Firefighter Part 8

My only injury as a firefighter didn’t happen on the fire line. The scar on my arm which has woo’d countless babes (not really) didn’t come from from rescuing an invalid from a burning building or carrying a tiny spotted fawn from the path of a raging wildfire; no, alas, it was a simple accident. But it sure looks good, even after all these years and without any cosmetic enhancement whatsoever.

One of the chores around the fire station in between fires was to clean and sharpen all of the implements we used. There were the McCleods and the axes and the shovels and the brush hooks. We kept a large supply of these tools around ready to replace the dirty and dulled ones we brought back from the fires.

We had a tool room down in the basement under the station. It was located near the hose washing rack. You got there by passing the front office and walking down a stairway beside the station. The small room had a variety of tools and a workbench with a vise that had a round device for holding the handle of the tool you were sharpening. I learned early as a firefighter that a sharp tool is a safe tool. The seems to be contradictory in a logical sense but it’s sensible if you think about it. A sharp tool bites into whatever you are trying to cut whether you make a good strike at it or not. A dull tool can glance off and come back at you or at someone else.

To begin the sharpening process the tools were hosed off to free them of dirt and soot. The process also included sanding the wooden handle if needed and using a rag to apply a thin coat of linseed oil to it. The tool was them clamped into place and the appropriate edges were sharpened. After the tool was sharpened, the linseed rag was wiped over the black metal of the tool and it was ready to go in the rack until needed.

I got pretty good at sharpening tools and I enjoyed doing it. It was a rewarding thing to take a dirty abused tool and revive it to a like-new state again. I never thought that a shovel needed to be sharpened before fighting fire but it’s an effective cutting tool when it has a sharp edge.

The day I got injured I was sharpening a brush hook. A brush hook looks like it should be in a museum as some relic of a medieval war. It has an axe handle and a large iron cylinder that the handle is inserted into. The flat edge of a large, thick iron hook is welded to the cylinder and it is then sharpened all along the inside of the hook. It’s a great tool on the fire line, heavy and powerful.

So I was in the tool room sharpening this brush hook and I had just tested the edge with my thumb and admired its fine edge. I decided that it needed just a couple more swipes with the file so I proceeded to lean into it to finish it up when the file slipped and my forearm bumped into the blade. I could feel it slice deeply into my arm and I reacted by pulling away as quickly as I could. It didn’t hurt very much and that surprised me but I knew I was badly cut. I didn’t want to look at it so I put my other gloved and oily hand over the wound and made my way up the stairway to the captain’s office.

I told the captain that I needed to see the doctor but he wanted to see it for himself. He didn’t argue with me and grabbed the Ranger’s pickup keys and alerted the engineer that we were on our way to the only doctor in town. Peaches ran out of the barracks in an instinctive act of feminine care-taking and asked what had happened and to see the wound for herself. I took away my hand and at least six pints of blood poured (well, maybe it was a teaspoon) onto the floor of the garage and poor Peaches lost all impulse to play Florence Nightingale and she squealed in horror and took off running in the opposite direction back to the barracks. We all thought was hysterical: we were much too macho to be frightened by a guy’s exposed musculature and a splash of blood.

Anyway, the good doctor sewed me up and it was a miserable job too. The kindly old guy was simply not cut out to be a plastic surgeon. I still have a very wide scar on my arm from it so I am satisfied that the cut was not on my face.

Our crew was safe and lucky throughout my time fighting fires. The danger of the fire line did not enter our minds all that much, even when the heat and the smoke were all around. In my second year we were reminded that it was a dangerous job when some guys burned to death in a southern California fire. They were caught in a fire driven by winds they called “Sundowners”. It seems along the coast the wind blows in from the ocean on a normal day and then turn around and blow out to sea when the sun goes down. This can cause a fire to burn back down a hillside abruptly and these guys were from the north and were not aware of the danger. The fire they chased all day came back on them and several died.

To be continued…

Firefighter Part 7

Most of my time as a firefighter was spent on wildfires.  I worked for the Division of Forestry which in my second year became the Department of Forestry and which in more recent years has been branded as CalFire.  They obviously employed some sort of marketing guru to raise their profile for the purposes of union bargaining.  It is after all harder for the decision-makers to say no to requests for raises and budget increases when a brand is valued.  CalFire sounds less like a government agency and more like, well a TV show.

Anyway, I digress…  Oh yes, wild fires.  Well we did respond to structure fires if they posed a threat to the forest which was most of the time since we lived in the forest.

It was our goal to arrive at the structure fires before the local fire department whenever we could.  It was a matter of pride to be there first, to be quicker on the draw so to speak.  The local fire department was mostly volunteer – I was also a volunteer – and there were about four or so paid positions.

One day the alarm went off at the station and we all scrambled to the engine as the engineer was pulling it out of its bay.  Off we blazed south on the highway scattering traffic to the sides of the highway like a big red snowplow.  A house was on fire south of town which meant that our station was closer than the fire department’s station.  Their station was north a mile or two.  That meant we were going to get there first in.  That meant that if entry was going to be made, we were going to have to do it.  My adrenaline was pumping because I was the senior firefighter on duty that day, that meant I was on the nozzle. 

We rarely got to make entrance on a burning building for two reasons. First of all most of the houses in the area were north of us meaning that the fire department usually got there before we did unless it was night time; and second, most houses that caught fire which we were called to were fully involved and therefore could not be entered into by anyone.  All we could do was protect neighboring structures and the forest.

So down the highway we go lights flashing and siren singing.  The house is right on the highway and thick black smoke is billowing out from under the eaves but no flames are visible.  The fire so far appears to be contained to the attic.  As we drive up we spot a hydrant and run a line to it.  We all jump off the truck and the captain is barking orders.  The owners are nervously standing off to the side hoping we can save their home for them.  He enters the house to look inside but sees no flame. 

