In the Time of COVID. Day 46
May 3, 2020
The Very Last Drop of Water
Small crowds of protestors are marching in the streets demanding the freedom to do what they want. They ignore physical distancing directives and go in public without masks. It remains to be seen if their disregard for the health of others will cause an exponential uptick in COVID cases. The math of the spread points toward uptick. What is at stake is a battle between individual freedoms and the common good. This brings to mind an event that happened when I helped fight the Sundance / Trapper Peak forest fire in the North Idaho/ British Columbia border mountains many years ago.
It was one of those all hands on deck events. On September first, 1967, lightening ignited a thick stand of timber on Sundance Mountain in Bonner County Idaho. Fast moving winds spread the fire at 60 miles an hour. The dense northern forest of fir, pine and spruce erupted in one of the most horrible fires in American History.
A call went out for volunteers, the pay was decent and we young guys came from hundreds of miles around. I found myself in a camp with 2000 other people. There were cook tents and hastily constructed tables and benches. Back hoes dug long latrine pits and log frames were placed over them so a guy could do his business hanging is rear over a log. There was no privacy. We were issued paper sleeping bags and assigned to crews. The crew chiefs were experienced loggers, a hard nosed lot of guys. They directed us where to drop our gear. We were issued hard hats, gloves, canteens, bandanas, shovels or Pulaski’s . A Pulaski is a combined axe/hoe named after a crew of firefighters in Montana that had lost their lives many years before.
We were directed to eat up and we queued for food. While we waited, several Huey helicopters landed in the clearing of the camp. Dozens of semi trailers pulling D9 bulldozers arrived. Deuce and a half army trucks pulled in. That was the beginning of staging a war against the fire.
There was a hierarchy amongst firefighters and hushed awe when Navajo, Zuni and Hopi Hotshot crews, piled out of the helicopters. These guys were the best of the best. The food line moved back and let them go first. When ever they came into camp, they went first. There camp was the best, their transportation the most excellent available.
We ate and turned in. Up at four am another line for huge breakfasts, issued c-ration lunches, grabbed our tools and off we went.
Our first day on the fire line was learning to work together cutting fire breaks. we were a team of 25 and were hauled up to the fire in back of those army trucks. Sawyer teams with chainsaws had gone before us , dropping timber to make fire breaks. Each sawyer had a guy lugging fuel cans and extra chains and tools.
Our job was to be a line of human ants. We were spaced Pulaski, shovel, Pulaski, shovel and as a team we chewed the earth and pitched it back, this was every bit as hard labor as a chain gang road crew, but without the shot gun. But, Joe Houston The Crew chief would knock your ass flat if you didn’t keep up. We went on like that for 14 hours before we were loaded back in a truck and dropped at base camp.
We soft kids turned hard in the next few days. It didn’t matter how much we ate, we were always hungry. We gorged ourselves and lost any semblance of baby fat. Blisters became callouses. Airplanes dropping red fire retardant roared low over head and dumped their loads in erupting crimson clouds. We babied the water in our canteens. It had to last.
One night we were on an dusk until dawn assignment. We were high up in the mountains and in a wide fire track. Bulldozers had ripped a 50 yard wide fire trail that went on in the distance. That earth was powdery dirt. We walked in it half way up to our knees. It got cold up there at night and we had a small slag fire in the middle of the track to warm by. Our job was to be vigilant. If any sparks ignited the wood piles along the track we were to put it out. I remember the sky being a brilliant show of the Milky Way.
About 3 AM it was like a bomb went off. An unbelievable roar rose up and fire came crowning in the timber tops toward us at 40 miles an hour. If it crowned over us it would burn up all the oxygen beneath it. We could all be killed. Joe had told us what to do if this happened. I doused my banana with water and covered by face and dove into the dirt. Fire sped over us about 50 feet high and leaped the fire break. I breathed what oxygen was between the dirt particles through my wet bandana. Joe yelled an all clear. I stood up and my pant legs were on fire. The back of my head was singed, but I lived to tell the tale.
During the Sundance / Trapper Peak forest fire, 2 bulldozer operators were killed by crowning fires.
Some days later we were loaded in a helicopter and dropped at the top of a ridge. Sawyers had made a clearing and retardant had turned the mountain top red as a tomato. Our job that day was to cut a five mile fire trail to the bottom of the ridge where an army truck would load us up for base camp. Off in the distance a cloud of smoke and fire and ash rose thousands of feet into the air forming a mushroom cloud that flashed with light. Retardant planes circled its base trying to damp it down.
That day was a rough go. We were exhausted but we pressed on. We were doing mop up along the way. Digging burning roots and earth and stamping the fire out. About 3 pm we were all out of water. Every canteen was bone dry.
We were about an hour from our ride back when up came a Navajo Hotshot crew. They were fresh or seemed like to us. They saw how whipped out we were and offered over their canteens. We each of us took a swallow and handed it back. All that is except a guy named Scooter. He was was a Neanderthal kind of a backwoods Montana guy who was already half toothless in his early 20’s. He took the offered canteen and drained it to the very last drop.
We all saw what happened and were ashamed. Joe Houston saw it too. He walked up to Scooter and slugged him straight in the face. He knocked that punk out cold. The Navajos said nothing. We said thank you to them. When Scooter came too, he was whining like a weasel and blood was everywhere. Even the friend he’s paled with wouldn’t say a word to him. When we got back to camp, Joe bumped him out of the food line and loaded him on the first truck out of there.
That lesson has stayed with me for 53 years. Especially in difficult times we must act in the common good.