Monday, August 24, 2015

life under evacuation order

In the middle of the night, I start to get scared.

The wind has been blowing steadily through the trees. What direction is it coming from? I don't know. If it's a north wind, it will blow the fire into the rocks or deeper into the wilderness. If it is south, disaster. 

I get up and start packing my husband's things. What would he want me to save? He calls from the fire he is on. Pictures of his parents, the computer, the skis. Surely he wants more than that? I feel burdened by responsibility. Will the dogs even load up? Where will I put the cat? He and Puffin don't like each other. Could I board him? He purrs happily, glad to have someone there.

I hear engines going up the road. It's midnight, why are they going up there? The fire department has put a pump in the river and stretched a hose to our property but nobody is there, it's the middle of the night. The dogs pace. They can tell something is going on.

I remember on the PCT when Flash's husband got a call to evacuate. A long time resident and seasoned to fire, he walked outside, looked around. "&%* it," he said, and went back to bed. So I got back to bed too. 

I have a new job, sitting by a radio in the Rodeo Grounds. The building is cavernous and flies swarm all over. It's the Rodeo Grounds after all, what do I expect? A couple of lonely Logistics and Plans people sit far from me, filling orders. It's good it's slow. I want it to be slow. Someone brings in mint chip cookies. A few people check in, but most orders are unfilled. We have, quite simply, run out of firefighters.

I raid the office supply kit. Pens! Calculators! White-out! I organize all of my supplies. I never thought I would be a Camp Slug, as we used to call these people who sit at desks, as we headed out to the line. Now I see how condescending and superior we all were. I'm glad I'm not out there breathing all this smoke and digging fireline. It's not because I am old; it's because I've done it, and I don't need to do it anymore.

Even if I had time to hike, I wouldn't want to. The mountains are wreathed in smoke, too dangerous to breathe. We've been cheated out of a summer, but it's hard to complain when people are losing houses and their lives.

I know, I think. I'll plan a winter hiking trip, a reprise of our Grand Canyon RTRTR. Buff and TC are up for it. We will cast a net for a few others. I can't hike now, but by then, in the dark basement of winter, the fires will be out. This makes me happy.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Evacuation level one

I pace with my cell phone outside the abro box.  There's a fire a few miles up canyon from the Hurricane Creek house. Rumors swirl. Someone tells my friend to get our dogs out now. Someone else says it's a ways away. The sheriff issues a level one evacuation notice. I am two hours away, committed to this fire in Baker.

I've learned through this long horrible summer that there are three levels of evacuation. One equals ready. Two is set. Three is go. In other parts of the state, the time between these two levels has been minimal. Our team leader has already evacuated, up in the mess that is northern Washington.

Still. Am I being too cautious? I don't want to leave this fire assignment. It's been good working closely with others rather than typing on a lonely computer. I can make more money in the six days I have remaining, money we desperately need to build our house,

My husband is unreachable, committed to a fire that has blown up to 60,000 acres. I think about our pets, trapped up a dead end canyon. It's very possible this fire will stay in the wilderness. I don't know what to do. Dispatch says, "well, it's still pretty far away, but with the way things are burning this year..."

I decide to go. I get a ride home. Smoke chokes the canyon. The road is closed, open only to residents. It's eerily calm.  The deputy guarding the road says that the firefighters followed a trail of cigarette butts up the trail. Seriously?

At home, I wonder if I've done the right thing, I look at my sleeping kitten. I decide yes, I have.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Drama at the Helibase

We sit watching the Eagle Fire blow up. Another column looks like an atom bomb from a fire that is causing the town of Troy to evacuate. The wilderness I hike in, the Wenaha-Tucannon, is burning up. To the north, three firefighters die, trapped by flames. It is coming down to, I hear, the communities that can be saved and the ones that can't.

Yesterday on one of our fires, a helicopter goes down. We call on the radio and do what we can, but in the end it comes down to luck. "The pilots are out and walking around," someone says. It does not often end this way. It is a tense few hours.

