by Loren Hettinger
I had not thought of my seasonal work with the U.S. Forest Service for a long time. But the recent spate of wildfires in the West helped dust off some of the old memories. Prevention of fires, or at least quick response and suppression, was high on the Forest Service to-do list, and a problematic fire or two could tunnel a ranger’s career.
Back then, we had posters tacked up in our work areas, the bunkhouse, and even in the unlikely location opposite the commode with a stern admonition from Smokey the Bear—“Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires!” The value of periodic fires to promote habitat diversity and reduce fuel loads, if thought about, was not preached much among the Smoky Bear faithful. Firefighting was therefore at the top of the pecking order of Forest Service job prestige.
Firefighting equipment has improved considerably over the years, although the objective of reducing a fire’s access to fuel is no doubt the same. Forty years ago, we relied mainly on establishing fire lines around the perimeter and squeezing the front into an ever-smaller point, then attacking hot spots within this perimeter with shovels, axes, and water. And, if the wind came up or changed directions calling for a retreat, we were trained sufficiently even as Forest Service “seasonals” to know the value of burned-out areas as a refuge, and to have a safe zone identified. If the fire was large and cantankerous, Smoke Jumpers could be brought in. We were in awe of this group—the elite firefighters of the Forest Service—though some of us figured that anyone who willingly parachuted out of a plane into spiky trees adjacent to a fire might be at least slightly demented.
The largest fire the summer I worked out of the Forest Service guard station in Pitkin, Colorado, occurred north of Sapinero in the Gunnison National Forest. We were an eight-man crew, and our normal work for most of that summer was thinning lodgepole with double-bit axes. The thick “dog-hair” stands of lodgepole pine likely originated from a fire 50 to 60 years before. The larger trees were left to achieve a faster growth rate for eventual timber harvest. We had worked at thinning long enough that axes were claimed and then lovingly sharpened with files and carborundum stones as work started in the morning and during lunch. We measured ourselves by the size of the chips that flew as we cut.
Fenceposts were cut from trees six inches wide—into eight-foot lengths—and several loads were hauled down the mountain to the guard station each day. After peeling the bark, three feet of the larger end was stuck into a creosote tank. Creosote, now considered a health hazard, was used as a wood preservative. So there was some fence building during the summer, and we became experienced in digging out three-foot boulders when only a foot-wide posthole was required.
We also cut Bulldozer-cleared areas of fallen trees into saw-timber lengths, with the smaller logs and slash stacked into triangular piles for winter burning. This cutting was part of a program to protect areas of large saw-timber with 100- to 150-foot wide firebreaks. Cutting the criss-crossed trees into smaller lengths was like trying to untangle a giant game of pick-up-sticks, and was quite dangerous because of the tension from the weight of adjacent trees and the instability of the tangle itself.
I was in charge of the crew because I had worked for the Forest Service for several previous summers between college terms. All of us worked under a General District Assistant, a permanent employee who sometimes stayed in the bunkhouse at Pitkin with us, or in Gunnison at the head office. The crew only tolerated the GDA, as he always wanted us to be more productive, or do a better job of keeping the bunkhouse orderly, and some of the guys called him “Sarge.” We hated to see his truck approaching our work area.
The crew consisted mainly of football players from Western State College in Gunnison, as this was a good way for them to earn some money over the summer and also keep in shape for the fall practices. But there was a lanky business major and a tough dude who competed in rodeos on weekends as well, and didn’t take gaff from anyone, including the GDA. Overall, the guys were good workers, and held trivial contests to make the work more interesting.
I was required to report in to headquarters over the Forest Service truck radio each noon—a hit-and-miss exercise because I often spent the noon-hour in frustration searching for an area among the logging roads where radio contact could be made. So it was that we couldn’t get to headquarters for fire duty until one of the guys had checked in on the guard-station radio, after dropping off a load of posts.
