire line as best I could. I should have used the scale to measure my distance along the ridge. I guessed wrong on which point my crews had built line to. I just stumbled to my truck for what I could catch of a night's sleep. My fat reserves served me well during the fire--I wasn't even hungry. I pulled off my boots and socks replaced my Band-Aid on my foot and drifted off to sleep.
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8/18/01 Day 4
The fire, now officially the Timber Basin fire, was close to 2,000 acres this day. When the morning briefing was complete I told Jim, the Operations chief, that today we will catch this fire! We will hold it tomorrow! Jim said I hope so but we'll see how you do. When I got gas in my truck I checked to see if the store had any disposable cameras. The manager said a crew came in that morning and had bought every one in the place, I asked how long it would be before they would have more. He said I'll get a shipment next week. I drove to the Dayville access to the fire. I thought there might be a disposable camera at the general store in Dayville. They had 4. I bought 2 of the cameras then proceeded up the dusty Franks Creek Road to the fire in the morning light, twice I had to drive my truck into the ditch to avoid being hit by night crew personnel speeding from the fire. I made a note to bring up the speeders in the next morning briefing.
I lined out the crews from my safety zone. We were going to try to catch the fire with a hand crew over the steep ground where we couldn't get dozers. I had Malcom with his JD 650 and Pete make a secondary safety zone at the end of the fire trail on the ridge where I had stopped the two D7 dozers the day before. I gave Pete my handheld radio again. I knew I could count on him to keep me informed of the situation while I lined the hand-crews out. From this location the plan was to build a line down over the rim rock face to the timber below down to the fire line under the bluff. I also had two 10-man inmate crews to work with them. So I had 40 people in the most dangerous situation that firefighters can be in. Building fire line downhill with active fire below them. Don't think I didn't have all the other fatalities of firefighters on my mind! I wasn't going to be far from these crews this morning.
I called the crews together at the take off point. Listen up! I need to tell you right now, this is the most dangerous work you can possibly be doing on a forest fire! So you have to keep alert. I paused to let my interpreter catch up with my briefing. I had asked Antonio to translate for the Hispanic workers. I attempted to keep the instructions simple and take as much tension out of the situation as I could. I even joked trying to lighten the mood. I knew these people were frightened. You could feel the tension in the air. I also assured them they were not to be on the hand-line when 2.P.M. came around unless we had water available. I also knew we would again have air cover by the helicopters and I intended to be right there directing the helicopters if it go too hot. Hopefully we would have the line completed before the witching hour. The crews spread out down the slope and started the arduous work of clearing a fire trail through standing timber down the steep mountainside. Two 20 man reforestation crews from Dan's line were working their way up the slope toward my crew's position. I made sure that the crews first made contact with the other crews before starting construction of the trail began. I handed out rolls of flagging to mark the line construction position. I headed back to the safety zone and the other end of the line.
I had Pete in charge right now and asked that he watch Antonio and the two inmate coordinators Shannon and Billy and tell me who I should leave in charge of this line when I sent him back in charge of the construction of the fire line on the South end again. Pete knew I was working him out of his position but he didn't mind. I think he felt quite an honor to have this kind of responsibility thrust upon him. I totally trusted this man I had now worked 3 days with, really good leaders are hard to find in a pinch situation and Pete turned out to be well suited for the job. He understood where I was coming from and so he made a good compliment to my style of firefighting.
After checking on the line I had a few precious minutes to scout the area and find out what I was protecting, where water might be available. Just generally getting to know where I was. I made my way down to a large ranch with no trespassing signs and large fenced area. One of ponds the helicopters were using was located on the roadside. I marked location with flagging and headed back to the fire line. On the way back I found the main road and followed it back toward the fire. I noticed flagging hanging on the roadside accompanied by track marks of where a dozer had been! My antenna instantly popped up, I knew something was wrong with this! I drove in the short stub spur 150 feet into extremely dense timber. Evidence of a fire line pushed around a lightening strike location. Much more disturbing were the numerous smokes wafting out of pile of wood in the encircled area. This was at least a mile down slope from my crews' positions. This really scared me. I had forgotten that in the morning briefing the first day they had said there might be sleeper spot fires scattered out in forest around our locations. I radioed for an engine to come to this location. I needed someone on this spot right now.
As I sped back to the fire line I radioed George and told him what I had found. I also told Dan to keep his eye out for the same type of condition. Air Operations broke into my radio call telling me to clear the channel. I had been told to use the "red-net" channel (A powerful radio channel that could be used with a relay station) at the morning briefing form. I told Air Ops. to please contact my Section Chief to get me a new channel assignment. George broke into the radio conversation and told me don't worry I'll straighten this out! I was relieved because these things get blown out of shape very easily by personnel at Fire Camp as I had found out before (that's another story of it's own from years ago!)
I found an engine and sent it to the location to put the spot fire out explaining how to find the fire by the ribbons and dozer tracks on the roadside. I traveled back the hand-line and walked down over the trail. I found a very good trail about 3 feet wide cut down to bare mineral soil. There were piles of limbs and treetops beside the trail. The trees over the trail still touched in places. I explained I liked the work that had been done. I spread my arms out to each side and said I just want it "mucho grande"! I told Antonio to have his crews remove any trees touching across the fire lines and to move all the unburned materials outside the fire line. After I returned to my truck the engine I had sent to mop up the spot fire radioed they could not find the spot fire! I sped off down the fire line. The dust at times would splash over the hood of my truck. The dust has an acrid smell and taste, kind of bitter and salty. The boulders were working their way up from under the dust. Blam, my truck was thrown sideways, bouncing over a 2-foot diameter boulder. I stopped and rolled the boulder out of the dust toward the side of the roadway path. I looked under my truck to see what kind of damage I had done. My truck muffler was caved-in over half of its diameter, to my amazement it still worked just fine. I took off to the spot fire location, I had told the engine to wait for me at the junction with the main road. I was in no mood for the ineptness of this crew in finding this spot fire. I would not feel safe for my crews unless this spot fire was being mopped up and watched, this was a critical task in my opinion. I told the crew to follow me, showing the engine crew the road and told them this was their own private fire until it was completely dug up and mopped up 150 percent.
