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|Norm's Notebook: Groundhog Helibase
"The pilot wants to know how much everything weighs before he tries to lift it with his machine. We fudge extra weight at any doubt. Always up. Never down..."
By Norm Maxwell
Posted on Aug 24, 2007
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|"Norm on the Fire-fighting Support Crew, Joseph, Oregon, Summer 07"|
Memaloose Helibase, 22 miles of bad road uphill from Imnaha, east of Joseph, on Oregon's side of Hells Canyon: At nearly 7,000 feet above seal level, the Seven Devils Mountain Range loom even higher across the Snake River in Idaho. It is a hot fire season in early August and Montana is exploding with major ragers. The Incident Command System is looking everywhere for people and equipment to send to these new starts.
Fire is a living organism. It eats, it moves, it rests at night and awakes during the day. Sometimes you would swear it can think and plan. Work it right, and fire can be a docile sheep to be herded between a cut line and the black to meekly starve to death. It can change from a fire sheep to a wounded fire bear in a minute and you'd better be out of the way.
Main fire camp in Joseph is steadily imploding as support personnel leak away to unstaffed fires. Battle Creek Complex has been static at 80,000 thousand acres for a week or better and somebody has made the call to allocate people and equipment eastward. Memalooses Spike Camp is now the main camp and we get a shower unit and kitchen.
Every fire camp is a family reunion. You meet brothers and sisters from past fires and swap lies and bad jokes with new people from all over the States and beyond. You settle in for days or weeks of mystery meat sandwiches and sleeping in the dirt. The helibase is located away from Memaloose Spike so we hopefully won't drop anything on anybody as we transport crews and equipment through the sky to the fire lines.
A Bell 205 arrives from Joseph Airport. A 205 looks similar to the military UH-1s I rode in years ago. You can hear the distinctive whop, whop, whop of the main rotor from miles away. The machine descends in noise and dust like Ezekiel's vision on the River Chebar. Real helicopters differ from TV machines in that you can't carry on a casual conversation in the back seat. The rotor doesn't instantly stop when the thing lands, either.
A helicopter is a collection of moving parts flying in formation. Many of them in the fire-fighting business are decades old. It is best not to think too deeply on this as you ride out to a helispot to load passengers or cargo. A 205 can carry a 20 person crew with all their gear in three loads or four over the mile deep canyons to where they are needed to hold the line. They carry cargo nets of pumps and hoses underneath. Some brave soul gets to hook the hundred foot long line to the swivel on the net while tons of fuel and aluminum hover overhead like a tornado.
The heavy water hauling helicopters squatting on Joseph Airport are appropriated for new fires. We are left with one 205 and a much lighter Bell 206. They clatter in from Joseph with their mechanics and fuelers in the morning, and back at night. The pilots are prohibited by regulation from sleeping in the dirt. We are not. Many fire camp REMFs (Rear Echelon Merry Fellows) find perfectly valid reasons why they need to sleep in motels too, and spend a lot of their time commuting to and from the fire.
The scenery is spectacular from the air. You can see the Snake River where the Nez Pierce fished and wintered. The river is more than a mile down from our location near Hat Point. We share the rugged territory with mountain goats and elk. Chipmunks invade the helibase CP. I name them Chip, Dale, Simon, Alvin and Theodore. They search the soft dust floor for crumbs and peanuts. We leave apples from our lunches out for them. They hang around the ice chests in the morning until I open the drains and clean, cold water flows. I realize there is no moisture for the chips here other than in what they eat. Grace the Grouse wanders through our area. She isn't interested in our crumbs. We have no idea why she hangs around.
A Wenatchee Rappel crew is stationed at Memaloose for Initial Attack. They want to be where the action is, not where it ain't. They occupy themselves lifting weights and doing chin ups hanging from their gear trailer. I watch a movie with a few of them in Ford Theater one night. We sit in their crew cab F 350 and play a DVD in a PC. I am twice their age. I was young once too but nobody would believe that now.
I help weigh and manifest people for loads. I weigh stuff and load cargo nets. The pilot wants to know how much everything weighs before he tries to lift it with his machine. We fudge extra weight at any doubt. Always up. Never down. We send hot dinners in cardboard boxes out to the troops on the line in black cargo nets or internally. This beats the usual MREs. Meals Ready to Eat (three lies in one). The incident commander and the ops chief want to recon the fire every day. I hitch a ride sometimes if there is enough allowable weight in the 206 Jet Ranger. Once in a while we get a call for bucket work and the vinyl Bambi bucket is bellyhooked to the 205 and its pilot pulls 240 gallons a dip out of a pond and drops it on a hot salient.
People "time out" after two weeks and go home. We get a new Wenatchee Rappelling crew. They learn the chipmunks' names and that they prefer red apples over green ones. I write GROUNDHOG HELIBASE with my finger in the dirt on the doors on our vehicles. I coordinate the 3,500 gallon water truck that comes and wets down the dirt pads where the copter land and take off . If the ground is dry with a machine sitting, I have the driver do a big, wet donut around it before takeoff. I put out a big bright orange X with plastic rolls on each end of the runway meaning private aircraft may not land here. I weigh the plastic down with stones.
I extend my two weeks to 21 days. There is no cell coverage at Groundhog so we have to use a satellite phone to get the OK from the home office. At night when the ships fly away to Joseph, I walk two and a half miles uphill to the observation tower and climb it for exercise. It is stone dark when I get back to camp. Dinner is always served after 1900 and I have learned to skip it. Eat it today, wear it tomorrow. Eventually we get hot breakfasts going and I feel better.
The days pass and hand crews are diverted to other fires. We are down to recon now. The rappellers fly out and load up equipment to backhaul. Every day is like the last and the next. We also serve.
And then the rains came. It was my last shift anyway. I demobed that morning. I help tie and retie our CP hootch as the wind tears it down. The rappellers jump out of their rig to help too. Eventually the wind moderates and the rain comes. It is time to leave. I strike my dirty tent and load everything in the back of the dusty Expedition. I shake hands with everybody at this family reunion and drive away down the 22 miles of bad road to Imnaha and home to Lorane.
Copyright © 2007 by Norm Maxwell
Norm Maxwell is the Lorane, Oregon author of a novel in progress, Banjo Lane, a comic tragedy about meth users in Lane County. He is a regular contributor to West By Northwest.org. Norm Maxwell received the 2004 Best of West By Northwest award for his article, The Fire of South Canyon: Remembering Storm King. Tens of thousands of readers have "voted" with their mouse by their selection of this story. Visit Norm Maxwell's other pieces about land use, firefighting and life in the country and more at West By Northwest.org.
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