That day, there was an “emergency” telegraphed by a truck bouncing up the mountain—over water bars and rocky areas—with enough noise to make us stop our work. When it arrived, we loaded up and drove back down to the guard station. There, we refurbished our water and food supplies (which meant grabbing some candy bars), packed an extra shirt and pants and socks, loaded one of the red fire boxes that contained a variety of tools (axes, shovels, Pulaskis, mattocks, canvas buckets), and squeezed everyone back into the crew-cab truck.
After turning north from the main highway onto forest service roads, we were sobered with the first good look at the white and brown mushrooming smoke plume. Someone swore, “That looks damn ugly!”
We arrived at the fire control headquarters around 5 p.m., and after getting briefed with maps and safety procedures, were assigned to putting in perimeter fire lines. Other crews were already working in different areas of the fire, and we were hauled up the mountain in the back of a Power Wagon on old logging roads. Power Wagons were heavy one-ton, four-wheel-drive trucks.
We could hear “Cats” working upslope, toward the fire’s front, and pumps somewhere below us. Leaping flames were visible in the tops of trees further up the slope, and along with crackling sounds of a bonfire magnified into giant proportions, were quite intimidating. It dwarfed us, standing there with our hand tools. The primeval urge to flee was near the surface, and it took some time after we arrived to become warily comfortable with the surging flames and smoke.
If fire-resistant shirts were available, we didn’t have them. We wore t-shirts beneath long-sleeved khakis. Nor were there self-deployed fire-protection blankets or tents in case we happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Flying embers were a problem when we first started working because of the wind. They stung like wasps, which we slapped out as if they were. Everyone tied bandannas around their necks to try and keep embers from getting inside their shirts, and some of the crew had moved the bandanas over their nose and mouth, like bandits, because of the occasional dense smoke. It wasn’t long before our throats were raw.
There was a method to putting in a fire-line, and we worked in single file: four guys using mattocks and Pulaski’s followed by three on shovels. Mattocks and Pulaski’s are pick-like tools with a heavy hoe on one side and a narrower, longer blade or axe on the other. The idea was for each person in the line to clear some of the vegetation and duff of needles, roots and other debris, so that when the last person went through with a shovel, there was a four-to-six-foot path showing nothing but mineral soil.
It was my job as foreman to make sure that each of the crew was doing the right amount of work, and the fire line was going in the right direction to meet up with another line. The GDA had placed pieces of survey ribbon at odd intervals to point the way. I was to report to base camp on the hour with a two-way radio, and to be alerted if there were any predicted changes in wind and fire conditions. Even though the men were in good physical condition, this was tough duty. They were rotated occasionally, as the first part of the line and the grubbing work was the hardest. Conversely, it was also necessary to slow the pace for the first hour, as there was a tendency to overdo it until the adrenaline burned off and everyone found a workable rhythm.
Even with our rigorous work, we knew that if the wind changed directions, our small fireline could easily be overrun.
Early in the night, the GDA came by with a chainsaw and asked me to spot for him. I wondered aloud if he should take one of the other crew so I could continue to manage the team. I instead put one of the more dependable guys in charge of the line work, and gave him the two-way radio. The GDA’s goal was to cut any burning trees that had potential to cross the line if they fell. A spotter was needed to watch when the tree was starting to lean, help push it toward the burn, and yell a warning if part of the tree actually came down from above. Dead snags were especially dangerous since the top could break off from the vibrations of the saw. We also had to ensure the cut trees didn’t roll downhill, spreading the fire.
I wondered if my gloves were thick enough for this work, but the GDA was good with the chainsaw, and we hustled to catch up with the fireline construction.
It took a lot of time for him to refuel the chainsaw at the logging road. I hiked back up the hill to check on the crew. It was easy to get disoriented in the surreal light of the fires and smoke, but at least the area was on a more or less constant slope. As the process repeated, I did once overshoot the GDA, who gave me a questioning look when I came up from below instead of upslope, where the crew was working.
It was 80 degrees when we first started working, and sweat poured off us. The crew had shared water out of large canteens, not worrying about who drank before them. By midnight, when the air had cooled considerably, we were taking short breaks near hotspots and open flames.