I traveled back and checked all of the fire line we were throwing the fire back down the hill. I went to the Southwest end of the fire where I had had Pete Allen working. Now we would tie the last of the line together and corral this fire on this side. I scouted down the slope hanging flagging from the last area that the dozers had worked. The line was not in a good location so I moved back up the slope. I checked farther down the ridge and back to the dozer line. This would work. I needed my right-hand man back down here now! I left the inmate coordinators Shannon and Billy in charge of the Northeast end of my now nearly 2-mile fire line. I had Pete and Antonio's crew follow us and I lined them out to build another trail down the hill again. This wasn't nearly as bad as the line they had built on the other end of the line. Plus I had dozers working on portions of this line. I sped back to the other end as the fire made a run at our hand line. Dan was losing line again to the East down the slope toward the forested valley. The helicopters were helping but not stopping the fire. Stringers of unburned timber would flare up on fire with the fire racing up the slope toward our fire line.
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I spread my personnel out as much as I possibly could. I stationed engines out at as even an interval as I could. My two water tenders moved in and out of the area delivering water to the portable tanks. Helicopters buzzed by every minute or so with their loads of water swinging below and just above the treetops. You could see them stop and hover over a fire flaring up and dropping their loads of water the best they could do. Without direction from the ground the drops are at best hit and miss. On bigger flaming spots they are able to make more direct drops. The elevation of the bucket over the fire location also has a great deal to do with how effective the water is on the fire. I have seen many drops have little effect when released to far above the fire location. The heat from the fire can breakdown the concentration of the water being dropped and causes it to drift away from the fires location. The best pilots can get the bucket right down in the trees and let the water splash down on top of the fire. Limbs and treetops are often knocked out of the trees. Sometimes mud and debris can be inside the bucket to be dropped on release of the water. Once I remember on a fire in Klamath Falls a helicopter dropping what looked like a fish fry, hundreds of shinny little fish flopping around on the ground! The bucket was full of cub shiners from a local pond. Anything coming down from the heights that the buckets are released can hurt someone on the ground unless you're under the canopy of a dozer. The helicopters would be instrumental in holding the line this day.
As the day waned the fire shifted to the line just before our hand line on the North end of the fire. Unburned stringers of timber flashed up the hillside numerous times in nearly the same location. The helicopter drops were keeping the flare ups under control when the call came from George that it was time to go home! It was 6 P.M. I had been on the line since daylight. George said Chuck get your people in for food and rest! I told George I didn't mind releasing my crews but I wanted to stay and direct water drops until nightshift got there. I told him I didn't want to leave the fire when it might only take a little more work to save all the work we had done. Malcom pulled up beside my truck with his dozer and asked what he could do. I told him just sit by and watch so Malcom and I sat in the saddle of the ridge and directed water drop after water drop to keep the fire inside the fire line. I took pictures with my little disposable camera even one with the afternoon sunlight streaming though the water falling toward the fire on the slope below our position. I wished that I had a better camera but I had to make do with what I had just as I did on the fire. The night shift arrived at 8:30 P.M. I was dog-tired but happy with the knowledge I had held my line that day. Dan had lost ground again this day. Dan radioed asking how we had done. I told him "we kicked ass, took names and made a list"! Dan said watch the language Chuck, I just thought he really needs to lighten up! I know the State frowns on foul radio language but sometimes the rules are ridiculous.
I made it back to Fire Camp at 10:30 P.M and stopped into Operations and Planning. I picked up more maps and looked over the new thermal imaging maps being provided. These maps were a lot of help by telling me that we had held the ridge. It was obvious that the fire front was turning East into Dan's line location and that there was a lot of timber at risk.
I found out at there was a shower in the gymnasium that overhead could use. I took a quick cold shower since the warm water had been used by the constant use of the shower. I pulled the bandage off my blistered arch of my foot and applied a new dry one. I had picked up some cookies from a case that had been left out side the Operations room. I had kept enough of my lunch to make an acceptable dinner for me. I found a place near the football field to park my truck and lay back in the seat to drift off to sleep.
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I would like to explain at this time why we were here at this point fighting this fire. The fire was burning in very heavy timber with a tremendous potential to spread across hundreds of thousands of acres of timber and grazing lands. Some say if we only had thinned the timber this fire wouldn't have occurred. The truth is some of the area burnt over the worst was timber that had been thinned. The situation on this fire was different than most situations. The Haines index was 6, as I have earlier explained, this meant that no matter what the situation. The fire was going to burn rapidly across the landscape. This fire was a "Stand Replacement fire." This fire was representative of what loggers do when they clear-cut the forest, basically removing all the forest. My personal opinion is that with thinning of the timber the fire would not have been able build up to such intensity as it had done on numerous days. Thinning with a controlled under-burn could have drastically reduced the fire intensity. Removing light flash fuels and the ladders of fuel that were allowing this fire too easily flash to the crowns of the trees.
The trouble with these type plans is that the ownership of the land was fragmented among numerous landowners and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Unless all the landowners had done thinning and under-burning the fire results would be the same. The harvest rates also change the fuels available to the fire. I knew when I opened my safety zone up, felling timber and clearing the ground down to mineral soils, I would catch flack from the BLM. In my opinion I had a comfort zone I needed to meet not only for me but a comfort zone for the personnel I was supervising. I had the safety zone built as close to the fire front as I possibly could. The reason why I did this is when a fire makes a run it usually needs a tremendous heat build-up first. Then it can move very quickly and can cut escape routes quickly. An intense fire can actually create it's own weather cell. In fact one of my pictures from the fire shows a 300 foot tall dust devil dancing across the fire area. Anyone who has ever seen a fire devil will never forget it! I have seen fire devils (a vortex of fire forming a tornado) travel faster than a man can run. Throwing burning limbs, tops, and debris 150 feet over a fire line. My feeling is that by being close to the fire's edge I don't allow it to get a run at my people or me. It might appear that I am overly aggressive on the fire but what I try to do is starve the fire by denying it fuel. I have fought fires for many years with ODF and we have successfully used "direct attack" firefighting principles for several decades now.
