Fires continued to rage on Bloody and Beaver Mountains leaving grizzly red streaks like big wounds in the sky.
Lance and his assigned teammate, the twenty-one-year old son of a local rancher, were being dropped off on a logging road mid-way up Bloody Mountain. In the distance, Lance saw the Rusty Springs Valley below, seeming so tender and sweet in its innocence.
The two firefighters dug out backpacks and chain saws from the back of the white DNR truck. With saws and heavy backpacks over their shoulders, they began ploughing up the mountain toward the fires.
Charged with felling low-laying branches along the east side of the mountain, they moved up listening to the heavy clanging noises of a six-man crew moving up the mountain below them who were digging fire containment lines, down a foot wide and deep.
A clear pale, blue sky of late summer, meant no relief would be coming in the form of rain. The whole region of the Pacific Northwest was in a zone of high-pressure. Lance pulled the cord of his saw.
Yards away, Cole Westerman, buzzed his saw across low limbs of trees. He stepped over the downed limbs he left behind as he made his way through tall brush to take down more in his path.
Their saws whined in concert with the harsh sounds of Pulaski tools working below, the ax and pick combination, named for the man who created and put it to use in the Pacific Northwest’s biggest fires during the early nineteen hundreds when forests in five western states were burning.
Fighting their way up steep, rugged terrain, cutting as they went, they saw periodic flashes of yellow from the helmets of the team below who were cutting line down to mineral earth so fire would not burn across. That crew veered off leaving an unsettling period of eerie quiet on the mountain.
Lance’s heart pounded, his adrenaline spiking when fire sparks blew by. Sweat and soot ringed his eyes. He gasped often from breathing in smoke rolling down the mountain.
The soaked red bandana tied around his forehead dripped down his face. His cotton gloves wetted through.
The two paused, buzzing saws in hand, at the sound of a helicopter overhead flying circles over the top of the mountain as it got ready to drop its bucket slung beneath its belly containing the red fire-stopping fluid.
Cole stood, his saw in his hand, beside a huge cedar. He motioned Lance over.
Lance came through the high brush, his saw off carried high upon his shoulder. Cole asked, “What do we do with this big Mother?”
“That must be the tree they’re worried about,” said Lance, putting down his saw and pack to collapse on the ground. He sorted through it for a jug of water. “Let’s take a break and do some thinking,”
Cole maneuvered his gear to sit beside Lance. “Tree won’t be easy, will she?”
“Look at that ol’ girl,” said Lance said with a tone of reverence. “Due to her size and the way she’s sitting, there’s no way anyone can fell her and get away safety. She’d slide down and be on top of them. But, she has to the one they told us to take down. See, it looks as if she’d be right in the way of a helicopter’s flight path. Dangerous, too, the way she’s leaning.”
“I can do it,” said Cole studying the big cedar. He rolled up his sleeves, sweat blooming over his face and stout arms. “My Dad’s the best sawyer in the West. Seen him take down a few like this. This one is close to the fire line, too. If fire runs up it, that’s bad. It will be worse if she catches on fire, then falls while burning and rolls down the mountain spreading fire as she goes.”
“Will you wedge it? It looks like it tilts uphill on this side, forty feet off the ground. On the other side, appears that its roots are attached to a steep ravine.”
Cole shook his head, sat down to paw through his pack for a file to sharpen his saw.
“Looks as if she’s triple-topped, too” said Lance. “A real killer.”
“Hey, use mine,” said Lance and handed over his file. “While you get your saw ready, I’ll limb those lower branches.” He rose, feeling the soreness in his knees, the dull ache in his calves. His arms were stiff, his elbows strained, after constantly using his chain saw. He massaged a knot in his neck. Adding to all those tensions was his stressed ankle broken in the Vietnamese ditch.
The tree clutched narrowly to the mountain side. Lance began sawing. He shouted at Cole, I’ve finished cutting limbs as high as I can reach.” He sat down near Cole. “It feels weak,” he said. “Wants to go any minute. Must be rotting inside. Bark beetles. Could fall any direction. The trunk seemed to move as I limbed.”
