Hearing that a major wildfire, the Reynolds Creek Fire, started burning along the Going-to-the-Sun Highway in Glacier National Park on July 21, brought back a rush of memories of my early days as a fire-fighter. At over 3,000 acres, the Reynolds Creek Fire has become a substantial fire. As of today, the fire is 60% contained and probably will not be completely extinguished until the snows of winter.
Prior to coming to work at Glacier, I had spent two summers on a fire crew with the Prescott National Forest working for the U.S. Forest Service in Arizona. Since the area of the forest I was assigned to was in the mountain range just north of Phoenix and the southern deserts, this was an area that got very hot and dry in the summer. Dozens of fires would get started every year as the result of lightning strikes so common with thunderstorms that built up over the mountains in the late afternoon.
Standing above the cactus and shrub-covered foothills, ponderosa pine dominate the mountain tops. Ponderosa are huge trees that are often over 100-feet in height and were typically spaced 10- to 30-feet apart. The ground under the trees was always covered with half-a-foot of pine needles shed by the trees and called duff.
A typical fire was started by a lightning strike that would set one tree on fire. When the smoke was spotted (they still used fire towers spotters back then), we would be dispatched to hike (we never had a helicopter to take us in) into wherever the fire was located. Nine times out of ten, that meant starting out by heading straight uphill as most of the lightning strikes occurred at the top of the mountain ridges. If there was no wind, we usually found just a single snag and the duff surrounding burning.
If there was a slight wind, the fire might involve several trees, but a strong wind meant the potential for a crowning fire that would move quickly through the tree tops from one tree to another (fortunately we never had a fire this severe during my two summers working here [In 2012, the Gladiator Fire on this same forest saw wind gusts of 50 to 60 mph and burned 25-square miles of forest]).
Any tree that was burning had to be cut down and that meant dropping it using a chainsaw. There was plenty of danger; the tree could fall in the wrong direction, it could get hung up in other trees, it could kick back at a critical point, or, most common, branches (they called these widow makers) could come crashing down. Funny enough (or naïve enough), this never ever seemed to bother the other fire fighters or me. See, most of us were 18 to 25 years old and hadn’t yet developed a sense of danger. Also, at the time, the Forest Service did very little safety training (now there is a lot of training and certification) and we really had no idea of how dangerous fire fighting could be. And finally, we all thought we were invincible.
I fought a lot of fires in those two summers. We averaged about 60 fires a summer and I probably made 55 of those fires each season. They even named a fire after me, the Clark Fire (1 acre), for the simple reason that I had walked up to a dozen other fires at the top of the same steep mountain in a single summer. It got to be so routine, I started stashing equipment at the top of the ridge.
In 1967, I took a job with the National Park Service at Glacier National Park in Montana. My job was not fire, but rather as a ranger where my work involved road patrol, emergency response, and campground operation.
Towards the end of my first summer, a fire broke out only a few miles west of the current fire. It was called the Glacial Wall Fire because it was burning on forested approaches that formed the base of the barren, glacial-carved, granite mountain peaks of the Continental Divide.
In the park service, when a fire breaks out it becomes everyone’s responsibility and nearly every employee is dispatched to fight or assist. Because I had previous experience, I was put on a 2-man team and had the responsibility of dropping trees along the fire line so that the fire could not spread over the fire line or from tree to tree. We were called “sawyers” and were attached to a fire crew of about 10 men (very few women worked on the fire line at that time) who would build a fire line by removing the low vegetation and ground cover with shovels and Pulaski’s (a combination axe and hoe).
As soon as I arrived at the fire, I was amazed by how fighting fires here was so very different from Arizona. In Arizona, the terrain was often steep, but was not that difficult to navigate. There, the big, tall ponderosa pines were widely spaced and there was very little undergrowth. The first branches on the tree were usually 10 or 20-feet about the base of the tree. Fires spread very slowly (unless it was windy) as it burned through the thick pine needle duff.
In Glacier, the first difference was instantly obvious as you actually struggled to walk up the exceptionally steep terrain. It was so steep you had to constantly pay attention or you would, literally, fall off the mountain. The trees here were small spruce and fir, but they grew in large thickets and had a very dense foliage that started, unlike the ponderosa, at ground level. The ground was covered with a tangled mess of old logs, limbs, and downfall that had accumulated over many, many years.
In ponderosa country you scratched a fire line by removing the pine needles. In Glacier, it took saws to cut tree after tree and a crew to clear it away. In Arizona you could build a 100-yards of fire line in less than an hour. In Montana, that same 100-yards could take a day to lay down.
