August 1973 was my third season of fighting fire in the mountains, foothills, and grasslands of Northern California. The California Division of Forestry – as it was known in the seventies – hired lots of high school graduates and college students for the summer fire season. It was what I called a “Primo” summer job and paid well enough to cover most of my costs for college. At the same time, however, it was a difficult job. Beyond the normal understanding that fire fighting is dangerous, the physical demands required substantial endurance conditioning. Each summer after the final semester, my job at CDF Fire Station Fawn Lodge would be waiting for me. But, after nine months of studying – and partying – it took a couple of weeks to get my conditioning back, so I could survive the brutal physical demands of fighting fire in triple digit temperature.
Fawn Lodge sits in a natural bowl in the surrounding mountains of eastern trinity county. It is planted right on highway 299 on the road from Eureka and Redding. For a self-proclaimed wild man who liked to party hard, it was the perfect station. Situated far enough from headquarters in Redding, Fawn Lodge – and Trinity County mostly – enjoyed a certain amount of isolation. Life slowed down once the conditioning came back and the CDF routine settled in. Still, each summer had its “white knuckle” moments and the summer of 1973, our trucks saw plenty of action.
June and July of 1973 came and went with relative ease. But, by the final week of July and the first two weeks of August, fire conditions reached extreme levels. And, the second week of August –the week of the Swasey Drive fire – turned into a tiring series of sleepless nights and days of sequential fires.
In the middle of Wednesday night the larger of our two trucks deployed to a reserve position at headquarters in Redding. A rash of grass and brush fires occupied the Redding trucks requiring us to fill the standby slot. The trip down Buckhorn Summit snakes down towards Whiskeytown lake and normally I would have enjoyed the ride. But, after two and a half seasons of driving on mountain roads on the back of a fire truck, the trip to Redding at o’ dark thirty in the morning barely registered. My sleep interrupted, I determined to not miss any and buckling my self in with both seat belts to the thin foam seat pad, I wedged myself between the bulkheads of the truck and slept like a baby.
We never made it to headquarters. Headquarters diverted us to a fire south of Anderson California to help mop up a 500 acre brush fire. The sleep on the back of the truck was the last sleep I would get for the next 3 days.
Time passed quickly with us hopping from fire to fire, stopping only long enough to pump water and fuel into the truck, or to eat. Three days passed with little sleep, and when we did sleep it consisted of quick naps on the back of the truck or on tarp on the burnt out ground. Most of our activities consisted mopping up contained fires or watching for flare ups. Making sure that a fire stayed “Put-Out”. Although the night could be peaceful and allowed for a measure of rest at times, the requirement to remain alert eliminated any actual slumber. Night time on a fire forms a kind of alien landscape smelling of burnt grass. A surreal landscape only punctuated by the creeping movement of our truck patrolling the perimeter looking for smoldering embers.
The morning of the third day the fire incidents slowed down long enough for us to come into headquarters for showers and sleep. It was lunchtime, we all longed for the joy of a hot meal without the smell of smoke. We almost made it when the alarm on the radio sounded within view of the headquarters building, dashing our hopes of rest.
A major wind-driven forest fire ignited to the south of highway 299 west of Redding in foothills covered with heat dried grasses, stands of manzanita, Live Oak, Valley Oak and Digger Pines. With winds pushing 20 to 30 miles per hour the fire escalated from a small grass fire to a major fast-moving forest fire jumping from tree to tree. It burnt southwest into an area dotted with expensive homes, small ranches and an elementary school. The dry conditions of the long Northern California summer had created the perfect conditions for an explosive fire. The growth of the fire quickly escalated its status to that of a potential disaster. Fire fighting resources began moving towards the fire with a measured professional urgency. Trucks from all over the county and inmates from the California Department of Corrections raced to the fire. By the time headquarters diverted us, the complexity and speed of the fire caused the decision makers to overlook the fact that our truck had not been replenished with fuel or water since the day before. To be fair, our own sense of immediacy short circuited any practical common sense understanding that our truck would be useless in its current condition. Thus, our exhausted crew and empty truck – sirens on, adrenaline pumping, sleep forgotten – responded as trained.
Our Captain Bob Schepe – a consummate professional firefighter – recognized the serious nature of the situation in the level of excitement in the voices of the dispatchers, and by the number and speed of resources being allocated. That excitement contagiously raised the level of excitement in the truck. Driving through the heart of a city sirens blasting is a unique experience. The – “This is what I always wanted to do-ness” – that every boy experiences the first time a bright red fire truck screams past, kicked in for me every time we used the lights and sirens. But, Captain Bob’s stress coping mechanism was chain-smoking and Captain Bob was furiously coping. Each nervous drag creating our own smoke trail down highway 299 on the way to the fire.
