news and events » smokejumper magazine

Smokejumper Magazine Header

Smokejumper Magazine Article

return to Smokejumper Magazine

Have Smokejumper Magazine delivered to you with an NSA Membership

Good Intentions

by Mark Corbet (La Grande '74) |

This feature article is from Mark's book "Between the Dragon and His Wrath." (Ed.) The book is available on the NSA website store.

"... good cheer, there is no harm intended ..."
- Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Forty miles east of Portland, Oregon, the Columbia River flows through a narrow, deep gorge resplendent with waterfalls.

Because the falls are so remarkable and visited by thousands of visitors every year, the state and federal managers of the watershed try to shield it from any activities that might adversely affect the water quality.

On an unseasonably warm day in early October, I was one of 12 smokejumpers dispatched to a wildfire burning in that watershed. We selected a chain of pristine green openings near the fire as a jump spot, arriving in the late morning.

Our orders made it very clear that we were in a designated wilderness and close to a National Scenic Area. We had been granted permission to use chainsaws only "sparingly." Consequently, we intended to do everything we could to keep our impact on this protected place to a minimum.

No one else was on the fire, so as squad leader I assumed the position of Incident Commander (IC).

We estimated the fire to be about two acres in size and growing. The ground sloped off to the southeast and south into a large drainage, and the fire was slowly advancing in that direction. Because the morning sun was heating up and drying out the ground fuels on the southeast-facing slope, we began digging line around that side first.

The soils were deep and good for digging fireline, but the volume of large sized logs, roots, and dead wood lying in our path slowed our progress. By midday, the sun was beating down on the south-facing slope at the very time we were working our way across it. As the air temperature increased, so did the fire activity, making it even more difficult to construct and hold our line.

We talked it over and decided to request some air support in the form of a helicopter and bucket, or a retardant plane to help us through the heat of the day.

When I called the forest dispatch office to make our request, I was told to check with the IC to see if he would approve. I looked around at the 12 of us, struggling to keep this fire from getting the upper hand and wondered if I had understood them correctly. There was no one else on this fire but the 12 of us and I was the IC.

I called them back and informed them of that fact and repeated my request for air support. They said they knew we were the only ones on the fire but had a person parked on a point about three miles to the south, whom they had designated as IC. It seemed to me that it would be difficult for an IC to make good tactical decisions about a fire from miles away, but if that is what the forest wanted, we intended to do our best to coordinate with them.

I contacted the IC by radio, explained our situation and requested air support. He replied that in order to assure minimal impact on the water quality in this watershed, neither retardant nor buckets of water from outside sources would be used. He also informed me that a 10-person crew was on its way to lend a helping hand with the completion of a line around the fire, which was now about three acres in size.

At the speed 12 of us were building line, we were unsure if we were going to catch this fire unless it slowed down significantly in the evening, so all were happy to learn we were getting some backup.

Throughout the afternoon we continued to cut our way through large downed trees and dig fireline. Every hour or two the IC called to inform us that the crew should be arriving soon. This went on until just before sunset when the 10 finally arrived.

I met with them and talked to their crew boss. He told me they would need a little time to rest up after the long uphill hike, but would soon be giving us a much-needed hand. My crew was plenty tired themselves, having been digging hot line since mid-morning. As the sun dropped lower in the western sky, the temperature began to cool a little and the humidity increased slightly, causing the fire to burn a little more slowly.

With the help of the 10 additional line diggers, we might get a line all the way around this fire by nightfall. Once they had their break, they joined us digging fireline for about 15 minutes. Then the crew boss came over and notified me that they had been told to be on their way back to their vehicles by dark and would need to get on their way very soon.

They wanted to help stop the fire, but they had their orders. I informed my crew we would have to finish up on our own. They groaned a little, then went right back to work.

At about the same time the 10-person crew had arrived, two representatives from the Forest Service also showed up. I briefed them on the
fire situation and our plan of action as we took a walk around the fire. They also walked over to the meadow into which we had parachuted.

As the 10-person crew prepared to depart, the forest representatives - who would be spending the night on the fire - rejoined us. They had been told to pass along from the forest that for our own safety, under no circumstances would we be allowed to do any kind of work on the fire after dark.

I looked over at how much additional fireline would be necessary to completely contain the fire. My best guess was it would take my crew no more than half an hour to have the fire completely corralled. When the rest of the crew heard we would be required to stop building fireline at dark, they were far from happy.

They had worked extremely hard for an entire day building fireline under hot, smoky conditions and now with their final goal within reach, were being told to give it all up. There was less than a hundred yards of line left to build as darkness fell, so we tried to explain the situation to the managers, but they wouldn't be swayed.

Once I accepted that we wouldn't be working that night, it crossed my mind to wait a few hours and sneak over in the dark with part of my crew and dig that last little piece of line. I really didn't want our entire day's work to have been for nothing. I knew we would never actually go against their wishes, but it certainly was tempting.

All of us could see that the small edge of the fire not yet lined would probably advance far down the slope during the night.

Resigned to our new situation, we walked away from the fire and smoke a safe distance and set up a comfortable camp area, eventually bedding down for the night.

At daybreak, we all hiked over to see how the fire had progressed during the night. What we saw was about what we expected. All of the line we had built the previous day had held through the night. However, that short section of line we were prevented from digging in the dark had expanded far down the slope to the west and the further it went, the steeper the ground had become.

Our fire was now at least five acres in size. We heard promises of additional help, but for now there were still only 12 of us working the fire on the morning of the second day.

