Wednesday, August 9, 2017

playing with helicopters: a firefighting story

"When were you born?" I ask Justin. We sit and watch helicopters lift off from the cracked tarmac of the Prospect airport. In the distance a pyrocumulus cloud, courtesy of the Spruce fire, billows. The fire was 150 acres when I arrived a couple of days ago. Now it is pushing 5000 acres.

That is a fire in the distance.
"1996," Justin says. I roll my eyes. How is that even possible? I eye the lunch the caterers have given us at fire camp. The vegetarian lunch, usually a safe refuge from mystery meat contained in the regular ones, contains a hunk of lettuce. No bread, no cheese, just a hunk of lettuce.

On the radios we are listening to, voices rise in crescendo. A firefighter we have nicknamed "Old Yeller" screams to the helicopter. "You're one rotor width away from the drop!" We laugh, knowing he means rotor length, seeing as helicopter rotors are pretty narrow. On another radio, the Australian pilot is getting fed up, unable to reach his ground contact.

"Dude. You've got to talk to me," he finally snaps. On our air to ground channel, the Air Attack--the guy supervising the helicopter activity in an airplane--calls us. I answer. Obviously forgetting what he wanted, Air Attack says, "Hey. How's it going?"

We laugh. It's been a busy day at the helibase. I am here for a week, helping with helicopter dispatch. We do a little bit of everything--send them to missions, answer the panicked calls from the line wanting air support, help Air Attack sort out what to do, even talk to locals who drive up wanting to know what is going on. At the end of the day we add up the costs for air support. They inevitably come out to more than two years of my salary--for just one day. Fortunes are spent on helicopters. I wonder if the public realizes this.

We keep track of where helicopters are by writing on the windows.

We sleep in our cars in a long row. Kyle and I are the only people who drag ourselves out to run each morning, armed with headlamps. He shows me a trail that drops down to some waterfalls. I find that running every day, something I don't do at home, is indeed possible if I keep it to short distances. Where we are camped is too far to go for showers or even food. We make do. It is the Blanket Fire diet--no breakfast or dinner, just snack all day on the provided lunches. The pigs living at the house nearby are the lucky recipients of our cast-offs.

At the end of the week, I sign my papers promising the demob lady I will stop at the weed wash, and head home. Part of me wants to stay. Leave while it's still fun, I tell myself.

We sat and watched lightning strike this ridge and seconds later this big column of smoke appeared!
As I leave fire camp I realize that more and more of the people there are Justin's age, and most of my friends from back in my firefighting days are long retired. You can't really go back to the past, as much as you might want to. Those golden days won't ever come back again. But at least I lived them. That's something.