"ENGINE 3‑1, Ponderosa."
Nick Johnson removed the walkie-talkie from his belt and answered the Fire Dispatcher's call, "Ponderosa, this is Engine 3‑1."
"Respond to a wildland fire, in Township 18 North, Range 17 East, Section 23, near Spitcat Campground. It's a citizen's report."
"I copy. We're on our way," Nick said.
"Time out, 14:37 hours. K-Z-D 6-7-5."
"Ponderosa, Cerro Gordo."
Dispatch answered, "Go ahead, Cerro Gordo."
"I have the smoke in sight. Bearing is 192 degrees. I think the location you gave is right," the lookout said. "It's building rapidly. A moment ago I couldn't see anything there, but it's a good column now, estimate the size at about ¼ acre, wind out of the southwest at about 15. It's really growing."
"Copy, Cerro Gordo. Break, Battalion 3-1, Ponderosa."
While the lookout and dispatcher talked, Nick bolted across the firehouse grounds. He moved with the purposeful calm and poise of an athlete, his boots leaving behind a dusty cloud. The hot June wind quickly swept it away. He yelled to the crew, "Come on guys, let's roll! We've got a dispatch."
Clay Cutter, the Fire Engineer, and Heidi McClure, the other firefighter, immediately stopped work on their gardening project and scrambled into the Fire Engine. Siren wailing and red lights flashing, the Engine and crew sped through the small mountain town of Shiloh.
Assistant Fire Chief Emily Bartley's slightly excited voice came over the radio in answer to the dispatcher's call, "I copied, Ponderosa. Sounds like we could be in for some trouble. That's right below town, and the wind's heading it towards the houses along Gettysburg Road. Let's get Engine 3-1 on the fire and he can let us know what else we might need."
"Affirmative, Battalion 3‑1. Break. Engine 3‑1, Ponderosa."
"Ponderosa, I copied. Break, Battalion 3-1, Engine 3-1."
"Go ahead," Bartley answered.
"It's your call, Bart, but I think we better get a full dispatch and a couple of airtankers on the way. Two years ago we had some heavy winds and there are a lot of blown down trees on that slope above the Little Truckee, the fuel loading is really high. After the dry winter we've had, it could really take off."
"I copy. Break, Ponderosa, Battalion 3-1."
"Go ahead Battalion 3-1," the dispatcher said.
"Let's go ahead and get the full response going. He knows that area better than I do, I'm going to follow his advice."
As they sped along, Nick turned to his crew and began to brief them, "Let's keep our eyes and ears open, it's windy and it hasn't rained for almost a month. The high today will be in the 90s, so drink plenty of water. Remember___if you don't have to pee, you're not drinking enough. They're predicting thunderstorms later today, so keep your eyes open for cumulus clouds, they could bring erratic winds. And unless I tell you differently, the escape route is back to the Engine and we'll drive out together."
Only a short distance from the Station they could see the smoke. Despite the distance, it was obvious the fire was spreading rapidly. But it wasn't until the Engine came around the first switchback dropping down into the Little Truckee Gorge that they got their first look at the flames.
"Pull over here and stop, Clay," Nick said. "I don't think we're going any farther." Nick got out and put on his hard-hat and Nomex shirt. He strapped on his utility webbing gear and took a shovel from the tool compartment. "Clay, let's turn around. Heidi, help him back the Engine up. I'll be right back, I'm going to take a better look."
Nick hurried over to the roadside and looked down into the gorge. Flames leapt up the steep slope, crowning out the medium-sized trees, and starting spotfires ahead of the main front. The brush was thick, and the blown down trees strengthened the fire's intensity.
He watched the fire's advance for 30 seconds and made a quick, rough calculation: The fire would be at the edge of the houses in about 15 minutes.
He glanced at the sky; there were some clouds a few miles to the southwest. Nick didn't like the looks of them, they might bring thunderstorms and unpredictable winds. If thunderclouds moved over the fire while it was still hot they could blow fire all over the place.
Nick returned to the Engine and got in, "It's a bad one, guys," he said as he picked up the radio microphone. "Ponderosa, Engine 3-1."
"I'm at the overlook above the canyon. I have a good view of the fire. We could have a bad situation here. It's about three acres, burning on the north side of the canyon. The slope is about 60% and the rate of spread is about 200 feet a minute. I estimate it will be bumping against the edge of town in about 15 minutes. Let's get the Highway Patrol here, we'll need to stop traffic on Manassas and Gettysburg roads until this is over. We're going to stage on Gettysburg Road. I'd like the airtankers to lay retardant on the North side of the road. We'll backfire when it gets close enough."
The dispatcher recognized the calm voice, "Copy Nick, Air Attack 2-3 is about five minutes out. He'll contact you when he gets a visual on your fire. K-Z-D 6-7-5."
"I copy," Nick said. "Let's call this the 'Spitcat' fire."
"Copy. Spitcat will be the incident name. K-Z-D 6-7-5."
"Engine 3-1, Battalion 3-1."
"Go ahead Bart."
"Nick, I'm about 20 minutes away, it'll be your show till I get there. Let Ponderosa know what other resources you'll need."
"I copy. Break, Ponderosa, Engine 3-1."
"Let's get some people and equipment coming this way. We'll need two Handcrew Strike Teams, one Strike Team of Wildland Fire Engines, and one Strike Team of Structure Fire Engines. We'll also need a fire investigator and a medium helicopter for bucket drops."
"Copy, Nick. Anything else?"
"Yeah, work us up a spot weather forecast, we've got some clouds southwest of the fire that could be trouble. We'll get back to you with some weather observations in a minute."
Driving along Gettysburg Road, Nick explained his plan to Clay and Heidi. At the southwest end of the ridge he said, "Stop here, Clay."
