In 1987, after my stint at the fire guard station in Central, Alaska I was sent to the BLM Alaska Fire Service in Fairbanks. As I drove the 160 miles back to Fairbanks, the air reeked of burnt timber with an eerie orange haze. You can tell when a large fire is near, the sun turns into a red fireball as if it emerged from a lava flow and your eyeballs dry out from the smoky air. Any Alaskan can tell you that’s how it is in a dry, lightning-infused summer.
Eielson Air Force Base is 26 miles southeast of Fairbanks next to the Tanana River, between Moose Creek and Salcha. Since this fire was close to Fairbanks, it was an easy shuttle of equipment and resources on the Steese Highway to the base staging area. A Chinook that reminded me of a Beluga whale with two rotors transported us from the air force base up to our fire base camp.
I was on a direct attack hand-line firefighting crew of twelve, four women and eight men. A woman named Janet from the U.S. Forest Service in California was assigned as our crew boss. She had arrived in Alaska the night before. Some on our crew muttered they hoped she knew what she was doing. At the time I thought they were harsh remarks. Looking back, they were spot on.
Early next morning after our briefing, we left base camp on a ridge a few miles from the head of the fire. The Chinook wasn’t available so we set out to hike five miles to our work site, on the southwest flank of the fire. We walked single-file with our fire packs, fire shelters and Pulaskis, with Janet in the lead. A couple guys carried chainsaws and we took turns carrying the oil, gas, and saw sharpener.
“Hey Martin, got the mole-skin? Remember we ran out of it on the last fire,” I said as my boots trampled tangled roots and sidestepped wind fallen trees. Janet frequently stopped to study her map, and then resumed her stride.
“No worries, Simenson, I have plenty.” Everyone’s feet were sure to be sore later in the week. Blisters formed on blisters, and moleskin was my best defense from further foot torture. Janet kept stopping to study her map.
“Good,” I quipped. Martin was always prepared. He was the most woods-savvy out of all of us, except for Kevin and Rego. I felt comfortable and reassured having them on our crew.
It seemed we’d been walking a long time. “When are we getting there?” I grumbled to Chris in front of me.
“Hope it’s soon,” she grumbled back. Janet persisted in stopping to look around. Watching her, I felt uneased. I shook it off.
We gradually encountered smoky conditions. It became worse, so bad my head ached. I was short of breath. Several began coughing and our eyes burned.
“Janet, where are we? Shouldn’t we be at our fire position by now?” Martin walked toward her at the front of the line, reaching for the topo map to study it. My head was exploding. I was thirsty and guzzled half my canteen. I noticed others did too.
Behind us a plane’s engine whine grew increasingly louder, then zoomed over us heading in the same direction we were walking. It was a spotter plane for the air tanker that drops retardant on the hottest, most aggressive part of a fire. “What is the spotter plane doing here?” we puzzled.
Martin’s ensuing scream answered our question. “Hit the dirt, retardant drop!” An enormous deep rumble of an engine filled our ears and vibrated our chests. We couldn’t see it, too smoky.
“Down, down, everyone down!” yelled Janet. She hit the ground face down, crumpled to a ball, and clasped her hands tightly behind her neck. The words barely escaped her mouth as the massive metal gates squeaked open to release the thousands-of-pounds of pink-salmon colored liquid. It slapped us on the back with the force of an ocean wave. The wind whizzed out of my lungs, as my back stung from the slap of the thick liquid. A thought flashed: I’ve been slimed by animal guts. (That was rumored to be in retardant back then—Google didn’t exist).
The plane passed and we looked up. Everything was orange-pink, like sockeye meat, including us. It felt like that Shirley McClain movie, What a Way to Go, where her husband Pinky had everything dyed pink, even the dog.
“What the fuck was that?” Rego yelled. “We must be near the head, we gotta get outta here.” We all looked at Janet. She didn’t know where the hell we were, she had led us down into the bottom of a ravine, right into the danger zone. I felt heat. I heard fire roaring. I was scared.
“There’s no oxygen, it’s hard to breathe, we need to get out,” Martin said as he strode up to Janet and snatched the map out of her hand. Martin and Rego huddled over the map to figure the fastest way out. They pointed up at the nearest mountain slope, obscured by heavy smoke.
