Tag Archives: Forest Service

Phillips Creek Fire

Today is our fourth shift on the Phillips Creek Fire, in Oregon, on the Umatilla national forest and private land. Things are going well on our division, using a combination of dozer line and hand line to bring fire down to roads on both sides of a major ridge via sub ridges.

Putting in the line was a big day for the crew. Everyone worked hard for most of the shift after a slower morning. I got assigned to dozer boss and got to take one of the guys from my squad as trainee. We walked the proposed ridge, talked with the scouts and leadership on my crew who were walking the fire’s edge on the next ridge to the northwest, and started pushing line.

The dozer operation went well, and we pushed a contingency line on the next ridge as well. My trainee did a great job. It was good that his first shift with heavy equipment involved some extensive scouting and let him see the capabilities and limitations of dozers and the operators. An experienced operator can do things with his machine that make me nervous, but they seem to always know when quit. The line reached a point were it dropped off too steeply to go any farther and still be able to track back out. Since there was no way out the bottom, we had to pull the plug on dozer line there.

After the heavy equipment tracked out, the crew was able to fully engage, having been relegated to cutting out ladder fuels and snags behind the dozers during the line-push. While my trainee and I were pushing the contingency line, the sawyersa started cutting out the ridge down to the road. They cut all the small trees for about sixty feet of the hand line location and the swampers dragged the cut material across, into the “green”. Black and green are the terms we use to orient ourselves to which sides of the line will be burned and unburned. The saw teams also cut the lower limbs off of larger trees, and cut down dead ones to aid in keeping the fire on the ground when we burn off the line.

Once the saw teams made some progress, the remaining crew members started digging, extending off the end of the dozer line. Sometimes the dig gets lucky, able to utilize natural features or just knock a layer of leaves off with a few swings to create a good fire line. This time they were not lucky at all. There was a thick layer of bear grass all the way to the road that had to be chopped out about eighteen inches wide, and under the grass was a lot of organic material and rocks. As my supervisor said to the guys after the shift, they did a great job; it doesn’t get much worse than that.

The dig had been working for two hours by the time I got back to the crew. I dug with them for about two hours and then got sent to get the vehicles. That way the guys would have a ride to camp when they finished the line instead of having to hike back out. It was only an eight hundred foot elevation gain, but after a hard day, that can be rough. Just those two hours of digging, on top of the hiking I did working the heavy equipment, had my biceps cramping up. Some of the other guys in the dig were cramping up even worse. But they drank some water, took some ibuprofin, and got the line in before dark.

Big day.

Tomorrow we will finish burning it down to the road.

That is all.

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Alaska 2 (Alaska Report 1)

I’m currently on a flight from Fairbanks to Seattle. Next stop is San Fransisco, where I parked my Forest Service Jeep. My plan is to drive as far as Bakersfield, CA tonight and then get home the next day. It feels like I’ve been gone a long time. My wife had a busy time with the kids and her parents, and my parents were dealing with their parents’ health issues back East for much of the time. It will be good to be home so that I can help with the kids and give my wife a break for a few days at least. It will be good to see them all.

Alaska was a different experience from fires in the lower forty-eight. From what I saw, and I know this isn’t true of all fires in AK, the fires blow up and are pretty much unstoppable, then they sit down and have to be secured. Many big fires are the same way, but in Alaska, near structures anyway, the entire edge has to be opened up and dealt with extensively. Roads and heavy equipment are useful, but the majority of the edge on the fires I experience had to be cut out, cold-trailed, and mopped up by hand-crews. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not the exciting kind of work we all hope for, with big burnouts and epic handline construction along ridges and down steep slopes. It’s flat terrain, in thick black spruce stands, with problematic tundra holding heat for weeks and supposedly even years at times. It’s a grind.

It was awesome to experience some fires in Alaska, especially as a HEQB and Task Force Leader trainee (TFLD (T)). I had a truck the whole time and didn’t have to get soaked to the skin when it rained. Well, once, my division supervisor got lost and popped out in the middle of the black in a downpour and I had to go rescue his ass in a UTV. I got pretty wet, but it was worth it to see him all bedraggled, staggering down the two track in the rain. Hilarious. He had a tough shift that day.

My crew wants to go to Alaska, and I can understand the desire to fight fire somewhere you’ve never been, but I have to say, it would be a long hard roll and we’d be ready to go home after fourteen days of it. That being said, some crews take helicopters to the middle of nowhere in Alaska, where the black spruce isn’t so thick, and pretty much just walk around the fire, checking for heat and monitoring. It’s like an all expenses paid camping trip, and sometimes they end up in some beautiful places. You never know what you’ll get. But it will probably rain, a lot, and there will definitely be hordes of voracious mosquitos and horse flies.

