I once carried a five gallon gas can attached to a pack frame up a cliff was steep enough to require climbing on all fours and had little patches of open flame all around.
My job in the Forest Service was to dig fire line. That meant using a Polaski, which I guess is a pickaxe by another name. It had a horizontal blade for trenching and a vertical blade for chopping roots. You dig a path 18 inches wide down to mineral soil. In the area where we worked that meant digging through at least eight inches of duff. Duff is the decomposing forest floor that can smolder and burn and carry a fire a hundred yards underground to flare up three days after you think you have the fire out. Most of the time the areas that we were digging line around weren’t burning. Sounds like a government job doesn’t it. What we were doing is preparing areas that had been clear cut for “controlled burns” The loggers came in and took all the trees suitable for lumber and then the government contracted guys to come in and “slash” which means to cut and pile up all the little brush trees that the loggers wouldn’t take and then we came in, dug a line around it and in the late summer came back and set it on fire. That’s right, pyro’s dream job. I put quotes around “controlled burns” because they usually were out of control about 3 minutes after we set them on fire. My big “controlled burn” story will have to wait for another blog though.
We were always on call to fight wild fires when they popped up. Unfortunately (there I said it) there weren’t many wild fires that year. Not enough lightning. You see fire fighters make there money working overtime on fires. It wasn’t a real profitable year, but I got my taste of fighting wild fires.
We were working at a site late one afternoon when our boss, Terry Stranahan, Godzilla himself, or as I called him, Stammerin’ Stranny, got a call on the radio. A construction crew had been building a bridge across the North Fork in an area where the canyon wall came right up to the river. They backed some heavy equipment into a brush pile at the foot of the cliff. It caught fire and burned up through the brushy parts of the cliff. I don’t know if “cliff” is the right term, the landscape consisted of sharp vertical outcropping of rocks that went up maybe eighty or so feet up, with little draws that were moderately pitched enough to grow some hardy brush. There was about five acres of scattered fire that had pretty much burned itself out by the time we got there. But you can’t just leave it, because it will come back and bite you in the ass at noon the next day. I really don’t have much of an opinion on forest management and fire, so if you’re a “let it burn” person, work with me here. Pretend the Forest Service knows what it’s doing. Normally we’d set up some pumps in the river and hose it down until there was no more open flame and then sit on it for a couple of days to make sure it stayed out. But this situation posed a problem. You can only pump water up so far. I’d sound smarter if I knew what that height was, but I’m sure someone will tell me And this fire was well above that level. The boss scouted out the situation. The pumping truck arrived. Here’s what we did.
We had a big collapsible plastic swimming pool with and aluminum frame. It folded out to about 5’ by 8’ by 3’. Two of us teamed up to carry that up to a flat spot at the top of one of the outcroppings. Another guy took the pump. I can’t remember if one guy muscled the pump up or if we teamed up. I know we used two guys to carry the bilge pump out on the tow when I worked the river. Anyway, needless to say there’s some urgency about this so the boss is whipping us pretty hard and my lungs are on fire from the first time up the hill. Stranny looks at me and says, “Well, now we need gas for the pump.” I scramble back down and strap the gas can onto my back and climb back up. I’ll admit to being a little nervous. We now had the pump down by the river filling the reservoir and I sat down on a rock to catch my breath. Stranny spots me and says, “As long as you’re resting go get us a hose pack.” A hose pack is eighty pounds of heavy fire hose coiled into a canvas backpack mounted on a frame. The end of the hose comes out the bottom, so you can hook it up and take of, stringing hose out behind you. This is an activity that will, as an old logger once said, “give you muscles in your shit.” At that time I was 6’1” and about a hundred and forty-five. Can you say rail? My legs were already trembling and I was having a hard time catching my breath. Down the hill put the hose pack on start back up. I’m now so pissed at the boss that I’m going to show him that I’m a real fire-fightin’ sumbitch and I’m am just blasting adrenalin. I hit the top crazed, probably foaming at the mouth. They grab the end of the hose and hook it up to the pump. I can’t remember if Stranny just said, “Now string it out over that hill and down into the draw on the other side.” Or offered to have someone take over for me and I told him to fuck himself, but I hooked up and took off over the rise. I crashed through some bush at the top and came out into a bowl the size of a nearly vertical football field that was mostly burned, with little patches of flames around it. And there, near the top was the a team of women digging line across the head of the fire. The visual I get of this is that they were all wearing denim shorts and work shirts with the sleeves cut off, but that couldn’t be because they were working for Smokey the Bear and would have had to be wearing long sleeves and pants, steel toed boots and orange hardhats. I was almost ready to drop in my tracks when I saw them there, but suddenly I was so inspired and wanted so badly to look macho that I completely revived and ran that hose out like a rutting mountain goat. And probably smelling just as bad.
And that’s how I came to carry a gas can on my back through a fire.
I said “hose bag”