This job is not glamorous, and we are not out battling flames. I've been there, done that. To the uneducated, it looks like we just sit in an air conditioned trailer eating Oreos and talking on the radio. We do that, but we are in reality the people who make some of these missions happen. It's a big responsibility. If we do something wrong, send a helicopter to the wrong coordinates, mess up an assignment, it could end in tragedy. So we watch, our nerves on edge, for fifteen hours.

There is drama here also. The Guard accuses us of doctoring the records. People don't answer their radios and get passed up for missions. A three minute conversation has to become a half hour, with statements like, "we have to circle the wagons" or, "we have to cross pollinate". What does that even mean? We stumble out of our trailer for dashes to the "Blue Room" (porta potty). There is no time for anything else. We have twelve helicopters, and often six radios are going off at once. Do you have the coordinates for that helispot? Do you have pilot maps? Is Air Attack flying? We need you to listen to another frequency! 

A week of this and, just like long distance hiking, this becomes my life. There is nothing else; I have to compartmentalize my husband, my pets, even fitness has to go out the window, though I do what I can. I eat foods I would never eat in real life, because we don't have any way to get to camp for dinner or breakfast. 

"Would you rather go into a biker bar and yell, Harleys suck, or crawl into a tank full of jellyfish?" Mike asks.

"Would you rather run naked down the runway or sing the national anthem at a sold out baseball game?" I counter.

Seventy cows wander onto the runway and are chased off by a cowboy on a horse and some enthusiastic crew members. Someone appears with religious pamphlets and puts them under our car's wipers. 

"Coma time," Mike says, trying to sleep. Of course we can't, not in the Abro Box. You can learn a lot about people if you sit with them for fifteen hours. I am learning a lot about life in Delta, Alaska.

In between work, I order a Nutribullet, because Kim has made me a delicious spinach, banana, and strawberry smoothie with hers. Mike is talking to himself. "Not my problem!" he yells. The hours crawl by. When will I be home? We don't know. Rumors fly like they always do.

"Would you rather spend a year in a men's prison or a year in the Abro Box?" I ask.

Mike has to think about it for a minute.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Thoughts from the Abro Box

"If I come to America again, I need my own printer and computer," Mike says. I laugh. He is from Alaska and that is how we referred to the lower 48 when I lived there. We sit in our trailer waiting to dispatch  helicopters. There are nine of them, with two more rumored to show up. The National Guard threw a fit yesterday because we didn't send them out, but everyone else has been flying. The cost summary we prepared yesterday for total aircraft cost, for one day, is more money than I will make in four years of working. It's hard not to get annoyed by this. I both love and hate firefighting.

Mostly I love firefighting for what it can be; the pure, simple essence of it, a person with a tool, dig a line, put it out. I used to love being on the line, the camaraderie of strangers, the sweet-acrid smell of smoke, the thrill of being somewhere high on a mountain. I hate firefighting for what it can be also: a glut of overhead with burgeoning costs, often unjustified.

It's coming to an end for me, but I still hang on to some of the qualifications I once had. Doing this job, in what is affectionately known as "The Box", is not for everyone. It's either slammed or not busy. "Would you rather," I ask Mike, "change gender every time you sneeze or mistake a baby's head for a muffin?" I do pushups when I make a porta potty run. I go for a run with a headlamp. It's hard to be inactive. "Did you forget your medicine?" Mike asks.

I don't know why I hang on to some of these fire qualifications. I'd really rather be hiking in the limited summer we have. It's like anything else from your past: you remember how it was, not the way it is now. I'm glad I was part of the glory days, when fire was my life, when I felt like I could do anything. 

