Now for the story of the actual firnado encounter. As I mentioned, we’d spent the summer digging line around clearcuts with the intent of doing controlled burns in August. The time had come, and we were preparing for our first burn of the season.
In a controlled burn your crew is taken to the top of the clearcut and spread out along a logging road with propane torches, kind of like flame throwers, big tanks strapped to your backs. Researching control burn images, I see that these days they use something called drip torches, little cans of flammable material (kerosene?) with long necked spouts. They really don’t know how to have fun anymore. Anyway the crew, about 20 strong, spreads out across the top of the cut and starts moving down the slope, lighting the slash piles as they go. Since file burns uphill, everyone tries to move together and stay on the downhill side of the burn. If you’ve every had a pyromaniacal urge, this is the job for you.
On this particular burn, we started out by driving out to the cut at noon on Thursday. When we got there the bosses used some instruments to check the moisture content in the duff, the organic floor of the former forest. They announced that it wasn’t dry enough, we wouldn’t get a clean burn. So we returned to camp and occupied ourselves with busywork for the afternoon. The next day we went out again in the morning with the same results. Back to camp where we sat around polishing equipment until noon and then went out again. This time the results satisfied the bosses, plenty dry, should get a nice clean burn. Or maybe a firestorm.
Before I get to the fun part, let me describe the gulch that we burned up. My memory tells me it was named Sullivan Gulch, it was on the north side of Prichard Creek, east of Prichard, Idaho. Over the centuries the creek that runs through it has cut a steep canyon into the mountainside. The road runs along the creek on the left side as you’re facing upstream. That side was still wooded at the time the creek was lined with cedars. The clear cut came almost all the way to the creek on the other side and was about a quarter of a mile wide. In the middle of the cut there was a depression, a dry creek bed running down from the ridge at the top of the gulch. Upstream and toward the top of the ridge there was a stand of trees intended to reseed the cut after we burned it.
So we lined up on the logging road at the top and they signaled us to move out. I fired up my torch and hit the first slash pile, it was so dry that it started to blaze immediately. I could see all around me that the fire was going pretty strong within minutes. Because I was concentrating on torching all slash that was in my path and trying to make sure I kept my footing on the rough, steep terrain, I didn’t realize how strong it was going until I got to the bottom. It had exploded into a firestorm.
The fire was consuming so much oxygen it was sucking it down from the far slope of the gulch. Huge cedars on the banks of the stream where being blown like leaves of grass. The depression running perpendicular to the stream in the middle of the cut was acting like a funnel for all of that wind and sucking the fire into it and then shooting it up in an incredible cone of fire up to the top of the ridge. When it hit the top of the ridge, the wind was blowing the opposite direction, toward the other slope, and was picking up sparks and burning debris and blowing them back towards us. There were three or four firenados dancing around the open area. One of the firestarters, a pudgy guy from the surveyor crew who didn’t have the benefit of Smokey’s Fireline Fitness Program had fallen behind and was awkwardly dodging a flaming vortex, it blew his hard hat off and almost knocked him down, but he got out of there in time.
The whole crew was scattered along the creek bed by then and I hooked up with some other guys and we started to climb up to the road on the other side. Now the Forest Service Safety Manual will tell you to never walk on a fallen tree in the woods. Most guys working in the woods wore what were called “corks.” Corks were regular woodsman’s boots, but they had spikes embedded in the soles for better traction. The USFS required steel toed boots but not corks. We were headed uphill in a single file line with me pulling up the rear when we came to a large fallen tree running straight up the hillside. Everyone jumped up on it and used it as a path that was clear of the brushy tangle on the ground. I was the last to step on it. Everyone else was wearing corks, I wasn’t. Ass over teakettle I went and onto the ground, much to the amusement of my buddies. Fortunately I wasn’t hurt, but then again, I was 23.
As we hiked out, there were already fires burning on the far slope, started by the sparks blown over the creek. When we got to the road there were already planes dropping fire retardant on the big fire. It had already taken out the “re-seeding” trees and had jumped the creek upstream from us and was coming back around toward us. It hadn’t topped out, but was burning on the ground and moving fast. Things were pretty chaotic. Our crew boss found four of us, the others had been scattered, and told us to start digging line in front of the oncoming fire. I was on the point with a shovel digging as fast as I could and throwing the dirt on the fire that was only a few yards away to try to slow it down. There was no way that four of us were going to be able to dig line fast enough to keep up. I yelled at the crew boss to pull us out of there and we fell back. Later they brought in Harry Voltolini (more about Harry later) and his Cat to scrape a line. My buddy Bill was working with Harry, but that’s another story.
We finally ended up going back down the slope opposite from the burn to work on a small fire that had started on that side. It was probably not even an acre, long and narrow stretching up a hillside. We worked until dark, and by the end I could barely lift my arms. Probably the most exhausted I’ve ever been. As we were preparing to hike out, the crew boss came up to me and asked if I was tired. I told him how exhausted I was and he asked if I’d learned that when you’re so exhausted you don’t think you can go on, you can always dig down a little deeper and keep going. Exhaustion is mental long before it becomes physical.
We worked six straight days mopping up the fire. combing the hillside for “smokes” and “hot spots” in the thick ash that covered it. We ran hoses up from pumps in the stream and had elongated nozzles that we could stick into the ash to cool down the hot spots. I have never gotten as dirty as I did climbing through that mountain of ash.