Best Fire Assignment Ever

(To get a better look at any of these illustrations, just click on the image for a larger view.)

Jon was cleaning off his desk awhile back and found a postcard I had sent to the trail crew in 2006. It showed a landscape I had drawn on part of a meal package and mailed from the remote village of Stehekin on Lake Chelan. Holding that in my hand reminded me of what I remember as the best fire assignment I ever had. I’ve started writing an essay to tell the story in more detail than I will tell here.

Lightning started the Flick Creek Fire on July 26, 2006. It torched the forest along the shore of Lake Chelan, then settled into a slow progression up Flick and Fourmile Creeks. Because it was burning in the backcountry of North Cascades National Park, the fire managers decided to not actively suppress it. I showed up on August 6 to monitor it.

I was a lookout without a tower. The helicopter dropped me and my gear at Helispot 10, a high rocky unnamed peak on the border between the Park and the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness. I set up my camp and lookout spot, and settled in. July is intense for the trail crew, prime time for covering miles and cutting logs. Hanging out at H-10 was a vacation compared to my regular job. I took my first weather observations at 6 in the morning, and then every hour until evening. These were called in to fire camp, along with my brief summaries of fire behavior. I had radio contact with aircraft and a crew on the ground, as well as a supervisor in Stehekin. The rest of my time was spent reading, writing, drawing, watching. I had a comfortable tent, two cases of military rations, water, and an unbeatable view of the mountains. Every three or four days, the helicopter picked me and took me to Stehekin so I could take a shower, eat a couple hot meals, and talk to people face to face. In the morning, I was flown back to H-10.

What a life! The weather was fine, except for a couple cold and windy days, and one time when I was concerned about an approaching thunderstorm. From my lookout spot I watched smoke from other fires in the Cascades. Sunrises and sunsets were incredible. I had binoculars for fire watching, but sometimes they were focused on birds. Mountain bluebirds flew over me with a soft breathy song. Clark’s nutcrackers swooped over the talus slopes like raptors, faking out the pikas who hollered “Eep!” and ran for cover. Pikas are related to rabbits and I observed their long hind feet as they hopped. They also watched me as they gathered grasses for winter storage. Insects were constant companions—iridescent green and gold flies, butterflies, ants, grasshoppers. One morning I returned from a short ramble to discover a muscular buck mule deer in my path, antlers burnished to a gleam. He flicked an ear and walked away. Another time, I heard a curious clucking and found ptarmigan making their way to the mountaintop. Suddenly white-throated swifts appeared, crescent-shaped and graceful. I watched them for as long as they stayed, complete masters of the vertical environment.

My stay at H-10 was not completely idyllic. I thought about all the peaches, corn on the cob, and cucumbers I was not eating. I fantasized about salad and fresh garden tomatoes. I experienced boredom, irritation, fear. The radio was sometimes an intrusion as I listened to conversations and dramas unfolding elsewhere. Aircraft flying around, pilots conversing with each other and people on the ground. Conversations about people and supplies. Reports on fire activity. Sometimes I wanted them all to stop their incessant chattering. Some days it was too smoky for the helicopters to leave the ground, and I realized that I was dependent on them to come and go from H-10. It was a long rough way down to the lake to get picked up by boat, and I’d have to leave some gear behind. I studied the map and landscape for routes if I had to bail off my mountaintop. That scared me, although I was sure I’d survive the experience. I wasn’t working hard physically, but I was living outdoors and paying attention. Some evenings I went down to my camp mentally exhausted from watching and listening for hours.

Somehow I got a piece of grit in my right eye, and it became inflamed. I called in, and one of the helicopters brought me eye drops. My eye watered and burned. On my next trip to Stehekin, the EMT flushed the eye with saline solution. I went back to H-10 and there was no improvement. A grown-up voice inside me said I’d better get this taken care of in order to do my job, so I left for medical treatment. Traumatic conjunctivitis was the diagnosis, and I was allowed back to work with medicated eye drops. Fire camp and town were hot, dusty, and noisy. I couldn’t wait to get “home”.

Fire assignments can only last sixteen days. Fourteen days there, and two days for traveling. My time was up just when things were getting interesting with the fire. The weather had gotten hotter and drier, and for two days I’d been following the fire’s pinball jumps up the slope. If it crested the ridge, it would be above Stehekin. That would change everything. The night before I left, I sat on the boulders outside my tent and watched the orange glows across the canyon. It was moving uphill. My supervisor called me at 10 pm. “Is it going to hold?” he asked anxiously. “I don’t think so,” I replied into the radio.

The next morning I packed and reported that the fire was on the ridge. The helicopter came, and my relief jumped out. My gear was loaded, and we flew out over the fire. All hell was breaking loose as trees torched in gusts of black smoke. I would have stayed, but I knew the rules. It was Day 16.

Coming back from a trip like this takes time. In a small way, maybe I have not completely returned. Memory is a funny thing, a container that we continue to shape as time passes. How certain images and feelings shine in memory’s spotlight, how others just fall away as if they never happened. How we remember living on the heights, and what it is like to come down.

I’m pretty sure there will be other opportunities to go up and stay for awhile.

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