The United States Forest Service (US Forest Service) and BLM have tended to use "indirect" firefighting principles. With this method fire trails are built well away from the fire and the area is set fire to burn out the available fuel. The problem is that under extreme fire conditions the fire can move faster and more radically than anticipated. When it does people get killed as the loss of people last year clearly has shown. I also think that firefighters are made to believe that the shake and bake bags they carry (Fire Shelters) can save them in almost any condition. This just isn't so and some times common sense is passed by while the shelters are deployed. In the Washington fire they spread fire shelters on a road and in a boulder field next to a flowing river! I would have had my personnel put on their gloves wade out to a comfortable depth in the river sit down and hold partly deployed shelters over there heads and faces. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20 but a lesson still should be taken from this tragedy. A flowing river carries away the heat faster than a fire can heat the water. Also the cool water keeps the air at a breathable temperature. Common sense was suspended and 4 young people lost theirs lives depending on modern technology to protect them. Training and indoctrination that fire shelters can save your life overrode basic principles of survival. Actually a fire shelter is a last chance tool and as a tool they should be used as needed to save your life. If that is just as a cover for your head in a stream that is the right use of the tool. The training for these shelters doesn't cover this, I know, I've been through fire shelter training close to a dozen times!
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8/18/01 Day 5
I woke up early, as my bladder alarm wouldn't let me lay there any more. I got dressed and changed my Band-Aid on my foot again, fortunately no one ever noticed my boots were to short, my foot was much better than Day 1. I wandered over to Operations and timekeeping. In timekeeping I saw another of the Astoria personnel Roger , a perennial in Fire Camp timekeeping. We joked about me being on a fire. Roger knows I'm one of the last ever sent to a fire and how desperate they (ODF) must be to be sending me! Then I went on to the morning briefing. I figured by now I would be designated a Division Supervisor on the segment of line I had been holding. I imagined I would have a real easy time for the rest of the fire, boy was I ever wrong! Instead the days Operation plan had me listed as a Task Force Unit Leader (TUFL) under Dan and the line where I had held the line given over to Dan Br. as a Div. Sup. It was now Division B. The segment of the fire line Dan had been working was now designated Division C. At the morning briefing I was introduced to all the new crew foremen and equipment operators or the new line. Getting a quick bite of breakfast at the new kitchen set up location in a park by the river. I quipped at the server of the mornings food let me guess! Scrabbled eggs? She shot back you've been doing this too long! I took the Dayville route to the fire and picked up a couple more disposable cameras.
I now had to reorient myself on a new portion of the fire line with basically all new people. I started to understand why Dan was having such a bad time controlling the fire along this line. Dan didn't have one boss to please, he had four. First he had the fire team overhead, then he had Willis the forester for the wood products company, then Chet, the cabin and property owner, then the District Unit Forester, Steve, was on the ground as he described himself as a "Stealth firefighter". Dan is a people pleaser, basically just the opposite of me. In this situation this was a perfect fit to get the job done. Dan could do the public relations and I could kick ass and get the job done. Dan told me to organize the fire line as I wanted it. From Chet's cabin Steve took me up the fire line, a multiple-switchback road traversing across the lower slope up to the line where it came down from the Northwest corner of the fire line I had my hand crews build and plumb. The road was probably only a mile and half long. The fire line zigged and zagged from one side of the road to the other like a drunk had laid out the line. This is something that happens when you have a lot of "iron" (dozers) on the scene and no one directing them. The fire had swept across the slope, this road was in the way and portions of the road had slowed the fire in its march toward more timber. Long islands of burnt and un-burnt lay next to each other. After being shown the location of the fire line, Dan asked me if I was all oriented on the fire line location. I told him no, I'm more disoriented than oriented at this time. I knew I would figure out the lines but with the switchback road layout and the patchwork of mixed fire lines I knew I had to come up with a good plan to keep from losing the fire again this afternoon.
I ran into Animal as he was setting up his crew to try to hold line they had lost the day before. He peppered me with questions about how and where I needed people. He was in a good location on the lower half of the fire line, I told him to split his crew half down the slope half working back up the hill. I located dozers and found a couple 1800 gallon "pumpkins" (pumpkins are freestanding water tanks usually orange in color) ready for water. The organization was poor at best and I saw instantly this was not a team but a bunch if individual groups fighting the fire at this location. The engines were scattered around.
My intention was to try to hold the line this day and try to start mopping the line back into the black. Dan stayed mostly near the cabin so I stayed up the fire line toward the top of the fire line. I sent 4 dozers out to improve the line against the black. What I mean by this is the dozers were to travel along the line and push a line as close to the active fire line as possible, thus taking away fuel for the fire. Some places where the old road had been used as fire line there was 150 feet of un-burnt materials before it got to the road. A wood products company Forester, "Coffer," was working the lower slope near Chet's cabin. Our division even had a Dozer Boss ,"Corigal." Dan and I shared him but he ended up helping Coffer on the area just above Chet's cabin. Besides, I didn't need anymore people to locate and supervise. The fire had swept down a small flat almost completely around Chet's cabin. If it had swept on around and crossed below the cabin the fire could have cut the main road from Dayville off from being an access or escape route. The fire could have involved a lot more countryside from this location too. Since it would have been in the bottom of the heavily forested drainage. So I was glad someone was taking initiative on this section of the line. My concern was the mid-slope area that had kept jumping the line and under the steep portion of line near the upper segment of the line. There were numerous fingers of line that projected out to the East where stringers of fire had run. These fingers were one of the highest priorities and had some of the highest risk to spread the fire.
