You are on page 1of 4

The Relentless Battle

Fire Storms Sweep through Yellowstone National Park


Written by: Dan Morrison

Itll burn until the snow fall, maybe this week, maybe next month.
Ive got a web belt around my waist with two plastic canteens, along with a fire shelter. The shelter deserves special attention. Its used as a last resort, when the firefighter has no route of escape from the approaching flames and must the fire actually pass over his body. The firefighter wraps himself in the shelter, a thin metallic blanket, creating a protective cocoon. Many firefighters have this piece of gear to thank for their lives. The boots are still a problem. Supply doesnt carry them because, of course, real firefighters bring their own. But an impromptu commissary has been set up in the camp by an entrepreneurial couple out of Jackson. The store offers a few items otherwise unavailable to the men. After trying on several boots, I finally select a $95 pair that looks suspiciously similar to a $40 set I recently owned. Something to do with supply and demand, I suspect. The firefighters departed camp early this morning and have been gone for hours, but Jim Chard, a camp supervisor, offers to guide me out

he weather is hot and dry, the winds unpredictable but generally strong in the afternoon. Fire conditions are extreme. Earlier, at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I had asked Ed Waldapfel, a Forest Service information officer, how long the ordeal would continue. He answered candidly: Itll burn until the first snowfall, maybe this week, maybe next month. We just dont know. Now, before moving up to the fire line, I must report to Fire Information Officer Dennis Neill and have my gear inspected. None of it is acceptable. No, you cant wear jeans and a sweatshirt, he says. And those gloves arent regulation. Those boots dont look too good either. Aw, come on, I protest, these are expensive leather work boots. Theyve even got steel toes. Steel toes? he says. I once worked a fire over in Oregon. Had a new crew. Dont know where they got their boots, but they had steel toes in them. Seven of my men stepping in a hot spot, and by the time they got out of it those steel toes had roasted their feet. Crippled all of them. Neill marches me over to supply and soon Im outfitted like the

34

In 11 days, the Huck Fire has burned 46,581 acres and has run up a bill of nearly $2.6 million. Thirty-six crews (a crew consists of 20 people) including 10 Army crews and 198 overhead people are fighting it, mostly to no avail.

35

A coyote camp is nothing more than an area the firefighters have cleared a safe distance from the flames. There, they throw down their sleeping bags, often within several yards of the blaze. Darkness arrives early. I check out 12 yards of black plastic from the supply tent, tie it to a tree, tuck my sleeping bag inside and crawl into my spike-camp condo. As Im slipping in and out of sleep, Ivan wakes me to explain Ive failed basic woodsmanship by tying my makeshift tent to a snag a dead tree that will possibly fall on me in the middle of the night. Im too tired to get up to redo my sleeping arrangements. Ivan is disgusted with my ignorant city ways but apparently decides not to press the point. Listen, Ivan lectures, if you hear three short blasts on the air horn, grab your gear and get down to the meadow as quick as you can. Three blasts means were either about to be overrun by the fire or weve got a grizzly in camp. I sleep fitfully. At odd intervals, trees on the hillside just across the meadow candle, bursting into flames with a loud faroosh! and lighting up the sky. At 5 a.m., I awaken to someone yelling Aiyiyi! Come on! Lets get it! The next thing I notice is my nose is frozen. The thing about trying to sleep on the ground at 7,000 feet is it can be above 90 degrees in the evening when you go to sleep and below freezing in the morning when you wake up. The thermometer reads 30. I stumble out of my sleeping bag, pull on my boots and stagger over to the huge steaming coffee urn next to the mess tent. Ivan is already there. Good morning, he says. You might like to know we had a sow grizz and her cub circle the camp last night. Apparently she decided not to come in. Security found their tracks this morning. The firefighters amble out of their lairs in the woods and down to the main camp area, standing around diesel-fed Salamander space heaters to keep warm. The smoke for the forest fire is so thick everyone is coughing, spitting on the ground. I ask Ivan what the long-term effects of breathing all this smoke are. Well, they say its equivalent to smoking two packs a day. Ivan asks about my intentions. I explain I want to get closer to the fire, to see how the crews work. He eyes me doubtfully. Can you keep up? Sure. No problem. Thats a lie, of