Nick got out and tied a strip of blue flagging to a bush, then came back to the Engine, "Heidi, when it's time, you'll start your drip torch line from that flagging. Clay, you'll keep the Engine free to catch any spots that may flare. With any luck we should have some help before the fire gets here, if not, we'll handle it ourselves. It's going to be hot and smokey, but keep your heads, do only what I tell you and after we fire out, don't get too far from the Engine. Any questions?"
"No," they answered simultaneously, breaking the tension. They all laughed.
"OK, Clay, stop here. Get the weather kit, take the readings and call them into dispatch. Heidi, help me get the drip torches ready. We've got a few minutes, so don't get in too big a hurry."
Nick unfastened the drip torch, a miniature flamethrower-like device filled with a kerosene-gasoline mix. A firefighter could discharge the mix to put fire wherever he needed it. Nick began to prepare the torch for use. Heidi grabbed the other. After a few moments of work everything was ready.
Clay came over to them, "I called the readings in. They'll get back to us in a while."
"Good," Nick said, "Let's fire up the chainsaw and drop these trees along the road."
Clay pulled on his protective clothing and started the saw. Nick and Heidi shoved their earplugs in and followed Clay. As he cut the saplings and small trees, they threw them down the hill toward the fire. The trees, by virtue of their height, could act as torches to shoot embers across the road. By cutting them down they might be able to lessen the number of spotfires.
Shortly after they finished cleaning up along the fire side of the road Ponderosa informed the firefighters that the airtankers were about five minutes out.
"Let's relax, all we can do now is wait," Nick said.
Heidi laughed, "Nick, you amaze me! My heart's going a mile a minute, and you're talking about relaxing!"
Nick grinned but before he could answer the radio crackled, "Engine 3‑1, Air Attack 2-3."
Nick took the mike off the hook, "Air Attack 2-3, Engine 3‑1."
"We're coming up on the fire now, Nick. It's coming up from right next to Spitcat Campground. Size is about 15 acres, spreading into a thick blowdown stand, a lot of brush in there too. It's got a pretty good wind from the southwest on it, and it's burning directly towards you. In about five minutes you should be thinking about starting your backfire. I'll be switching to Air Net now to lead the airtankers in."
"I copy 2-3."
Nick hung the mike up and said, "Let's go over and take a look at the fire." They walked the 20 yards to the edge of the canyon and stared down.
Clay said, "Shit, Nick, it's really taking off!"
"Man, it sure is," Heidi said. "It's heading right towards the houses too."
"That's right," Clay said. "Oh jeez, Nick, it's going right at your house!"
"Yeah, I know," Nick said. "And a lot of other peoples' too. Let's make sure we do the best job we can. Now you two get back to the Engine."
They went to the Engine while Nick watched and waited. The leading edge of the flames was now close enough for him to feel the heat. The roar of the blaze and the crack of burning logs was getting loud. The wind was still in his face. When the flames got closer there would be a change in that wind, as the heat of the fire started to draw air in from all directions. First the air would calm, then come from his back.
At that moment he and Heidi would start the backfire. The heat of the main fire would draw the new fire toward it, leaving no fuel for the main fire to burn, and stop its spread. If everything went right.
Nick heard the Air Attack plane approaching, the airtankers would be right behind. The Engine would get coated with the oozy mess, but it would wash off.
"Engine 3-1, Air Attack 2-3."
Nick answered, "Go ahead."
"Yeah, Nick, we're lining up to make our drops. Keep your heads down."
"I copy," Nick said. "We will."
Nick returned to the Engine, "The airtankers are here. Stay inside till after they drop."
Just then, the first plane swooped over, drowning their conversation. As the retardant slowly settled down, it painted the Engine a dull red. Clay turned on the wipers.
As the second airtanker began its run, Nick gave final instructions.
"Clay, stay with the Engine, keep your eyes across the road for spotting. It's hard not to look at the fire, but I need you making sure the fire hasn't gotten across the road. If you see a spot, take the Engine and put it out. Don't get too far away from the Engine. We'll be back with you in a few minutes."
Nick and Heidi left the Engine and jogged toward the canyon's edge, "Heidi, go down to the blue flagging, light your drip torch, and wait. When you hear the siren, start lighting a strip right from the edge of the road, work your way back till you reach the point where I started my line. Then go to the Engine. Take your time, make sure you get a good strip of fire burning."
As Nick moved toward his starting point the sound of her movement caught his attention. He turned and saw her running.
She stopped and turned toward him, "What?"
"Walk. We've got plenty of time and you'll need that energy later."
She smiled, "You're right."
Quickly she moved away. The smoke drifted over the road, obliterating her from sight.
Nick called Clay on the walkie-talkie, "Engine 3-1, Johnson, go to Crew Net."
Nick changed the selector knob from the dispatch frequency to the tactical one, and heard Clay's voice, "Go ahead, Nick."
"Clay, stay on this frequency unless I tell you to change. I'll monitor both channels. When I tell you, sound the siren, that's Heidi's signal to start firing out."
"I copy, Nick."
He switched back to the dispatch net, "Ponderosa, Engine 3-1."
"The airtankers just dropped, I'd like to have them go to Stead and reload, we'll probably need them again. We'll know in a little while."
As he spoke, Nick felt the wind starting to calm and the roar of the inferno diminished slightly.
"I copy, Nick."
Nick switched again to the tactical net, "You there, Clay?"
"It won't be long now."
Nick strode along the edge of the road. He jumped up onto a pile of rocks and looked out into the canyon. He stared out for a few minutes, then a movement caught the corner of his eye. Almost from under his foot a rattlesnake slithered across the ground toward the canyon. Nick took two quick steps toward it and with one clean motion of his shovel chopped its head off.
Nick stepped back onto the road. A moment later he felt the wind shift, pulling the smoke and heat back into the fire. He keyed the mike, "Hit the siren, Clay."
