Fire World

Thorp Mountain lookout
Thorp Mountain lookout

Washington State is on fire. Over 350,000 acres have burned so far in 2014, more than five times the yearly average. And it’s only August 11. Fire season could extend into October. Just about everyone I know in the Forest Service has stopped doing what they normally do. We are all working for fire now. I spent six days at Thorp lookout for fire detection and monitoring. Watched four big smoke columns go up every afternoon. While hiking out, I listened to a radio drama play out. A new fire was spotted by the observer plane, and personnel hurried to the scene. It grew quickly from four acres to a hundred, and burned actively all night.

The next day should have been a day off, but I went to work to help organize the closing of roads and trails for public safety. The next three days started with the morning briefing at 0600, then hours of driving, scouting, mapping, asking questions, getting answers, then returning home at 7 or 8 PM to water my garden and get some sleep. As a Resource Advisor, I represent my local ranger district and work with the team of wildfire specialists who have come in to manage the fire. Every aspect of fire suppression can affect water, soil, vegetation, roads, trails, cultural and historical features, wildlife. The effects are both short-term and long-term. My role is to facilitate conversations and cooperation that lead to best practices so that when the fire is out, we have caused the least amount of harm. The forest will recover. Eventually.

I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. It’s daunting. As I drive the dusty roads and listen to the radio, watch the helicopters bustle back and forth with water buckets and pay attention to weather and smoke, I realize that I’ve gained a lot of useful experience over the years. During the 1980s and 90s, I went out with twenty-person crews as a basic firefighter. It all starts there–digging fireline, mopping up, patrolling for smokes. Spent time in lookout towers, observed weather, worked as a fuels technician on prescribed burning projects. Did some dispatching, rode around on fire engines, sprayed water, pulled hose. I gained some specialized qualifications and started going to fires as a single freelancer. My reputation as a backcountry-capable lookout/observer grew. I know my way around a fire camp, but prefer smaller fires with few social and political complications. You don’t always get what you prefer, however. So I find myself on a small but complex fire moving across multiple land ownerships with expensive homes a mile away. The terrain is steep and partly unroaded. There is a critical shortage of personnel and equipment. Eight thousand feet of fire hose was ordered two days ago and has not been delivered. Helicopters come to drop water on this fire but are diverted to another fire. It’s hot and dry with more lightning and wind in the forecast. Today was a difficult day and the fire grew, pushing on the ridge above town. Smoky air comes in the open windows of my house.

It’s Day 10 for me, and it feels like somebody threw gravel in my eyes. My throat is permanently dry. Tomorrow I sleep in, a one-day respite to do laundry and other mundane chores related to daily life. Then it’s back to whatever fire season throws at us. It feels like we’re in for a long haul. Now I’m glad for all the time on firelines, in lookouts and in the backcountry. Glad to be a generalist interested in everything rather than a specialist. Glad to be learning new things, and helping out where I can. And glad for cool night air and sleep.

Morning, before the fun starts
Morning, before the fun starts

On the Road

Living as I do along a well-beaten path, I sometimes need to be reminded how much I love the side trails in the Pacific Northwest. There are still places where the roads are only two lanes wide, where generic corporate slickness has not penetrated, and the traffic is comparatively light.

My fire call came at the end of last week, at the end of a hot work day. I spent half the night packing, unsure of what to expect. The next morning I pointed south, and by mid-afternoon found myself in Crescent, Oregon. There’s not much in Crescent: a Forest Service ranger station, a Shell station and mini mart, a couple restaurants, a motel, some boarded-up businesses. For the moment, there was also a fire camp popping up like mushrooms after a rain. Except that it was hot and dry.

I worked with a team of guys whose expertise is analyzing fire behavior and projecting what this particular fire might do until fire season ends in October. My contribution was field recon, observing and bringing back specific information on forest types, fuels, topography, fuel breaks, unique features that could be affected by fire. My job was go out and look for stuff. I was happy to do it. Learned some plants that were new to me, such as shasta red fir and chinquapin. Learned a little bit about predictive models. Enjoyed the company of my colleagues.

The geology of central Oregon is volcanic. The Washington Cascade volcanoes are large, glacier-carved, and not as numerous. In Oregon, you can travel easily from lava flow to crater, and timbered cinder cones are clumped in groups. The forest soils consist of pumice and some conifer needle litter. It all seems as if it was shaped recently. I was intrigued by Mt. Thielsen (the jaggedy peak on the right), which looks to me like the core of some long-ago volcano, weathered and stripped down to bare bones. Even though the Cascade crest is not knife-edged here, the elevations rise higher that 7000 feet above sea level.

I stepped onto the Pacific Crest Trail at Windigo Butte, and also followed the North Fork of the Umpqua River for a mile or so. Lodgepole pine stands go on for miles, hinting that this country has known stand-replacing fires in the past. No time to explore in depth, no time to settle into an intimate belonging to this landscape. The work was about covering ground and distance, not about letting the place slowly reveal itself. And that was all right. It was familiar enough and different enough.

Cinnamon Butte is a well-kept lookout on a 41-foot tower. The road is smooth and graveled all the way to the top. It is staffed by a paid employee, who was happy to visit. It did my heart good to know that this part of the Forest Service lives on, at least for now. An experienced pair of eyes on a mountaintop, a steady voice on the radio, plenty of time to tell a smoke from a puff of dust.

