(NOTE: This is the first of a sporadic series of stories called “Ralph on Fire” about events which happened on forest fires. Throughout this series, you will hear much about a man named Alan. Alan was and still is a good friend. He has helped me remember the details of many of these stories.)Standing
at the edge of the helipad, I was shaking. The helipad is where helicopters land on forest fires. The helipad manager was standing next to me saying,” You can’t go any closer until the engines are off Sir. Sir, do you understand me?” I was not used to having older men call me “Sir”. He knew what had happened and he knew I was shaking from pure, unfiltered, anger. Waiting for the helicopter engine to shut down, I started recalling the events of the day. . . . .
It was a typical fire briefing. Crew bosses and division bosses huddled around as the Fire Boss, the ultimate authority on a fire, started the briefing. The fire boss and others conducted two briefings a day, a morning and evening briefing. Briefings told you where on the line your crew would be, what your objectives were, what type of weather to expect, communication plans, safety issues, and the like. You were also given a packet of information and a map highlighting your section of line.
The structure of fire teams is a lot like the military. As a crew boss, I was responsible for supervising and the safety of the crew. Each crew has two squads, a group of ten people, one of which is a squad boss. The squad boss is a working leader responsible for directing and supervising the firefighters.
At the briefing, our crew was assigned sector F. The Fire Boss was quick to point out we were not going to like the assignment. “Campbell, that is some very steep ground, extremely steep. The past few days we had a team of sawyers in there cutting a lot of trees. They left a mess. We have trees jack-strawed all through that section of the line. We want your crew to clean it up.”
When the Fire Boss was finished the safety officer jumped in, “Campbell, that section of line is really steep and rugged. The fire shouldn’t move that direction today but you have very limited visibility so a lookout will be posted across the canyon on the other mountain.” Then the communication person made sure the lookout and I knew what radio frequencies we were to use.
Standing on top of the ridge looking down at our sector it was clear they were not lying. It was steep - real steep. It also looked like a tornado had just gone down the hill ripping trees out of the ground and laying them every which way. I knew two things. First, safety on that terrain, with chain saws, and sharp tools was going to be an issue. Secondly, this was not a one-day job we would be back.
Before sending the squads down the mountain, I radioed the lookout across the canyon. He was in place and the radios were working well.
One squad was to work the upper portion of the mountain, the other squad the lower half. One of the squad bosses on this fire was Alan, a good friend of mine. Alan knew the aspects of fire much better than I did; I was a little better at the organizational side of things. We had been on many fires together and made a great team.
We had worked through the morning taking brief breaks and stopping for lunch. My smashed bologna and cheese sandwich with somebody’s handprint embedded in it tasted like a gourmet meal. As we were finishing lunch, the lookout radioed. He was checking in and to let us know that the fire was increasing in intensity.
By mid afternoon, I was at the bottom of the mountain working with some squad people and we were starting to see progress. The mess we had stepped into earlier was starting to get cleared up. Throughout the day, Alan, the other squad boss, and I had stayed in close radio contact as the fire rumbled in the background.
Suddenly a helicopter appeared overhead and over the speaker system came the following message, “Drop your tools and run. Get out of there NOW!” I was responsible for the crew and was going to be the last one out. It wasn’t a conscious choice, just a fact. I was at the bottom of the mountain and every crewperson was ahead of me.
Everyone dropped their hand tools, chainsaws, and whatever they had that could slow them down and started scrambling towards the top of the mountain. The smoke was increasing and visibility dropped rapidly. It didn’t matter. We all knew which way we had to run – up. Even with the dense smoke, we ran hard as the noise from the fire increased, sounding like a freight train charging through the woods. It became increasing louder and louder and was bearing down on us.
Nearing the top of the mountain, gasping for air, someone grabbed my arm and pulled me up. Then we ran some more until we reached our safety zone.
Turning towards our section of line we watched as a wall of flames engulfed the canyon where we had been just moments before. The heat drastically increased and the smoke became so thick it was hard to see the person next to you.
Sitting in the safety zone, we caught our breath and gathered our wits. I got on the radio and called fire camp. Immediately the question came back, “Is uh. . . .is uh . . . everyone all right and accounted for?” Everyone was safe but the crew was split up. We requested transportation back to camp and then started regrouping.
Walking away from sector F some crew members were yelling and cussing, some were walking quietly and somber. Then someone made the startling revelation, “I think I figured out what the ‘F’ stands for!”
Back at camp, I immediately went to the helipad. I really wanted to “talk” to our lookout. Standing at the helipad shaking I had no idea what I was going to say or for that matter do. The helicopter engines had shut down and the lookout got out. He immediately looked at me and asked if everyone was okay – tears had and were still rolling down his face. “My batteries. . . my radio batteries went dead. I couldn’t warn you. I tried. I really, really tried.”
We walked away from the helipad talking about what had happened. It was an accident. There was no anger, there was no hostility, just a lot of relieve that everyone had made it out okay.