As the eerie howl reverberated over the smoky ground, Nick started laying the trail of burning diesel fuel across the sagebrush. By the time the last echo died, he had a good length of the line blazing.
Although Nick moved quickly, again there was nothing hurried about his movements and the purposeful calm remained. It took him just over two minutes to light the area required. That was slightly longer than he planned, but he knew it would be adequate. He headed back to the Engine.
It all depended on Heidi now. If she was there when he got back that would mean she'd tied in her section of the line and things would be OK. Nick was pleased to see her walking to the Engine when the smoke cleared.
Nick and Heidi went to the driver's side of the Engine. Clay rolled down the window. All they could do for now was wait. Soon the two fires would meet each other. Then there would be a lot to do.
The radio squawked, "Engine 3-1, Ponderosa."
Clay handed Nick the microphone from the Engine, "Ponderosa, Engine 3‑1."
"Nick, Engine 2-1 is about two minutes out. Do you have an assignment for them?"
"Affirmative, have them tie in with me on Gettysburg Road."
"Copy. Break, Engine 2-1, Ponderosa."
"Engine 2-1. I copied."
The radio conversation had barely ended when Heidi said, "Look, aren't those red lights?"
A moment later the lights were close enough to be clearly seen through the smoke and the Wyman Lake Engine drove up. The Captain, Bill Sanchez, got out and walked over.
"Well, Nick, what kind of mess you got yourself into this time?"
"It's a bad one, Bill," he answered as they shook hands. "But we just finished firing out, and if the winds stay with us we should be OK."
The two captains left the crews and went to the canyon's edge.
Nick pointed to the flanks of the fire, "When the head gets here, we'll take the west side and your Engine will take the east. We'll try to keep the head from spreading any farther.
"There are no lines on either side, but the spread has been almost all from the head. If the backfire works, we can start working the flanks and get it under control."
"Sounds good, Nick." He pointed to the head. "It looks like the backfire will work. It's burning good, there's not much fuel left between us and the main fire."
"Yeah, I know." Nick pointed through the smoke at the clouds to the southwest. "What...."
Assistant Chief Bartley drove up as Nick spoke.
"Looks good Nick," she said when she got out of her truck. "The backfire saved the day."
"Maybe Bart. I was just saying to Bill, we should be able to get a handle on it if those clouds don't create thunderstorms."
Bart looked at the sky. Although it was just a few minutes after three o'clock, the smoke had dimmed the light. It seemed almost dusk.
"Yeah," she said. "They might be a problem, but they won't get here for a few hours, we should have a grip by then."
"I hope you're right," Nick said. "The wind was fierce for about an hour at my house last night around seven.
"Anyhow," Nick continued, "I'll turn the fire over to you, Bart. Talk to you later. I want to get the crew set up___the head will be bumping us in a minute or two. I'll be on the tactical net if you want to get me on the radio."
"That sounds good, Nick. I want you to take over this end of the fire though. We'll make this section Division Alpha."
Bill called to Bart as she walked away, "Just for information, I'm running with only four on the Engine, Don called in sick this morning."
"OK. You get that Nick?"
"Yeah. The flu, Bill?"
"Right. Lot of it going around. Nasty stuff too. I can't seem to get away from it. Seems like half the people in Hawaii were sick."
"That's right, you went to Hawaii last month. How was it?"
"It was great except for the service. So many people were sick the hotel was running with about half their normal staff."
"Yeah it seems like I heard something about that. Talk to you later."
Nick returned to his Engine, switching his radio off scan. It was less hectic when he didn't have to listen to everything___air attack, dispatch, handcrews. Now all he had to worry about were the two Engines and their crews.
He spoke to Clay and Heidi, "It's going to get hot in a few minutes, but it shouldn't be much of a problem. Keep your eyes open and stay on the side of the Engine away from the fire. We've got the west end of the road."
"Can I ask you something, Nick?" Heidi asked.
"Why did you give the other Engine the side by the houses? Don't you want to be down there trying to protect your place?"
"Yeah, I would. But Engine 2-1's bigger than our Engine and it carries five people. Bill's a good firefighter, my place is in good hands. And there'll be other Engines here soon."
Just as Nick stopped speaking, the first embers started falling over the road.
"Clay, stay in the Engine! Heidi get the nozzle! Watch your footing, that retardant is slippery. Let's be alert!"
The embers flew across the road in a flurry. A moment later they saw the first spotfire. Clay backed the Engine toward it, Heidi sprayed water and Nick used his shovel to extinguish it. The next one was also behind them___Clay backed up again, and they got that one too. Then it was forward, then back again. Nick felt like a man who'd just stirred up a hornets' nest. As soon as you swatted one away, another buzzed by. Out of the corner of his eye, Nick could see Bartley chasing down firebrands too.
Finally the fire activity began to die down. The firefighters were able to look up and see what was happening. Nick walked over to the edge, the brush field was gone, leaving behind barren smoking dirt, blackened sticks and ash-covered ground. The wind seemed to be dying. There was some flame along the flanks, but the fire wasn't doing much anywhere.
Bill and Bart joined him. Bart took out a can of Copenhagen snuff and offered it to them. Nick and Bill declined.
No one spoke for a few moments, then Bart said, "It took everyone we had here. If you'd have been a little later, Bill, we'd have lost it."
"It's not over yet," Nick said. "And I'm still worried about those clouds. I hope those handcrews get here soon. We need lines around it quick."
"I'm going to go down to the river for a while," Bartley said. "I'll let you know when those crews get here."
Nick went back to his Engine. It was only 30 minutes since they'd first responded.
"Let's start mopping up the edge of this thing, guys."
As they worked along the fire's edge, they heard the dispatcher call, "Spitcat Incident Commander, Ponderosa."
