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…