We lay some hose and the engineer starts the pump to begin spraying the roof to cool it down.  The captain yells at me and another guy to put on Scott air tanks and to get a ladder and climb up in the attic with a live line.  Now Scott air tanks in those days were steel tanks like a SCUBA divers use.  They were heavy.  They weren’t like the ones I lifted recently at a fair that are made of some sort of composite materials.  The new ones are as light as a feather – firefighters such wimps these days (Ha!).

The Scotts were stored in a side compartment on the engine and we’d reach in, grab it and raise it over our heads then hook our arms through the shoulder straps and allow it to slide down our backs into position and buckle a waist band.  We put on the clear face-covering mask pulling the rubber bands to create a seal around our faces.  Then we stretched the rubber corrugated hose with one hand and covered the end with the other end and inhaled deeply to test for leaks in the hose before we connected it to the regulator.  No problem, we were ready to attack the fire from the inside.

Meanwhile the smoke was continuing to build so my partner grabbed a short ladder and I took the nozzle, and we charged into the house and down the central hallway.  We found the attic entry and my partner wedged the ladder up into it.  I pulled the hose up the ladder and climbed into the darkness.  It was a tight squeeze with the Scott on my back but I managed to get through.  Black smoke filled the space.  I crawled forward dragging the hose along and I felt my partner tap my leg to let me know he was now inside and behind me.  We could not see each other.  We dragged the hose forward but saw nothing.  The smoke was too thick to even see my hand pressed against my face mask.  It was hot but there weren’t any flames, no light of any kind.

We had practiced for this of course.  In the station, the captain would cover the inside of a Scott mask with tin foil making the inside dark.  One of the crew would lay down somewhere inside the barracks as a mock victim and two of us wearing Scotts would have to crawl through searching the entire building to find him.  I think we called it a pattern search.  Basically that meant that we followed the walls on the perimeter of the building.  One man would crawl keeping contact with the wall with one hand and with the other firefighter with his other hand.  The other firefighter on the inside would sweep the inside of the room as far as he could reach without breaking contact with the outside guy.  We’d reach under tables and beds until we found the firefighter and then we’d have to carry him out.

I learned on this fire that you truly are blind in that kind of smoke so the tin foil exercise was realistic.  The smoke creates a light eating soup full of tar and toxic fumes.  All you have for security is your Scott, your partner and that hose.  You have to trust that your captain will pull you back before it’s too late.

As I was crawling forward trying to find the flames and staying balanced on the rafters so I wouldn’t come crashing through the ceiling, I saw a dim blueish light in the distance.  I didn’t know that the firefighters outside were preparing to ventilate the attic.   They had used saw to cut a square hole in the side of the house, now only about eight feet from me.  They placed a powerful fan in the hole we called a smoke ejector and flipped the switch drawing all the smoke out in what seemed like an instant.  Suddenly I could see the entire attic but no flames.

I was covered in sticky black soot and sticky tar-covered spider webs were plastered against my Scott mask.  Since there was no fire in the attic and no flames showing themselves inside the house we had a mystery on our hands – where was the fire?

My partner and I backed out of the attic and down inside the house pulling out the hose as we went.  Another crew was in the process of tearing out the ceiling in the kitchen below which the fire seemed to be located.  It turned out that the kitchen was an addition and the old roof line was concealed inside the ceiling.  The fire was burning in that concealed space sparked by substandard wiring.  We tore out the ceiling and put out the fire.  It was a heck of a mess in there when we were done.  We dragged all the burned and smoldering debris out into the yard and hosed it all down to a soggy cooling pile while the poor family looked on.  That was the day we all learned about the value of building inspectors and permits.

To be continued…

Firefighter Part 6

After we ate we were given paper sleeping bags and assigned to an un-air conditioned fairground hall building to try to sleep in the middle of the day in the 100 degree plus weather.  Everyone was laying around in their boxers sweating and trying to catch some Z’s when we heard a noise like a jet aircraft taking off.  There was a lot of panicked shouting going on right outside the building.  Everyone sat bolt upright and scrambled to the door to see what the commotion was about.  One of the propane tanks had burst its hose and caught fire, popped its valve and was blowing a flame like a hundred foot blowtorch.  A second one soon blew right beside it doubling the sound.

We all raced into our clothes and out the door to the engine.  There were a total of five tanks and we had to get water on them before they blew as well.  Of course we had a problem, no water.  None of the engines had tanked up when they arrived at fire camp and they were all bone dry.  So we scrambled to find a hydrant and connect the engine as fast as possible.

A meat delivery truck had been bringing in the steaks for dinner and was backed up to the cooking area right beside the tanks when the first one blew.  The man had a cool head and jumped into his truck and drove it away quickly before it was badly damaged.  Still the paint was burned down to bare metal and the bondo repairs were burned clean as well.  It was a powerful heat.

We finally got water and charged our lines.  The convective heat of this propane fire was intense.  Plastic trashcans twenty yards away were melted flat on the grass in green smoldering gobs.   We tipped some smoking picnic benches up on their side about thirty yards away and we sprayed water up over the tops of the three remaining propane tanks while trying to keep all of our body behind the benches.  It took a good while for the propane to burn itself out, there was no other choice, there was no way to cap it.

After the propane fire was out and camp was re-established and the captains were all taken to task by the rangers, and the engineers taken to task by the captains and the firefighters taken to task by the captains and the engineers – all for not filling the engines when we entered fire camp, not being prepared – we ate dinner and we were sent out on the fire once again.  Throughout the night we walked the lines and put out coals and waited for the chill of predawn to tell us when we would get relief again.  We were now over 48 hours without sleep.

We were sent back into fire camp the Tuesday morning and fed breakfast then released to return to our station.  We followed our normal post-fire routine.  We took all the dirty hose off the truck and we washed and scrubbed and cleaned and took inventory.  I was taken to the doctor as my whole body was beginning to swell and my eyes were beginning to close with poison oak.  A shot of cortisone was required and within 12 hours I’d be right as rain again.