"Spitcat I. C. Go ahead Ponderosa," Bartley answered.
"Bart, we have the weather forecast Nick requested. Do you want us to break in now and read it?"
"Affirmative, things are pretty quiet right now."
She sounded the radio alert, then spoke: "All units stand-by for the weather discussion and forecast for the Spitcat Fire. Break."
After a pause she began. Nick listened carefully. The main thing he noticed was the call for thunderstorms to develop in the afternoon. The rest of it was the same as the morning forecast had been.
The crew began to work along the edges of the fire, trying to put as many of the hot spots out before a change of weather that might cause the fire to spread. A fire as big as the Spitcat would take days to completely extinguish, so first they would put out everything within about 20 yards of the edge and gradually work farther in. They'd let the fuel substantially inside the fire burn itself out. Mopping up was a big job and an important one; a change in the wind's direction or an increase in its speed before most of the hot spots were out could cause a new outbreak of flames.
Nick noticed some of the people on the other crew relaxing and joking but he kept his people working steadily. He kept looking at the clouds to the southwest. They seemed closer every time he looked up.
They'd been mopping up for more than an hour when Nick took his hard-hat off to wipe his brow. As he did, the hat caught on a branch and slipped out of his hand. It rolled and bounced about 50 yards down the steep hill. Everyone, including Nick, laughed.
Nick went down the hillside and got his hard-hat. As he turned to climb back up, the sky lit up. An instant later the thunder rolled through. They all looked toward the sound.
A huge thundercloud towered over them. It seemed like it was right on top of them. Nick was surprised___he'd been watching carefully, how did it get there so fast?
As Nick looked up, two more bolts of lightning slashed down. Suddenly the wind seemed to gather___it went from almost calm to a steady breeze in a matter of moments. A partially burnt bush flared with flame and threw embers across the line.
Nick got on the radio, "Spitcat I. C., Division Alpha."
"Go ahead, Nick."
"Bart, the wind is picking up and we're starting to get embers across the line here. Better think about getting the airtankers back."
"I was just going to call you Nick. Another fire has broken out down on the Tahoe. They've diverted the tankers to it. We'll have to make do without them."
"Yeah, Nick, the wind's getting stronger here too."
Nick shoved the radio back into its holster.
"Let's keep our heads up," Nick yelled. "If this wind picks up much more we'll be getting spotfires. Heidi, roll up the hose. I want to be able to move quick if we need to."
Heidi jumped onto the back bumper of the Engine, pressed the hose rewind button on the reel and began to retract the hose. The reel made a few revolutions, then, with a loud snap, stopped.
"Nick," she yelled, "the chain broke!"
Nick hurried to the Engine, sure enough the drive chain had broken. He checked the mechanism___the clamp was locked.
"God-damn it Heidi, you forgot to unlock the fucking clamp!"
Nick looked carefully at the break. No way to repair it with the tools they had with them.
"Well, shit. Let's disconnect the hose and just toss it up on top. We can work around it, if we don't pull too much hose out."
"I'm sorry, Nick. I thought I checked it."
"Well you thought wrong. Just hurry up with that hose."
As they spoke, the wind increased. Suddenly a tree on the opposite side of the road flamed and shot sparks everywhere.
"Clay," Nick commanded, "get the Engine over there___maybe we can hold it."
Clay positioned the Engine, Nick used his shovel to throw dirt on the fire. Heidi grabbed the nozzle and sprayed the flames. Quickly they extinguished the blaze, but the wind kept increasing.
"How much water have we got left, Clay?" Nick asked.
"Only about fifty gallons."
That was a problem. Nick considered the dilemma: There were two possibilities and he could only select one.
The first possibility was that the fire would get worse soon, demanding even more water. If so, he should send Clay for more water, losing the Engine for the next 10 minutes or so, but having a full tank when the crunch came.
The other possibility was that the flurry of spots would be short-lived and the next few minutes would prove to be the most critical time. If they could hold it for that short period, the crisis might be over.
Nick looked up at the sky for what seemed to be the millionth time. This storm wasn't going to end any time soon.
"Go fill up, Clay."
He started to add, 'and get back as soon as you can.' but bit his tongue, knowing Clay wouldn't need urging.
Feeling lonely and deserted, Nick watched the Engine drive off.
He removed the walkie-talkie from his belt, "Spitcat I. C., Division Alpha."
"Go ahead," Bartley answered.
"Bart, this thunderstorm's giving us a lot of problems up here. We've gotten several spotfires already. What's the status of the resources we ordered?"
"One Handcrew Strike Team is on scene now, putting in line from the canyon bottom up the west flank. The Structure Fire Engines Strike Team is on scene at the houses on Antietam road. The medium helicopter is making bucket drops in support of the Handcrew. The Strike Team of Wildland Fire Engines is still about an hour out."
"I copy, Bart. Any chance of getting water bucket drops from that chopper up here?"
"I already thought of that, Nick. The flyboys tell me it's too windy under that thunderhead."
"I was afraid you'd say that. The way this wind is acting we ought to think about getting a dozer line between the fire and the houses on the southwest edge of town."
"I copy, Nick. I'll work on it."
"Division Alpha out."
He turned to his co worker, "Well, Heidi, let's...."
A bolt of lightning and a crash of thunder cut his sentence short. The flash and the noise came at the same instant, and immediately afterwards they smelled ozone.
Nick looked at Heidi, her short, brown hair stuck straight out from the sides of her head. They felt the electricity in the air. Her eyes were big, and Nick knew his were too. His ears rang. This isn't the greatest place to be standing, he thought. He looked around, but there wasn't any better place to go.
"Let's get the line around this spot, Heidi."
The wind howled as they finished the line. Through the smoke they saw the firefighters from Engine 2-1 working on other spotfires. Once again they felt as though they had stirred up a hornets' nest, as the sparks and embers ignited the dry brush.
