“Eighty-Two to Ancestral Hometown Fire Alarm, advise responding units I can confirm smoke showing on Near Horizon Mountain. It looks like it’s somewhere on the northeast shoulder.”
“Received Eighty-Two. Fire Alarm to all AHFD units, Rescue 82 confirms smoke showing at that location.”
My sister lowered her binoculars. Even without their aid, the column of smoke on the other side of the valley was visible from her deck. This would be interesting, as the fire appeared to be located in an inaccessible area on the side of the mountain, and the AHFD crews had just returned from a mill fire in neighboring Little Bigtown.
As Eighty-Two began to gather her EMS gear, Deputy Dad and I made it clear we weren’t going to be left behind. Even though we were two states away from our district, we would find some useful support function. If I was reduced to handing out bottled water in the rehab sector, I could still do something valuable.
The trek across the valley, around Near Horizon Mountain, and then as far up the dirt road as possible seemed to take forever. AHFD units confirmed there was a wildfire on the mountain and had begun calling for additional assistance. With the ongoing mill fire, backup would be coming from far afield.
We set up our rehab sector in a field, and I kicked myself for forgetting my camera. Rural fire departments keep some strange vehicles around specifically for operating in the woods. Today’s odd mix of companies meant there were apparatus present I’d never seen before and might never see again.
At the tree line sat one of my favorite local engines, a 1970′s Chevrolet truck with an old oil tank and plywood compartments, all painted in Chevy Engine Orange. At one time this amazing piece of Yankee ingenuity had been the pride and joy of its company, attending all the local parades. (It always left me wondering what the apparatus left behind looked like.) The Chevy was being supplied by a constant stream of tankers. Most were ex-military 6×6 trucks, although a couple old oil trucks and one modern Mack joined the mix. One of the AHFD engines sat alone at the side of the road, its crew already deep in the woods. A single hose line snaked from the orange Chevy, over a stone wall, and up what was most likely a snowmobile trail.
Soon came the radio call everyone dreads: “’Firefighter down!” The hot summer day, the mill fire, and the hike up a mountain had converged in disaster. The on-duty Rescue crew commandeered an ATV to carry their gear and started off up the trail. Eighty-two, Deputy Dad, and I set off after them on foot.
The single hose line, our only clue to our destination, wound up the rough trail. In winter this would be a major snowmobile route, but right now it was an eight-foot wide rocky path. We soon caught and passed the ATV. Though nearing retirement, Deputy Dad led the party up the trail with a purpose. None of us will ever hike the Appalachian Trail, but many summer hikes in the White Mountains left us in better shape than the pursuing EMTs.
Much to our surprise, over 1000 feet up the trail, we rounded a corner and found another fire engine. An intrepid 6×6 driver had forced his steed as far into the woods as possible, finally stopping where the trail narrowed and crossed another stone wall. My beloved Chevy far below was in fact merely shifting water uphill to the front lines, not directly supplying the battle.
The three of us plunged onward, not yet finding the fire or the injured firefighter. Radio messages placed him above and ahead of us. Eventually we came within earshot of the working crews, but still could not see them. We had veered off course, placing the firefighter (and the fire) below us and to our left. Thankfully by this time the fire was under control. I’ve never been uphill from a wildfire, and I have no desire to start now.
We descended to the fire line, to find a firefighter suffering from heat exhaustion. Eighty-Two began ALS care, while I assisted with BLS and Deputy Dad fulfilled the all-important role of IV pole. Soon the rest of the crew arrived, and we began the long carry back down the mountain into the dusk.
Mandatory retirement caught up with Deputy Dad this July. The department honored him with a retirement party last weekend. As he puts it, he’s going ‘happily but not willingly’ after 48 years in the fire service.
Dad actually started chasing fires on his bicycle at age 16, in a time when an eager teenager was welcome and appreciated on the rural fireground. I’m willing to spot him those two unofficial years and call it an even half century.
“Funny thing about firemen: day and night, they’re always firemen.” – Ronald the Arsonist, ‘Backdraft’