Tuesday night we were called out on a structure fire and were out all night cutting a line around it to keep the fire that consumed the cabin from spreading to the forest.  The cabin was beyond saving before we arrived but we were lucky that the air was moist and the forest didn’t want to burn.  There were thunderclouds coming in. 

In that forest where few people lived a fire could work its evil inside a cabin and nobody would be around to see it until it burst through the roof and consumed it.  The fire was cold by morning and we returned again to the station.  This was now Wednesday morning and none of us had slept for more than a couple of hours since Saturday night.  We were a tired crew.  We prepped the truck and washed and sharpened the equipment.   The weather promised dry lighting in the afternoon which meant fires, and no rain.

The lookout began to report strikes late in the afternoon after we had cleaned hose, washed and waxed the engines, done our laundry and ate.  We had a nap that afternoon I believe but it wasn’t long because soon after the strikes were announced, smoke was sighted and the tones sounded.  We were off through town and into the forest.

The folks in the lookout are sitting in the highest point in the area of course.  So they are easy marks for lightning.  During the storms they would have to sit on stools with antique glass telephone insulators on the feet and not get off because if their feet were on the floor of the steel building when it was hit, they would be electrocuted.  The lookout told me once that they’d had to sit for many hours perched on that stool from time to time.

Lightning is a fascinating phenomenon of nature.  I saw large trees that were blasted to bits as it hit by a bomb, their limbs and much of their trunk laying in shattered remains on the forest floor.  I saw trees with a narrow layer of bark peeled away cleanly down to the white Cambrian layer in a spiral from the top to the bottom.  Lightning travels down in a spiral in the same direction as water spirals down a drain.  Each hemisphere produces an opposite effect I’m told.  I saw one lightning strike where a tree was struck and the bark was stripped down the point where a telephone wire was attached with a spike to the tree as was common in the mountains then. The bolt had traveled along the wire to the next tree and then stripped the bark off in a spiral to the ground.  I saw large trees on which the bark was untouched but the branches were all broken of in a crushing spiral down from the top.

So off we went into the mountains, maps unfolded and searching for the right coordinates that the lookout was giving us.  We learned the cartography vocabulary of the day like “Township” and coordinates.  We used them to find our way through the old logging roads to find a smoke from a strike the size of a camp fire.  I’m sure that today they have gps systems to guide them in to a fire but we had maps and we had to learn how to read them and give accurate directions to our captain or engineer.

We put out several strikes that night and we got caught in a lighting storm that made us all desert the cab and take cover under the engine for a couple of hours.  But no strikes came too near us and it began to rain.  Sometime later when the sun came up we crawled out and drove back to the station to clean up and prepare for the next alarm.  My shift ended that Thursday morning.  I remember going home and I sat down on the couch in the living room.  That’s where I woke up on Friday morning.  Before or since, I have never been that exhausted.

to be continued…

Firefighter Part 5

The longest week of my firefighting career happened in my second fire season.  It was July and it was hot.  I had kitchen duty which means I had to cook the meal that Sunday.  I did it up right, I cooked a traditional thanksgiving meal with a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, home made buns, the works.  I made it for the afternoon meal which we usually ate early on Sunday.  Everything came out perfectly and it was all on the table, we were just starting to pass things around and fill our plates when the alarm went off.  Nobody questioned or complained, nobody hesitated, we dropped whatever was in our hands, got up and ran for the engine.

Well, it was a pretty aggressive fire that some boaters had accidentally started with a BBQ on the bank of the Stanislaus River.  That was before they built the New Melones Reservoir.  The fire quickly spread up the side of the canyon as we drove down the hill.  This fire was at a lower elevation where Manzanita stood and scrub oak and redbud.  The brush was thick and dry and the fire was eating through it hot and smoky. 

The captain had to drive down a rocky dirt road to get to the fire.  Several other engines were already there and the bombers were dropping pink sprays ahead of the head of the fire.  They looped in like roller coasters diving in and dropping then lifting hard up and out of the canyon.  A helicopter dropped enormous buckets of water it was scooping out of a big hole in the river.

We were assigned to the left flank and directed to lay hose down through the brush until we hit the fire line then work north along the fire.  A helitack crew was dropped at the river and they were cutting line along the rigged eastern flank.

We loaded our backs with hose packs and unrolled several lengths of hose and plowed through the brush toward the smoke.  The fire hadn’t yet reached the ridge we were on and our job was to keep it from getting there.  We didn’t have to go far to see flames and the battle was on.  The nozzle man sprayed and several guys pulled hoes while other guys began cutting line with axes and with McLeod’s.  A McLeod (pronounced McCloud) is like a big hoe on one side with a coarse rake on the other side.  The hoe side has a razor sharp edge and it has a heavy handle so it can be used to but small branches.

We started working up the flank and had clamp and lay hose as we moved through the smoke.  When one of us ran out of hose we hiked back to the engine for another couple of rolls.  We carried water canteens and refilled them from the hose.  We’d wet our kerchiefs and wrap them around our head to cover our nose and mouth.

Water tanker began to shuttle in water from a distant hydrant and a decision was made to lay hose in form the street to keep the tankers from having to drive so far.  Water was draughted from the river on the east flank with a portable floating pump.  It was too steep for an engine to get anywhere near the water.

On one of my hikes back up the hill for hose I had just grabbed two rolls and was walking back along the hose lay to find my way back through the smoke.  We had stopped the fire at the ridge and cut a line, but the fire had not been mopped up so there were still little fires burning in downed logs and in the brush all along the line.  I walked beside these bushes and was watching a little tiny campfire merrily burning under a Manzanita about ten feet all.  Suddenly the bush simply exploded into flame.  It was like a magician who has some of that fast burning paper, Poof!  I stood before the burning bush with these two flat rolls of hose, one in each arm, I was so startled by the singed hair on my arms that I didn’t get the biblical significance of the scene and I never thought to check the markings on the hose.  Perhaps I missed my chance to bring the law to my people.