Kim brings me a quinoa, oatmeal and fruit mixture. An extraordinarily good looking pilot strolls by (don't worry folks, just looking). All the helicopters come back in safely for the night. And I realize that even though this isn't what I want to do all the time, it's easy to get stuck in a comfortable, controlled zone, where you know you can exercise for a certain amount of time, you  know what food you can eat, and so on. Fire is the ultimate loss of control over your life, and it's good to be a little uncomfortable sometimes. 

It's Day 2 in the Box. I have: water, internet, snacks, and plenty of time. I'm making up a novel in my head. I'm going to surpass my pushup level today and maybe throw in a few planks. I'll be back in the mountains soon.

I think up Two Truths and A Lie for Mike. He looks worried and scuttles off to Briefing. It's good to be part of a team again. I have missed this.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A temporary blog pause

Hi all, I am on a fire assignment near Baker City. I will continue with the last five days of the PCT hike when I return! Or post random blog posts about this assignment if I have time. There's lots of evacuations, please keep these people in your thoughts.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Northern Sierra, Day 5: Never Quit the Trail on a Bad Day

Day 5--Showers Lake to Paradise Valley Creek, 22 mi

Never quit on a bad day. It's one of the PCT mantras. And even though I was sleepless again at Showers Lake, I got up with a sense of optimism.  Instead of eating breakfast at the dark and windswept lake, we decided to hike an hour down to an old cabin in a meadow instead. I like doing this--packing up and stopping later to eat. The early miles are so easy and effortless, so it helps to put some in at dawn.

The Meiss cabin slumbered by a creek, a perfect location for settlers. I wondered what their lives had been like here. How could their days have been any less than perfect?

A northbounder had told us that the trail was all downhill to Carson Pass. Of course it wasn't, but the trail was kind today, and we walked through huge, flower-strewn meadows before reaching a cute little Forest Service information center staffed by volunteers. Even though we weren't thru hikers, they assured us that 300 miles counted, and gave us enormous apples. Side note: I am an apple believer! I don't particularly care for them off trail, but three times now I have had them on trail and they impart a massive burst of energy. Go apples!

Reluctantly we pried ourselves away from the chairs and the happy volunteers. I was armed with a new fish bandanna and the trail rollercoasted quite pleasantly through open ridgelines and down to a small bowl with trickling creeks. As we were having lunch there, a thru hiker came by. "What's your trail name?" I asked.

"Macho Man!" he said, and burst into song, "Macho, macho man, I wanna be a macho man!" We laughed and a song was stuck in my head for the rest of the day (except those were the only lyrics I remembered).

The trail wound above some reservoirs where we could see people out in boats, and crossed a road. A couple of northbounders paused briefly. "Lily Pad Lake? Oh that's right around the corner!" Of course, the lake wasn't, but by the time we got there, it was time to put another strategy into practice: that of "cook dinner and move on a few miles."

We became aware of this strategy in 2013, when some section hikers were doing this at Creepy Forest Camp. We hadn't wanted to camp at Creepy Forest Camp, but we were too tired after a long, log-clambering descent into its depths. Revitalized by dinner, the couple left and went another few miles to an achingly perfect lake to camp, unlike us, who slept surrounded by creepy forest and noisy inhabitants. Making dinner and moving on has more perks as well, since it keeps food smells from camp and that is one less chore to accomplish when arriving at the final destination.

Invigorated by the swim and Pad Thai, I marched along another few miles to the next water source, a bubbly creek in the middle of a forest. Several hikers were already set up there, but we managed to find a spot by the creek.

I settled in feeling content, even though the zipper on my tent was threatening to break. We were in the Mokelumne Wilderness, about a hundred miles into our journey, nearly halfway. There were lakes on the map for tomorrow. We would also be approaching the fabled Sonora Pass, at 10,500 feet. The struggle bus hadn't stopped for me today. In the distance, we could see peaks that could only be in Yosemite. Bring it, PCT, I thought, as I once again failed to drift off to sleep.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Hiking thte Pacific Crest Trail, Northern Sierra, Day 4: All Aboard the Struggle Bus

Day 4, Lake Aloha to Showers Lake, 16.44 miles (plus one backtracking mile and one "misplaced" mile)

We woke to a blustery day. Lake Aloha was whipped into whitecaps and a bitter breeze worried the trees. It didn't matter: it was resupply day! We were down to our last granola bars, so we packed quickly and headed for the Echo Lake Resort, passing tents and sleeping occupants. How can people sleep so late in the woods? It's a mystery.

