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Fire Fighting Western Style

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Published on: May. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

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.

Going Home

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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