We were on that fire all night and worked without sleeping to cut line and put out hot spots, extend our hose lay.  I recall sometime early in the morning we were tired and our eyes were beginning to play tricks on us.  We saw what we thought was a burning airplane in the sky.  It appeared to be far across the dimly lit ridge of the canyon across the river, high in the air.  We were mystified and we were convinced that it would spark fires everywhere.  We watched it for a while until our captain came around and shined his powerful flashlight up into the air.  He told us we were idiots and to get back to work.  It was only a black, limbless spike of a pine tree that was still on fire at its tip and the sap was boiling up out of it and sending out red sparks into the night.  Our captain chuckled and went on along the line to check on other crews.

We were relieved at around ten or eleven the following morning.  We took out engine into fire camp that was set up at the fair grounds.   Fire camps were great places because it meant good food and lots of it, cold water, cold drinks, showers and sleep.  We rolled in and restocked the truck except for filling it with water and we all went to eat lunch.  Fire camps have large trailers with grills and buckets of ide with cold drinks and water.  We could eat as much as we wanted and we were ravenous.  The helicopter had dropped in some individual army surplus C-rations the night before and we had heated some of the BBQ beef cans on the fire and swapped for our favorite dessert and we all put our new P-38 on out key chains.  Those little wonders had to be the best can opener ever invented.

to be continued…

Is God Still Creating?

So yesterday I’m taking my walk and I come to the corner where I intend to turn and head north and I notice a large green Pochote Tree. It’s one of those fascinating trees with large thorns adorning its trunk and all its branches. I admire it as I pass by and wonder why I never noticed it before. It makes me think about how creative God is.

The Bible tells us that God created the heavens and the earth and all of the things here living and not living. So God is a very creative being I think to myself. God must have an awesome CAD program. The Bible doesn’t say that God stopped creating it only says he rested. I think God took a nap and went back to work. I’m pretty sure He didn’t stop creating because he creates babies of all species all the time, new flowers, new stream beds and oxbow lakes. The Bible does not say that pursuant to Article 21.534 of the Universal Code that all creation has been completed and anyone creating beyond the sixth day is a false God. It says He thought it was good, it doesn’t say he thought it was complete. It’s like God created the canvass and now he is extremely involved with painting in all of the details.

No, I think God is still creating which brings to mind a thought I had. How would we know when God creates something new? There are news reports sometimes that such and such a scientist has discovered a new species of eel somewhere in the Indian Ocean or a new slug in the Amazon. How do we know that God didn’t just finish a new drawing and schematic, touch the screen with his finger and POP!, there is a new little creature for us to discover and enjoy? You know, like those Toyota Yaris commercials where the little tiny cars pop into being from out of nowhere?

How do we know that a discovery of a new species isn’t evidence of new creation? I’m not sure if Darwin never talked about that as a possibility. Spontaneous creation like spontaneous combustion where all of the elements are just right and POOF!, up rises a new creature, a “little bang” of sorts.

I suppose someone would have to witness the creature actually popping into being. I guess a scientist would have to be looking at a fern all goggle-eyed behind a looking glass when suddenly POW! a flash of light and a tearing of the visual air and there is a new slimy slug softly floating down to the fern. But we probably would call the scientist a madman if such a story were to be told. Nobody would believe him, we’d all say the poor man had some rare tropical disorder, or that he was overworked, or that his looking glass was faulty.

Sometimes we find a species that has been evident in the fossil record for many years. Suddenly, someone finds one and there it is in living breathing color! Like that prehistoric (formerly) fish, the Coelacanth that was “rediscovered” in 1938. Everyone went, wow, how’d we miss that all these years at the sushi bar? Maybe that week in 1938 was Jurassic Week on God’s calendar and he decided to give us a retro-fish, like someone restoring a ’57 Chevy and putting grease in their hair for a 50’s week at high school. Maybe God was just having a theme.

If you know anyone creative then you know that their creativity is a gift and something of a mental disorder all at the same time. For creative people, the myriad of options they can “see” in their mind sometimes leads to extreme lack of finality to anything they attempt. I wonder sometimes if God isn’t a little like that too. I mean if the earth was finished on day 6 then why blow up a volcano? Why shift whole continents in some galactic game of bumper cars? Why send a flood to Iowa to move cubic tons of earth around? He’s not done creating I think.

Some schools of thought on God and creation are that we and everything here on earth are an expression of God. This way of thinking isn’t so far outside the Christian tradition. Jesus was after all God incarnate who came to earth to experience the weaknesses and joys of being human. It was a creative exercise for God. It makes me a little nervous though because what if God tires of a creation, what does he do with it if he does?

How do we know that God didn’t come into the world as a dinosaur and decide, wow, these animals really suck, back to my CAD program, time for a new idea. What if He feels the same way about us? What if He made us to create for Him, as an expression of Him? What if we have already created all the best stuff and it’s standing like Michelangelo’s “David” in museums. Or what if he’s tired of us all sitting on our sofas waiting for us to get busy creating again? What if there’s nowhere else to go within the limits of our creative mind? Will God decide that’s it, time to redesign, to POP! a newer and improved model into being?

Sometimes when I’m walking I use my blue tooth device and talk to people on the phone. It’s hysterical, you should try it sometime. People I pass give me wary looks that scream, “If you come near me I’ll wet myself!” I try to pass them on the side that hides the device on my ear just for fun. If they could hear the thoughts in my head as I am walking they might wet themselves anyway. My creative mind is always working and it’s never finished, and sometimes all it takes is a thorny tree to set it into motion.

Firefighter Part 4

I was on a fire engine the afternoon of August 16, 1977.  I was sitting in the crew cab with a couple of other guys when news came across the radio that Elvis had died.  We were on highway 99 north of Sacramento and we were coming back from a long road trip.  It was a fire season of terrible fires in California.  The largest fire in the history of California burned 178,000 acres in Monterey County that August; it was called the Marble Cone fire.  I didn’t get the chance to go on that fire.  It went on for over a month. The fire camp was like a small town and even began publishing its own paper I recall.