I sent engines to work with crews to where possible. Where the engines couldn't go, crews strung hose from the existing pumpkins stationed along the main road. I called in a resource order for more pumpkins or portable tanks and pumps plus several thousand feet of different hoses and gated wyes and nozzles. In the lower area near Chet's cabin we had a forwarder with a 2400-gallon water tank and pump in place of where logs are usually hauled. This is a very efficient operating system but quite expensive in cost. We had two of these forwarders on our division. Dan had one on the South side of the road working to the South toward the area I first started working on the fire. By using 6 to 7 hand-crew with these forwarders on steep slopes the line could be very readily mopped up. I had had Animal supply the men for the forwarder from his crew so he was already short people. I tried to station the people I had out the best I could, bracing for the witching hour of 2 P.M. If I could hold the line today we would start mop up tomorrow and I would soon be on my way home.
As the day heated I moved everybody to the fire line edge and roadsides. I took a position on a small ridge that projected out on the side of the slope. I could see almost 1/2 of the line stretch out below this point. The Governor had called in the National Guard and we now had "Dust Devils" 4, 5, and 6 as our air support. There is a lot of competition between the National Guard and the private helicopter companies. To tell the truth I like both of them. Hell, to tell the truth, anything in the air helping is welcome from my end. I think the private helicopter company people have a slight edge on accuracy because they have more experience. They also can assist in holding the fire without requiring very much instruction from the ground on where to attack the fire. I don't want to take anything away from my Dust Devil crews. They did a great job and Dust Devil 6 was by far the most accurate and easiest to instruct on the drop locations. The biggest problem the other Dust Devil pilots had was they kept releasing the water to high above the fire to be effective on the ground.
I stood on my small ridge and directed water drops for nearly 2 hours. Until all the birds ran out of fuel and had to return to base. They dumped thousands of gallons of water on the heat concentrations all along the line. I knew the water in the ponds they were dipping from were getting low by the buckets only being half full of water and most often dropping as much mud as water on the fire. At one time Coffer was directing water drops in his location. Dust Devil 6 had been making the drops on his location when Dust Devil 4 tried to help. Coffer was telling Dust Devil 4 to drop in the same place as the last drop was made. From my location I could see that Dust Devil 4 had not cleared the ridge before Dust Devil 6 had made his drop and now Coffer was getting impatient with Dust Devil 4. As Dust Devil 4 tried to find Coffer on the ground it was obvious the situation was only compounding quickly. I broke in, Coffer this is Day Dust Devil 6 will be back in 2, why don't you release Dust Devil 4 to me and take Dust Devil 6! Coffer replied O.K. I said Dust Devil 4 look due North for my mirror flash. I easily guided Dust Devil 4 up the slope to a flaring fire below me. Dust Devil 6 returned and Coffer was happy.
We held the line and as the evening approached I knew we would be into mop up conditions tomorrow. We had this bad boy fire under control not tamed but under control. So I knew unless there was a big screw up this fire was history. I had fire right against the fire line and I had hundreds of acres of un-burnt timber mixed with the burnt. Mop up had to be swift and sure, it had to be completely organized and we had to hit it hard and push it back away from the fire lines. I wouldn't be comfortable until the fire was at least 500 feet to a 1000 feet away from any portion of the fire line. I made plans in my head as I drove back to camp that evening. Hey, I was going to get dinner for a change! I could also tell the Operations Chief we had held the fire like I told him, we would.
I got in and took a shower at a decent time. I changed into my last pair of socks. (I had screwed up and only grabbed 6 pairs of socks when I left home.) I had meant to grab more but just forgot in the frenzy of packing. I knew there weren't any in town after all this time but I thought about the store in Dayville. They just might have extra socks I could buy!
My bladder alarm woke me in time for the morning briefing. I checked again in time keeping about my Division Supervisor Tasks book. They had said I could get a task book when I got to the fire then I was told it had to be requested by my home office. So I asked Kathy (an Office Specialist at the Astoria District Office where I work). Kathy is a Timekeeper on Fire Team 1, which I was working this fire for. I ask if she could get a task book faxed over to the fire for me. She said she would.
At the morning briefing we had a good number of new engines coming onto our Division. Our line picked up two Forest Service Engines and one BIA engine all operated by Bureau of Indian Affairs personnel (BIA). Introductions and a few instructions just after the morning briefing. We would be starting mop up today. I ate a quick bite of breakfast I headed to Dayville for some more cameras and some socks!
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8/19/01 Day 6
I got to Chet's cabin by 7:30. I pulled in by the cabin and looked at the waiting crews. There were nearly 100 people standing around 20 vehicles of all kinds. I walked over and gave orders for people who had been there yesterday to go back where they were yesterday. I pointed out different new personnel to follow the people who had already been on the line. It took 5 minutes to get everybody moving out of Chet's yard and out to the fire. I walked back to my pickup to follow my horde up the hill. Chet waved me over to him. He said you know I've been on fires for nearly 20 years and I've never ever seen that happen before! I said what's that. Well you came in here and put everybody to work in 5 minutes, I've never seen it done in less than 45 minutes, then there are usually still a few hanging around. I said well I hate to waste the State's money and every time I see people standing around in the hours we can make the best headway on the fire, I just try to get things going the fastest I can. Chet also said you know I'm not complaining but you know, I've never seen so few overhead people on a fire before. I didn't think I'd ever say this, but you guys could really use a few more overhead people out here on the ground. I told Chet well this is all there is available, when you see me out here directing fire crews you know the State Forestry is scraping the bottom of the barrel and there just isn't anybody else left.
I noticed a problem with the BIA engines right away, they seemed to be magnetic or something (of coarse I'm only joking). I would spread the engines about 400 to 500 feet apart. As soon as I left the area they would end up parked side by side within 20 minutes, I would spread them out again and again and again. The old guy who was the BIA engine driver scowled at every order given, especially being sent away from the other engines. Finally I sent the old grouchy guy to the lower end of the line to work. The other two trucks were young guys who for the most part only appeared to need a little direction to get on to the work. Although one young crew foreman seemed to have a really bad attitude it seemed he had a chip on his shoulder. I traveled up to the line to the point where the hand line my crews had built the day before came down from the upper slope.
