July 19, 2012

Fire Trumps Fishing Trip

Yesterday I wrote that I planned to go fishing in the evening, and I was more cheerful all day with that to look forward to — until about 2 p.m. when the fire siren blew.

First reports have the fire in what I will call Something Creek Estates. SCE is a potential apocalyptic fire nightmare — scattered ridge-top homes on 35-acre plots, thick second-growth pine forest mixed with oak brush, very steep slopes.
Terrain in "Something Creek Estates," taken from a residential driveway.
It is all accessed from a single gravel road with narrow, steep driveways cherry-stemmed off from the main road.

I leave my Jeep at the fire house, which is on the way, and start out in the big, slow diesel water tender, following the 4wd brush truck, which has already started up the mountain.

The matriarch of a local ranching family (which once owned the land where SCE is now), zips around on her ATV with a two-way radio, trying to find a driveable way closer to the fire.

Our vice-president, the default incident commander because the chief is off working at the other end of the county, tells me on the radio to leave the tender lower down because the road that he is on is too steep and narrow for it. I hitch a ride with one of the volunteers following me in his own truck. We climb to the home where I took the photo above. Still can't see the fire.

Eventually the ATV leads us to the highest, farthest-back road in the subdivision, and there is the fire—across a steep valley.

Five of us are working our way through brush tangles, over rocks, and through thick timber toward it.Three are carrying five-gallon bladder packs, the others have extra tools, radios, etc.

W. stops for some nature observations: "Look, mountain lion poop with baby deer hooves in it!"
Man nearest the camera is wearing a bladder pack.

We hear chainsaws. We have spotted one of our volunteers at the fire — he walked in a different route — but the saws mean that the Forest Service-BLM crew is there.

Three sawyers are dropping dead and leaning trees on the ridge where the fire is burning. It is only about an acre in size. We start digging a fire line, fitting in between volunteers from a nearby town and the federal crew. Looking around, I can spot at least five trees with old lightning scars. Only one tree is burning — was it struck yesterday?

Just as the line is completed, the gusty winds start to blow — outflow from thunderstorm cells that bring us no rain.

The wind starts to blow.
Our people who have bladder packs scramble to the downwind side. The fire starts to gain another acre, moving into rocky terrain.

Now another federal crew is on the way. The other volunteers are leaving — we are cleared to go home too. As we start down, with the wind calmer, the air attack begins. A helicopter with a dangling "Bambi bucket" and a single-engine air tanker are overhead almost constantly, since both are able to refill relatively close by.

Single-engine air tanker drops retardant on the fire's edge.
We hike out an easier way, but the two fire trucks and various personal vehicles are now two ridges to the south in Something Creek Estates. Lots of radio chatter ensues as some of our other volunteers drive into SCE to bring down the fire apparatus and attempt to locate the other vehicles.

More chatter as we try to tell the chief where we are. "There's a water tank here and a high metal post. Is this Nearby Town's waterline road? We're south of County Road Such-and-Such. Yes, the helicopter just went right over us."

He finds us, arriving in his battered black pickup truck. Riding back the 15 miles or so to the fire house, I wonder how long it had been since I went down the highway in the back of a pickup. It's probably illegal now, technically.

So maybe I can go fishing tomorrow?


Darrell said...

I wondered if you got called when I heard about the fire, figured that you did. I assume this was the fire the news reported as on the Custer/Fremont county line?

jason said...

Ditto what Darrell said. Saw it on the news and thought "Bet Chas is on it"

Off-topic--we need to get some range time soon.

Galen Geer said...

Chas, would you believe we're getting fire warnings up here? This is the most water-poor I've seen since moving up here.