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            On August 18, 2001, fellow firefighters Tony Collins and Dwight Newman of the Buffalo River National Park and Francis Attaway of the Buffalo Ranger District, Ozark National Forest, retrieved me from the front steps of the Buffalo River Real Estate office in Jasper, Arkansas, and headed for our staging area at Ft. Smith, Arkansas.  There, all 20 members of Arkansas Integrated Firefighting Crew #28, gathered and prepared to travel to a destination yet unknown.  Members of crew #28 presented in manifest order were:

  • Chris Wyatt

  • Jack Edwards

  • Squad 1

  • Francis Attaway

  • Zachary Connelly

  • David Moore

  • Darin Keys

  • Derrick Pickens

  • Kris Wilson

  • Squad 2

  • Billy Williams

  • Randy Caylor

  • John Huzinec

  • Walter Jones

  • Gene Clagett

  • Dwight Newman

  • Squad 3

  • Eric Myers

  • Michael Graham

  • Jason Morgan

  • Thomas Wilson

  • Edd French

  • Howard Roundface

  • Crew Boss

  • Crew Representative

  • Squad 1

  • Squad Boss

  • Firefighter 2

  • Firefighter 2

  • Firefighter 2                

  • Firefighter 2

  • Firefighter 2

  • Squad 2

  • Squad boss

  • Firefighter 2

  • Firefighter 2

  • Firefighter 2

  • Firefighter 2

  • Firefighter 2

  • Squad 3

  • Squad boss

  • Firefighter 2

  • Firefighter 2

  • Firefighter 2

  • Firefighter 2

  • Crew Boss Trainee

            How do you become a wildland firefighter?  Take some basic course work dealing with safety, fire behavior, etc., and complete a pack test, which consists of carrying a 45-lb pack for 3 miles in 45 minutes or less.  This entitles you to a “red card”.  Once you have the red card you must get on the “wanna-be” list with one of the various firefighting agencies such as the National Park Service and the National Forest Service.

            Finally, the requisition came through and we learn that Arkansas crew #28 and four Native American crews, which made up our module, were headed for the state of Washington.  The Native American crews were:  Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, and Comanche. 

            Firefighters must plan the packing of their red bag very carefully.  Maximum weight allowed is 55 lbs and all the right items must be included or you will wish they were.  Proper footwear is extremely important, if not the most important.  Blisters and sore feet will make life on the fireline miserable at best.  Almost all other clothing is secondary.  Boots must be leather with a minimum height of 8 inches.  Fire resistant Nomex pants and shirt are standard issue.  A helmet, goggles, night-light, and fire shelter, are required while in the field.

            The mode of operation is military style; military time, military formation and movement.  You must wait in line for everything. 

            We depart at 20:26 with Miami Air, a Boeing 737 charter plane, for Moses Lake, Washington.  Arrival time is 23:52 Pacific time and we are immediately bussed to the Okanogan fair grounds.  We arrive at 02:42 and try to catch a few hours of sleep on the concrete floor of an exhibit building at the Okanogan fair grounds.  We soon learn that there are several fires in the area and are collectively called the Virginia Lake Complex Fire.  At 08:30 we don our firefighting equipment and jump on a bus headed for the St. Mary’s Mission fire.  This is the largest fire of the complex and the most dangerous.  Several homes have already burned and 60,000 acres have been charred.  Only 30% of the fire is contained.

            Arkansas crew #28 is a Type II crew which basically does “mop-up” work.  We find smoldering logs, stumps, and other hot spots along the fireline and extinguish them.  Constructing handlines in areas that the bulldozers can’t get to is another important function of a Type II crew.  We find ourselves working with crews from all over the country, such as, Wisconsin, California, North Caroline, South Carolina, and Puerto Rico.

            The St. Mary’s Mission fire is on the Coleville Indian Reservation (the Coleville Confederate Tribes are made up of 12 different Indian tribes) and Omak Lake is the centerpiece of the reservation.  The fire has concentrated along the eastern side of Omak Lake in rugged mountain terrain where the elevations reach over 7,000 feet.  The lake provided a close source of water for the helicopters doing water drops along the fireline.  The dozers cutting fireline and the choppers dropping water are important parts of the overall fight to control the fire.  However, the ground troops or firefighters are needed to go into areas where the dozers can’t go and the choppers are not effective.

            On the fireline and at the camp, teamwork is all-important.  Everyone must pitch in and do their fair share.  All members of each squad take turns carrying the bladder bags, which consist of 5 gallons of water and weigh about 45 lbs.  Hot coals are dug out with the tools of the firefighter and include a shovel, Pulaski and McCloud.  Water from the bladder is then used to cool the hot coals.  The tools must be sharpened all the time and the expert sharpener on crew #28 was Kris Wilson.  His tools always had a razor’s edge.