The problem with being in a two engine station is that if there is ever a task force; that is, a team of five engines and a ranger pickup, only one of the engine gets to go and the other one has to stay back and cover the station.  In my two years of fighting fires, if there was something big happening they were sending a task force to, then nothing ever happened at your home station until the other engine got back.  It was strange and probably a coincidence, but that’s how it seemed to work.  So we’d watch the news reports about the Marble Cone fire growing and growing and we knew that one of our engines would get sent over there and we all hoped it would be ours.

The Marble Cone fire produced a column of smoke so large that it stretched north over Oregon.  I recall the newsman on television saying that it was actually causing rain to fall in Oregon.  Since it rains there all the time I don’t know how they could tell the difference but that’s another story.  The tones came in one day for a task force to go to the Marble Cone Fires and it wasn’t my engine that was called.  I was disappointed as the other engine loaded up and rolled off to the biggest fire anyone had ever seen.  I felt robbed of the opportunity to fight the monster.

For the next few weeks nothing happened.  All we could do was sit around the fire station and watch the news reports, clean and do some training.  It was dull as dirt.  Finally my opportunity to get away from the station presented itself.  Headquarters was calling for hand crews which are groups of about twenty guys who cut line around the fires.  The hand crew would work locally and be stationed at headquarters.  The advantage was that when replacements for engine crews on the Marble Cone fire were called for, they would take them from the hand crew and not from the stations. 

Some correctional facilities have hand crews and we used to call them “Con Crews” and we liked to see them show up on fires because then we didn’t have to cut the line.  You see, around every fire there has to be a line cut about four feet wide and down to mineral soil.  That’s a lot of cutting and scraping, chain sawing and axe work.  Hand crew duty was hard, hot dirty work and I was about to volunteer just to get away from the station where I was slowly going mad.  To make matters worse, we were on Pattern C so no days off.  When the call came from headquarters for volunteers, I said yes.

I was only on the hand crew for a few days.  We cut line on one brush fire before I was informed that we were going north to relieve a crew fighting a series of smaller fires near the Oregon border.  My captain and a couple of other guys from the station showed up so we were a team again.  The cool thing was that an airplane had been chartered to fly us there and it was a general aviation aircraft with twin engines.  We flew from Stockton into Burney where they put us on s smaller aircraft and flew us into Alturas where the engine was parked, fueled and waiting for us.  We drove all the way across to a station near Eagle Lake and where we were told to wait and cover a local station.  It was a long journey to end up sitting around another station.

Covering a station happens when the normal crew is sent from there to a fire.  If they are going to be gone long then headquarters sends an engine from a two station company to cover for them and keep their area safe in case another fire breaks out.  The nice thing about covering is that you don’t have to do anything there like cleaning or any of the normal chores.  Anyway, we didn’t cover this station long because a large fire was breaking out on the other side of Eagle Lake near Susanville and we were sent there the next day.

The Lake Fire as it was called was almost out by the time we got there.  It was an extremely hot burning fire.  Some fires only burn grass and other fires burn form the grass into the brush while the worst fires burn the grass into the brush and then into the trees which we called, “crowning”.  Those were the ones you just got out of the way of, those ones would kill you and they move fast.  The Lake Fire had crowned and it had even burned over the lookout.

We drove from Susanville up to the fire to help mop up hot spots because the fire was actually out.   The paved road ended abruptly at a dirt road where the fire had gone over it.  The fire was so hot that it had burned the asphalt away right down to the gravel and dirt bed.

If you have never walked in a forest where a very hot fire has burned then you’ve missed a surreal experience.  The scene was unlike any fire I’d been on that first fire season.  The ash was ankle deep and it billowed out ahead of you when you took a step.  There was complete silence except for the pop and crack of the charcoal beds still burning hot.  It reminded me of pictures of the men walking on the moon.  Some trees were nothing more than pointed black sticks standing defiantly up out of the ash.  Some trees were simply gone altogether.

I learned that cedar trees when very dry will burned completely away in a hot fire.  They burn right down into the roots and will actually set other trees’ roots on fire under the ground.  We had to put out the remaining coals by spraying water into the pit where the cedars had been.  It was as if a giant had come along and pulled the tree out by its roots and left the soil around it undisturbed.  It was a strange sight.

We left the Lake Fire that afternoon because another fire had begun burning along highway 70 in the Feather River Canyon.  This canyon was a steep dangerous place to fight a fire.  Before we got out of Susanville our engine transmission began to slip.  It seemed that the filter got clogged with all the ash and it took them hours to fix it.  The rest of the task force left without us and again we were sitting around a station waiting.  We finally got under way and took a route around blue Lake Almanor and down the canyon to where the fire was burning.  It was dark by the time we got there and nearly time for a shift change so the fire boss sent us to fire camp to sleep.  We were given a sandwich and a paper sleeping bag and we all laid out under the stars in a field to sleep.

Over night the crews had put a line around the fire and we were released to go back home again.  They fed us breakfast in camp and we loaded up for the ride home.  We had flown and driven many miles and miles but had never actually fought a fire.  Mopping up doesn’t count if you’re a smoke eater.

Elvis died as we were driving home from our excursion.  He was only 42 years old, I forget that sometimes.

To be continued…

Firefighter Part 3

I learned early on that firefighters are adrenaline junkies. It was a job requirement not included on the application. Sometimes things got slow and no calls were coming in, no smokes were being spotted from the lookout on Blue Mountain. Guys would get jumpy and anxious for action at those times, they’d have a hard time sitting still and they’d get hard to talk to. The captain would start creating chores and the atmosphere would get tense around the barracks.

An alarm came across the radio regardless of which station was being dispatched. A central office miles away would send out tones and each station had it’s special own tones. When ours came through we knew them instinctively and an extremely loud horn would go off in various locations around the station all at the same time. Out tones were like the “Charge of the Light Brigade” to us, a thrilling, uplifting swelling symphony.