Nick was torn between his desire to put out all the spots he could reach and his responsibility to keep a watch on the overall situation. He was relieved when Clay returned with the Engine. As Clay and Heidi worked, Nick took a few moments to look around.
He walked west to Engine 2-1 and saw that they were on the verge of losing a rapidly growing spotfire. He spoke with Bill.
"This could get bad, Nick."
"It sure could, Bill. With those clouds staying off to the west, this whole thing could shift on us. The wind might blow from the west and start to move the fire east, where we don't have any forces."
As they spoke the wind freshened a bit and the spot began to grow.
Nick spoke into his radio, "Clay, how's it look there?"
"Not bad, we got all the spots knocked down, the wind is shifting towards you a little, so it's blowing the sparks back into the burn over here."
"I copy. Move down here and tie in with Engine 2-1. They could use a little help."
A gust of wind swept through with enough force to blow a firefighter's hard-hat off. The spotfire flared quickly and created several small spotfires of its own.
As Nick and Bill directed the Engines and crews toward the new fires, Bartley radioed, "Division Alpha, Spitcat I.C."
Nick answered, "Go ahead."
"Nick, can you spare one of those Engines? We're about to lose this thing down here."
"Yeah, Bart, we're having problems up here too. I'll send an Engine down there if you want, but I'm worried about these houses up here."
"I copy. We'll manage. I'll notify the Structure Engines to be on their toes. The Wildland Engine Strike Team will be here at 19:30 hours. I'll keep two of them and send the other three to you."
Nick looked at his watch as he signed off, 19:06 hours. If they could hold it for another half-hour they should be all right.
Nick briefed Sanchez, "We're not going to get any help for a half-hour or so. Bart's having some problems down on the bottom too. Let's hope we can hold it."
A few minutes later the wind increased still more___trees and bushes exploded in flame. Nick wasn't concerned for his own or his crew's safety, they were "working from the black," standing inside the already burned area, directing the water against the base of the flames instead of the head. But it was obvious that the two Engines were not going to be able to stop the flame's advance.
"Spitcat I.C., Division Alpha."
"Go ahead, Nick."
"Bart, we're losing it here. I'm going to pull back and start a flanking action, try to coordinate the two Engines, pinch it off before it can get to the houses."
"I copy. I just talked to the Wildland Engine Strike Team Leader on the Command net. They should be here in a couple of minutes. You should have help in less than 10."
"I copy. We need it."
"Also we got Dave Wyman to use his dozer for a cat line behind some of the houses, it was too hot for him to get the whole thing though."
"Copy. Division Alpha out."
The two crews pulled away from the head and reattacked from the flank. And although it was cooler there and they made good progress, the smoke in front of the fire was thick, and it was impossible to see where the fire was going.
Nick knew that somewhere out there in the smoke the Structure Fire Engines were working as hard to save houses as his people were to stop the fire's spread. And since Nick would occasionally switch his radio to scan, listening in on what was happening on other parts of the fire, he knew that those Structure firefighters were in danger of losing a house. So Nick wasn't surprised when they came across the smoldering ruins of a house.
But it discouraged his firefighters, they'd been trying their best and although they knew they were short-handed, as they always were at the start of a quick-moving fire, they felt badly.
"Com'on guys," Nick yelled, "I know you're getting tired, but this is only one house, we could still lose more, let's keep it up. Everyone's doing a great job so far and we don't have much farther to go."
"That's very inspirational, Nick," though Clay was only a short distance from Nick, he spoke loud enough for everyone to hear, "If you'd been the Captain of the TITANIC you'd have told everyone, 'Things aren't so bad, all we have to do is swim over to that iceberg.' I want to be just like you when I grow up." That last part was a running joke with Clay, who was three years older than Nick.
Everyone laughed, Nick just smiled and shook his head. Just then the three Engines from the Strike Team arrived. For the first time the firefighters were able to organize into a full firefighting team, some grabbed handtools and chainsaws and started building a firebreak. Others supported them with a hoselay. As Nick directed the reinforcements to help with the construction of the hoselay, he resisted the urge to leave and make sure his house was OK.
With the extra equipment and firefighters the line construction went fast. Soon they got the fire hooked. Nick looked skyward and saw that the thunderclouds had moved on to the northeast. Soon they would be far enough away to be of no further influence.
The radio told him that a total of five houses had burned so far. Nick had seen three of them but he still had no idea if his was one of the other two.
Nick looked back to the west; the sun was setting. The smoke-filled air gave the sunlight an odd orange tint. Without the energy from the sun's rays, the winds would soon calm. The fire might make a few runs, but the worst was probably over.
Since the fire was no longer spreading rapidly, and he had the equipment and forces to do it, Nick directed Engine 2-1 to connect to a hydrant, and run a long hoselay over to the fire. This gave them a virtually unlimited amount of water. Soon they had the fire almost completely out along the edges.
While Nick was talking to the Captain of one of the Strike Team Engines, he heard Heidi say, "Hey, Jake, what are you up to?"
Nick looked over to see his dog, Jacob, wagging his tail happily as he approached Heidi. As the young woman petted him, the dog continued to look about. Suddenly he spotted Nick. With a happy leap, the dalmatian bounded over.
Nick knelt down and gave the dog a hug.
"So, boy, how's everything at home? Did you protect Jessie and our house?"
Since the fire was almost out in this area, and Jake wasn't far from their house, Nick decided to let him stay. If the fire blew up again the dog would be as safe there with Nick as he'd be at the house. And if he became a nuisance, the word "Home" would send him back there instantly.
By this time the wind had died completely, the fire was still burning in a few stumps and clusters of logs, but it wasn't spreading. They continued to spray water on the hot spots and break up the clumps of fuel, quickly cooling things down.
