Wednesday 15 April 2015

My First Forest Fire, Conclusion

    Grant and the fire bosses had decided that because of the heavy rain and our late night yesterday, there was no rush to get to get the men to the fire. The crew straggled out of the tents looking for their coffee and breakfast and by 8:30 Grant had them assembled and told them they would be hiking up to the fire, which was upslope one half mile away.  
    It was at this point that Todd first became an issue with the fire bosses. They had discovered that he was still wearing his raggedy old running shoes, and when they told him he should put his boots on, he had told them that he didn’t have any boots. This created a dilemma, because of fire safety concerns boots were a requirement and since we were in a remote area miles from anywhere, there really was no solution to the problem. 
    Grant lectured Todd about how he had been told to bring boots, and how irresponsible and dangerous it was to be out on a fire without them. Despite all of Grant’s earnest arguments, the words seemed to be sliding off of Todd, just like the rain was sliding off of the boughs overhead. In the end, Todd left the camp with the rest of the crew, walking in a single file line into the wet forest and up the slope toward the fire. 
    Because of my official position as Timekeeper, I was told to stay in camp and help JJ with the camp work and food. The men had made sandwiches for themselves before they left, and so once we had the dishes washed and the camp tidied up, I recorded everybody's start time on my timekeeper forms and busied myself cutting a trail down to the creek, where we would be getting water. 
    Around 10:30 Todd, now rain soaked, came ambling back to camp. I asked him why he had returned and he said that they needed some chainsaws up at the fire, and they wanted someone to come down to camp to see if we had any. 
    Then, like I was his closest friend, Todd confided to me, “When they asked for a volunteer to walk back to camp to see if there were any chainsaws, I jumped at the chance, because I didn’t like doing all that work up there, but then, as I started walking down here, I started thinking, ‘if there are chainsaws down at the camp, I will have to carry them back up to the fire’ and I started getting really worried.”
    I told Todd that luck was on his side, because there were no chainsaws in camp. 
    “Far out,” Todd replied, and walked over to the table under the tarp and grabbed a handful of cookies from a package. I resumed my hacking away at the underbrush clearing for the trail and after about 45 minutes, I noticed that Todd was still just hanging around the cook tent stuffing his face. I decided that since Todd didn’t seem to possess the motivation to scoot himself back up to the fire; I had better “play the heavy,” and encourage him along. 
    “Todd, you’d better be getting back to the rest of the crew, and tell them we have 
no chainsaws down here.” 
    “It’s quite a hike all the way back there.”, he replied. 
    “I’m sure it is, I countered, “and that’s why we pay those big firefighter wages.” 
    I figured I had set things straight, so I turned back to my trail clearing.  Then a bit later, I noticed that             Todd had not left for the fire and was messing around in his tent. 
    I am not one who likes to wield power, but since I had assumed the role of a Forest Service official, I felt obligated to help enforce the rules, so I confronted Todd in the tent and tried, to the best off my ability to I make things clear. 
    “Todd, if you don’t get back up to the fire, I am going to have to have to record 
you as not working, and you are not going to be paid for the time you are hanging around here.” 
He came up with a few lame excuses about why he needed to stay around camp, but he did, much to my relief, finally head back up the trail to the rest of the crew. 

    Around 4:00, (that’s 16:00 Forest Service time), the fire crew returned to the camp. I asked a few of the guys what they did and they told me they just cleared a helicopter landing area and cut some trails in the area close to the fire, and did some mopping up, but the rain had pretty much put the fire out. I asked about Todd, and their expressions and then their words, told me that he didn’t do much of anything up on the fire. 
    Todd’s lack of motivation, changed tremendously, once dinner time rolled around. He was first in line, and flopped 4 big pork chops down on his plate. This didn’t go unnoticed by the other fire fighters, who were having a difficult time keeping their resentment under control. We all settled down and ate around the fire, as the night closed in around us. 

    The next morning, the crew stayed in camp and the crew bosses went back up to check on the fire.  I spent the morning sharpening the polaski's . When the fire bosses returned to camp a couple of hours later, The fire was called out, and arrangements where made to start helicoptering the crew back home. 
    Just a skeleton crew of six would stay behind and keep an eye on the fire for another day.  We started to dismantle most of the camp which was packed up, the equipment piled for evacuation. The helicopter arrived and began to ferry the crew out. The chopper could only carry 4 passengers at a time, but slowly the population of the camp shrank down to just a handful.   As the last of the exiting boarded, and the helicopter sat ready to take off, Grant came stomping over to where we were organizing the fire fighting equipment and asked, “Has anyone seen Todd?”
     We looked around and shook our heads, “No, why?” 
    “This is last helicopter for the crew, and he’s no where to be seen.” 
    We all dropped what we were doing, and spread out around the empty camp site looking for him.  A chorus of “Todd, Todd.” rang out throughout the forest, but no Todd was could be found.  Although concern was expressed about whether he might have had an accident, I suspect that most of us were secretly thinking that he was out there somewhere hiding. Eventually, the decision was made that those in the helicopter should be ferried out, and the helicopter finally departed without him. 
    We continued our search for Todd without success.  The helicopter returned for JJ and I. We loaded up and where dropped off in a gravel pit near where Highway 16 crosses Dome Creek. We had a few hours to wait before our ride back home to McBride arrived and took advantage of the situation by taking a very cold skinny dip in Dome Creek. 
    I heard later that Todd eventually returned to camp, and the Forest Service had to send another helicopter, complete with a RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officer, to make sure Todd returned back to McBride. When the chopper landed and the the policeman stepped out, Todd took off running, but they were able to catch him and fly him back. 
    I don’t remember what legal troubles Todd’s behavior led too, but Todd amazingly, never held any grudge against me. He would occasionally drift into McBride every year or two, and whenever he spotted me, he would come over and talk to me like I was his best buddy. 

    A few years later, when I had become a full time employee of the Forest Service, several times he actually came into the Forest Service office looking for me. On one such visit, he came to ask me if I would be a reference for him and write a letter to a court in Alberta saying that “he carried MACE (an aerosol pepper spray) to keep bears away.” I told him I couldn’t do that because I honestly didn’t know he even carried MACE. On another visit, he told me, “You know that fire I was on, that was the second time I have been busted with a helicopter.” 
    As I look back at my expectations of the Greg Fire, I was totally wrong about everything. The only flames I saw were while I was staring into the camp fire. The only axes I handled were the ones I sharpened while sitting in camp.  
    While I might have been initially disappointed that reality of the fire was not the adventure I had expected, in the long view I benefitted far more handling those pencils and pads of paper, than by actually fighting the fire. As it turned out, the Greg Fire was instrumental in leading to a 23 year career, working for the British Columbia Forest Service, which was an unexpected turn in my life.

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