My crews had plumbed the line down from the top, so my new crews depended upon the water provided by what my old fire line segment now known as Division B. The break between the two Divisions was suppose to be at the top of the hill where the hand line met the safety zone created at the top of the mountain. Antonio's crew still manned the top of the mountain, so I felt the line would be well covered. They still manned the portable tanks and the pump at the top. I had two 20 man crews: Ferguson 44 and Ferguson 22 crews working at the top end of the line. I stopped where the hand line tied into the dozer road on my portion of the lower line I now controlled. I walked up the steep hand trail about half way to the top. I found the crew to be all clumped in a couple groups talking and sitting around. I called on my radio to try to find the foreman of the Ferguson 44 crew finally I received a call back from Shannon. Shannon was filling in for the assigned foreman. I told him I wanted to chew on him, errr, talk to him! Shannon barked back, go on and chew! I proceeded to chew him and his crew out for standing around clumped up and not taking action on the fire line! Walking by fire next to the fire line leaving it burning to go mop up fire farther inside the fire line. I told him I wanted a cold 75 feet first before moving into the fire. Shannon said he would correct the problem, so I left and proceeded back down the spur road toward the bottom.
Never meeting Shannon face to face. I also knew that almost all the crew foremen were listening to me chew on Shannon. Now they knew I meant business and I wanted the job done right. I found one of the BIA engines parked next to a brush engine from Adelanto California. There wasn't anyone around the BIA engine the engine sat there full of water with no crew in sight. I walked over and introduced my self to the engine foreman (strike team leader) Nicholas. I asked where's the BIA's engines crew? Nick said, they said they were going "exploring" and took off out into the brush! I said, "exploring"? Nick said, yeah, that's what they said! I drove back up the fire line looking for the explorers!
In a hard work situation you can't let some people sit on their hands while others bust their butts or you soon end up with nothing but crews sitting on their hands and screwing off! I knew I had to make an example of these "explorers" quickly or I would have real trouble down the road in mop-up. I drove back to the other BIA engine up the hill working hard and doing a great job. I ask the foreman Joe if he had contact with the other crew on his handheld. He said yes, I told him he needed to tell them to get their asses back to their truck then come up and see me! Joe and his crew were busting their butts while their sister truck was screwing off! I told Joe I appreciated his good work.
I traveled back to the upper Ferguson 44 crew and walked over into the fire area. I found a hose and nozzle laying on the ground and no one within sight. The nozzle was on full blast and a small stream was being eroded down the slope through the dust and ash. It looked to me as though a couple hundred gallons of water had been wasted just ran out on the ground! I barked over the radio for Shannon to come and see me! He asked my location, then barked he was on his way. I could see Shannon stomping up across the slope to my location, a burly firefighter with bushy hair sticking out from under his hard hat, by his stride and posture I could see he was really pissed! He looked like he was a man who could handle himself in a fight and was about to get into one! I let him get within about 15 feet then turned pointed at the hose and the stream down the hill. I barked do I have to say anything else? Shannon head snapped down at the hose and the wasted water and said No Sir! Walked back to my truck and headed down the fire trail again knowing I had made my point and the crews knew that I was watching. I also knew I would not have any more trouble on that end of the line! Shannon was a good man!
I headed down the fire-trail and road back to the location of Joe's BIA engine was. I had just gotten back from the upper location and I heard a vehicle coming up the fire road. As I stood there on the roadside my "explorers" engine crawled up the road. I would say they couldn't have been going faster than 2 or 3 miles an hour, all the windows were rolled up tight all the way around. I knew this meant that they had air-conditioning in the truck. I looked at the crew and they looked away and turned into the area where the other engine was parked. When they got out I saw almost no evidence of dirt or dust on the work shirts! Here's a hint: if you're going to go screw off on the fire line get your shirt dirty somehow or it's a dead give away you haven't been doing much! The whole crew got out of the truck and went to talk to Joe. I walked over and ask the crew to please join me in conversation out away from the rest of the working crews! We walked out into the fire road. I looked at all three of the crew and said, listen boys there are three things I don't like when I'm supervising on a fire .Number One, I don't like people wasting my time! Number Two I don't like people wasting my water. Number Three I don't like them wasting my money! So far you've wasted my time and money! There will be no more "Exploring" until the fire is mopped up and I'm not paying for it then! So now do you have anything to say! The young foreman said, I didn't know you were the boss, I couldn't find anyone listed on the Division Assignment list shift plan. I pulled out my shift plan and pointed to my name I'M-Day this is the "Day shift" and I'm your boss. Couldn't you tell from me giving orders this morning? He said I thought you were just somebody working out here. I said that doesn't matter if I were you came here to work and not to drive around in your air-conditioned truck exploring! Then I thought, I'll teach these boys a bit of humility too! I pointed at their truck I don't want to see you riding around with all the windows rolled up on this fire! This is like back in school and when you had gum or candy! If there isn't enough for everybody out here you can't have any! So no more air-conditioning for you guys! Now get to work! The crew took off with their tails between their legs. They deserved a good ass chewing and I would leave it at that I thought. The word would quickly pass that if you were on my end of the fire line you would work or I would know why you weren't. I radioed Dan that I had found my lost engine crew and I injected, I think, that air-conditioning in firefighting engines is counter-productive to good mop up! Dan laughed and said we'll talk about that!
