ON THE FIRE LINE

July 29, 2001 11:00 pm
IN THE LINE OF FIRE: La Grande Hot Shots firefighter Brian Bush falls snags and cuts up downed trees that might harbor hot spots. (Photo by Pete Erickson, The Bulletin, Bend).
IN THE LINE OF FIRE: La Grande Hot Shots firefighter Brian Bush falls snags and cuts up downed trees that might harbor hot spots. (Photo by Pete Erickson, The Bulletin, Bend).

Editors note: Officials supervising the Bald Peter Fire were scheduled to turn management of the blaze back over to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs late last week.

By John Cramer#

For The Observer

CAMP SHERMAN Long before dawn, in the damp cold of the forest, the tent city awakened. More than 800 men and women shook off the dew on a recent morning and crawled from their sleeping bags near the Metolius River.

They pulled on their blackened clothes encrusted with dirt and ash and sweat and walked to breakfast. Most were quiet, some half asleep, eating with blackened hands and blackened faces.

Since July 12, when a lightning strike started the Bald Peter Fire, an encampment of firefighters and support personnel has sprung up overnight here, like an Old West boom town, a bivouac of trucks, trailers, generators, lights, phones, computers, maps, equipment all with one goal in mind: 100 percent mop-up.

For seven days, they fought the blaze, which burned nearly 1,700 acres before being contained. After the initial attack, from dawn to dusk, they cut down, dug up and doused the fires remains, which continue to smolder, several inches to several feet below the surface, hidden in tree roots, stumps, downed logs, hot enough to scorch skin.

After breakfast, the Central Oregon Interagency Incident Management Team held the days briefing with fire crew leaders. It was 6 a.m. and 36 degrees. They talked about assignments, safety, weather, not surrendering to the mop-up fatigue and boredom that often lead to accidents.

Most firefighters are injured not in fighting flames but during the grunt work afterward, when burned trees called snags and tree tops and branches fall suddenly. Toppled by a wind gust or gravity, some crash straight down. Others act unpredictably, bouncing off other trees, knocking other snags and branches loose, sending wood raining down with enough force to crush a man in half.

The morning briefing ended with a prayer: Dear Lord, please help all these folks to get home safely, and then they departed.

The convoy headed out to various parts of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, where the fire started on a butte and hopscotched through dense, steep forests at 4,000 to 6,000 feet.

Among the crews was the La Grande Hot Shots, a group of 20 young men and women led by John Gale, 40, their boss, and Willy Crippen, 39, next in command, who have nearly four decades of firefighting experience between them.

They arrived at the Bald Peter Fire a few days after it started, coming straight from another fire in Alaska, and they worked nonstop.

Brian Bush, 25, is squad leader in charge of seeing that snags and trees that might harbor hot spots are cut down.

Bush is only a few years older than most of his crew mates whose average age is 23, including several college students doing seasonal work but he seems older.

Hes tall, lanky, with a black crew cut, pale blue eyes and a goatee, a quiet blue-collar guy respected by older and younger colleagues alike.

The Scio native has been a firefighter since finishing high school seven years ago. He followed his sister and brother into the job. He was never much of a student, never interested in a college degree and an office job.

He is an outdoorsman who, like many firefighters, simply likes fire the adrenaline rush it creates, its role in nature, the danger it poses, its redemptive and destructive power, the professionalism and camaraderie and hardiness of the job, the pay and retirement benefits and freedom it provides to let him be a ski bum for three months a year.

Bush is among the thousands of firefighters nationwide who were hired full-time in the wake of last years severe fire season.

Many Western wildland fires traditionally are not mopped up 100 percent because limited firefighting resources have been needed elsewhere during the busy fire season, but the slow summer so far and the additional personnel hired this year have meant more thorough mop-ups for fires with a likelihood to spread if they reignited. The Bald Peter Fire is such a case.

A wildland firefighters schedule 10 to 15 hours a day, 14 days on, one day off, waking up at 5:15 a.m., fighting flames or mopping up or thinning fuels, on call 24 hours a day to go anywhere, for nine months a year makes it hard to have a personal life. But Bush doesnt mind.

Im excited, he said. Its a good career. I love being in the woods. I have no clue what other job Id do if I wasnt a firefighter. I just love being around fire.

Like all Western firefighters, he knows this could be a bad summer because of the drought and heavy fuels. But he isnt worried; he has a firefighters fatalism and a faith in his training, experience and instincts.

The La Grande crew has 20 members, including five who are full-time, and three trucks. Going to the Bald Peter Fire each morning, they rode jammed together with their gear, sleeping despite the rough mountain roads and blaring heavy metal music.