Information was given about the type of incident, the location and the route we were to use in getting there. The captain or engineer would write down the basics and everyone would get to and on the engine as fast as possible. You did not want to be the one to make the captain wait. Our captains were judged in part on the time it took for us to get rolling and the clock started ticking from the moment the horn went off. The captain radioed in that his engine was “10:8” which meant the stallion had left the barn with its knights aboard, help was on the way.

Sometimes the horn went off in the middle of the night and there was one located high up on one end of the barracks. It was so loud that it would make you sit bolt upright from a dead sleep. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t good for anyone’s heart but it certainly got everyone up quickly. Everyone would dress in a flurry of socks and shirts and pants and Red Wings. You put on enough covering to race outside without being arrested and you’d finish buttoning and tucking and lacing as the engine rolled out of the driveway and into the darkness lights whirling red through the pine needles and sirens screaming at the offended wildlife.

Lights and sirens were “Code 3” which pretty much gave the captain license to drive like he was in the Indy 500. The off road tires of the big heavy four wheel drive International engine whined down the highway while the central dispatcher gave orders or directions and dispatched additional fire companies to the incident. The sirens of other engine companies were audible in their radio transmissions and the excitement in their voices was palpable.

The people in the lookout tower gave updates on the progress of the fire from their high vantage. The adrenaline was pumping as the captain or engineer drove through intersections and everyone on the road pulled over to let us pass. The loud air horn blurted out obscenities at resistant or confused drivers who impeded our way.

The real adrenaline began when we first sighted the smoke, especially if it was a large column. We knew we were in for excitement and danger and lots of hard work. All of it was good, it was what we practiced for, it was why we put on the uniform. We loved the adrenaline involved in putting them out. “That’s a major-rager!” someone would inevitably say when a large smoke was spotted. The radio blared instructions about where our engine should attack the fire, who was the fire boss and about air support. It was going to war, people could die, destruction was imminent, we were the white knights riding to the rescue and all citizens bowed to us as we passed. When they didn’t they got the big air horn raspberry.

Firefighters are proud of what they do. They’re “smoke eaters” and they love it. I probably ate enough smoke in two years of fire fighting to equal about ten years of smoking cigarettes. We’d cough up black soot for days after a good fire. Our tired faces would be black with ash and streaked with sweat. I learned that whenever the smoke gets too thick to breathe it’s possible to get fresh air by breathing down beside the water flowing out of the nozzle. I don’t know it that was a firefighter myth or not, but it seemed to work.

When the fire was out and after we had put water on every angry coal and after we had cut a line to contain its perimeter, we loaded up the flat and blackened hose and we stowed away all the brass and the tools and we left the ashy scene of victory. It was time to go “10-19”, time to go home to the firehouse. We were sapped and hungry, we were exalted and satisfied. We’d won the battle. We’d boldly ridden in and we’d conquered the beast. So back we’d trudge to the barn, just another lumbering truck on the highway now. Back to the barn we’d go to curry our steed, to replenish our supplies, tend our wounds and nourish ourselves. There at the station we’d wait for the next call to battle and for the adrenaline to make us invincible once again.

To be continued…

Willie Never Had Braces

Willie never had braces, but it didn’t impact his brilliant smile. The woman facing me across the table had lots of them, shiny and silver and they made her draw her lips and wipe her tongue across the front of them sometimes when she talked. Her blonde hair and her thirty-something blue eyes flashed as she made her case. She was at my meeting to argue for some of the Title I money. She wanted it for her child’s school. She puled and she whined and she insisted that it was unfair for her child to be so deprived.

I found her attitude of entitlement repugnant. Here was a woman of privilege fighting for the scraps meant for the underprivileged. Here was a woman who measured all children as equal once they were inside the school house door. Here was a woman who probably spent more on her elaborate wedge hair cut than many families in poverty spend on a week’s groceries. Her rings flashed and her bracelets jingled as she elaborated on the flawed federal law that restricted Title I money to the poorest schools.

I wanted her to know what she didn’t know. I wanted to teach her about poverty and about how children aren’t all equal when they arrive at school. So I told her about Willie.

I was a teacher years before in an inner city school and I taught fourth grade the year that Willie was in my class. My school was in the inner city and served children from one of the most poverty stricken areas in California, it was called North Richmond. This is a place that white people did not go if they knew what was good for them. It was a sad, desperate and violent place where drugs and gangs prevailed in a hideous cycle that killed most of the males and enslaved anyone who didn’t find a way out. Willie lived there with his mother and his younger brother and sister.

Willie was a special kid and I pray for him still today. I trust that God saved Willie, because I was powerless to do so. He was a great kid, smart, and a good writer. He was on the school wrestling team and like most of the kids in that neighborhood Willie was a tough guy. But he wasn’t mean.
One day Willie suddenly stopped coming to class. His absences continued for about two weeks and when I inquired at the office about Willie I was told that he had been picked up by Protective Services. It seemed that Willie’s mother had disappeared and left the children. Willie’s mother was a crack addict. I looked into the eyes of Miss Braces as I told the story and she was clearly unmoved and disgusted about the crack habit. I could imagine the valium in her purse tugging at her mind.

I went on to explain that I knew Willie’s mother cared about her children. Despite being an obvious addict, this woman had kept her appointment with me for the annual parent teacher conference, she had come in with impenetrable black glasses and she sat in a chair opposite me. She sat turned away from me, with her back to me, and I imagined that she did so out of shame at her condition. She was skeletal and extremely lethargic, but she came, and she sat and she talked about her son Willie. She cared about his future, but she deeded his future to the school and to me.