All the crews worked really well all through the rest of the day. I directed a few more water drops from the Dust Devils and the mop up was well in hand. By the end of the day most all of the fire line was pushed back 75 feet. I was able to go in at a reasonable time and have a shower and locate a place to drop off my laundry to get my dirty clothes washed while I was on the line the next day. A local lady was doing it for $2 a pound. I even got to eat dinner again. My truck was a total disaster. I had used an air compressor to blow dust out of it three times already, I couldn't get an air filter so I was knocking the dust out of the air filter twice a day. The dust had gotten so bad I could only barely see the mileage numbers, from dust on the inside of the clear plastic of the dashboard. My brakes worried me, they squealed so load when I stopped that I knew the pads were completely glazed over with dust. My stopping distances kept getting longer and longer, whole front end shuttered when I had to stop quickly. I couldn't work without my truck and I couldn't get it fixed overnight. It would just have to wait until I got back to Astoria. I even got to sleep at a good time.
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8/20/01 Day 7
The fire was winding down and everyone was starting to feel relieved. I drove through by way of Dayville (by the way I'm no relation to the founder or the persons that Dayville was named after!) I drove into the drop point at Chet's cabin to find the only crews still left were the three BIA engines. I yelled "Good Morning Ladies"! Like I do to most everybody who's macho or hard working. It's meant to be a good-humored joke! The old BIA guy scowled at me and motioned the rest of the crews up the road. Then all the crews knew where they were to go and they spread out to mop up this fire. We had hot spots that needed more attention than others did but pretty well it was moving the pumpkins around and letting the water tenders where they needed to go drop off their loads. Water was getting short in the ponds so the tinders had to draft from the John Day River. (No not named after my dad John Day but the explorer John Day). So the turnaround times on the tenders had almost doubled. As I drove down the fire road the old foreman driving the BIA engine waved me over. I stopped and asked what he needed. He said, "You disrespected my crews this morning and the crew that you chewed out is going to file a complaint against you!" I said, what the hell are you talking about? He replied you don't have to swear! He then said you disrespected them when you called them ladies this morning! I said if you didn't tell them that that was just a jovial jest. I do that with everybody. If they are so thin-skinned they shouldn't be out here! He said, well I've been counseling them and I think they have a case. I said that's a good way to get them sent home! I knew this Politically Correct (PC) crap was bad but out here in these conditions it should never even be mentioned! This guy was an old Federal worker (I use the word "worker" liberally) who had nothing better to do than criticize the work and people on the fire. Probably mostly from being passed over because he was such a weasel! I knew, too, that I had to cut this off before it blew up on me! Like I said, I know that the State Forestry doesn't like me one bit! So I knew what I had to do because given the chance the State would give me another black mark for this! I talked to Chet, he was a reasonable man who I was sure wouldn't put up with this PC crap! I told him the story he said, yeah, I heard you after those boys yesterday and I saw them screwing off! He said I'll tell Willis, too. He doesn't like that PC crap either. Then I'll talk to Danny. I also went to Nicholas, a fire Chief-Strike team leader at the Adelanto Airport fire Department. I told him what the old BIA weasel had said. Nick said he couldn't believe the Oregon Department of Forestry would be that PC but he would put in a good word for me to Dan. So I let it drop at that. If ODF wanted my hide they would have to go through the landowners! I knew they wouldn't dare want to piss these guys off any more than they already had!
Nicholas sent me some statistics to share on this fire. They laid over 10,000 feet of hose during the fire. This means they took the hose off the truck, unrolled it, hooked up the lengths, and pumped water through it! Then they had the honor of picking the hose back up and putting on the truck not to mention all the cleaning of the hose and equipment. They pumped 22,000 gallons of water on the fire. They went through 3 air cleaners per vehicle on the fire.
When released from the Monument Fire they were dispatched to the Star Fire in Lake Tahoe, CA. As a crash crew for the Boreal Helitack base, from there they went to the Treasure Fire in Truckee CA. Two weeks later Nick and Brie were sent with their K-9 "Hink" to the World Trade Center to aid in the search for survivors! So there is a complete story in the adventures of this crew too!
I spent part of the day chasing down where the pumpkins needed to be move to and checking to see if the fire lines were being properly mopped up. As Coffer finished up down by Chet's cabin he released the forwarder to me to use up higher on the line. I finally was able to give Animal back his crew people. I transferred part of the Ferguson 22 crew, and I got good work out of the crews. They hadn't taken the heat as Shannon had on the Ferguson 44 crew but they learned by listening to the radio. My day was pretty good except for the junk that the BIA weasel had laid on me. I was kind of concerned but figured that was the breaks, if they wanted my hide they would take it, but I felt I was instrumental in preventing this fire from getting a whole lot bigger.
The fire North of Monument had burned mostly together and with the wind blowing to the North it went clear to the river. The fire North of Monument was a much different fire for the most part than the one I was fighting. It was now over 30,000 acres. We stopped the Timber Basin Fire at 2,310 acres. The larger fire North of Monument was burning in open sagebrush and timbered canyons. I would never take anything away from the firefighters working on the Northern fire they did a marvelous job on a fast moving and spreading fire. It was just that the fire they were fighting didn't have the huge amount of fuels along the fire line. They did have fuels that burnt much faster than those in our location did. A grass and sagebrush fire can burn as fast as a horse can run. So just think of how hard it is to build a fire line in front of a fire like that. Especially when getting equipment there is all but impossible.
I talked to Dan at the end of the day about the problem with the BIA crew. Dan said don't worry about it, Chuck. it's been taken care of. I didn't really know what that meant. I really didn't want the crew to get a black mark. I've been there. The Fire Teams terminate people off the fire when ever they feel they have any conflict or someone in authority has a problem with someone real or perceived. I understand the situation that they have a dozen things hitting them at the same time and personnel conflicts can't be tolerated. The thing is most times only one side is heard of a story and then the axe falls. It would be nice that if someone were sent home from a fire. The situation would be reviewed and if there was a problem or a simple misunderstanding that both sides be heard. In the case of this BIA crew, the actual culprit was the weasel driving the BIA engine. He was stirring up these young men telling them they shouldn't have to be ridiculed. This guy was an old white man carrying the red-man's burden. He was such a liberal that you were suppose to be PC in everything you did. As I said I'm NOT PC, never have been never will be!