“We climb straight up the mountain. It’s risky since fire moves fastest uphill. We don’t have a choice, we’ve got to get out of this ravine and fast.” Martin and Rego headed to the base of the steep slope and began climbing. We all ran after them, except Janet.
“Hold up, we must go to our assigned fire line position,” Janet yelled after us as we clambered uphill. No time to stop or look back.
“The hell we are,” Martin yelled back. “We’re going back to base camp. These people are oxygen-deprived. You led us to the heart of the fire and endangered our lives. C’mon guys, get a move on.” His words hung in the smoke-heavy air.
“I’ll report all of you for insubordination,” Janet hollered after us.
I turned and looked downslope at Janet, standing in the ravine, hands on hips. My head pounded as I heard the heavy rumble of the retardant plane again. I clambered on hands and knees after Martin and Rego, scratching my hands on brush and scraping them on rock. The others climbed alongside and behind me doing the same. I get why they step-test us now. I get it.
“Hurry up, retardant ship’s coming back!” I warned, trying hard not to sound freaked.
We clung to the side of the mountain, heads down. This time when the plane’s load let loose, it missed us. We only felt residual spray. More animal guts. We steadily climbed, much of the time with all fours, grabbing onto bushes, rocks, whatever we could to hoist ourselves up. I don’t know how many feet in elevation we climbed; I just knew we were distancing ourselves from the head of the fire. I could hear it roaring, like a monster, smoke billowing around us. I had no idea how close the fire was. Up, up, up, we climbed. I can’t go on, this is too hard. It’s too far. We had no idea where the top was with all the smoke. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I don’t want to die like this. A shout from Martin; the ridgetop!
We crawled to the ridge, looking down at the ravine we had just left. Rego cussed. No one else spoke. Monster flames were eating every spruce where we had been. I became sick with realization and vomited. I wasn’t the only one.
As we limped into base camp that evening with our nomex shirts the color of spawned-out salmon, everyone gaped, especially the FMO (fire management officer). When he spotted Janet, he waggled his finger and growled at her to follow him. We staggered to our crew camp, too tired to make food. Instead we tore open MRE’s (meals ready-to-eat) and crawled in our tents.
“Let me guess who’s getting de-mobed outta here,” Rego smirked, munching a matchstick. No one’s yellow, nomex shirt should ever be pink; it meant you were somewhere you shouldn’t have been, in harm’s way, a safety breach. That ‘somewhere’ could cost you your life.
The next morning we had an experienced Alaskan crew boss assigned to us and a Chinook helicopter transported us to the fire line. As we took our positions on the line, we saw the DC-10 retardant plane flying in the distance. “Thank God for that guy,” Rego said. We agreed. That pilot had saved our lives. I wonder if he saw us in the path of the fire as he approached that day. He must have seen thirteen yellow dots, wondering what in heck we were doing down there.
We worked the next few days until it was time to de-mobe (demobilize) from the fire. As we sat in the hot sun next to the tarmac waiting for our ride back to Fairbanks, the air tanker landed and taxied over to a nearby building. The pilot climbed out and strode across the tarmac. The twelve of us exploded with clapping, shouts and whistles as he approached, clipboard in hand. He laughed and nodded in understanding. We were the yellow-shirts he had turned pink.
“Howdy folks, heard the story about your crew boss,” he said, shaking his head at the ground, then a one-eyed squint at each of us. “Damn good thing you high-tailed it out of there when you did. Me and old Jaws bought you some time with the drop.” (The name of his air tanker was Jaws. No wonder).
We each shook his hand and thanked him. His name was Whitney from BIFC in Idaho (Boise Interagency Fire Center). “Just doin’ my job,” he said.
After that, I’d begin the story with… a long time ago on a mountain far, far away, Whitney and Jaws saved my life…
The 10,960-acre Eielson Fire was finally contained July 9 with a fire staff of 700. I was one of the 700. It was a job…well…done.
At the end of fire season the stats were released. The total cost of this fire was $3.6 million. All of us made it out alive—so what was the cost of that?
I don’t care and I don’t think about it. I’m here to write about it and for that… I’m grateful.
© Lois Paige Simenson and The Alaska Philosophaster, 2015, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to The Alaska Philosophaster with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. LIPS