Up Close and Personal
12 August, 2000
It might come as no surprise to those in the U.S. that the worst fire
season in almost a century engulfs Montana. More than a million acres
are currently aflame and the weather continues with hot, sunny and wind-swept
days. With the exception of one brief shower last Thursday, we've seen
no rain since July 8th. Temperatures in the high eighties to the mid-nineties
The National Forest service
recently advanced to Category Four, which means restricted activity on
state or federal land. No internal combustion engines (chain saws, lawn
mowers, tractors, combines, and hay-bailers) are allowed off tarmac or
graveled roads. When one drives through the woods on a forest road, the
essence of superheated trees pervades the air. The forest is filled with
naturally distilled turpentine, just waiting for a spark, a match or a
bolt of electricity.
Near Star Meadows, there
are two major fires. Elk Mountain, to our northwest, rages a six hundred-acre
fire that started a week ago. In the Northeast, on the other side of Johnson
Lookout, South Gergen drainage caught fire last Friday. Both are less
than ten miles from our place.
On Thursday night while
standing before the kitchen sink, the sky darkened and the wind picked
up. Rain, I hoped. No sooner than the thought formed, the meadow behind
our property rippled with a flash. Thunder followed the bolt within two
seconds, so I knew the strike was close. The rain soon followed but did
not last long. I threw on a coat and jumped in the jeep for fire patrol.
After ninety minutes of searching, I discovered neither smoke nor anything
that looked like a new fire. The haze was thick with mist and smoke from
the blaze on Elk Mountain.
Later, it rained off
and on for most of the night. Lightning played throughout the sullen clouds.
Friday broke with clear skies and cooler temperatures. The radio relayed
the news of thirteen new fires from lightning strikes in the Talley Ranger
district, our section of the forest. By Saturday, it was warmer again
and the wind picked up.
Just after noon, a passerby
noticed smoke on the hill behind us. He drove up to the house where I
was engaged in loading my Jeep with tools to thin some trees beside the
driveway. His news produced quite a jolt as we had experienced narrow
escape the previous year when a hundred-acre fire roared by with only
fifty yards to spare.
This time, there was
also lot of smoke. I knew we had a fair-sized fire, but it looked like
it was all in the meadow. I asked our messenger if he knew the location
of the Hope Ranch. When he replied in the affirmative, I sent him there
for help as the ranch had a shindig underway and lots of menfolk present.
"Who should I call?"
Olivia asked when our visitor left. "911," I said, jamming the gearshift
into four-wheel-low. The Cherokee powered uphill with me, my axe, chainsaw
and shovel… forest rules not withstanding.
The fire was almost a
hundred yards in diameter and about seven hundred from our property. The
wind drove it in our direction. The only tool worth a damn was the shovel,
which I used to beat down the fire as I worked around the perimeter. I
couldn't really extinguish the flames, only slow their progress. If someone
could follow with a rake, we would make effective progress. By the end
of the first pass around perimeter, the fire had doubled in size. I surrendered
the windward side to concentrate on the flame-front and the blaze working
uphill to the north, toward the forest.
Forty-five minutes raced
by and no one showed. Little did I know but our passerby elected not to
visit the Hope Ranch. He decided to drive elsewhere to find a telephone
and after he called in the fire, figured he had done his duty. Ten
minutes later, a spotter plane zoomed overhead and wheeled a tight circle.
I waved and pointed at the down-wind side, which had now entered a series
of rocks and snags where my shovel was less than effective. I was losing
the battle on this front. He waggled his wings and vanished.
Because of the smoke
and rugged terrain, I relinquished the downwind fight and worked the north
face where I was making fair progress. The spotter plane returned. He
executed a fast, low pass and waggled his wings again. With a sudden roar
of heavy engines, an ancient B-26 bomber hurtled low over the trees and
unloaded. Aerial attack by the grace of God! The bomber snuffed the downwind
I raced across the smoldering
flame front and worked on the other side, which threatened to flank the
bombed area. Five minutes later, the spotter made another pass, directly
above me. When I peered into his wake, the B-26 had lined up for a second
pass. Slam-dunk! Red rain right on my hot spot! (Also, on me and my Jeep
- glad I had the windows rolled up) It's now a two front battle instead
Fifteen minutes later,
the cavalry arrived with two fire engines, a bulldozer and ten firefighters.
The pros took over and killed that puppy quick. It never made it to the
trees. I'd liked to think I helped.
Of the whole experience,
nothing stands out like that moment when I thought the battle lost and
the slurry bomber showed up and turned the tide. They made one guy on
the ground feel pretty darned good.