We arrived on scene and the on scene commander positioned our truck – another asset on the chessboard – in a long line of fire trucks on Lower Springs Road which intersected with Swasey Drive about half a mile ahead. Captain Bob told me to drive. Then, grabbing the backfire torch began backfiring the south side of Lower Springs road, one of the other firefighters following behind with the hose mopping up the fire closest to the road. The dangerously low-level of water in the tank still not evident as we approached the main body of the fire.
It never occurred to me what kind of problem one hundred and ten in the shade, the heat from a raging fire, and chain-smoking could create for the human physiology. But, Captain Bob found they are ingredients capable of stopping a strong man in his tracks. Captain Bob swinging the backfire torch made it about a quarter of a mile to the intersection of Lower Springs Road and Swasey Drive before falling unconscious in the road. It would be determined later he had experienced a heat stroke. Before I had time to react a CDF Helicopter descended and carried Captain Bob away to the hospital. This left me temporarily…and apprehensively…in command of the truck. But, within a few minutes an Engineer from another truck jumped on board and took command.
As we turned onto Swasey Drive the full extent of what we were facing became evident – our truck was first in line. There laid out in front of our truck shimmering in the heat roared the largest fire I had ever seen. For a moment it seemed like I was a spectator watching a disaster movie. The road sloped up a gentle hill for perhaps a mile partially hidden by the swirling smoke permeating the air. The fire – for the moment – contained to the east side of the road had jumped from the brush to the tops of the digger pines and was racing towards the giant steel towers of the power lines flowing downhill from Whiskeytown Dam. Overhead, fire suppression air-tankers positioned themselves to drop their loads, while hundreds of inmates shuffled along the side of the road strung out in a long weary line, carrying brush hooks, pulaski’s, and shovels ready to keep the fire from jumping over Swasey Drive. to the west.
Our improvised leader responding to the orders of the on scene commander on the radio pulled out of line and gunned the truck up the road. Directed to race ahead of the fire to catch spotfires jumping the road, we raced past the inmates to our right and the fire – now well over a hundred feet high – to our left. The fire, moving faster than the inmates could walk, was escaping the boundaries of the road.
Our truck raced past the head of the fire. The wind now driving it forward faster than a man could run. The sight of the fire only a number of yards from our truck raised the adrenaline – and fear – level on our truck to the maximum. So much so that when we pulled up to the spot fires on the right side of the road – spreading quickly in a rapidly growing circle of burning dry grass – my fingers fumbled to get the fire pump started. The engineer took over and directed me to take the hard-line from the hose reel and attack the spot fire. Jumping the barbed wire fence I ran towards the growing grass fire. Hearing the pump light off I opened the nozzle…no water. The urgency of the day had finally caught up with our truck. And, now the consequences of that urgency were upon us.
I looked up from the now useless hose – a desperate question on my face – to see the engineer pointing at the approaching fire on the other side of the road. He was backlit by a fifty foot wall of roaring raging fire! Fear began screaming in my ears sounding like a locomotive racing through a tunnel at full speed. The fire caught up with us faster than we could react. Smoke from the fire shut out the sun creating an eerie noisy and choking twilight in the middle of the day. It pounced on us like a supernatural carnivorous being.
“Get back on the Truck!” Screamed the engineer. “Get back here or we are all going to die!” He was attempting to reel the hose back to the truck.
As we jumped back over the barbed wire fence I realized that my uniform shirt was catching fire from the sparks falling from the superheated air. Grabbing the hand hold to climb into the back compartment I noticed the paint on the truck beginning to bubble. Breathing became painful.
Once on board, the engineer accelerated through the fire and smoke in a desperate dash to life, dragging the hose behinds us the nozzle bouncing on the road adding its own sparks to those falling from the sky.
Within a few minutes we managed to drive to a safe zone, in a temporary fire camp. I sat in the back of the truck watching the activity around me moving in slow motion for what seemed like a long time. An EMT brought us a number of water bottles – I poured one over my head – and checked us out. He told me I was in shock and took me to a tented area to rest.
I was given a week off to rest up after that ordeal and during that week decided that there were safer ways to pay for college and resigned the following day.