Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nights on the Dim Shift

Fairbanks, Alaska, 2004. The Boundary fire was threatening town. People were evacuated. A big fire camp went up at a NOAA site. When my crew arrived, we were assigned to night shift--only, there is no night in the summer. Instead, there is a murky twighlight for about an hour or so. The sun shines brightly at midnight. Thus we became the "dim shift." Here is a typical day:

7 am. Stumble blearily back into camp. The day shift is in full swing, a loud briefing going on near the mess tent. Force down some cereal. Head back to tent and hope for the best.

7:30. NOAA crew decides to wash its satellite dishes with a power washer. Sounds like a weedwhacker on steroids. Curse, stuff in earplugs, put bandanna around face since it is so bright out.

9 am. Tent way too hot to sleep. Crew boss refuses to let us put our tents in the trees where it might be cooler. Stumble out of tent, locate empty school bus. Too hot in here too. Locate deserted army tent. Hot. Well-rested camp slugs watch in amusement.

10 am. Defy crew boss and put tent in trees. Momentary relief. Soon, too hot. Pressure washing continues.

12 noon. Give up. Eat wonderful bag lunch, avoiding the omnipresent ham sandwiches. This leaves the sugary fabulousness of Skittles and a limp orange. Huddle under yellow tarp, sweating. Crew boss snores away, still in boots and fire clothes. Stench is becoming unbearable, since he refuses to take a shower.

1 pm. Read a book, play Hearts, lie in a pile of sweat under tarp. Head to showers. They are in a trailer. While a bit grimy, it's nice to have them, since we often don't. Put on dirty fire clothes. Crew boss makes fun for taking a shower. Do pushups for something to do.

5 pm. Force down a salad, since dinner is a mass of scary something. Tool up. Get in school bus. Drive. Bus driver gets lost. Drive some more. Arrive at drop point, a mine site near the Chena River. Told to start a wet line. Pull out hose packs and hardwear and start plumbing. Show the people who don't know what a gated wye is. Mosquitoes thick.

7 pm. Told that the plan has changed. Abandon plumbed line. Now told to cut saw line to Chena River. Note that there is a lot of tall grass in the middle of the trail. Wonder about the line holding. Am told that the fire absolutely cannot cross the Chena or it will take off into the black spruce and head into town.

9 pm. Still sawing away. Some guys wear head nets when they stop for a break. Have no idea where the main fire is, but it's not near here. See no other crews.

12 pm. Tied in to the Chena. Crew boss asks for another assignment. Told to grid the green. Seems crazy because the fire hasn't come through here, but we do it anyway. Find moose antlers. Stupid boys on crew decide to chop down live aspen. Ineffectual squad boss tells them to stop. They don't. Sit and sharpen tools.

2 am. Giving up all pretense of work. Sit on the gravel. Dan annoys everyone with his made-up stories. Night drags by. Radio is silent. We got to see the fire a few days ago, when we burnt out a line, but haven't seen it since.

3 am. Told that we have to go dig line around a cabin. Yeah! Something to do. Wake up bus driver. He is surly. Go over to new area. Attempt to have others do a grid search for cabin. Others reluctant. They tear down the hill even though there is fire below us. Think that they would be dead if it blew up. Find it hard to care.

3:30. Find "cabin". It is a pile of logs. Dig line around it anyway. Finally can hear and see the fire. It's crackling along happily. Feel better that we can at least smell smoke.

5 am. Told we "get" to rest on the bus until it's time to go in. Bus is smelly. Crew boss snores. Instead, poke around in mine tailings, hoping for a fortune. One crew member disappears. Search party is rousted, finds him. He is surly.

6 am. Roll into camp. Look around. Wonder what this is all about. Crew boss grumbles about tents in trees. Refuse to move them. Crawl in tent. Put in ear plugs and bandanna. Hope for a good assignment next time.

7 am. Pressure washing begins.

A few days later it poured, so much that all the crews were sent home. Two weeks later, the fire crossed the Chena River.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my gosh. So funny. So exactly what I heard about this fire.

    Also, why do guys think showering isn't for men? Like real men don't practice hygiene. Such a strange pride thing.


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