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Wildfire Stories: Tanker Days

08/26/2013 09:57 am ET | Updated Oct 26, 2013

Tell me a story, you say. An invitation. A way to fill in the blanks. A way to explain not what happened, but what that happening was like.

Mark Verlanic, Carmen Thomason, and I walk the short distance between the Dispatch Office and the Air Tanker headquarters at the Billings, Montana, Interagency Dispatch Center. Men and women gather for the morning aviation briefing, the report of where there may be fire, where the weather caused worry overnight, where the atmosphere is dry and the winds are strong. Nearly everyone holds a cup of coffee.

"Nobody ever talks about engines," he says. "Instead of hot shots and smoke jumpers and air tankers, I wish someone would talk about engines."

Mark's official job is SEAT manager. SEATs are Single Engine Aerial Tankers. Think crop dusters that spray fire retardant. But there are no SEATs on site this morning, so Mark is free to follow his other love -- the fire engine. Wildfire engines are not the red or yellow trucks owned by city fire departments. Wildfire engines are large tankers and a great deal more. Carmen's title is Eastern Zone Fire Mitigation Specialist, but her other job is education and public relations.

"The engine crews bring the water," Mark says. "A lot of the times they don't get credit."

"There's no children's book called Engines One to Ten," Carmen pipes in. "It's always Smoke Jumpers One to Ten."

"Everyone loves hot shot crews and air tankers," Mark says. "People just kind of forget about the engine folks."

I ask why he likes engines.

"It's just the initial attack mode of having an engine on a fire. Spraying as you're moving."

"Is it the Hollywood myth?" I ask. "The phone rings, somebody hits a red button, the sirens go off, everyone slides down a pole?"

"No," he says. "We don't have a pole."

"We don't even have a Dalmatian," Carmen adds.

"And we can't even really use our sirens," he says. "We use the lights if we're on a highway or a roadside. If it's really smoky we'll have the lights turned on for higher visibility."

"So what is the reality?" I ask.

"In truth, everybody gets pretty amped up, trying to figure out where it's at, the ownership, the land status. We work with nearly twenty local volunteer fire departments," Mark says. "Usually they're pretty happy to see us show up because of our experience and the knowledge we bring to the table. And we stick around. We're self-sufficient for at least three days. We have food, water, meals ready to eat for three days."

"Twenty-four hours is the minimum rule," Carmen says. "These guys have taken it upon themselves to be self-sufficient longer."

"You know," Mark says, "we get into places where just logistically we can't be supported. You know, the Pryor Mountains, the Little Snowy Mountains? It's just so far to get any type of support that you pretty much have to be self-sufficient."

"Has that happened?" I ask. "Have you spent three days on site somewhere?"

"Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Up in the Pryor Mountains it's not unusual to be up there three straight days. One of the fires that comes to mind was called Trapper's Canyon. We got up there about eight o'clock at night, so it was just starting to get dark. The fire was near the top of the mountain, so myself and another engine decided to go around and up on top of the mountain. We met our boss up there. There are Forest Service roads that go up on top of the mountains. The Pryors are split by Crooked Creek that runs down and splits the mountain into two parts. The part that this fire was on, at the top of the mountain, had an elevation of about 8,700 feet. It's up there. So we drove around, got up on the top of the mountain, then got up in the morning and hiked down into it. Hiking down into a fire you really cannot see, or can barely can see because of the smoke, is not a good situation."

"So we had to f hike around or contour down to the fire," he continues, "So we're coming in from the sides and not directly from the top of it. It probably took us a good two hours to hike down into the fire because of all the dead and down. That's what we call the downfall, the dead and rotten trees, stuff like that. This was just like a five acre fire, but the duff was about a foot to two feet deep. You know, the rotten pine needles and woody material lying on the ground."

"Anyway," he says, "we called in smoke jumpers, and they flew the fire twice. They jumped on the top of the mountain by where our trucks were parked, and they still got lost. They were about a quarter mile off. They got lost because of the terrain. They thought the fire was in one spot but it wasn't. They were too far to the east. They ended up getting lost because in the Pryors once you're in the trees you really can't see. It's pretty easy to get lost. We were on that one for probably a week. A week on five acres, just because of all the downfall and the duff. But we had to put it out. It had to be out before we could leave. By the time we got it all mopped up and everything, we had to make sure it was out. Back then it was rule that you had to stay on a cold fire for twenty four hours before you could leave. We cold trailed and cold trailed it, where you crawl on your hands and knees looking for hot spots, and there'd always be something that would pop up just because of the duff layer."

"If there are roads," I ask, "why didn't someone come relieve you?"

"We had both of our engines up there at the time, out of Billings. Back then, that would have been seven of us. And I believe we ended up with about ten smoke jumpers too. Seventeen guys working about five acres, yeah. And it took us a week to put it out. You know, the trees that we were climbing over getting into it, with all our gear, were off the ground. You had to climb up and over the top of them. It was just a mess. Just a total mess."

"Why do you remember this one?" I ask.

Mark laughs hard.

"Because I got really pissed off at my boss!" he says. "You know, we're eating MREs for a week, and I was just tired and cranky and needed a shower and a meal. I just got pissed off at him and stormed up the hill and by the time I got up the hill I was so tired I forgot what I was pissed off about. We both look back it and just laugh. Hiking in, I had a chain saw and chain saw fuel. Some people were supposed to get extra water for us but they didn't bring the extra water -- the water in the engine tank isn't drinkable -- and it was just a total chaotic mess. The only water we had down on the fire line was the stuff we had in our packs. It was probably a quarter mile down from the truck to the fire through all this heavy downfall, steep slope, so nobody really wanted to hike all the way back up to get water, then hike all the way back down. We ended up getting a helicopter to come in and drop water for us."

"But you held the fire," I said.

"We held the fire."

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