Willie was discovered two weeks after his mother left. He and his brother and sister were continuing to live in the apartment alone. Throughout that two week period Willie continued to come to school. He continued to get his younger siblings to school. He fed them and he cared for them and he waited for his mother to return. He did this in spite of the fact that the power was turned off. Willie was an intelligent little boy. He knew that a neighbor had a credit account down at the corner grocery store. So Willie charged groceries to that account to feed his brother and sister, he bought candles to give them light to do homework, Willie knew how to survive. But the neighbor discovered what was going on and why. That’s when Willie and his little family were picked up.

Most of the people in the room had tears in their eyes when I told this story. But not Miss Blonde in Braces, she was merely content to let the topic drop. But she was clearly annoyed that she’d been outflanked by a story about a poor little boy who lost his mother to crack.

It was a powerful truth in the room that Miss Blonde in Braces didn’t feel the story, would not allow Willie’s life to penetrate her arrogance. Willie had to skirt the gangs on the way to school. Willie had to steal to feed his brother and sister. Willie got his homework done in spite of his mother being high or simply absent. Willie was a lot stronger than most kids but he didn’t start at the same starting line as the children born of Miss Braces. Willie started several laps behind her children.

Title I is meant to raise the opportunities inside the school house door for children like Willie. Schools can’t change home circumstances but additional resources can enrich what happens at school. Kids like Willie deserve some help from those of us with enough money for cosmetic orthodontics and expensive haircuts. The Willies of this world didn’t choose their life circumstances. If Willie’s neighborhood got him, if he succumbed to drugs or violence, we all lost someone special.

Firefighting Part 2

Taking care of the fire hose occupied much of our time around the firehouse. Fire hose is after all what keeps firefighters alive in many situations. After each fire, the engines had to be cleaned and restocked. Dirty hose was carried to an area down below and behind the garage where it was stretched out over a long wooden table made of slats. We would mix a bucket of soap and use brushes to scrub each piece of hose. After the hose was rinsed off, we’d check each length for tears or cuts, make sure the brass was in good condition and then raise them up by a pulley and hang them to dry. Hose that had cuts or which had failed on the fire was either discarded or cut and brass was reattached. This was the engineer’s job. Repaired hose had to be static tested up to a certain number of pounds pressure to ensure that it wouldn’t break. This involved pulling an engine out and running the pump. We had to pressure test all hose on a regular schedule so records were kept and all of the hose was numbered.

After a day or so of drying, each length of hose was re-rolled. The hose was folded in half with both brass ends together and the rolling begun at the bend in the hose away from the ends so that the brass ends where on the outside. The rolls were wrapped with large black rubber band which were just slices off of old engine tire inner tubes.

The method of rolling the hose had a practical purpose beyond making them easy to carry and store. The rolling made the hose fast to deploy in a fire by grasping the brass ends and throwing the roll forward while snapping back the brass with the other hand. We’d each carry a two roll pack of hose into the fire when there was a hose lay from the engine to the point of attack. Most of the hose we used on forest fires was 1.5 inch in diameter, not the large 2.5 inch hose more common for use on structure fires which were rare in the mountains.

We’d practice doing hose lays at the station when there were no fires. Our station site was steep and wooded so it was a perfect place to practice. Now it might seem easy to lay hose from the engine to the fire and in concept it isn’t a difficult task. However, add youthful adrenaline, a raging fire that is trying to get away from you, smoke, lights, sirens, aircraft flying overhead, squawking radios and captains barking orders and suddenly connecting two pieces of threaded brass can become quite difficult. Not to mention that the guy on the nozzle closest to the fire is counting on you to get him some water – and quick. So practicing makes a lot of sense.

I learned the importance of lining up the threads of the brass by reversing the twist until you hear a click then reversing the motion to engage the threads. I learned how to do a live hose lay which is when there is a need to spray water as the hose lay is being extended along the fire line. This involved a little contraption called a hose clamp. Our hose clamps were bare aluminum and consisted of three hinged bars with a locking loop of wire over one end. The top bar when raised opened the bottom bars like a huge pair of pliers and this was slipped over the charged hose. The top bar was then forced down to close the clamp on the hose and the wire loop slipped over the ends held it all closed. While the firefighter was clamping off the water supply, another firefighter snapped open a roll of hose. As soon as the clamp was applied, the firefighter on the nozzle, the “nozzleman”, quickly unscrewed the nozzle and reconnected it to the new length of hose while the guy who had unrolled the hose connected the next length to the live hose. When both connections were made the nozzleman shouted “charge it” and the clamp was opened sending water into the new length of hose. The new hose expanded like a circus balloon, taut and full and immediately the nozzleman opened up on the fire and all three fighters advanced. The two men helped to drag the hose through the brush while the nozzleman sprayed the fire. The process was repeated as far as needed. On one fire I recall that we laid over a mile and half of hose into the fire. Most of it was downhill creating tremendous pressure and the line kept breaking so we had to go back and clamp and insert a new section whenever that happened.

When the fire was close to the road and rather small we’d one of the hose reels that look like large garden hoses on a fire truck. These were called live lines and they had their own gasoline engine pump on the engine. This was separate from the power transfer pump that ran off of the engine’s motor. These lines could be quickly charged, required no connections so they are the fastest method for getting water on a fire. But they are small in diameter so don’t deliver much water and they are limited in length and can’t be extended. We liked them because there was no hose to clean when we went “back to the barn”.

Another way to get water on a fire was to use a backpump. This was a steel can with shoulder straps and held about 8 gallons of water. It had a small hose and a pump sprayer that you would use like a big squirt gun to put out the flames. A misconception of rookies is that you have to spray at the flames to put out a fire. I learned with a backpump that a little water can actually put out a pretty big fire but not by aiming at the flames. I was on a fire out along a rural road once and I was told to put on a backpump and go put out fires as I came to them. A large bush was burning and it I was standing there squirting water on the top of the bush where the flames were. My captain came by and barked at me to squirt at the base of the bush, not at the top, when I did what he told me it only took a few squirts and the whole bush quit burning, another rookie lesson learned.

