Monday, September 10, 2012

A [long] day in the life... [part II]

On the North side, where the other members of our crew were, things were nowhere near completion. They'd had some slop over, meaning the fire had crossed the line in an area, but it as quickly contained with line around all sides. The main problem had been in our cooperation with the adjoining crew. They'd had a spot fire and several of our members had been sent to their line as reinforcement. We thus had even fewer people and they'd been split in two, trying to take more line, as the other crew was making slower progress than expected. Thus when I finished burning I was sent to assist in the holding of the other side. Thinking that after the hike there, this would mean a bit of a break, and time to eat, as I'd had nothing but a few bites of power bar and jerky, I set off.

Once I arrived, I sat down just for a moment to get something out of my pack. It felt so good to get off my feet. I shoved some more jerky in my mouth while trying to decide if I had time to open up a packet of something from my MRE. Just then I hear, "Glick!" Shit. They needed me somewhere else, so the guy who was last back and I headed up the line further to see where they wanted us. So much for food. (Have you heard the slang word "hangry?" I was very, very hangry.) We bumped up, and were told to monitor and patrol a section of line. I knew the other guy had just been patrolling, so I took the first scout of our new area. Everything looked fine, including the area that had slopped over, all the way out to a meadow where the third little group had started burning. It was a bit of a walk though at least not steep. When got back, we started moving along with some burners who were headed back to where others had started, trying to tie in all the pieces.

By this time, mid afternoon, getting toward the hottest part of the day, the fires were lighting pretty well. Especially in the pine litter, where we were now. Little dots of fuel soon grew to pretty big fires, following sap lines up trees like vertical rivers of flame. We were watching pretty carefully at this point, and our foreman was looking worriedly up at the canopy where some of the trees on the green side were pretty close to the branches from the black side. Then things got very hot on the ground and the fire slopped over to the grasses on the other side of the line. We were quickly motioned out of the way and into safety on the other side of the knoll. The foreman was calling in air support on the radio, which actually happened pretty quickly, as the double-propeller helicopter was on its way somewhere else and we were able to use its load of water for our more-urgent purpose.

The water drop didn't seem to cool it off too quickly, but we had the other squad members who were nearby coming to the scene and we all started digging line as quickly as our tired, stupid bodies would let us. I felt desperately slow, moving about with my ass nearly burning, like when you stand too close to the campfire and suddenly realize your pants are too hot to touch and you jump around like Rumpelstiltskin. It was too hot to get a line directly at the fire, we had to jump back a few feet and work ahead of it. Eventually we got it done, and someone was even back burning already from that little line with a fusee (think cardboard tube shooting 4 inch flames of smelly-gas fire).

Adrenaline still pumping, mind stimulated but body not quite feeling a second wind, I looked up at my foreman just as the radio cracked "spot" from the guy up the line monitoring. I think we all took a half-second pause to groan inside and then three of us started running up the line, meanwhile listening for the size-up and how many people were actually needed. Just two of us would do. The foreman stayed back to make sure everything was ok where we'd just finished, and another guy and I jogged around the corner and found out that the spot fire was a big log round that had rolled down the hill, across the line. The two of them were able to pick up and carry the round back up the hill and secure it in the black. I made sure there was a line around the area it had been resting, and no burning embers were still around, waiting to set the grass ablaze.  

I'm pretty sure by this point my face had adopted a singular expression that took too much effort to change. I'd been angry there for a while, in my hunger, and now I was just tired, and past the point of much feeling. The guy who'd called in the spot was opening up his pack for some food when the forman came by and told him he could grab a snack quick but be ready to move (this usually means pack on, standing up). I was told to come along and dropped in behind the foreman. We headed back up the line where our superintendent had started burning. Finally we were able to spread out to monitor the burn and I sat down to get a bit to eat. It was around five-thirty. No wonder, I thought. What a long, effing day! And its not over yet...

The rest of the evening actually passed by in a fairly tranquil manner, at least for me. Our stretches of ground became smaller and smaller until I could actually see or yell at the person to my left. (This is how it should be, but resources where just too thin earlier.) The shot crew that had been working to the South came up to help reinforce us, as we'd send some of ours north. I even had time to heat my MRE meatballs for dinner so that once we got back to camp at ten-thirty or so, I could just do some basic hygene, set up my thermarest and sleeping bag and "hit the hay."

As I was putting powder on my feet and wiping my face with a towelette, I was able to enjoy the scene I had around me. New moon, and the smoke had risen nicely so the night horizon was surprisingly clear: stars everywhere! And then there was the fire... Across the valley and on the opposite slope the the fire we'd lit, and the crew next to us had crep very nicely back toward the black of the main fire. During the daylight hours, I'm sure all you'd see is a bit of smoke, but at night, it was a zigzagging, glowing mess of red and orange. Not wild and crazy, not tall or swirly, but alive and beautiful. Unsuccessfully, I tried to snap a few pictures, but between the distance and the limited exposure time, the flames looked like tiny, isignificant dots in a vast black nothingness. I'll just have to remember this sight, I thought, and went to sleep after a long day.

