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.


  1. Oh, my....moments of levity and hours of alert. Couldn't function without you ABRO folks, but sounds like you receive some of the stress of others, too. It's hard on everyone....when will it end? Twisp, Chelan, Troy....all those people's lives.

  2. Thanks so much for everything that you and your comrades are doing Mary.
    Our friends in East Eagle just left there land and cabin and went back to there home in Baker today. All they can do now is pray that it will be spared and that they will have something to hand down to there children, grand children and great grand children like it has been handed down to them.

  3. I've been watching the news and am saddened by all the terrible fires burning in the PNW. I appreciate all of you firefighting staff, those in the woods, and those coordinating resources. I'm hoping for cooler weather and rain.

  4. Almost no words, Mary. Thank you for your work, for coping with such stress, for writing to let us civilians learn more about this. Thinking of you and husband and sister.

  5. Thinking of you two, and all the others helping to get these fires under control.

  6. you have been on my mind...thanks for all you are doing...


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