One of the Strike Team Engines drove up to Heidi and Clay as they were hooking Engine 3-1's winch to a huge log they intended to move out of the hot coals it was lying in.
The Captain got out of her Engine, from across the road, Nick heard her ask, "Where's Johnson?"
Nick walked over, "Right here."
The new captain looked vaguely familiar.
As they shook hands she said, "Hi, Nick, I heard you were the Division Supe. How've you been."
Nick couldn't remember where he knew her from, "Oh, I've been fine, how about yourself?"
She paused for a moment, "You don't remember me, do you?"
"I'm sorry, you look familiar, but I can't place you."
"You were an instructor at the Engine Academy a few years ago when I went."
"That's right. I remember now, it's Linda isn't it?"
"Close. It's Lisa, Lisa Strobino." They shook hands.
"Where you working now?" he asked.
"I'm working at Corral Creek on the Eldorado, I've been there since last fall," she said. "The fire looks like it's dying down pretty good now, what do you think about taking a lunch break soon?"
Nick looked around, then said, "Yeah, it's getting there, but let's hold off a little longer," he looked at his watch, "Let's try 21:30 hours."
"OK, that sounds good."
As they spoke, her crew got out of the Engine and joined them.
She turned to her crew, "This is my assistant, Greg Meade and this is Judith Halliday. She just moved here this spring from Utah."
They'd obviously been working hard, their faces were very dirty. Nick nodded toward the dark-haired young man, but his attention was focused on Judith, a tall, broad-shouldered woman in her mid-twenties with vivid grey eyes and a lopsided grin that was instantly endearing. Despite the dirt and soot on her face it was obvious she was pretty.
"I guess you don't get much of this kind of activity over in Utah," Nick said.
"No, not very often," she smiled. "This is the wildest thing I've ever seen. I was a little nervous a couple of times but Lisa kept everything under control."
"Yeah, she knows her stuff," Nick said, "Well, we'll talk later, let's get back to work."
Nick walked over to his Engine. He was helping Heidi with a hollow stump when Bartley called, "Division Alpha, Spitcat I. C."
"Go ahead, Bart."
"Just got the word, Nick, your house is all right. The Structure Engines stopped it at Wyman's dozer line, about 50 yards from your house. I guess it pays to have a dozer operator for a neighbor."
"Yeah, Bart, it sure does."
Nick turned to Heidi, a big smile on his face.
"That's great, Nick," she said.
"You know, I don't think I realized how worried I was till this moment."
"No wonder, you've had a lot on your mind," she said.
They worked in relative silence for about an hour, then Nick said, "You and Clay eat dinner, Heidi, it'll be dark soon. Take about a half-hour. Then you go down this way and tell them, I'll go the other. After you let those people know, you and Clay patrol the line for spots while the others eat."
Jake followed Nick along the fireline as he patrolled his section of the fire. Nick stopped and talked to the now relaxing firefighters, renewing old acquaintances and making new ones. As the man and his dog walked along they got closer to their home. They passed another burnt house, the Jordan's; it was only six houses down from Nick's. He wanted to go see his house, but knew it wouldn't be long now before he could so he decided to be patient. He walked back to his Engine. Clay was turning over some coals along the fireline.
"Heidi went down the line to tell them to take chow," Clay said. "I left a ration out for you. It's on the seat."
"Thanks, but I think I have enough in my lunch, I won't have to eat that dried out thing."
"You're lucky. My mouth feels like I just ate a cotton ball."
Nick laughed, "OK. I'm going to walk down the other way. See you in a bit."
Nick took his lunch from the Engine and walked along the line, spreading the word. Shortly past Jordan's burnt house they came to the last Fire Engine.
"Everything looks pretty good," Nick said to Captain Strobino. "You guys can go ahead and eat now."
Strobino turned to her crew, "Let's eat guys," reaching down to pet Jake's head she asked, "Is this your dog?"
"Yeah, he's my buddy."
Judith Halliday came around the Engine, leaning back against it, she said, "Do you always take him on fires?"
Nick laughed, "Oh, no. I just live a little ways away, over there," he gestured vaguely. "Jake just heard my voice and came over an hour or so ago. With the fire burning towards my house, I figured he was as safe here as at home, so I let him stay."
Strobino said, "You live near here?"
"Yeah, we're only about 100 yards from my house."
"Is your house OK?"
"Yeah, they saved it. I haven't been over to it yet. I think I'll walk over there after we eat."
Judith said, "It must have been hard to stay out here working on the fire when you knew your house might be burning down."
"Yeah it was, but I knew we had good people over there, doing the best they could. I'd have just been in the way."
As Nick had answered, the dark-haired young man came and sat down. Nick was surprised to realize that he'd already forgotten his name.
Nick walked a short distance away to a drainage ditch with a bank next to it, he thought it would make a comfortable place to stretch out. He put his lunch on a rock nearby and sat down, adjusted himself slightly and found, to his satisfaction, he'd been right, it was comfortable. He opened his lunch, grateful that he'd packed a few extra items that morning. Jake circled a few times and, with a sigh, lie down at Nick's feet.
As Nick took a bite out of his apple, he wondered why he didn't feel like going right to his house. He guessed he just didn't want the others to know how anxious he really had been. As he pondered this, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Judith walked up to him and smiled.
"You look so relaxed over here, I thought I'd come try it out."
"Yeah, I thought it would be comfortable and it is."
He scooted over a short distance, "Make yourself at home."
She sat down next to him and took off her hard-hat. Her hair fell down around her shoulders. It was an unnaturally pale blonde, almost white. As they ate Nick looked closely at her head, but there was no evidence that it was dyed. They sat in silence for a few minutes then she said, "That's a beautiful dog. What's his name?"
