Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Wildfire That Chased the Park Ranger Part III Conclusion

See the posts below for parts I and II

I did not see where I could move right or left on the slope to get away and the steep rocky grade did not provide a good location to deploy my aluminum foil like fire shelter.  I quickly decided on my only choice and started to stumble as fast as I could upslope directly in the path of the fire.  I remember thinking to myself, “How stupid of me to get myself caught in such a situation.”  As the flames literally licked at my heels I started to doubt that I would make it off this mountain alive.  My life did not flash before me; there was no time for that.  I was pumping as hard as my legs and lungs would let me toward the crest of the ridge, hardly the best tactical place to be with a fire rushing up slope behind me.

I was one hundred feet or so from the crest of Tory Ridge when abruptly the wind changed and hit me in the face pushing the fire behind me back down slope and back toward the black initially burned area.  I fell to the ground my lungs aching and my heart still pounding trying to recover my composure and giving thanks for that wind change.  I had scrambled over one hundred yards up hill.  The atmosphere was still not settled on what it wanted to do and again the wind direction switched coming from my left and pushing the fire toward the original direction I had seen it moving.  I guess it was finished playing with me for now.

I half walked half crawled the rest of the way to the top of the mountain and came out on the Tory Ridge Trail.  On the opposite side of the trail was an even steeper mountain side dropping into an area known as Big Levels.  My knowledge of the area kicked in and I recalled that Big Levels was a tinder box of wildfire fuels after several years of gypsy moth defoliation and pockets of standing dead white pines killed by beetles.  If the fire made into this drainage there may be no stopping it before it left the National Forest Lands and threatened homes and farms at the foot of the mountain.

I started down the trail working my way back around the base of the fire when I came upon a single firefighter coming toward me.  It was one of the Division Supervisors from Incident Command Team and he was alone and like myself without any tools having given his away that evening for sharpening and repair.  We agreed that we needed to keep the fire from making its way over the ridge top and crossing the trail.  He and I then spent more than two hours scraping the existing trail bed clear using tree limbs for rakes.  In places where the fire crept up to the trail edge we used our heavy leather boots to kick the embers back.  Luckily for us the winds kept constant and did not make another run toward us.  It took several hours for a fire crew to finally make its way to our location and relieve us.

Our efforts were successful in keeping the fire from jumping the trail and igniting Big Levels.  I was so exhausted by the time I made it back off the mountain that I sat in the driver’s seat of my Blazer and slept fitfully until the sun came up.  When I awoke in the early down light I found the limb I had used to clear leaves off the trail sitting in the passenger seat next to me.  I kept that piece of forest for years and used it several times as a walking stick and a reminder of that night I almost did not make it home.

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