Anyway, there’s a quick, disjointed, and probably not entirely accurate description of Alaska firefighting for you.

At this point, I’m looking forward to a couple days off, and selfishly hoping that I’m back to work with the crew before they get a fire assignment. They got to go to the north rim of the Grand Canyon for a full fourteen day roll while I was gone, so at least they got some action as well. It’ll be good to see them.

That is all.

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Back in Business

I’m on my first real fire of the 2015 fire season. There were a few small local fires early in the Spring, but they were only type four and type five single-shift low-intensity fires. The crew did a few prescribed burns this spring too, but no “real” fires until now.

The Saddle Fire is on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest under a type two incident management team. The latest situation report listed the fire at 1,480 acres, 15% contained, with 866 personnel assigned. It grew 460 acres yesterday and threatened some structures, but hasn’t sounded too spicy today. I wouldn’t know, because I’ve just been hanging out next to the operations tent since noon, waiting for an assignment.

Ops says I should get an assignment tomorrow, but I’ll still go to the night briefing at 1800 to see if anything is going on requiring my services.

This is my first time out as a single resource, Heavy Equipment Boss (HEQB). I got signed off on my taskbook for HEQB last season, but have always taken my assignments on fires the crew was assigned to already. This time I left the crew at home, borrowed a jeep from prevention, and drove myself from my home unit to the fire like a grownup. Pretty cool.

I love being on a hotshot crew. I like the missions we get as a crew, doing epic burnouts and constructing handline. I like dropping big trees when I get the chance. My favorite part of the crew at this point in my career is running a squad. I get to work with a bunch of really good dudes every day.  The only position I’ve had on the crew that I enjoyed nearly as much as squadboss was being a primary sawyer, but my time on a sawteam is over.

Yesterday, I showed up at work at 0800 like always, and did a couple hours of PT with a few of the guys since we were doing “PT on your own,” which for us was a 13 mile or so mountain bike ride. That was fun. I was getting changed after PT, getting ready to go prep a burn block when my boss called saying there was an order for HEQB in northern California and asking if I wanted it. I did. So did one of the other squadbosses. So we had one of the seniors pick a number between 1 and 20. I won.

I was on the road about an hour later and drove as long as Forest Service policy would allow a solo driver to operate. This morning I got up and hit the road at 0600 and got to ICP around 1130. I checked in as quickly as possible, anticipating a quick briefing from operations and an assignment to a division and a piece of equipment. But that’s not always the way it goes.

Hopefully there will be something for me tomorrow, and I’ll get to get out on the line doing something useful.

That is all.

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Extended!

This was supposed to be my last pay period until March, 2015 or so.  I typically get laid off for four or five months in the winter because I’m a firefighter, pretty low level, and there are not many fires this time of year.  Being laid off is normally something I’ve looked forward to during some long shifts or boring shop days, but with the new house and new baby, I’ve been dreading not getting a regular paycheck.

I always save up all summer to prepare for my lay-off, and we’d have made it through, but today I managed to find some other work that will last me through the winter.  If you call the supervisor’s office on my forest, I’ll be answering the phone, fielding questions and transfering calls to “ologists” and forest overhead.  I did the same thing at the ranger station last winter, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

I’m not an outgoing person, but in certain situations, where it’s my job and feels totally appropriate, I can be quite chatty.  I know a lot about our forest and its recreation opportunities and resource uses, having lived here and worked for the forest here for seven years.  Being able to inform people about what there is to do here is satisfying.  And I won’t be unemployed.

Win-win.

That is all.

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Reputation

Well, the Deception Fire turned out to be a bit of a turd, but the crew did good work anyway.  There was a lot of sitting around, waiting for the conditions to be right for burning.  The fire was down in a valley and  going direct was not a good option.  Neither was burning the big box.  Oregon fires are weird like that.  We got through it though, and came out looking good, with the important fuckers there pleased with our work and attitudes.

Believe it or not, a crew’s attitude or the perception of their attitude that is formed by different crews and incident management teams is just as important to their reputation as is the quality of their work.  There are some hotshot crews who are some badass sons of bitches and work very hard creating quality line.  If they are also assholes, their reputation suffers and no one wants to work with them.  Sometimes hotshots get a little too proud of themselves for being hotshots and are rude or condescending to other resources.  Sometimes the crew leadership lacks diplomatic skills and offends their division supervisor by disagreeing with the plan.  Then things get awkward.

Being a good crew that is well-thought-of is a lot like just being a good person in life generally, I think.  Don’t be a dick to those less awesome than you, maintain a positive attitude, and be reasonable with your boss, and life is good.  Also, be prepared and able to work as hard as you can for days on end.  At the end of the day, production is still the measure of a good hotshot crew.

That is all.

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