"Jake, well Jacob really I guess. I call him both."
"You better watch out for him, I heard they killed a snake out here."
"Oh, he knows to stay away from snakes, and 'they' didn't kill a snake, I did," he paused for a few seconds. "I still feel kind of bad about it too."
"Well, normally if I saw a snake I wouldn't bother it___they've got a right to live too, but I knew a lot of people would be working around there and I didn't want to risk someone getting bit."
"I hate snakes, I'm glad you killed it. My grandmother killed a snake out here once. She was a lookout somewhere around here, she was from California. I don't know where it was. It was a long time ago, in the 40s or 50s." She gave a quick shake of her head so that he suddenly became conscious of her hair.
"Really?" Nick asked, "That's interesting, is that why you got into firefighting?"
"No, not really. It was just the best job available at the time. How long have you been a firefighter, Nick?"
"This is my 10th fire season."
"Really. You don't look old enough to have been doing anything for 10 years."
"Yeah, well I started right out of high school. I was barely 18. And I kept doing it every summer. Well except for one, while I was in college."
"What did you do that summer?"
"I played baseball."
"Yeah, I was a decent college shortstop and I got drafted after my senior year. I signed and played that summer, but after a few weeks it was obvious that I wasn't good enough. I stuck it out till near the end of the season. Then I got offered a full time firefighting job."
"Then what did you do?"
"Well I was only hitting .230 and my fielding was shaky. So I gave it a lot of thought. And I talked to the manager."
".230 isn't good?"
"Not even in the majors, so it sure isn't much in the Pioneer League. I didn't think I was going to go any higher, and when I talked to the manager, he was honest with me and told me the same thing, so I quit and took this job."
"Still, it's pretty good that you made it that far."
"Yeah, it was. I guess I'm really pretty proud of it, but it's unusual for me to say anything about it. I don't know why I told you. But what about you? How long you been doing this?"
"Just one season before this, I worked in timber management for three other summers. I always went on fires, though. I like it, but sometimes it's a pain."
"Yeah, I know what...."
Nick jerked suddenly when something touched his arm. He turned his head to see Jessie, his cat, rubbing against his shoulder.
"Well hello there. Didn't like being at home all by yourself, huh?" He picked up the little tiger striped cat, and rubbed her head.
"That's quite a menagerie you've got, Nick. Do they follow you everywhere?"
"No, not really, but if I'm not at home at the usual time they seem to look for me. The Fire Station is about the same distance on the other side of my house as we are now. When we come back to the station late, both of them will show up. I think they hear my voice. So I guess I should say they listen for me.
"Well, Judith, I don't mean to be rude, but I'm going to take these two home and see if everything is OK."
He stood up and spoke to Clay, "I'm going home for a few minutes, I'll be right back. You guys take a few more minutes. Everything looks good."
"OK, Nick. See you then."
When Nick stood, Judith did too, "Can I walk over with you?" she asked.
Nick was surprised, "Sure, if you want. Check with your boss."
"Lisa," she yelled, "is it all right if I walk over to Nick's house with him?"
"It's fine with me if Nick doesn't mind, but don't be gone long."
"I won't," she turned to Nick, "You can call me Jude, everyone does."
"Have you always worked on Engines?"
"No, I've done some other things. Why?" he asked as they walked.
"Just wondering. I'm wondering if I should stay on the Engine or try something else."
"Didn't you just start on the Engine?"
"Yeah, and I like it; it's just hard for me to make a decision sometimes. What else have you done?"
"Well, I worked on a Hot Shot crew for two years. Then I smokejumped for a year."
"Really! You were a smokejumper?"
"Why'd you stop?"
"Oh.... I had a girlfriend at the time, and it was getting kind of serious, and I didn't like being away from her."
"Oh, but you're not going out with her anymore?" she asked.
"Oh, no. It's been over for years." He laughed, "In fact, it ended about the time I should have been leaving to go back to smokejumping."
She smiled. "That's the way it goes sometimes. Are you going with anyone now?"
"Sort of, but no, not really. I mean it's not serious."
She changed the subject, "This was a bad fire, wasn't it? Especially for this early in the year?"
"Yeah, pretty bad."
"Makes you wonder what the fall will be like."
"Yeah, but remember one thing," Nick said. "It's not just how much rain you get, it's when you get it."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, no matter how wet the winter is, California summers are always long and dry enough for fires, so the numbers and sizes of the fires are more related to when the summer showers come than how much rain we get over the winter. A little storm during the summer, just a few tenths of an inch, can knock the fire danger down for two or three weeks. If you get a few of them spread out during the fire season, we might not have any major fires."
"That's right, isn't it? I'd never thought of it that way before."
They walked quietly for most of the way. Several times Jude started to talk, then stopped. Finally she spoke, "Lisa was right."
"Right about what?"
"She said you had the most beautiful blue eyes."
Nick felt his face flush but said nothing.
"When she first heard your name on the radio she told us about your eyes. I think she was pretty disappointed that you didn't remember her at first."
Nick didn't know what to say, so he jogged ahead to his house. Opening the gate he said, "Well, here we are. This is my place."
Though he'd been told his house was OK, it was good to see it with his own eyes. Nick was pleased that nothing appeared damaged. They'd stopped the fire a good 50 yards away. Still, it was too close for comfort. Nick was glad he'd never let the brush build up.
Nick and Jude went into the house, Jake and Jessie following. Jessie jumped onto the counter, Nick saw that her dish was empty and filled it. While Jude waited in the living room, Nick checked the house to make sure no embers had gotten in an open window and were smoldering. But all the windows were closed. That surprised him. He was sure he'd left a couple open. He usually did. Everything in the house looked fine. When he returned to the living room Jude was sitting in a chair.
"I hope you don't mind that I sat down, I'm not too dirty and this chair looks like it's easy to clean."
