Every year, when big fires advance up the West Coast toward northern California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, experienced Missouri fire fighters start gearing up -- mentally and physically.
It's not that the western fires are any threat to Missouri. We have our own fire problems here. However, most years the Conservation Department, at request of the U.S. Forest Service, sends one or two 20-person crews, including support and supervisory people, to help fight western fires.
Fire fighting can get into your blood, and that's part of the reason why people volunteer to leave home for three weeks. There is an adrenaline rush from watching a fire race from treetop to treetop and even more of a thrill from being able to stop the fire's advance. In a way it's a test of self confidence in the face of Mother Nature's worst behavior.
Western fire duty allows Conservation Department personnel to learn and refine their wildfire suppression skills. These skills pay obvious dividends during Missouri's spring and fall fire seasons.
I was on standby for being called to fight western fires one summer a few years ago. I wasn't sure whether I would be going or when, but knowing the call could come at any time, I kept my bags packed and stayed in fire-fighting shape by running every day at the local high school track.
Finally the call came. Tom Ronk, the Conservation Department's fire program supervisor asked me if I could be at the Forest 44 Conservation Area near St. Louis at 5 a.m. the next morning. From there our group would travel to Oregon to fight fires.
After several phone calls, some last minute packing and a ceremonial haircut, I was en route to St. Louis.
Many of the crew members were already at Forest 44 when I arrived.
Some were organizing their equipment; others were trading stories from their last trip. All were anxious, but the veterans knew how not to look too excited, as the rookies nervously checked and rechecked their gear.
Crew supervisors, squad bosses and crew members held frequent meetings to make sure everyone was mentally and physically prepared to fight fire for 21 days. We held a fire shelter practice session to ensure that every one of us knew how to use this life saving equipment.
Supervisors also weighed our gear. No one could board the plane with over 55 pounds of clothing and protective equipment. After we received the final briefing on our roles and assignments, the group loaded on busses headed to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
Fire camps often have unusual names taken from people, topographic features or someone's wild imagination. The Forest Service sent us to a group of three fires near Granite, Oregon called the Bull Complex. They included the Bull, Summit and Tower fires. The three fires combined were relatively small by western standards, totaling less than 4,000 acres.
Support personnel were setting up the base camp when we arrived. We were among the first five crews there. A meal caterer and shower unit had been set up, and a communication unit, supply depot, finance and time section, security unit and the all important commissary arrived later. This had the potential to become a big fire, and in one week the camp grew to over 2,000 fire fighters and support personnel.
My crew's first assignment was to go to the Bull Fire with two other crews. Our leaders told us to mop up a burned area that had jumped a road the day before. A bulldozer made a line around this "slop-over," but there were still logs burning near the control line.
Mopping up is to fire fighting what playing offensive guard is to football. There is little excitement or glory. It is essential, hard work. We were to snuff out any remains of the fire using hand tools and water from a fire truck.
After several days of similar assignments the commander of the camp assigned us to climb 7 miles and 1,000 vertical feet to another site. The rocky ascent took us over half of a day, before we finally linked up with another fire fighting crew.
We spent the rest of the day holding a control line, trying to keep the fire from jumping over it. This was done with a watchful eye, several helicopter drops and quick reflexes. Near sunset we hiked another two miles (mostly uphill) to a spike camp. A helicopter lowered a cargo net full of supplies, such as bottled water, sleeping bags, granola bars and toilet paper.
In the base camp we slept under a piece of plastic on the ground, which is good living compared to spike camp, where you are clinging to the edge of a steep mountain. Helicopters and trucks delivered meals in plastic foam coolers. One evening we ran out of paper plates and used cut-up pieces of cardboard to eat taco salad on. There were no privies, only our shovels.
When we ate dinner that night an enormous orange and red glow to the north lit the moonless night. More spectacular than the fourth of July, the fiery cloud devoured acres of timber. The center of the cloud pulsated like a beating heart. Radio traffic said the humidity was 19 percent at 10 p.m.
The Tower Fire was making a run toward the Bull Complex Base Camp. It had grown 20,000 acres in one day and had moved six miles in 2 hours. The top of the cloud was over 30,000 feet and was creating its own weather, with lightning and 20 mph winds out of the east. Everywhere else had 5 mph winds out of the south.
The order came over the radio to evacuate the base camp because the Tower Fire was only two miles away. In all of the chaos, they had forgotten about our spike camp.
Our division leader called the supervisors in the spike camp together. We made the decision to hang tough where we were. Spike camp was near an old gold mine within an open rocky ridge. Because there was little fuel for the fire, we felt safe. We posted lookouts throughout the night with radio linkage back to the camp. It was a restless night, and everyone slept with one eye open and their radio on.
I was one of the first to awake in the morning and found the cloud had died down somewhat and was in about the same location. I heard a Missouri crew member wake up and say, "I'm still alive," which drew a chuckle of relief from the rest of the crew. The breakfast menu included boxed cereal and granola bars that came in with the taco salad.
The operations section was extremely surprised, embarrassed and apologetic when we finally reached them by radio. They told us to work our way back to the drop unit, where buses would take us to the new base camp at Meadowbrook. It took us all day to reach the new camp. We were amazed that an entire camp of 2,000, along with all support facilities, had moved 25 miles overnight and was functioning as if nothing had happened.
After two and a half weeks of digging in the dirt, washing down ash, sleeping on the ground and waiting in line for food and toilets, we couldn't help think about home. When a bus took us to the Pendleton airport for a chartered plane to St. Louis, the Bull and Summit fires were almost out, but the Tower Fire was still going.
Mixed emotions ran through every crew member. It was good to be going home again, but the strong bond that had been formed with my crew members would soon be broken. We had done what we were expected to do and helped fight the fire, but until next summer we would have to tell the story of the "big one" that got away.
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