A white and gray pillar of smoke billowed up from a timbered coulee. It signaled the start of the fire season in north-central Montana. The small, lightning-caused fire was just flaring up, thanks to a little wind and some dead conifers. It was on Bureau of Land Management land, so I knew that it wouldn't be one of the many fires I've fought, as only qualified personnel are allowed to do so. But I told my companion that we'd better call this one in, even if we had to drive 15 miles to the nearest phone.
"I don't know why I brought this dang cell phone," I muttered. "It doesn't even work five miles out of town, so why should it work in the remotest part of the Missouri Breaks?" But, oh, you've always got to try it, and after reaching a high ridge and finally breaking though, I reached 911. I told the dispatcher that it was a small fire, but near heavy timber, and that the wind was picking up. I didn't know for sure if the dispatcher understood my description of the location, but she assured me that authorities would be notified of the general area.
With not much else to do about it, I thought we'd just resume our outing in the badlands. But we decided to hike to the fire to take some pictures. "Havre Daily material," I figured. The fire was about a mile from the nearest road. The open ridge we walked down was sparsely vegetated, mostly cactus. "That fire won't be burning across here, although it would be nice to get rid of this cactus and club moss," I said. Just then an airplane appeared on the scene and began circling above the fire. I calculated that it had been less than an hour since I'd called 911.
After the plane had circled the fire a few times and flown around the immediate area for a few minutes, it headed out. It seemed like only a few moments of silence before a helicopter buzzed right into the picture. It, too, circled the fire a few times, but then hovered at the ridge above the fire, only a short distance from us. "They're gonna set that baby down," I told my friend, and we angled away from the makeshift landing pad.
Immediately after it landed, three firefighters bailed out of the chopper. One of them came over to us, about 80 yards away, to remind us that helicopters and people don't mix and to stay at a safe distance. We really hadn't anticipated a chopper dropping into our laps, and I assured the man that we knew the rules about staying off the fire lines on public land. We just wanted to take some pictures.
We crossed a deep canyon so we could get a good view of the fire, which was burning on a steep north slope. By this time, the crew had rigged up a 500-gallon, collapsible water bucket to the helicopter, hefted some big packs onto their shoulders, grabbed their pulaskis, and proceeded to dig a fire line. And by this time, the chopper had already dumped several loads of water on the flames after scooping from two nearby reservoirs.
I would say that it was about an hour after the helicopter landed when I figured that this fire was going nowhere. At one point, the chopper lowered the bucket to the firefighters so they could straighten it out. A crew member leaned out the side of the chopper, opposite the pilot, watching the bucket every second of the ordeal.
The excitement was over after the chopper had dumped about 30 loads of water. I had never been too enthused about forest fires, since I always had to help fight the previous ones I'd seen. No Superman am I when it comes to such hot, grimy business. But did I do the right thing here, or just how well do we think we know the rules? I thought about what one of those politicians from over in dead-central Montana said at a BLM meeting. He said the public had access to BLM land so that "anyone can get down to that fire and get it out." You'd think that a person in that position should know a little more about public land policy.
So I contacted Marilyn Krause of the BLM. She is in charge of range fire communications and was busy with a couple of large, out-of-control fires in the Missouri Breaks. She said that roads leading to those fires were closed for public safety. She said, "In the case of the press, if a news reporter wanted to be on these fire lines, he or she would have to wear the same protective gear as the firefighters, including a helmet and an emergency tent." I told her that I had called 911 and was impressed by the way the fire I'd seen had been handled. I just wanted to take some pictures for the Havre Daily. She informed me that 95 percent to 97 percent of range fires never get out of control if they are under an acre in size when firefighters arrive.
I saw the immense cloud of smoke swelling from the Knox fire two weeks after I had spotted the one north of there. The Knox fire, located north of Winifred, also started in heavy timber and was fanned by persistent winds. It burned 1,900 acres. As I drove across the Missouri River toward home, I thought, "Even photos taken from a distance would look pretty good."
But dang, I didn't even have any film with me. And as I looked at the pictures of the first fire (they didn't turn out that good) I thought, "Oh, well. Not only am I no Superman, I'm no Clark Kent, either."