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Day 8 - 8/21/01
So I went into Fire Camp and had a nice evening, got a shower, ate dinner at a reasonable time, and picked up my laundry. The laundry was stiff! No not starch stiff, laundry soap stiff the laundry powder was still stuck to the clothes. Oh well I figure tomorrow might be my last day. I woke up a little late, my poor old back was stiffing up on me some I was scheduled to have it operated on November 5th. I have spinal stenosis from an old laminectomy in 1975. So I need the scar and bone cut away from the nerve cord. I checked at Operations. Kathy had gotten me my Division Supervisor task book packet for qualifications to be a Division Supervisor. I passed the task book on to Dan and ask him to forward it to George to complete any parts he could fill in. At the morning briefing I noticed that the Forest Service engine with the BIA crew had been Demobbed. (Meaning they had been de-mobilized) This meant that they had been sent home, I really regretted seeing these young men sent home early. At breakfast I ran into the BIA weasel, so I sat down by him and gave him a piece of my mind! I said you know you're the reason those boys got sent home! You and your big mouth, you had to instigate them into complaining after I had just gotten them on track! I thought they were doing a good job after I corrected their attitude. But you had to put you two bits worth of shit in their heads, that I was picking on them so now they are gone and it's your fault. He sat there stunned for a moment then looked down at his plate. I stood up and went to sit with a trainee, Tommy, a Task Force Unit Leader. I was to train him so he could get the needed tasks signed off in his task book for TFUL. He was this little dark haired guy, probably about 50 and very, very animated. He also unfortunately had a very good nose. As we rode out to the fire in my truck, he didn't like my emissions one little bit and told me they would be the thing he remembered about me when he got back to Michigan. I told him that's what Fire Camp food does to me! I worked him as a dozer boss part of the day on the upper portions of the line and then took him around and showed him the fire and how we had fought it.
The day was a good one, my crews got the fire mopped up over 150 feet back into the black. I had directed only a few helicopter drops in the last couple of days. The helicopters were released to fight fire other places. I ask Dan to put me on the list to be released from the fire as soon as possible. Dan said he would see what he could do. The evening was nice around Monument, the air was clearing. I even got on-line on one of the computers in timekeeping briefly and wrote Kathy that I thought I'd be done soon.
Day 9 - 8/22/01
Morning briefing had everyone in full mop up mode. The fires North of Monument had finally stopped marching North. We had plenty of any kind of equipment you could use on a fire. The idea was to push the fire back 300 feet from the fire trails today. Another day on the line, my job suddenly became one of positioning crews to push the fire evenly back along the lines. There are always places that crews don't like to work in, especially when the fire is in deep old stump holes that have to be dug out by hand and put out. We were now into hand checking the hot spots. The crew will dig out the hot stuff, wet it down, and then pull a glove off and touch it. This is slow hard work dirty work. As a supervisor you can usually tell the workers from the goof-off's by how dirty they are by the end of the day. The trouble was, who could tell now? Everyone's clothes were dirty from being on the fire for so long without much chance to wash clothes. I had my clean clothes from getting them washed but most of the crews didn't. My crews had been working hard. I didn't go around and check if they were digging hard. My concern was putting people where they had something to do. I walked and drove the fire lines checking how far back the fire had been put out.
When on the ground I find just as many hot spots with my nose as I do seeing them smoke. I have been able to drive by a spot along the fire line and smell a burning stump hole near line. I usually have a crew spray a light mist across the surface of the burnt over area. When the mist hits a hot spot a small column of steam appears. That's the indicator that you need to dig up the fire at that location. Stump holes can hold fire for nearly a year, especially if the fire gets down in the root structure of the stump. I knew we didn't want to be back working on this fire so putting out the old stump holes was a priority in mop up. I had shown Tommy how to check for hotspots and we rode around relocating the pumpkins to better spots. We had things like the upper double pumpkins and the lower double pumpkins and Animal's pumpkins. Just location spots along the line.
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I had the spent early part of the day adjusting my crews. As the day went on I drove up over Franks Creek Road and back down the road that Bob had worked on early in the fire, to see how much had been accomplished along the upper lines. As I came down the road I came upon a tender parked about 400 feet into the black. I maneuvered my truck by it to find two engines parked in front of it. Then there was a crew bus and two more pickups! I carefully worked my way by. I looked out my truck window and to my amazement the crew was building a fire line up the hill back toward Franks Creek Road. The three supervisors were standing on the roadside slowly turning the map around and around! I laughed heartily as I called though the window what are you guys "the lost brigade". I pointed out the driver's side of the truck and said the fire line is that way. This was part of Dan B.'s crews, they had been sent down in the canyon to mop up fire. Someone thought the fire was over the line. The trouble was it was this portion was 400 to 500 feet inside the fire trails and where they were headed was into the heart of the burnt out fire area.
Shortly afterward I got a call from Dan. He said that Dan B. had found some un-trailed fire line on the North end of the line. Evidently he had been driving along the top road and seen this un-trailed fire line. I knew it had to be somewhere around where the Ferguson 44 crew was working. I radioed Shannon to meet me on the hand trail up the mountain to Division B. Shannon and I trudged up the long steep slope. I looked and looked for the un-trailed fire line. Shannon and I talked a bit and I told him how much I enjoyed working with good crews once they were on track. I told him I would give him a good performance review. We finally found a short strip of line 300 feet back into Dan B.'s Division B area. It was his un-trailed fire line, not mine. I called Dan and gave him the location then told Dan not to worry about it Shannon already had his crew taking care of it! If Shannon hadn't already had his people moving toward this the area I would have radioed Dan B. and told him to trail his own damn line. Shannon and I had to traverse 1500 of steep mountain side that Brossard could have driven a crew to. I had heard from some of my crews that Dan B. never left the Safety Zone Drop Point 40 after being assigned the Division B.
