Fire, Trees, Rocks, Hot Shots and Spike Camps

IMG_1657Missoula      Relatively speaking, Montana is not on the same fire alert as many western states suffering from extensive drought, but nothing is relative in August once temperature moves towards 100 degrees and rain becomes scarcer. Anything can set off a blaze, especially lightning sparking out from a thunderstorm.

Several days ago, we watched closely as helicopters intermittently flew over with 160 gallon buckets of water, pulled from Rock Creek. Our Airstream is on “in-fill” property with U.S. Forest Service land all around from the rocks to the road. The first day a ranger said it was only three or four acres. The location was along Alders Creek around the ridge that we abut by several miles, and part of the steep, craggy unsettled rock speckled with stands of pine. The beetles have been a scourge in the northern plains, browning and killing many older, weaker trees and becoming one of the devil in the details of climate change in this part of the country.

The following day there were signs posted as we came back from an I-90 supply run, letting us know we were in a fire safety area. Several green trucks were out in a field. More helicopters seemed to be working, though they stopped in the late afternoon. We had been smelling smoke off and on, but it seemed to have abated, so we hoped the job was done.

Driving on Rock Creek road as we puttered along the next day, we pulled over as three, identical white trucks, labeled “Twin Peaks” with windowed rear cabs passed by followed by three white passenger vans, all with Utah plates. That evening while working to unload lumber from a truck with our neighbors, a Forest Service ranger came by to do some “public information.” They had brought the “hot shots” in to fight the fire and set up a “spike” camp at the end of our bridge fording Rock Creek. She gave us maps, common sense instructions (no open fires or catalytic converters), and generally everyone thought the fire would be contained as it backed up a steep ravine and confronted the natural firebreaks that were the results of an earlier fire, and should shut off further fuel for the fire.

When I said that we thought they had gotten it the day before in the mid-afternoon, it turned out everything had stopped when one of their firefighters had been hurt. She wouldn’t give the details other than to say that became their “number one priority,” and that he would be all right. On the topo map she left us, the MedVac location was clearly marked, and piecing together what little she said, we were clear that it was the rocks that got him, not the flames. The green trucks a couple of miles up the road were the result of a quick drilled well that was filling a semi-portable tank, so that rather than the helicopters decreasing the Rock Creek flow, they could refill by dropping their buckets into what was essentially a big makeshift bathtub.

After watching open trucks bring back loads of 4, 6, and 5 men, dirty, and smudged at 8PM at night to the spike camp, the next day we thought we would hike up the ridge on the old fire trail and see if we could measure the progress. A couple of thousand feet up, we stopped where we could see the smoke billowing above some flames. While Chaco looked down the trail, I thought I would go up a little higher and see if I could get an even better view. A long fallen pine ended up blocking my way, and as I came back down the loose rocks, one turned on me. Trying to catch my balance, I tried to run down the rest of the way, but not calculating the steepness, my momentum was propelling me down faster that I figured and instantly I was crossing the 20 feet of trail and not slowing down. I thought I could grab a sapling at the edge and stop myself, but hadn’t counted on the quick drop off over the edge, so ended up tumbling down and trying simultaneously to break my fall in the rocks. I finally stopped another twenty feet down, when I rolled full force into the trunk of a pine, hitting it squarely with my back, and knocking my breath out. Chaco seeing me fall, essentially over the cliff, had immediately jumped down, bracing himself with both feet, worried that I might have broken every bone on my fool self and been seriously hurt.

Everything seemed to be in reasonable working order. I could see where my camera had fallen. My hat was in another direction, and blind luck located my glasses, once I could finally get up and crawl back up. I was lucky. Some scrapes and scratches of course and likely a bruise, larger than any hipster’s tattoo, will still be on my back when I hit home, but, strangely, it was reminiscent of my high school days, catching a pass and then being leveled in exactly the same way by a 230 pound linebacker as I had just been handled by that sturdy pine.

Writing this, the rain has finally come, hard and steady, for the last couple of hours, so we’ll hope that douses the Alders Creek fire, but the main thing we discussed as I creakily go from bunk to couch in the Silver Bullet, is how much we admire and appreciate the rangers and firefighters of the U.S. Forest Service, the job they do, the sacrifices they make, and the fact that no amount of Republicans, Koch Brothers, or Tea People could light a candle to the least of them.

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