It was on this same fire that I took my first full drop from an bomber. Most people have seen the airplanes dropping pink stuff on fires on the news but not too many people have been under one when it made its drop. I was near the bush and marveling at how the water squirted at its base had stopped the conflagration when I heard the aircraft coming. I looked up to see it bearing down on me and so I dropped my eyes and held fast as it dropped its whole load right on the area I was standing on. It was a little like “Ghostbusters” when they get slimed. The pink slimy substance is called Phos-check® and it is made to slow the fire down, not put it out. Foliage that is coated with the stuff burns more slowly or not at all so the strategy is to lay down a line of the stuff in front of an advancing fire, not necessarily put it on the fire directly. Phos-check® also serves as a fertilizer after the fire is out so it has a dual purpose. The problem in being dumped on is that it has a lot of ammonia in it which makes it hard to breathe and it burns in all of the small cuts and scrapes you inevitably get while fighting a fire. It’s also thick and slippery to walk on and it will eat into the paint on the engines so the engineers and captains were always ticked off if we got dropped on.

To be continued…

Firefighting Part 1

I was a firefighter many years ago, I held a seasonal position with the Division of Forestry.  I was stationed in the mountains and assigned to an Engine Company. I worked two fire seasons from approximately May until November in each year. I enjoyed the work and I enjoyed the companionship and camaraderie of the firehouse. Firefighters are good, hardworking people and I enjoyed my time among them.

Thirty years ago we worked five days on with two days off. If I came on duty at 6:30 AM on Saturday morning I got off duty at 6:30 on Thursday morning. When the fire danger was high we went on what they called “Pattern C” which meant that all days off were Cancelled.  I didn’t get a day off in August for two years.  We were paid $800 per month plus room and board when we were on duty.  As an 18 year old, I thought this was a grand amount of money, especially given only two days off in which to spend it.

We had to buy our own uniforms and boots back then.  The boots were pricey as I recall.  I remember that a good pair of Red Wings for firefighters, steel toes and insulated, cost $125. I did manage to get two years of wear out of one pair of boots. Not bad considering the abuse they suffered on the fire line and the time I missed a log with a sharp axe and lodged it in the tip of my boot.

I loved those boots, they were a symbol of my macho firefighter status. They had thick soles and a raised heel so I was taller when wearing them. They laced up high above my ankle with thick round yellow laces that I became deft at lacing up in the middle of the night when the alarm went off. Ash is acidic so caring for the leather was a constant job and after each fire my boots had to be cleaned and rubbed with mink oil to keep them waterproof.

Red Wings have a leather insert that laces into the front of the boot. This insert has an arrogant little flap that protrudes forward with a serrated edge at the base of the laces and lays forward onto the base of the boot toe. I don’t know why but I always thought this feature added a bit of style to the boot and announced to the world that these boots were Red Wings. I think the flap served the practical purpose of adding protection to keep sticks and things from lodging into the laces: I liked its arrogance.

I recall that the steel toe saved my feet a few times when something heavy would drop on my foot. The insulation would keep my feet warm instead of hot when walking in a coal bed by accident. I do recall my smoking boots had to be hosed down a few times. I haven’t owned a pair of Red Wings since I quit fighting fires but if I ever decide to go back the Red Wing store will be my first stop.

I was assigned to a two engine firehouse. The station property was probably about three acres. It had a four bay garage for the two engines and the Ranger’s pickup truck. On one end of the garage was the station office where the captain on duty had a desk and the Ranger had a private office. The radio and maps and baby food jars full of rattlesnake rattles that the Ranger collected were all in there. We firefighters didn’t go in there much, it was for “the brass”.

The barracks was a long narrow building divided into a dorm with about sixteen beds, eight on each wall with a walkway down the center. Each pair of beds was divided by small bedside tables and a row of windows chest high above the beds were hung with white venetian blinds. The beds were steel framed with a sqeaky spring foundation on which sat a mattress. The bed was supported by inverted tubular U-shaped ends that connected to side rails which hooked into the ends with metal hooks. The whole bed could be disassembled in minutes. Each bed had white sheets and a gray wool blanket neatly tucked with hospital corners. The walls were greenish and the floors were heavily waxed and polished. At the end of the barracks was a clean bathroom with sinks, urinals, toilets in stalls and several showers.  A washer and dryer occupied one end of the bathroom.

Next to the barracks was a lounge with comfortable old couches and chairs and a television set. Beside the lounge and at the end of the barracks opposite the dorm was a large kitchen and dining room with a long table and a dozen or so chairs. The coffee pot was on constantly or there was hell to pay for whoever had kitchen duty if it ran out.  There was a cook’s quarters like a small apartment in the farthest corner of the building from the dorm that was access through a back door that exited out the rear of the kitchen. This apartment was the vestige of better budget years when a cook was employed, now “Peaches” lived in there who I’ll get to later. 

The only other building on the property was a small fuel house, it was a small shack that provided shelter from the elements for the fuel pump. It was our own private gas station. We would measure the level of gasoline in the underground tank by unscrewing the brass cover and dropping a wooden measuring stick on a string into the tank and drawing it back up again.

The crew at our station consisted of the Ranger who was the boss, two captains, three engineers and about a eight firefighters, one a female. This was unusual back in 1977 and she had to put up with a lot of harassment from the guys. Her main handicap as a female firefighter aside from all of the males she had to deal with was the fact that she had so little upper body strength. Firefighting requires some arm and shoulder strength and “Peaches” had almost none of either. She got nicknamed “Peaches” by a high ranking Ranger who administered our Ranger District. This guy was an ancient, crusty firefighter originally from somewhere in the South who brought a full complement of old southern prejudices west with him. He had a rich southern drawl and his speech was laced with obscenities. He didn’t approve of female firefighters. He’d greet her in his best confederate-eeze was, “How ya doin’ ….Peaches?” Now the drawl doesn’t exactly work well in written English but just put on a NASCAR cap and pop open a Bud Light, you’ll soon work it out.

To be continued…