Since the fire was now pushed back over 600 feet into the black. Crews came off the line at good times now. In fact, now the problem was letting them go in too early. This always happens, you work everyone like rented mules at first, then when the fire is under control everyone kind of takes it easy and enjoys working the mop up. I myself can't stand mop up, it's very boring and without much activity. You have to direct people to work on places they don't want to work on. After being a slave driver I turn into quite a laid back Supervisor. It was too bad the BIA boys weren't here they could have now enjoyed an exploration without me down their backs. I guess the lesson here for would be forest firefighters is that if you work hard during the first of the fire you can usually take it easy on the last of the fire, during mop up. This is also the time that the fire becomes a social event and if you want to promote up the ladder and impress the bosses you stay around and rub shoulders with the big boys, as they say. Well I've never stuck around to rub shoulders, I just want to go home after the fire is contained. As I came off the mountain following the crews it was interesting to watch the dust blow out of each vehicle. It took over a mile and a half before the dust stopped streaming out of my truck when I hit the highway. It was a quiet evening at Fire Camp with everyone looking to find out where they were going next. The paper work on fires is tremendous and timekeeping has to be an absolute nightmare of a job. They have bulletin board setup with the names of people needing to come see them to straighten out time.
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Day 10 - 8/23/01
I knew my truck was really in bad shape I had to be careful stopping now. I had hoped that I would be released that day to be sent home. Instead Tommy and I worked another day together. Now the job was to start collecting the equipment used on the fire, back to the drop points so it could be collected repaired cleaned and re-deployed on another fire. It takes a lot of time to collect all the stuff back that was dragged out to use on the fire. Having a pickup meant my truck was a primary transporter of the equipment back down the hill. I had Tommy again rehabilitating the fire line with dozers. He was a little brown man from all the dust kicked up from the dozers. Willis came by mad as hell, the dozers were breaking up some of the trees they were dragging back into the fire line to rehabilitate the fire lines. He said leave the rehabilitating to his crews, so I radioed Tommy to pull the dozers off the line and release them with a job well done. I was glad the fire had gotten to this stage.
The only spots of concern were the larger concentrations of fire in the canyon close to un-burnt stringers of timber. The crews were following the fire right up the mountain toward Division B. I spent sometime driving around a taking a few pictures to show the extent of the fire's travels. I had been looking for two days to find mister BIA weasel goofing off! I never could find his engine, he always traveled on the other end of the line from the location I was on. I ask other crews of his location and they said he was busy well inside the fire working on hotspots. I knew he was keeping a low profile and that was the best thing he could have done!
I made it back to Fire Camp plenty early. I asked to be released again. Finally they relented. I was ready to go right that minute! Now policy was that I had to have eight hours rest before I could be released from the fire. I stopped by a tee-shirt vendor who had set up outside Fire Camp. I bought a couple of tee shirts as memento's of the fire. One for my good friend Dick, who was taking care of my wolves, and one for my girlfriend, Kathy. I went to sleep knowing I'd be gone in the morning!
Day 11 - 8/24/01
I grabbed a shift plan as a memento and checked into timekeeping. I had to jump through all the check out hoops and be signed off by each section. I had filled my truck the night before. Still it was 6:30 A.M before I could get out of Fire Camp. The dust was still billowing out of my dash vents when I hit the open road. I could barely see my speedometer through the dust on the dashboard behind the clear plastic. I had ruined the plastic trying to wipe off enough dust to allow me to record my daily mileages as required on the fire. I didn't dare use my brakes anymore. I headed home like a herd of turtles. The trip was pretty uneventful until I was about 4 miles from my office. I was coming in on Highway 202, this way I could stop by my house and drop off all my gear and dirty clothes before traveling on into the office to get my personal truck. As I passed by the Olney store I touched my breaks a little to slow down for the curves ahead. Oops the pedal went down to almost the floor! Whoa--I had lost my front brakes completely. I cruised on into my driveway downshifting and using what was left of the brakes to arrive home. After I dropped off my gear I slowly and carefully drove the 3 miles to the Astoria office and dropped off my truck. Red tagging it in front of the mechanic's shop.
End of my fire story!
George wouldn't sign off anything on my Division Supervisor task book so I'm still not qualified, he also won't respond to my email. Upper management ODF doesn't like me and probably never will, George is just following instructions. George gave me a good firefighting rating with the exception that I tended to be too aggressive in my firefighting technique. I think that was because I took crews out in front of the fire and aggressively attacked the fire stopping it on the ridge before it could spread farther up Rudio Mountain. It that was wrong then I don't mind being wrong! I found out from my boss at Astoria District that George requested that Fire Camp send me home because I made such a large Safety Zone and that only by the insistance of the Incident Commander, Mike, was I allowed to stay. Thank you Mike for believing in my abilities and me.
As to my promise to Chet to make sure his concerns were heard about the firefighting done early in the fire. I reported his concerns to my District Forester, Stan. Stan contacted the Eastern Oregon District Forester and conveyed Chet's concerns to the District Forester. From the report back Chet had his say at a ODF and landowner meeting after the fire and he had already expressed his concerns. I just made sure that the follow up was completed as I had promised.
My back operation was postponed because the doctor I was seeing didn't want to hassle with the State Accident Insurance Fund (SAIF) paper work. I have a new doctor and he is working with SAIF, so hopefully soon I'll get it fixed. I go to court in September to determine whether or not SAIF will reopen my claim.
I asked my lovely lady Kathy Richardson to marry me and we now have made plans to be married on June 28th of 2002.
The State Forestry will probably say this is not a true representation of fire line work. I will tell you that this is a true story that can be confirmed by anyone mentioned in this story. This is a real life story and it represents how a relatively big fire in standing timber was fought and stopped by ODF and private firefighting crews. It also gives you a taste of the inside workings of a fire and why some decisions are made in fire situations.
I really think that Fire Camps have become too much of a social event and some persons actually like the fires to grow to very large infernos so that the activities can occur. Me, I like fighting fire and take pride in keeping the fire as small as possible. I never let one get away without giving it my very best.
P.S. Thanks, Dave. This one was for you!
You can e-mail Chuck Day at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2002 by Chuck Day. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission of the author.