"Don't worry about it, I sit in it when I get home and take off my boots, and sometimes I'm filthy."
As he spoke Nick noticed her hand and had a funny feeling in his stomach. She was wearing a ring on her left ring finger, some kind of red stone. She moved her hand slightly and suddenly he saw that it wasn't a ring at all, but a small scrape or blister of some sort.
"What did you do to your hand, Jude?"
"Oh this," she rubbed her finger. "I was trying to tighten a bolt and the wrench slipped. It's nothing."
Nick looked in the refrigerator, "Would you like a soda?"
"Yes, please, that sounds good."
"I don't have enough of them for everyone so we'll have to finish before we go back." He looked at his watch, "We have to hurry though. Our half-hour's almost up."
After they finished the drinks, Nick locked Jessie inside then told Jake to stay. While they were walking back to the fire line Nick said, "Now remember, Jude, not a word to anyone about the sodas."
She smiled and winked, "Don't worry, the secret is safe with me." She put her hand to her mouth and made a key-turning motion, then she tossed the imaginary key away. Nick laughed.
As they walked back to the fire, Jude noticed the street sign on the corner by Nick's house. "What's with all the Civil War names here? You live on Antietam, your cross street is Appomattox, the fire's near Gettysburg. Is everything in this town named after a battle?"
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"It's interesting that you noticed, that's all. Most people don't make the connection. The town used to be called Kingsley, but some of the townspeople fought in the Civil War and when they returned they changed the names of the town and all the streets. And the town has kept up the tradition since then."
"Well, I majored in history, so it's not that surprising."
Just then they got back to the Engines. Jude said, "Well it was nice talking to you, Nick. We should get together sometime. Call me or stop by if you're ever down by Corral Creek."
"Yeah, it was nice talking to you, too. And you stop by here, too, if you ever get up this way again."
Mopping up the fire was a time-consuming process, but not a difficult one, especially with all the water they had available. Returning to work the crews concentrated on making sure everything along the edges was completely out. It would take days to put the entire fire completely out.
When the sun went down and it began to get dark, Heidi had started coughing. Nick considered sending her home but she said she wasn't feeling bad, so Nick decided not to worry about her. She kept working.
"Division Alpha, Spitcat I.C."
"Go ahead, Bart."
"Things are starting to look good all around the fire's edge, I'm thinking about releasing some of the off-district resources. I'll keep the Handcrew Strike team and a couple of Engines out overnight. I'd like you to try to be off the clock by 24:00 hours, and come back on tomorrow morning at 07:30."
"Yeah, Bart, I don't have any problems with that. We'll shoot for being back in by midnight. Which Engines do you want to have stay?"
"I'm going to keep the Echo Lake Engine working down on the bottom and let's keep Corral Creek up there."
"OK, I'll let them know."
Nick went to the other Engines and told them what was happening. When he talked to Captain Strobino at the Corral Creek Engine, Jude made a special point of saying goodbye.
After the other Engines had left, Nick and his crew checked the area for any equipment or tools that might have been left out. Nick decided to leave the hose. They'd be using it again in the morning.
Quickly they piled the used and dirty equipment loosely on top of the Engine and started the short drive to the Station. They'd been driving only a few moments when Heidi said, "So Nick, are you going to call her?"
Nick understood but decided to play dumb, "What are you talking about?"
"Oh, Nick," she sighed. "You know exactly what I mean! It was obvious that Judith was really taken with you. Don't you think so, Clay?"
"Now wait a minute, don't drag me into this."
"Clay, you're so wishy washy. Come on, Nick, you know she was."
"Yeah, maybe, I don't know."
"Well I think she was. And I think you should call her. I like her."
"Maybe I will one of these days, but I'm going to do something with Kelly on my days off this week."
"Aaaaggghhh. I get tired of hearing about her. She doesn't care about you, Nick."
As soon as she spoke, Heidi knew she'd said too much.
"I'm sorry Nick, that's not what I mean. Kelly's a nice lady and I like her, but I just think you.... Oh, I don't know what I mean."
All of them were quiet for a few moments, then Nick spoke, "Heidi, I appreciate your concern, and I think I know what you're trying to say. It's pretty obvious to everyone, including me, that I like Kelly more than she likes me, but.... Well, I always have a good time when I'm with her. I just wish I could spend more time with her."
"But Nick," Heidi said, "you're a really nice, good-looking guy and you could have almost any girl you wanted, but you cut yourself off by waiting for...." She paused. "You know."
"Thanks, Heidi. I understand what you're trying to say and I appreciate it."
Heidi started to respond, but had a coughing fit that lasted several long moments. When she calmed down, Nick asked, "Are you OK?"
"Yeah, I don't feel that bad, just can't seem to breathe right sometimes. I think I might be coming down with something."
"Do you think you got too much smoke?"
"No. It doesn't feel like that at all, and I wasn't really in the smoke much anyhow. It feels like the flu, my joints are a little achy too."
They arrived at the Fire Station, and though they were very tired, they followed the old cavalry saying, "The Horse, the Saddle, then the Man."
First they washed the retardant off the Engine, then filled the Engine's gas and water tanks and checked its oil level. Nick got the creeper and examined everything under the chassis, then checked the tire pressure and gave the vehicle a quick visual inspection. Clay and Heidi replaced every used piece of equipment on the Engine with extras from the fire-cache. Only then could they take care of themselves.
Clay and Heidi both lived in Truckee, almost a half-hour drive south, so they would stay the night at the Firehouse, but Nick, by virtue of his rank and the closeness of his house, could go home. He phoned the dispatch office and told them what he was doing. As he was walking home he remembered killing the rattlesnake. Funny, he thought, I still feel bad about it. Poor guy, just trying to get out of the way. He walked up the steps into his house, showered and fell into bed.