By Angie Carl
The phone rings at 1:00 am. Normally I would be groggy answering the phone that early, but I have been anticipating this for two weeks. Indiana Fire Headquarters has an assignment for me, if I chose to accept. Of course I do, and I forget to ask where they are sending me, all I know is that I have to be there by 7:00 am. I make a few calls to say my good-bye’s, throw my bags in the jeep, and hit the road to Martinsville. This is the beginning of a 36 day tour of the west putting out forest fires.
I’d like to explain a little about why I choose to fight forest fires. The main goal is not as many might think, to stop the forest from burning completely. The media talks about the devastation of the forest fires every day. You hear about people losing their homes, thousands of acres burning up, the redwoods going up in flames, and so on. I read this and wonder if the media has actually been out there, because it is not that way at all. The most important job of a fire team is to prevent building loss. They spend a lot of resources on protection of homes and populated areas. Most of what burns is wilderness. The burning is good for a lot of plants and animals. It is a natural occurrence that revives the woods. The areas that burn usually only lose a few trees and most of the under story.
The first place I was stationed was Sundance, Wyoming. This was a beautiful area in the Black Hills. The fire was a small one and almost out by the time we got there. The Indiana Fire Crew #4 spent three days mopping up the hot spots (anything still smoldering) and we moved on to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The scariest part of both trips was the bus ride from Sundance to Steamboat Springs. The trip entailed two breakdowns, two bus drivers, passing cars in no-passing zones, tires rubbing on wheel wells, and lots of white knuckles.
The crew arrived safely in Colorado. Steamboat Springs is what I imagine heaven looks like. The Rocky Mountains are absolutely stunning. The fire was called the Hinman Fire. We were evacuated the first day as the fire made a run up the mountain toward us. The next few days the Indiana Crew got our division (the area of the fire we were working) under control. They changed our division and we received a great assignment working on the hot side (the front) of the fire. We dug several miles of line, ran miles and miles of hose, and cut down a lot of snags (dangerous trees that are dead or burned out).
We spent several nights on the fire line, which is called spiking out. A helicopter dropped in our food and camping supplies. On the first night we spiked out, it rained for most of the night. At 4:00 am I heard a sound that I thought was a big storm, but there was no rain falling on my emergency blanket. I stirred myself awake and sat up. 100 feet in front of me a tree was torching. Ashes and sparks were pouring off the tree. It was a beautiful sight.
We put out the fire and came back to Indiana. I took my mandatory two days off, and put myself available once again. Fire Headquarters called on the third day and I was on my way to Oregon. This time there were two crews from Indiana (Indiana Crew #6 & #7) and three from Pennsylvania traveling together. We went to the Umpqua National Forest in the Cascade Range.
This fire was the largest I have ever been on. When we arrived it was already at 17,000 acres, which included 94 fires burning together. This fire was a lot different than the first two I was on. The smoke never lifted from the forest, so it seemed like we were in a thick fog for two weeks. We never saw the sun. The wildlife was abundant. I saw tree frogs, snakes, birds, lizards, and two baby black bear cubs.
On this fire we did similar tasks such as line cutting, hose laying, and mopping up. We also saw a lot of back burns being set to get rid of unburned fuel between the fire and the roads that were used as containment lines. The tactics used to fight this fire were similar to the first two, but they weren’t as aggressively applied.
Fire camp was enormous with over 2000 people. It was called “tent city”. They provided us with meals, showers, and camp stores. There were medical tents, phone areas, and an entertainment tent with a television that didn’t receive any stations. For the large number of people stationed at this complex, the fire will still not be out until the snow falls. The day we left the fire was 30 percent contained and it was up to 50,000 acres.
Fighting fires is not a glamorous way to burn all of my vacation, but it is very gratifying work. I get to see parts of the country I have never been and I get to learn more about fire behavior, which I find fascinating.
Now that I am back home it is hard for me to hear that President Bush wants to allow logging companies into wilderness areas to thin trees to prevent more fires. Protecting inhabited areas should be the top priority, and in my opinion the wilderness I love is in more danger from this plan than from fires.