Lance thought, “I can’t stop him going up. He’s so sure he can top it and get away from it safely. It’s foolish and dangerous for both of us. I’ll have to be ready to help him if he falls onto the ground or down into the ravine. He seems determined enough that he’d fight me to do it.”
“I’m going up,” said Cole. “I will take down at least two of those tops. Then, she should fall the way we want.”
Lance looked at the young man, who stood about five-foot eight inches in height in a sturdy, compact body, and felt he must trust that Cole possessed enough judgment and field experience to take on such a hazardous task. Anything he said to Cole now, the kid might hear the wrong way which could lead to an argument and worse ending. He’d been in the field and saw what could happen when tensions were high and two men supported differing opinions.
With anxious eyes, Lance watched Cole take a hunk of rope out of his backpack, tie off a length to his orange and white Stihl saw laying on the ground.
Lance studied the big tree, noticing that its many of its big roots were visible as they held to the side of the ravine and thought, ‘It’s really too weak for him to climb!’
Cole cinched down his hard hat. Lance stood aside, moved back to watch as Cole climbed the old cedar, the saw over his shoulder. Then, high at the top within the branches he twisted and made his way up into the upper branches.
Lance, as a sawyer, had tipped snags and rotting trees and knew his crew mate was putting them both in danger. What if one of branches came down with Cole and a whirling chain saw? Did he know enough first aid to save the lad if that happened? What if the kid and the running saw fell into the ravine?
Lance lowered his head, looked down, and whispered, “Into your hands, we enter your trust God.”
When Lance looked up again, Cole had worked himself seventy feet up into the hundred or so foot tree. He was moving fast now, hand over hand, clutching the rough bark, moving branches until he disappeared.
From time to time Lance saw bits of the orange saw through the branches. Then all was quiet. Within the top branches, he heard movement again. Cole must be situating himself against the tree’s trunk, he thought. Lance spied a bit of white through the top branches. Cole must be pulling the saw up. He’s releasing the rope from the saw and getting reading to push it into the biggest top.
Feeble sound of the saw came from above. Heavy branches fell. Then, a loud crack.
Lance backed up. Another huge branch shot down and struck the ground. Then moment of silence until the orange and white, heavy chain saw flew down to the ground into tall brush.
Cole came down, hand over hand as the great tree swayed. A limb grazed his shoulder as he neared ground. He stood, rolling back his shoulders to relieve the jolt of the impact, stumbled over a falling branch, almost falling down himself again.
Lance yelled, pointing down, “Run. Over here! I’ll grab your gear.” Cole ran to Lance standing near a patch of brush gathering up their backpacks and chain saws. Then they headed down the mountain looking for an area that had completely burned up.
The men breathed hard through a hazy blanket of smoke coming toward them. “We’d better move that way,” shouted Lane. “Can’t tell which way the tree will fall. You knew what you were doing. Took a lot of skill. Not only that, you had a lot of luck.”
The fire raged. They made their way through intensifying heat over hot, smoldering ground.
Their eyes burned. Lance brushed his with a sweated glove. Heat soured under their hard hats, puddling in every body part, in every crevice, feeling sticky as syrup.
The fire rolled down upon them. They couldn’t see a thing through the thick smoke, paused when they overhead a heavy tanker coming with a load of retardant. “Mud,” yelled Cole. “When he empties the pink goo, we can head to where the stuff lands.”
“Or, we throw down our gear, don’t stop and continuing running,” shouted Lance. Both men knew to keep within sight of the other. Lance pointed his arm west. “When he releases the ferris oxide, maybe the fire will have passed . . . and we spend the night.”
They continued down. Cole stopped for a minute, looked up at the mountain from where they had come.
Fire climbed the trees like strings of light.
“Do we dare take our chances up here?” asked Cole.
“We’re been lucky so far. We haven’t fallen into one of these big holes we’ve found coming down,” considered Lance. “Staying the night up here might be better than continuing to stumble down this blasted mountain in the dark and falling into one of them.
“Fire’s close. Maybe we can find something that feels a bit on the cool side farther that way, drag any limbs and coals away, spend the night. Tomorrow make our way to base camp.”
“Okay,” said Cole. “I am powerful hungry. If it means we stop for the night, let’s keep going.”