heaters to keep warm. The smoke for the forest fire is so thick everyone is coughing, spitting on the ground. I ask Ivan what the long-term effects of breathing all this smoke are. Well, they say its equivalent to smoking two packs a day. Ivan asks about my intentions. I explain I want to get closer to the fire, to see how the crews work. He eyes me doubtfully. Can you keep up? Sure. No problem. Thats a lie, of course. But at the time I didnt know it. Well, okay. The Apache Hotshots will be leading out of camp, and well fall in between them and the Mescaleros, he says. The Apache Hotshots are a crew out of Fort Apache, Wyoming, the Mescaleros from Mescalero, New Mexico. Both are Apache Indian. Most American Indian reservations field firefighting crews; with nearly 80 percent unemployment, fighting fires is one of the principle sources of income for some of the tribes. As Im cinching up my canteen belt, I notice I cant understand what the Hotshots are saying. Yeah, they often speak Apache, explains Ivan. Thats so others can understand them. Standing in line to pick up a sack lunch for later in the day, I realize the two Apaches in front of me are conversing in sign language. At %:30 there is a briefing. Yesterday this fire moved three miles in just nine minutes, consuming an additional 6,000 acres of national park. When the meeting ends, the Hotshots lead off across the field and into the woods. Were heading for Wildcat Ridge. Ivan and I fall in; the Mescaleros fall in behind us. I am not easily impressed by tough men. Im a 36-year-old ex-Marine who has worked with Israeli commandos, Army Rangers, mercenaries, revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, bikers, Ku Klux Klansmen, survivalists, long-distance runners, dynamite men, construction workers, oilfield trash. But Ive never seen anything like the Apaches. The firefighters departed camp early this morning and have been gone for hours, but Jim Chard, a camp supervisor, offers to guide me out to the source of this part of the Yellowstone inferno the Huck Fire. It started August 20, when 50-mph winds blew a tree across power lines. In 11 days, the Huck Fire has burned 46,581 acres and has run up a bill of nearly $2.6 million. The firefighters amble out of their lairs in the woods and down to the main camp area, standing around diesel-fed

36

Dont worry, its only a black bear. Theyre small. The word small can be a relative thing. A male black bear can weigh as much as 600 pounds., and although according to my fact book theyre less carnivorous and less aggressive than the grizzly, I think they probably deserve wide berth. Bears are a subject of great interest to me. Every story Ive ever been told about a grizz ends with and that was it. The bear ate him. So tell me, I ask Jim, just what do we do if we meet face-to-face with a grizzly? Well, Ive got this can of bear mace strapped to my waist. Its active ingredient is cayenne pepper. He grins. But in my opinion all youd be doing would be seasoning yourself before the grizz had you for lunch. We continue to follow the trail for over an hour. Eventually we come upon a high-tension powerline pole standing at 45-degree angle. Its wires are snapped and frayed, lying inert in the black ashes covering the ground. This is where it started, Jim explains.

The wind is malevolent her, the prime mover in the fire. The weather forecast calls for more, with gusts up to 50 mph. Jim and I hike back out of the smoking woods and down to allow us to get some overall aerials. We wait at the helipad for an hour, then receive a radio message informing us the Chinook

The winds knocked that tree across the lines and they snapped, sending a shower of sparks in all directions. Within a few seconds we had a forest fire.
The wind is malevolent her, the prime mover in the fire. The weather forecast calls for more, with gusts up to 50 mph. Jim and I hike back out of the smoking woods and down to Huck Base. Im supposed to catch a ride on a Chinook

Meanwhile, a temperature inversion has moved in, causing smoke to descent upon the valley like a brown wool blanket. Then we hear the Huey is down with mechanical problems, and now, due to limited visibility caused by the smoke, no aircraft will be flying all afternoon. The others decide to return to Huck Base, but Im in the middle of a discussion about grizzly bears with Scott Cary, a member of a helitac crew out of Anchorage, so I decide to hang out at the helipad for a while. Scott works in the Alaskan bush, and he knows about bears. Hes not at all happy with environmentalists who have been demanding that forest service workers not be allowed to carry mace since cayenne pepper might be offensive to the animal. Hell, says Scott, thats the point. Its supposed to be offensive. I chat briefly with the mule-skinners, a father-and-son team. Back at Huck Base I turn in my yellow and greens and take my first shower in three days. A ride is arranged for me to the Jackson airport. As Im leaving, one of the firefighters smiles and says, Hey,

37

Related Interests