Lime Hill Fire: A day in the life of a rookie

Lime Hill Fire

Lime Hill Fire

No man, even when the gods favor him, can control the wind…” ~Firestorm at Peshtigo

It was day 14 of a our second stint of 14 days in southeast Oregon; in other words, it was day 30. Engines from all over the country were there to help the local fire district catch fires and put them down as quickly as possible to protect sage grouse habitat. We did our engine swap with the new crew there to take our place and mentally prepared for a day of sitting in the yard waiting to go home. Briefing was done shortly after 11 am and everyone scattered to their engines, offices, or training. Just after noon a fire call came in. We didn’t think we would get called out because we were slated to go home and because we were last out, but about 30 minutes after everyone else rolled out, we got dispatched as well.

When we got to the staging area and looked at the smoke in the distance, we heard reports that the fire was 300 to 500 acres. By the time we headed up into the mountains to await direction, we heard 4,500 acres. While we sat on the top of the hill above the fire and waited, we watched the erratic winds shift from direction to direction, pushing the fire around like leaves on an autumn day. Not long after arriving we were told to start burning out to consume the fuel between a road and the fire to cut the fire off. But as the day wore on and with the help of the wind, the fire, like a mythological three headed beast, seemed to grow three new heads when one was cut off.

As dusk fell, those up on the north end were flanked by the fire and we watched as the fire thwarted our best efforts and closed in around us. We found safety in the black and waited for the fire to do what fire does: burn out. The fire raced toward a small town, toward a freeway that had to be closed as a result, and toward private property. Once we were able to get out, we met up with others to protect property and worked into the dark hours of the morning before being discharged to go home. Last report was that the fire was 12,000 acres.

Arrival at the fire. When we were told to head up and await orders I looked around in disbelief at the sea of grass and sagebrush all around us and wondered where we would go for safety if the need arose.

Arrival at the fire. When we were told to head up and await orders, I looked around in disbelief at the sea of grass and sagebrush all around us and wondered where we would go for safety if the need arose. The confidence of those more experienced than I made me confident they knew what they were doing. They did.

Rural fire district. They headed up to work the north end of the fire.

There were a lot of rural volunteer firefighters. They headed up to work the north end of the fire.

Staging and waiting for orders. Air operations happening below us.

Staging and waiting for orders. Air operations happening below us.

Watching the fire zig-zag across the land toward us.

Watching the fire zig-zag with the wind across the land toward us.

Gusty winds pick up. Grass and sage are flashy fuels that burn hot and fast.

Gusty winds pick up. Grass and sage flash into flame, burn hot, and run fast.

We are told to anchor into the black and burn out.

We are told to anchor into the black and burn out to cut off the fire, which at the time was heading in a southeasterly direction.

Dropping fire that licks and nips at your own feet reminds me a Tom and Jerry episode where Tom runs from something attached to his own tail. It takes a concerted effort not to run from the drip torch.

Dropping fire that licks and nips at your own feet reminded me of a Tom & Jerry episode where Tom runs from something attached to his own tail. It was my first time using a drip torch and it took a concerted effort not to run from the fire as I walked.

Our engine follows behind with water.

Our engine follows behind with water.

Trying to cut the fire off from the town lying just beyond.

Trying to cut the fire off from the town lying just beyond us, we meet up with another engine crew coming from the opposite direction.

The fire starts blowing up to the north of us while we wait for the go ahead to continue burning out.

The wind shifts and the fire starts blowing up to the north of us while we wait for the go ahead to continue burning out.

Fire flanks those up on the north end and with the help of the wind starts running south.

Fire flanks those up on the north end and with the help of the wind, starts running south around them.

The rural volunteer firefighters are flanked by the fire and get the hell out of dodge and we all move into the black.

The rural volunteer firefighters and heavy equipment operators working the north end of the fire are flanked and get the hell out of dodge. We all move into the black.

Staying in the safe zone.

Staying in the safe zone.

Watching the fire moving in from the east.

Watching the fire circle around from the east and west.

Fire closes in to the south and jumps the road.

Fire runs and circles around to the south and jumps the road that would be our way out.

Moving fast.

The fire is moving fast coming toward us.

The fire is moving south and cresting the ridge toward us.

The fire cresting the ridge to the west of us.

From atop of the engine we can see the fire closing in around us.

From atop of the engine we can see the fire closing in around us.

There is a lot of sage on that side of the road, so lots of fuel for the fire.

There is a lot of sage on the west side of the road providing plenty of fuel for the fire.

15-20 foot flame lengths on the fire as it crests the hill above us.

There appear to be 10-15 foot flame lengths on the fire as it crests the hill above us.

The wind was whipping and it was cold, but the warmth of the fire could be felt from a distance.

The horizon explodes with light. The wind was whipping and it was cold, but the heat of the fire could be felt from a distance.

The conflagration grows.

The conflagration grows with the wind and abundant fuel.

Night closes in as the fire continues to move.

Night closes in as the fire continues to move.

As the fuels are consumed the fire starts to die down and we are left with acres of burning embers, but no fuel means we can get out.

As the fuels are consumed and the fire starts to die down we are left with a mountain of burning embers but finally the ability to get out and help others keep the fire from spreading to private property. We got sent home at 3 am and later returned to our home district on the Arizona Strip. Due to storms, fires continued to burn across southeastern Oregon for weeks after we left.

High Country News article on Sage Grouse: The Endangered Species Act’s Biggest Experiment, http://http://www.hcn.org/issues/47.14/biggest-experiment-endangered-species-act-sage-grouse

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Posted on August 11, 2015, in Nature and the Environment and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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