The job was over sooner than I wanted–I always want to stay out in the woods. Yesterday I made my way back northward, and looked for the things that make this part of the world unique–the bears and lumberjacks and Sasquatches. The smoke in the air, the dryland wheatfields, whitecaps on the Columbia River, wild horses on the Yakama Reservation, a rattlesnake poking around the garbage cans at a rest stop. Trees and volcanoes and sagebrush. And finally topping Manastash Ridge to drop down into the Kittitas Valley, smoke haze flattening the silhouette of Mt. Stuart against the sky.

Home. Back on the beaten path, appreciating the perspective that travel always brings.

Thirty Years, Part Four

Work-influenced watercolor from the late 80s

Forestry technicians who have been around a long time sometimes tell stories. Everybody has the story of their first fire.

Mine was in 1982, in Idaho. Picture this: Saturday evening. It’s hot. Just about everybody in the tiny town of Avery is in the pub. Forest Service seasonals from all over the country are rubbing shoulders with the loggers. The jukebox is thumping, people are playing pool, drinking beer, laughing and talking. The phone rings. It’s a fire call–an arsonist started a fire behind the high school in St. Maries, and maybe was heading up the St. Joe River. Everybody should be ready to go. Some of us drifted back up the hill to the bunkhouse. Filled some canteens, made sure the boots were ready to step into and lace up.

Later, the word got around. Twenty of us would head down to St. Maries early in the morning to relieve the initial attack crew that was staying out all night. OK, time for some sleep…except for the people in the room above who continued to party and played a Jimi Hendrix album over and over the rest of the night.

It was a bleary crew that assembled before dawn, piled into trucks, and went downriver. I didn’t know what to expect. I had pulled on my green Nomex pants and yellow Nomex shirt, having learned at firefighter training that these fabrics were fire-resistant. I had my hard hat and gloves, and a couple of plastic canteens that fit into canvas covers I could carry on my belt. We stumbled out into the early morning, and smelled the smoke. The excitement was over. We would be mopping up.

Mop-up is done in pairs. One firefighter sprays water with a hose while the other stirs and digs with a hand tool. Unlike structure firefighters who have unlimited water at hand, wildland firefighters need to make the water work hard. Spraying a mist or fog from the nozzle conserves water better than a steady stream. The person with the hand tool can mix the wet ash and soil into the still-smoldering ground fire. Obvious hot spots are under burning logs, where stumps and roots have burned out, at the bases of trees. Our job was to find these and extinguish them. Somehow I found myself mopping up with the perpetrator of the all-night Jimi Hendrix. He was still drunk, I was sleep-deprived, and we barely spoke. I had the hose and was focused on spraying, then discovered that my partner had disappeared. Oh well, probably for the best.

By the end of the day our boots were caked with soggy ash, faces were streaked with black, and we all reeked of smoke. So that was firefighting.

In September and October, we did prescribed burning. The main reason was to reduce the amount of logging slash so that the clearcuts could be planted with trees the following spring. In those days, I didn’t know much about fire except to follow instructions. That was how I found myself scampering through brush and limbs as fast as I could, laying down a stream of fire fifteen feet below and a little behind the person lighting above me. We all had drip torches, a cylinder with a handle and a spout that dribbled a mixture of gasoline and diesel. A wick kept the fuel mix lit, so that when the liquid dripped, so did the fire.

It was fun. I liked the sound of the flames, the smell of the smoke (even though it was so horrible sometimes that our eyes streamed and we gagged), the camaraderie. Everybody helped. The hard work and long days were a physical challenge. I liked the overtime pay that showed up on my paycheck. I was hooked.

During the years that followed, I had all sorts of fire adventures. After lightning storms, we would go out smokechasing–looking for fire starts. I got to travel with twenty person crews to big fires. I worked as a lookout, and because I could talk on the radio and keep track of details, I did some dispatching. In 1986 and 1987, I was the fuels technician at Avery. I learned the basics from the previous tech, then got to figure out the rest myself. I kept track of about 80 areas that were scheduled for burning. I drew maps, did the fieldwork and calculations to estimate the size and distribution of wood to be burned. I checked weather and fuel moisture prior to ignition. And I got to watch a lot of fire. It started to make sense–how fuels, weather, and topography interact; how smoke behaves; what happens when the decision is made to light when it’s too dry or windy (more overtime). I saw what happened when the fire stayed on the ground, and when it got up into the trees. I saw the effects of low-intensity fires compared to high-intensity fires. I saw how quickly animals came back, or never left during burning.

Fire is endlessly fascinating, endlessly complex. I have come to see fire as a force unto itself, not as the enemy or the tool. It is what it is, a natural process and agent of change.

Oh, I have fire stories…some of my biggest adventures. Some of the times when I have been coldest, most miserable, most bored, most scared, most grateful to be alive. I’ve slept on the ground, huddled into a warm spot in the ashes with my head on a rock curled up like a coyote. Fire is etched into my memory, flickering orange all night. The smell of faraway smoke in the summer makes me restless. I still want to go.