The District ranger and a fire-runner arrived sometime after midnight to check in on us and bring extra batteries for our headlamps (which we hadn’t used much because of the light from all the flames), water, food, and two empty backpack sprayers. By that time we had almost reached the other fire line, so the crew was split. Four men went upslope to join another crew and its line. The rest of us finished the connection and used the backpack sprayers to cool off the larger hotspots before conditions could again turn in the fire’s favor. This too was hard work. We had to hike about a thousand feet down to a creek below the logging road, fill the five-gallon tank with water, seal the top, and hike back up to the fire, where the GDA directed the assault.
With the backpacks, some commented we might just as well urinate on the fire, but the guys persisted in the work. Since there were four of us, we rotated, and two people along with the GDA would dig at hot spots while waiting for the two bringing the water. It didn’t take long to realize we needed to keep one place hot so that while waiting our turn going down to the creek for a load we could also dry out and warm our wet backs. Several crew members pulled on government-issued ponchos for warmth, and to try and keep dry. The ponchos let in little air and became saunas on the hike up, then tore from the brush and tree branches. Eventually, they hung in strips, providing a ghoul-like, Halloween scene as the guys came through layers of smoke into the light of our headlamps.
By the first dim light in the east, we all moved very slowly with full loads, and many of us drank out of the nozzle as we tramped up the mountain—the known threat of Girardiasis pushed away by immediate, burning thirst.
Finally, a voice on the radio announced we would be relieved, and a runner from base camp eventually came partway up the hill and hollered at us to follow him down. We gathered the equipment and started down the mountain to a Power Wagon waiting on one of the logging roads, where we met up with the rest of our original crew. The guys that had been conscripted to build lines with the other crew told us how hard they had worked, but were also told how lucky they were, since the rest of us had hiked up the mountain carrying 50 pounds of water half the night. In any case, we were all dead tired with black faces and clothes, looking like we had escaped hell. And for the most part we had.
The fire control headquarters were in a meadow at the base of the mountain, and had grown during the night as more crews arrived for the attack. Once at headquarters, we washed up in a cook tent, had a breakfast of corned beef hash from K-Rations, helped ourselves from a big pile of powdered eggs, choked down instant orange juice, and grabbed some thick slabs of toast. There were no complaints about the food.
We were then given paper sleeping bags and told to “Get some shut-eye” as we would be doing another stint late in the day.
It was hard to sleep with all the activity, and by noon it was getting hot enough in the paper bags to bake potatoes. The heat, invading ants, and flies deemed it a short sleep.
By now the fire was contained, and the wind had died down. The Cats had gotten in front of the fire with their massive blades and built substantial fire lines. Instead of building lines, we would dig out and cool down hot spots. The potential for wind to fan these spots into flames again, which in turn could jump the lines constructed earlier, was inherently understood. The thought of another night hiking up the mountain with loaded backpack sprayers, though, was not appealing. We “cheated” the hill slightly and coerced another crew on a pump to occasionally fill our backpacks. The exertion of the night before had taken its toll and we worked at a slow, steady pace through the second night.
The fire was contained sufficiently by the next morning for us to return to our own district, leaving the mop-up to the resident crews. On the way to the guard station, we stopped at a restaurant in town, feeling quite macho. The waitress took little notice of our wildfire stench and loud rhetoric. Several older residents asked about the fire, and we felt important talking about it while still shoveling in the lumberjack breakfasts.
Finally back at the Pitkin bunkhouse, we taxed the hot water supply as we worked to get the soot off our skin and hair. We threw our reeking, blackened clothes away and spent the rest of the day sleeping. The next morning, we were back to thinning lodgepole.
There is a certain camaraderie that develops among a crew working in the woods. While there are undoubtedly rough-edged personalities, working together on the forest fire brought the men closer, mellowing some of these rifts for a couple weeks. All in all, the fire was a newsworthy story to send to parents and girlfriends back home, and was the topic of bunkhouse conversations for at least the next few days.
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