            The crew boss, squad bosses, and crew representative all carry radios and are in constant contact with each other.  All members of the crew maintain visual contact.  The dangers are many and safety is a primary concern.  Some of the dangers to watch out for are falling snags (burnt out trees that might fall at any time), smoldering stump holes filled with hot coals, flare-ups from un-burnt fuels found inside the black area, falling limbs, and broken tree tops caused by the choppers dropping water and fire retardant, slippage along the rock cliffs that must be traversed, bears, snakes, and other wild animals, self inflicted wounds caused by the sharp tools, and dehydration.

            We are constantly aware of the weather, which in large part affects the behavior of a wildland fire.  Rain and high humidity have an obvious effect on the fire, thus reducing the fire’s intensity.  Wind gusts caused by frontal systems can rekindle fires.  The Hayne’s Index, a scale from 2-6, is observed daily.  The higher the number, the more unstable the conditions.  When smoke forms a flat layer, conditions are fairly stable.  When smoke rises high in the sky, the more unstable the conditions become.

            Arkansas Crew #28 became very familiar with helipad #30.  The climb to this position is extremely steep and the elevation is 4400’.  Bladder bags were dropped here and carried to positions along the fire line.  Blivits (water tanks) and the smaller clivits were also dropped along the line and used to fill the bladder bags. 

            The crew was fortunate to have an EMT, Michael Graham, with the Fayetteville Fire Department with us.  He tried his best to keep everone healthy by passing out vitamin C and E every morning and caring for our blisters and sore feet and hands.  Derrick Pickens made sure our spirits were kept high by making up rap songs and performing his funny antics.  The boisterous and witty Francis Attaway made sure that we never slept too much on the transport bus and our beloved Ducehalfs provided by the Washington National Guard.  The dust created by the Ducehalfs would choke a horse, but nobody complained because the alternative was to walk. 

            Jack Edwards, a 24-year veteran wildland firefighter, was our crew representative.  Jack was in the field every day and covered twice as much ground as anyone else, assisting in all manners of things and constantly looked out for the crews best interest.

            Chris Wyatt, a veteran firefighter, is the state forester for Baxter and Marion counties and our crew boss.  Howard Dale Roundface, Sr. of the Crow Indian tribe of Montana was a trainee crew boss working under the tutelage of Chris.  Howard is of the Mountain Crow Tribe.  “Fights in the waters” is the Indian name for this tribe.  Howard’s wife, Sharlene, is from the Chippewa and Sioux Tribes.  They have six children, including Blue, a beautiful daughter, who loves to play basketball. 

            It was reported that lightning had started the fires near Cameron Lake on August 13, 2001.  The fires collectively are called the Virginia Lake Complex.  The individual fires included the St. Mary’s Mission, Virginia Lake, Bailey Mountain, Goose Lake, and Brewster Complex, which includes Indian Dan and Gamble Mill fires.  More than 78,000 acres burned and nine homes.  About 6.6 million was spent fighting the fires.  There were 2471 firefighters, including 550 army soldiers from Ft. Lewis, 8 helicopters, 100 engines, 21 bulldozers, 31 water tenders, and 34 soldiers from the Washington National Guard, who provided some of the ground transportation. 

            We traveled from camp to the staging area by school busses owned by Lewis Bus Charter.  Our driver was Al Messick, a retired college professor from Nampa, Idaho.  He has a passion for flying light aircraft.

            August 24, 2001 – on this day we built handlines with a northern California National Park burn module crew, a North Carolina crew, and a Creek crew.  “Hit a lick and go”, cried out our crew boss, Chris Wyatt.  We cut out a 3 foot handline in some really steep terrain.  Our handlines are anchored to large outcrops of granite and to old logging roads.  This was hard work and required much team effort.  Jason Morgan, a member of my squad, and the youngest member of our crew (20 years old), hurt an ankle while traversing some rough topography; we pack his daypack and tools back and assist him to our waiting transportation.  Jason is a student at Northwest Community College in Rogers, Arkansas. 

Rain and high humidity start suppressing the fires and allow the firefighting efforts to gain control of the fires. We spent the last few days mopping up.  A lot of time is spent “purposely wandering”, looking for areas to treat.  We found several “jackpots” (areas such as dozer piles with a lot of fuel) and worked these in cooperation with the brush engines.  Gnats seek out the warmth of hot coals and we constantly watch for them flying over concealed stump holes and other hot spots.  This technique works best in the cool mornings.  Pretty high-tech stuff, huh?  We continue to practice LCES (lookout, communication, escape routes, and safety zones). 

