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 are typical.
         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 side.
         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 of four.
         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.