Residents in Pine Creek Canyon were tucked snugly in bed as a wildfire burned out of control to the northeast of them March 1. The quiet of my home was broken with a late night phone call. It was about 9 p.m.
"There is a fire, you coming?" the voice of a volunteer asked me. I flipped on the scanner. I heard Pine-Strawberry Fire Chief Paul Coe working with other firefighters to locate the fire, and then determine how to get to it.
I jumped into my fire gear with nervous anticipation and drove to the Mormon Church in Pine, the staging area. Once I arrived, my pace quickened. I hopped aboard a fire engine heading to the fire. Chief Coe had located the fire and what he thought was the best route to it. He was waiting for a crew to gather in the Orchard Camp of Camp Lo-mia, the girls' camp at the end of Pine Creek Road, tucked deep in the canyon.
Straight up the hill
Nine firefighters and I gathered to check our gear and prepare for battle. P-S Firefighters Harris Scott and Robert Lashua, the two most familiar with the area, led the way to the fire. It was straight-up hiking with no trail. I began to wonder if this was where a reporter should be.
Through radio contact, we were made aware that firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service were headed our way. Scott and Lashua were the first to reach the half-acre blaze and did so five full minutes before the rest of us.
When I got close, the orange glow was almost romantic, luring us closer. Orders were given and a safety stationed. I headed east with Lashua's crew of four. They dug at the ground with tools called McClouds and Pulaskis. A McCloud resembles a hoe and a Pulaski resembles a pick-ax. The job was to cut a fire line about 3 feet wide, with the goal of cutting off the fire from its fuel. There would be no water tender here - our only hope was to starve the fire.
The wind gusted and the fire spoke to me. It roared, threatening to blind me, to choke me. Blast after blast brought the fire to us. It looked like a massive attack of fireflies as burning embers were sent hundreds of feet ahead of the fire.
We were at the head of the fire and it was growing rapidly. The intense blaze was devouring scrub oak and manzanita in just seconds. Whistling and popping noises added to the frenzy of the atmosphere as the brush surrendered to the fire, flames growing to 25 feet high.
Still, the firefighters kept at the lines, scuffing at the dirt, pushing brush into the flames. Just inches from the bright orange inferno their silhouettes were bent in determined effort.
Forest Service relief
Our team gave way to the Forest Service crew. Bea Day was wielding a chainsaw, clearing the fire line much faster than we could with hand tools. A team of nine Forest Service firefighters had joined us, and our line held.
The fire was under control by 12:10 a.m. and had grown to only one acre. Now it was the what-ifs that plagued the firefighters. What if this had been 9 a.m. today? What if it was June or July? What could have been done differently?
But first we had to get down from this ridge - another mile-long hike straight down in fire boots that do not do justice as hiking boots. We each carried packs and tools and everyone grew ominously quiet. To our relief, a volunteer had organized a rehab back at the Pine station for tired, weary and smelly firefighters.
We trickled into the station for hot soup, chili and Gatorade, donated by local restaurants and served by volunteers. It was a time for jokes, storytelling and relaxing.
The talk turned to the fire. There were a few communication glitches, a few bugs to smooth out and bills to be sent to the state. Forest Service Fire Management Officer Dan Eckstein profusely thanked our crew and the sentiments were returned.
It was a team effort and when the big one hits, these crews will have the advantage. It was trial by fire.