We learn that the Okanogan fair is scheduled to take place in a few days, so everyone in the camp had to pack up and move on down the road to the Omak Stampede Rodeo arena, located on the banks of the Okanogan River. 

            August 27, 2001.  Today’s mission – hold the fire south of Jackass Butte, west of Cameron Lake road, north of Monse road and east of State Highway #97.  We’re headed for drop point #77.  Along the fireline several tree roots were burning beneath large boulders.  Tom Wilson, a member of my squad is a big fellow and became an expert at removing some pretty fair-sized, granite boulders.  Being the last man on squad 3, I am always at the end of the formation.  That means no seats left on the Ducehalf, so I sit on the floor most of the time and eat lots of dust.

            Our EMT continues to feed us vitamin C and E on the way to the staging area, Low Boy Meadow or droppoint #74, and we start drinking the 6-8 quarts of water that we consume every day.

            In spite of the fires we note a lot of Gambiel quail, blue grouse, mule deer, and chipmunks.  Bear signs are everywhere and some of the other crews started feeding the bears, thus creating potential problems.  There are also lots of magpies and other songbirds, such as chickadee, flicker, and nuthatch.

            After days of thinking about it, Gene Clagett finally bought a new pair of “Nick’s” boots at the camp commissary.  Several members of our crew blew out their boots and had to buy new ones at a cost of $250 - $300.

            Chas Kimbol was our strike team leader and Troy Phillips was the trainee strike team leader.  They directed the day’s activities for our crew and other crews working the same fire zone.

            Jack Edwards, the crew rep tells us that we will demobilize on September 1, 2001 and head for Moses Lake where we will fly Casino Airlines, a Boeing 737, out of Elko, Nevada, to our staging area in Ft. Smith, Arkansas.  We made two site-seeing stops as we were bussed to Moses Lake.  The first was Grand Coulee Dam, completed in 1942 and is one of the largest concrete structures in America.  The BLM was placed in charge of damning the great Columbia River and at the time this was the greatest engineering endeavor yet undertaken and still is the largest hydro power producer in the U.S.A.  Grand Coulee Dam contains almost 12,000.000 cubic yards of concrete, enough to build a sidewalk 4 feet wide and 4 inches thick 50,000 miles long, or twice around the equator.

            Our second stop was at Dry Falls.  It is 3.5 miles wide, with a drop of more than 400 feet.  By comparison, Niagara is one mile wide with a drop of only 165 feet.  The amazing thing is, that Dry Falls, and the surrounding, strange, land forms, were created by a catastrophic flood.  During the Pleistocene geologic time, a large lake was formed in what is present day Montana by glaciers blocking several rivers.  As the lake grew in size, it eventually broke through the ice dam, unleashing a tremendous flood, that raced across Idaho and northeast Washington, creating Dry Falls, and numerous coulees, or ravines, that characterize this region, now known as the Channeled Scablands.  As a former geologist, I find this to be a fascinating story.

            We totally overwhelm the Golden Corral in Lake Moses as 100 hungry firefighters invade the place for dinner.  After dinner we threw out our sleeping bags on the lawn of Big Bend Community College.  The temperature dropped into the low 40’s and a brisk, chilly morning greeted us.  We again overwhelmed the Golden Corral for breakfast, headed for the airport, weighed in, loaded our gear ourselves in the cargo bay of Casino Express’s Boeing 737 and headed for our home staging area in Ft. Smith, Arkansas.  They even allowed me to carry my souvenir, a charred piece of Ponderosa pine from helipad #30, aboard the plane.

            As we flew over South Dakota the captain of Casino Air asked us to look out the window and look at the wildfires burning below us.  Most of the guys and gals said they were ready to jump out and start again fighting those fires, but only after a few days R&R.  We were gone for a total of 15 days.  Most everyone on the crew worked 225 hours or more.  That means not much time for play.  Firefighting is a lot of dirty, hard work and requires being in good condition.  The scenery was spectacular and the sense of camaraderie among the firefighters is second to no other group.

            And that folks, is a glimpse into the life of a wildland firefighter!

Arkansas Crew #28 Last Day

Taking A Break

Arkansas Crew #28

Staging Area

Base Camp

Chris and Howard planning

Lunch Break

Cutting Fireline

A Flareup

Ducehalf Transportation

Squad 3

Fearless Firefighter

Burning Snag

Squading Up

Chow Line

Water Pickup

Flareup near Dozer Trail

Digging Fireline

Edd's Foot Massage