A [long] day in the life... [part I]

It seems there are no "typical" days in hotshotting. There are days where you dig line all day. Days where you burn all day. Days where you prep all day. Days where you sit in the buggy, days where you wash the buggy, and days where you do a bit of everything. So it's hard to describe what an average days is like; you just never know.

One day, we were out in the wilderness. As far as I can draw conclusions or make generalizations at this point, this means we are 1. eating MRE's; 2. at a higher elevation and therefore cooler and amid more pine dominated growth; 3. possibly dropped off via helicopter and very likely to walk out, be the distance 5 or 15 miles. In this situation we were eating MRE's for every meal (unless you scrounge together things for breakfast, or bring along pop tarts/oatmeal, etc; I do), were at around 9,000 feet with temperatures in the high 80's, and had ridden in on a helicopter (what luck! and paid to be in it, too!) It was even in our good fortune to fly out, but that was not known at the time. We were working along the Crest trail, a lovely open view to the west of White Sands. Open meadows and pine stands in other directions.

The plan, which almost always changes various times throughout the day/operation, was to split into squads, and begin burning towards the north and south, until meeting up with other crews in either direction. Conceptually it was not a difficult plan, however various factors made it more arduous that I would have preferred. One such factor was the rain which had fallen a few days previous, essentially putting out the fire. The reason we were burning out line on a nearly contained fire we shall leave to the higher authorities, however I shall infer that it has largely to do with available resources and an area which had not seen fire in too long. Regardless of the reason--and "why?" is a question I have learned to dimiss quickly for the betterment of my mental sanity--we began at a reasonable hour, 0700. Things do not tend to burn well with high humidities and low temperatures--at least not in the southwest; I can speak nothing of other climates and geographies.

Alpha squad began moving in one direction, and Bravo in another. At first I was assigned to the task of "holding," as others took their dripping torches of flame to the pine litter and sparse grass between the rocks. Holding means you are responsible for looking into the green--the side of the line which you do not want to burn, and also monitoring the fire in the other side, the black. It often requires many hours of standing, which tires the feet and the mind more than digging or cutting, though not the body. In my case on this day, I happened to be the last person in the holding line, which comprised of too few people to begin with, as we had much ground to cover. I was thus responsible for watching my area of the green and black, and then returning every so often to the place from which we started, making sure nothing had since become problematic. As is generally the case, especially on wilderness fires, I venture, the terrain was rugged and steep. Though the distance wasn't long, my periodic trek was an excellent cardio workout, which is never a bad thing, but does tire one out.

After a time, I was called up for relief of the person actually lighting fire. I dread this, probably because I am not experienced enough in it--I become quickly fatigued by attempting to hold my tool in one hand, the 15 pound (when full) torch in the other, and walk quickly along steap terrain, frequently slipping on loose shale and all the while trying to put down lines or dots or slings of fire before or behind or beside me, as per the instructions of the burn boss. On this particularl day I thought the burning would be easier, the previous time I'd been on a rough side hill, back and forth, back and forth. By the time I was assigned to burning, the steap country had mostly been burned, and I was in a grass meadow. A factor I failed to consider was that most of the grass along the line where I was had been covered in slurry days ago and was not conducive to burning; the product does as it was intended. As I began to burn, I had to retrace my steps and relight many times. My torch would not stay lit. I had to light behind me, with the wind at my back, pushing foul fumes into my breath, taking long strips of fire out into the meadow and then run around the area to escape the fire, then hurry back to the line in order to repeat the steps. As far as burning goes, the time I was actually on the torch was very little, but perhaps having been tired out before, I was more than ready to be done by the time we tied in to the other crew on that end.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

They write songs about Nevada

Don't they? They should. It's very picturesque. Not sure I've really spent any time in Nevada before. Currently driving through on the way home from a two week fire stint in northern California. First time there, too! Rather beautiful, I was impressed by the trees and not even really in "big" tree country. I felt Fall come to the area we were working, it seemed. Was nice to be working in cooler weather, for once, but the thought of Summer's close was a bit bitter for me. Seems I haven't really had a summer and it's already gone! Whine, whine, my sister tells me. It's a job, get over it. I suppose.

I realize I've been quite negligent these past 5 or so months since becoming a hotshot and moving to to government housing on the base; mostly I blame it on being very busy and hardly having internet service. So that's the really fast summary of what I've been up to. I have a rather long entry written out, actually, describing a particular day on a big fire. I still need to attach the photos, maybe I'll get it done during our upcoming days off. 

Sitting in traffic in Las Vegas, currently, with an only semi-working AC apparatus. Gross. Whine, whine. ;)