Like other Hot Shots, the La Grande crew doesnt bathe while on assignment, which gives rise to a barnyard odor strong enough to make you squint.

And on the fire line, firefighters have no interest in normal civilities: Men and women alike, they chew tobacco like an after-breakfast mint. They scratch. They belch, spit, urinate, blow noses with fingers, a kind of casual expelling of the dirt, ash and other detritus they absorb for a living.

Gale and Crippen briefed them on their days assignment, again warning of the dangers of widow-makers, or snags the firefighting equivalent of a soldier stepping on a land mine in the boring days after a battle is over.

Five of my nine lives are gone, Gale said, referring to the times hes nearly been killed by snags. Bushs brother once suffered a broken neck and ruptured spleen when he was hit by a snag. He recovered and remains a firefighter.

The La Grande crew slung on their 35-pound packs, lifted their saws and shovels and axes and water bags and radios and Global Positioning System computers and other tools and filed down the mountainside.

It was a moonscape, a thousand shades of gray, the trees charred, the ashes ankle-to knee-deep, tree stumps vaporized into craters, the soil baked to the consistency of talcum powder, billowing up around them in acrid clouds.

All around, the yellow, blue and red helmets of firefighters bobbed in the unburned forest and the dusty black plains. There was the whine of chain saws and scraping of shovels.

At one point, several crews worked on one densely wooded hillside, 72 firefighters on one acre, bumping into each other. Suddenly, there was a loud crack, shouts, scrambling footsteps and a large tree crashed down about 20 yards away from Bush, shaking the ground.

It was a near disaster. Another crew had cut down the snag without warning, although there were several firefighters well within the safety zone. Its getting too crowded in here, Bush said.

The other La Grande crew members filtered out of the forest. They were angry, cursing the other crew.

Im getting really pissed, said Rawley Bigsby, 22, an assistant squad leader. Im getting ready to kick some ass here. These guys dont know what theyre doing.

After a lot of radio communications with base camp, the other crew was ordered elsewhere.

Some crews care what they do, others dont, Bush said. I was getting ready to pull us out of here if they didnt go.

The La Grande crew went about its business, walking the mountainside, methodically searching for hidden embers under the earth. They dug with their tools and their hands, looking for superheated white ash, feeling for heat.

They found plenty, shouting smoke up and down the line when they found it, smoke out after they dug it out and doused it.

Ninety percent of most wildland fires never spread beyond a quarter-acre and 70 percent of firefighting is mopping up, Bush said.

Its not all fun, he said.

The morning went on like that squirting and grubbing, squirting and grubbing until lunch.

They dropped where they stood, sitting in the ash like it was a favorite easy chair, eating sandwiches, candy bars and apples out of a paper bag. The conversation ranged from the Kennewick Man to serial killers to the quality of fire camp food, which ranges from pre-packaged military rations to prime rib.

Bigsby, a firefighter with only two years experience but the maturity of a veteran, is a University of Idaho student. Hes studying to be an elementary school teacher.

I like the initial attack, the adrenaline rush of kicking butt, he said, referring to the big fires. I dislike mopping up.

The afternoon was the same, rooting in the dirt like pigs, throwing up spadesful of ashes and soil, heads down, like sticking your head in a giant barbecue grill. The day was sunny and cool, and they trudged on. They found many hot spots in areas that had already been combed.

Heres the mother lode, Bush said.

He stopped at a charred tree. It looked like a thousand others. He felt the dirt and snatched his hand back. Several inches down, flecks of orange embers glowed and crackled in the roots, nearly two weeks after the fire passed through.

Later, Bigsby found some warm dirt. He dug. And dug. And dug. Like a cartoon dog pawing up a spray of dirt. After 20 minutes, he was 3 feet down.

Digging your own grave, Rawley? another crew member joked.

After more digging and dousing, the hole was still hot, so Bigsby tagged it with a pink ribbon for more water the next day and moved on.

By twilight, the crew was weary, stumbling a bit, keeping a ragged line, grumbling, cursing a little more, telling bad jokes, slow in following orders, ribbing each other good naturedly.

After a while, Bush and Bigsby got them in line again, and they marched off the mountain, single file, leaving a billowing cloud in their wake.

One crew member stumbled over a tangle of logs. He fell face-first in the dirt. He cursed, got up and kept going. It was the crews only fall all day.

They reached the trucks, packed up, returned to fire camp, ate dinner, slept. Tomorrow was more of the same.