Sunday, June 27, 2010

Flagstaff Burning

As you may have guessed I am in the full swing of summer work fighting fire with the Mormon Lake Hotshots here in Flagstaff.   We've now had a total of four days off since May 25th of something like that.  So the paychecks are good but, man, am I worked.  We typically go out for a maximum of two weeks but this last trip we were hurried off the Tecolote Fire in New Mexico when word broke that a fire popped and was threatening homes in Flagstaff.  We were sent home with the thinking that the crew might need to evacuate our homes, but we all knew we couldn't return home to take days off when our back yard is burning down, so we extended our tour for a week.  Many of our crew has been fixed here for years, while some come only for the fire season and have no real ties to the forest.  Either way, I knew that this fire would be different than the others.  We travelled to Albuquerque that night and I spoke to some friends in town and the mood there was just eerie.  The forest we live in is dominated by San Francisco Mountain (Kinlani to the Hopi).   The center of ancient trade routes and the ground that bonds a community of avid climbers, mountain bikers, hikers, runners, and equestrians is now engulfed in flames under a huge billowing plume of smoke spanning the gray scale from white to black.   People in town were freaked out, scared, somber, sad, a full range of emotions comparable only to that of the color spectrum in the smoke column.  We rolled into fire camp on the east side of town just after noon after watching the column close in from a distance in its second day of burning.  It was the heat of the day and fire activity was picking up.  I was speechless, and I have never seen of felt such concern for any piece of ground on which we've worked such as this one.  This feeling was echoed throughout the crew.  It would all have to be put aside for the job ahead.  

We were put to work griding for spot fires out ahead of the main fire in the last stand of forest between the fire and the structures of a community east of town.  The line I walked back and forth for hours paralleled a trail I would ride to my friend Isaac's house in that community.  Fortunately that stand had burned back in the nineties and offered little for fire to get established.   Our day came to a close without any direct excitement, and for once I was relieved about that.  In a job where you live for excitement to relieve you of boredom, today I preferred  boredom.  We were allowed to go home that night and it wasn't until the stories start coming from the townspeople that you realize the urgency of the situation.  Town felt like a war had broken out in the middle of it with a faceless enemy, but its people stood united together.  It was the buzz everywhere you went, and still is.  

With the fire in check where the houses were threatened, our second and remaining days brought a new assignment.  Prepare and indirect (away from the fire's burning edge) control line up Shultz peak to keep the fire in check on the wilderness flank, and keep it from progressing further onto the San Francisco Peaks.   The line was cleared and prepped to burn in a day and a half with the work of three hotshot crews, but before we could burn we had to handle a  slop over that threatened the security of our mission.  Fire had started backing down the ridge between Shultz mountain and Doyle peak (the eastern most of the San Francisco peaks).   It would take the rest of the day to secure it.   The burnout operation down Shultz mountain would begin in the morning when conditions were dry enough to ensure a good burn (full consumption of ground fuels for no possibility of reburn).  It commenced around noon.   One of the other crews started burning and were about to hand it off to us when the winds shifted causing the main fire to the east of us to make an impressive crown run up the mountain pulling in with it the back burn from the other crew.  We waited it out at the safety zone at the top of the mountain, but felt the heat from 150 foot flames at a distance that tickled some nerves.

  As soon as the run was over we all knew the mission, control spot fires.  We moved swiftly down the line and into battle past the other crew looking completely dazed.  We started picking up spot fires instantly and continued the rest of the day.  To complicate things the burn would have to be continued downhill torching out trees and sending more spots until the burnout was completed or else we could have been outflanked by the fire that sent the first crown run.  Heavy helicopters were used to make water drops a thousand gallons at a time on the green side of our control line in hopes of mitigating any of the spot fires from getting established in the fuel beneath us on the opposite side of the ridge.  Between running the burn out, holding the line, directing the helicopters, griding for spots, and a respiratory ailment that was taking its toll on our crew, we were spread thin.  We called for reinforcements, realizing that we would not be able to complete the burn ourselves and hold it.  Three more hotshot crews came to our aid and eventually we passed our burn off to the next and them to the next.  As soon as we passed the torch the winds switched back to favorable and the burn continued until 1:30 in the morning.  We would spend the next two days controlling the edge which we had burned before finally being pulled from the fire for some much needed rest.  With the fire now more or less contained at 16000 acres, all the citizens of Flagstaff can do now is wait for their forest to be re-opened to go and explore and reminisce.  

1 comment:

  1. Richard...crazy man, check out me blog to see some pics I found of us on the Chattooga.