Firenado

I’ve seen a coufire tornadople of examples of “firenados” posted around the web lately. That brought me back to my youthful days in the Forest Service,  when I had the opportunity to see some firenados up close and personal. I worked for the US Forest Service in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest back in the summer of 1972. I was just out of college and my pal Bill Benson and I had driven out to Wallace, Idaho to look for work. He was a writer and I was an artist and our plan was to find seasonal work that would allow us chunks of time to follow our creative dreams. Or maybe it was to play basketball all the time, which is more like what we did.

cfiles45216Our initial plan was to work on the only remaining incomplete section of I-90 between Boston and Seattle. The valley that Wallace was in was so steep and narrow that it made the construction of an interstate challenging. At that time if you wanted to drive coast to coast on 90, you would have to drive through downtown Wallace and negotiate the only stop light on the route. Wallace had other claims to fame, at that time the population was about 2,00images0 and there were 5 brothels operating quite openly, in fact they had neon signs.  Mining was the main industry and the ratio of single men to single women in the Silver Valley was way out of proportion. Let’s just say that prostitution was tolerated. The summer I spent in Wallace probably generated more stories than the rest of my life combined.

Like most well laid plans, this one did not work out for us. Getting on the road construction crew involved a catch 22, you couldn’t get a job unless you were in the union and you couldn’t join the union unless you had a job, or something like that. After a few false starts, hospitalizations and other disasters we finally ended up working. I fell into a position with Smokey the Bear.

My main job with Smokey was  to dig fire line. That’s not to say I was fighting fires. We just dug line. Three feet wide and down to mineral soil. The USFS practiced what was called slash and burn forestry in the Coer d’Alene. The lumber companies would come in and clear cut an area and then a contractor would go in and cut down all the slash, the waste timber and brush, and pile it up around the clear cut. In the fall Smokey’s boys would burn those areas up to get a nice clean area to start over. Never mind that in this particular area the slopes were too steep and the topsoil too thin for this type of timber management to work, the USFS bigshots got lots of overtime when the “controlled burns” went out of control. So my crew spent the summer digging line around clear-cut areas.

If a careless camper or a lightning strike happened to start a wildfire, we were pulled off that duty to go dig line to contain it. That summer didn’t have much lightning so I only worked a couple of wildfires. In the fall I participated in a two controlled burns, and they ended up being much wilder than any wildfire I worked. It was as if they were planned to go out of control. Imagine that.

One of those turned into the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed, a full blown firestorm, complete with dancing firenados. But I’ve now greatly exceeded the limits of twenty first century concentration, so in part two coming soon I’ll tell that story.

(to be continued)

Related: A small fire in the canyon

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