We immediately started building line down one side of the fire, but due to its steepness, every time we tried to swing the line across slope and below the flames, burning material from above would roll down across our line and ignite the abundant dry fuels below. We would again dig downhill and try to swing the line across slope below the fire, and once again burning material would roll over our line.

After multiple attempts to stop the fire's progress in this way, we decided to try digging line much farther down the hill and well past the lowest flames before cutting across slope with a really deep trench - a trench so big and deep that it would catch almost any size of hot rolling material, short of a full-sized log that might come its way. When we had a trench dug three-quarters of the way across the bottom of the fire, we could see that this was already working very well. It might have looked a little odd placing the trench so far below the lower edge of the fire, but our other methods had repeatedly failed, so a little success was welcome.

Our impact to the site may have been harsher than we would have preferred but far less than the effects of allowing the fire to burn all the way to the bottom of the drainage.

It was a little before noon and the fire was hot but not spreading too rapidly. As we closed in on that last dozen yards of trench across the bottom of the fire, we started to harbor the hope of catching this fire. Once we got the deep furrow completed, the 12 of us would spread out along its length and deal with any hot material that should tumble in.

A short time later, we got word that a 20-person crew had just arrived on the fire via helicopter and would be heading down the line to where we were working. We were told to pull back up onto the top of the fire and work there.

When the crew arrived, we passed along what we had learned about building line on these steep slopes, then showed them the big - and nearly completed - cup trench and how well it was working. They indicated that they understood, so we made our way up to the top of the fire where we spread out and began putting out smokes along the fireline we had dug the previous day.

Later that afternoon, I decided to take a hike down the fireline to see how it was going for the crew completing the trench and holding the bottom of the fire. When I arrived the fire was now burning far down the hill below it.

I asked one of the crew working nearby what had happened. He told me his crew boss was convinced that digging a line further up the hill and more closely to the fire's edge was a preferable method to what we had recommended, so that is what they had done.

With no deep trench completely across the steep slope to stop it, burning material kept rolling across their line. Each time they would pull back and try to line the newly burning area, but time after time it got past them. They were now far down the hill trying to stop the fire's progress into the bottom of the 2,000-foot-deep drainage. Once again there was not going to be any corralling of this fire by dark, as we had hoped.

By the next day the fire was rapidly spreading across and downslope. All day long we could hear helicopters landing and taking off in the string of meadows where we had landed our parachutes. Personnel and equipment were arriving nearly nonstop.

Wanting to assure that our jump gear was still secure, a few of us at a time hiked back to the jump spot. What we saw was a bit of a shock. The once-pristine opening was awash in people, equipment, and activity. Worse yet, sawyers were busy expanding the size of the openings, falling trees so the helicopters would have ever-safer approach and departure routes.

Over the next couple of days, the cutting continued unabated. The next time we visited the spot, it looked like a timber sale was taking place. So many fallen trees were lying about it was now difficult to get through to the meadow. In their effort to make things safer for the helicopters, they had tossed all environmental concerns for the watershed to the four winds and totally given up on any directive to use power saws only sparingly.

By the third day we had become quite comfortable in our little camp spot. After a couple of nights sacked out on the ground, sleeping comes easily. As an added bonus, every evening a helicopter delivered hot dinners and a couple of sack lunches right next to our camp. Once darkness arrived and the workday was over, we could kick back, get some quality rest, and forget about the fire for a few hours.

On day four, someone down at the fire camp, located in a state park next to Interstate 84, decided to do us what they saw as a favor and allow us to come down to the fire camp so we could get hot showers.

Now, a hot shower after four days on a fire didn't sound all that bad but, as we were repeatedly observing, having good intentions doesn't always result in a positive outcome. In this instance, a three-minute shower was going to require considerable time and effort.

In order to have that shower, we weren't going to simply ride to the fire camp and back in a helicopter. No, our shower would necessitate a five-mile hike down a trail, a ride on a school bus down a twisting, turning gravel road for a half an hour, time standing in line for the same meals we were having delivered to our doorstep up on the fire, then again standing in line for the showers.

Once we were clean we would attempt to sleep in a busy camp with constant noise from people, generators, cars, trucks, and all the support activities a large fire camp produces.

Awakened at 5 in the morning, we would then attend a two-hour long fire briefing about what was going to be done on the fire that day, hear weather and fire behavior predictions, wait in another line to eat breakfast, take another bus ride back up the mountainside and, finally, make that five-mile, uphill hike back to the fire that had taken the 10-person crew on the first day more than four hours to complete.

The most surprising thing to me about the trip to the camp was the fire camp itself. It consisted of hundreds of vehicles and even more people. There were sleeping tents everywhere and dozens of larger tents for fire support and administrative purposes.

Also on hand were food service trucks, shower trucks, and trucks for generators and lighting systems, and much more. Seeing all of this, I asked the bus driver what other large fires this big camp must be supporting. He said, "Just yours."

I thought he had to be joking. When we walked away from the fire that morning, there couldn't have been more than 40 people anywhere near the fire and many of those were stationed at the helispot, not actually working on the fireline.

I had never seen anything like it. There must have been 20 people in the fire camp for every person actually working on the fireline. One of our crew pointed out that if we could put half of them to work building line, we could have this fire out in no time.

A few days later a wet weather front arrived stopping the fire in its tracks. After eight days on site, we hiked off the mountain for the last time.

In the beginning, firefighters and managers had intended to keep their impact on the watershed to a minimum and everyone safe, but good intentions can come at a price. The fire burned 250 acres and cost $851,900 to suppress.