SANDERS COUNTY - Thursday I sat in the back of a Ford Super Duty DNRC Engine as two state employees patrolled for fires and checked on extinguished sites. I witnessed first hand what it means to be on call for fire patrol, where your area of the country burns nearly everywhere, but not in your sector.
Promptly at 8:00 a.m. in the morning I arrived at the DNRC office to be assigned to my patrol for the day.
Would I be hiking to an old lightning strike, or driving on top of hills to look over valleys?
I was assigned to Engine 1894, with Tony Larson and Coltyn Bache. The task of the day was to inspect an extinguished fire that had occurred on and then patrol along the Thompson River and West up to just outside of Libby.
I was outfitted with my own pair of wildfire firefighter pants, shirt and helmet. A quick briefing and plan for the day was discussed in the DNRC meeting room and we were off.
I quickly experienced the monotony of firefighter life when nothing in your sector is ablaze. We drove on back roads, passing cattle and looked at homes tucked away at the foot of hills and mountains.
At one point we loaded up the 500 gallon tank that sits on the back of the flatbed at a creek and made our way to a 1.9 acre fire sight that started August 12 and was quickly controlled and put out.
We parked the truck nearby, suited up in our “yellows” and made our way to the fire zone. Larson and Bache brought along their Pulaskis to dig around and scrape logs to inspects for possible smoke spots that could re-erupt. They demonstrated to me how to dig at root systems, check ashy white spots for heat and how to scrape a charred log to possibly find embers. Our site for the day was dead, clear of any smoke or hot spots.
I looked at the time, when we returned from the fire zone. It was barely lunch time and we would be out for the rest of the day.
To best describe what I was about to encounter for the next seven hours can only be described as a cross country car trip, however, everything that car trip would entail would be discovered and seen along the dirt roads of Sanders County. Discussions of girls, who would win in a fight, past hunting trips, pop culture, favorite music, job descriptions, you name it, were discussed.
Larson and Bache would look at each other and then me and say, “Hey Ben, want to see a bubbling pond?” or “Want to see this weird house? and then we would drive along a road and look at it for 15 minutes, use the bathroom and drive onward to the next spot, watching for fires and or smoke. With the smoke so heavy in the air, the source is difficult to spot from afar, which requires patrols to be sent out.
We stopped at a small lake that was drying up, looked at it for awhile, and the surrounding mountains...nothing. We stopped on top of ridges, but with the smoke we were only able to see a bit off into the distance. I witnessed the wrath of what the Chippy Creek Fire had done, how the fire wiped out whole hillsides. All the while, the same old discussions persisted. Sometimes one person would poke at another’s patience to just create a bit of fun during the hours of driving the dusty roads.
“How do you do this every day during the whole season?” I would ask them. Mostly I would just receive laughs and looks of tiredness. I could tell that they wanted to be fighting a fire or helping somewhere as parts of the county burned.
After viewing the decimation of the past fire, we slowly drove home, along miles of dry forest and brush, looking intently for smoke. We had been on the roads and hillsides for hours now, and the sun was going to set in a matter of time. Smoke hung heavy in the air and the sides of the mountains were only dark shapes around us. All we could do was talk, and Larson and Bache would poke fun at each other to keep from going stir-crazy.
I was on the engine only one day on a fire patrol, and I started to feel the effects after one day of the countless driving and the monotony of looking into the haze for smoke. I have to ask myself, is it commitment to the job and the knowledge that when things do erupt they are the ones to go after a fire, or is it that there is no better office to work in than the roads and mountains, that makes Larson and Bache drive day in and day out? And with any job that requires periods of sitting and waiting, and then the sudden adrenaline filled sprint to complete the task at hand, how is it done?