Though we only had seven miles to resupply, it quickly became the most demoralizing walk of all time. The culprit? Rolling rocks on a steep descent, slowing our progress to one mile an hour. Then there was an endless lake to circumnavigate. We arrived at the bustling Echo Lake Resort at 9, when another obstacle appeared.

Despite what the store owner had told Flash in the spring, we absolutely could not get our packages until 11. Also, we could not loiter at the store and were banished to a picnic table. Looking around at the mass of humanity, I couldn't really blame the employees, who wore weary looks of resignation as they were bombarded with questions and requests. We settled in for a long wait, accompanied by a couple of thru-hikers and some section hikers.

At the stroke of 11, we grabbed our packages and either tossed, traded or accepted the contents. My heart sank at the massive pile of jellybeans. What had I been thinking? Luckily, there were thru-hikers who were happy to take our cast-offs. It's always hard to anticipate what you are going to want to eat several weeks down the road. (Most people overestimate their hunger and pack too much)

Finally we were off. Hiking through a parched forest, I thought fearfully of the upcoming Highway 50 crossing. Allegedly, it was dangerous, hikers having to sprint madly between RVs and cars at high speed. Once again, it proved to be a PCT myth and we crossed safely, only to be stymied by the non-signage for southbound hikers. Half a mile up the trail, we realized we were no longer on the PCT and had to backtrack.

I wouldn't want to be the person who cut this one out.
On one of my other section hikes, my companions studied the elevation profile with intent, and I always knew what was coming up. I actually prefer not to know; let the trail surprise me. The afternoon was definitely a surprise. It was a long steep climb, punctuated by high stone steps manufactured by tall people. My momentum from the day before failed me, and I crawled unhappily skyward.

Smoky view from the switchbacks
"It's only a mile to the lake!" some happy northbounders chirped. It was obviously more than a mile. My feet throbbed. I felt a tiredness beyond which I have not often reached.

More smoke.
Why was I doing this? I could be at home with my kitten and my husband, swimming happily in the lake, hiking short distances, eating food that didn't just require boiling water added to a bag. For the first time ever on the PCT (except the mosquito hell of White Pass), I considered quitting  the whole endeavor. What point was it to finish the whole PCT? To get the finisher medal? To say I did it? Nobody really cared but me. Wasn't a thousand miles enough?

The lake is way over by those cliffs. Does that look like a mile to you?
Then tragedy struck. I realized with horror that I had lost my bandanna! This was truly drastic, as a bandanna is an indispensable item. It replces a heacy camp towel. It can be used to mop up water in your tent if you set it up in the rain. It is for sweat and nose blowing. You can use it to clean up your dirty legs and feet. I hesitated. To go back to the last spot where we stopped was at least half a mile back. But I had to check. Shedding my pack, I ran back, all the while thinking about the expenditure of energy this was causing. And it wasn't there. Sullenly I retraced my steps.

It didn't help that Showers Lake was a windhole. A pretty lake nonetheless, it was whipped by  a savage gale that made swimming impossible. A section hiker came to sit with us, telling us she had started in Yosemite two weeks ago. Two weeks? We had to be done in a week. It was really difficult, she confided. Some days she only went ten miles.

Not comforted by this, I wrapped up in my quilt for another sleepless night. The relentless push for miles was wearing me down. Was this really what I wanted to be doing? Across the lake, the wind howled. I could only hope for a better day tomorrow.

to be continued...