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…