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…