It was the Glacial Wall Fire that provided me with a vision that has remained burnt (pardon the pun) into my mind all these years. It occurred as we were working around a small buttress where a ridgeline came down the mountain. My partner (to this day, I have no remembrance of his name) and I were doing our job of dropping tree after tree. When doing this, one person runs the chainsaw, while the other watches what the tree is doing and keeps an eye out for any other hazards.
I had just dropped a tree and while it was still coming down, I looked up the hill and there was the most surrealist image I have ever seen. The air was filled with a lot of smoke, it was late in the afternoon and the sunlight coming through the trees gave everything an unearthly, orange hue. Suddenly, I saw two other fire crews above us at about 50-feet and 100-feet up the mountain from our position.
The moment we dropped our tree, the two other crews had simultaneously felled theirs. All of a sudden there were falling trees everywhere and the tree farthest up the slope hit the steep hillside and immediately began rolling downhill. It happened so fast we couldn’t even respond. I don’t even remember saying to myself, “I hope that log doesn’t crush me.” I just stood there and fortunately the flying log missed me, my partner, and everyone else as it crashed down the mountainside.
After the tree rolled by, I remember all three crews standing there and staring at each other for a minute or so (probably more like a few seconds) in a state of disbelief and shock. Everyone of us realized how we had put ourselves in a very dangerous position and—there is no other way to put it, seriously, royally screwed up. All at once everyone just picked up their gear and headed out—no one said a thing.
Looking back, I guess we all were to blame for not being more aware and safety conscious (I don’t think we even had this term back then), but between the thick smoke and everyone wearing ear protection, and running a noisy chainsaw, I can see how it happened. For the rest of my career in the NPS, management was always stressing safety and I fully supported it. But when they said their goal was zero accidents, I thought that just isn’t ever going to happen. First of all, they are called accidents for a reason and secondly, like the bumper sticker I used to have on my truck, “Shit Happens”—it always does. Unfortunately, many fire fighting accidents are very serious.
The following day, when we came back up the mountain it was totally different. The sun was out. The breeze was blowing the smoke (and fire) away from us. The birds were chirping and all was right with the world. That is until a borate bomber (big World War II planes that have been converted to drop a chemical retardant on fires) came in right above us. We had no idea he had plans to drop his load right on our heads.
As I watched the bomb bay doors of the plane opened up and only had time to step behind a tree before the fire retardant was let go. Others on the crew were not as quick to get into cover. The borate was dropped from an unusually low elevation and came sloshing down like someone pitching a bucket of water in your face (usually it came down as a fine, rainlike mist).
As I looked up I saw my second memorable vision on this fire. Another firefighter was standing there in his bright, yellow fire shirt and hard-hat,that was now completely covered in bright pink. He looked like an ice cream Sunday as he stood there with this Pepto Bismol sauce dripping off his helmet. His fire-blackened face bore the look of pure, absolute disgust. The scene struck me as hilarious and I broke out laughing. Fortunately this mountain of a fire-fighter (he was a big, big guy) smiled and started to laugh.
The fire lasted for several more days—actually for all I know, it smoldered until snow fell. All I knew for sure was my summer season came to an end and I was pulled off the fire and headed back to Arizona. It was a long drive back because during the fire I had stashed my jacket and a pair of eye glasses (that I needed for driving) in what I thought was a safe place—on the downhill side of not one, but three fire lines. When I finally got back to pick them up, I saw where the fire had apparently run back down the hillside and had melted my nylon jacket and partially melted my glasses. I ended up driving the 1,500 miles home with a badly twisted set of glasses perched on my nose.
Today, I greatly admire the young people who go out on the fire lines. Little has changed over the years. It is hard, dirty, and extremely hazardous work. Nothing irritates me more than a Congress that refuses to increase funding to match the cost of fighting wildfires today.
For the most part, fires are far bigger, more destructive, and deadlier than when I was a fire fighter. A forest full of heavy undergrowth cause by years of overzealous fire suppression, thousands of dead, beetle-killed trees, and hotter, dryer climatic conditions that are the result of global warming make our forest tinderboxes. Our fire-fighters and the people they protect deserve better.
I don’t know what it takes. Two years ago, nineteen firefighters were killed while fighting a wildfire near my hometown of Prescott, Arizona. If Congress continues to bury their head in the duff, it could happen again.