It all began at 3 AM on a sunny June morning in 1977.
Of course there was light streaming through the high bedroom window- after all, it was the end of June in Alaska, and even well below the Arctic Circle, Anchorage had its shortened nights. While my wife and I were not cheechakos who used tin foil to cover our bedroom windows in order to sleep, a clanging telephone did disturb our somnolence!
I answered fuzzily but quickly (there were no spam calls in 1977!) and heard a clear but distinct voice on the other end of the line:
It was Sue from the Anchorage District Office of the Bureau of Land Management. There, off Abbott Loop Road, was my summer job as a clerk who organized equipment locations for rental during fire emergencies in the southern half of Alaska, It was a mundane job, occasionally accented by a need to fly into remote Bush locations. Mostly it was organizing paper! Mostly it was a 9-5 job.
A call at 3 AM was certainly not normal, nor particularly welcome,
“OK, Sue, I’m awake,” I mumbled. “What do you want.”
“Can you be at the Anchorage Airport by 6 AM to fly to Kotzebue? The Fairbanks District Office is overwhelmed and needs to set up a subsidiary operation to cover the Northwestern part of the State. They want a Maps and Records Clerk to be part of their Logistics team.”
“So what does a Maps and Records Clerk do?”, I inquired.
“I don’t know exactly, but paperwork I suspect. You have the skill so I’ve been asked to send you if you are willing.”
“Alright,” I said, and my 6 week unforgettable adventure began.
A memorable event not in any particular time sequence: Featuring TOILET PAPER!
Boise Idaho sent us a few of their finest smoke jumpers. These guys were free spirits, but worked and played hard and knew fire. One of the most revered of them was Dave L.
Dave was a rugged looking individual, a bit older than the usual at about 30 years of age. He didn’t like to live in civilization, preferring the outdoors. He wasn’t at our Kotzebue headquarters for more than a day when we got the call that a fire was running near the Noatak River.
Marion W., our Maps and Records Officer, immediately asked Claire, the pilot of the Aztec we rented out of California, to take a short hop across the Sound to the Noatak River area to map the fire. He asked me if I wanted to go along. I had been bound to the office for a week and it was an opportunity I relished. The three of us took off and buzzed north to the River.
There, we could see a sizeable fire up against the mountains. It seemed to be moving over dried tundra hot enough to generate its own wind current in a westerly direction… toward the little town of Noatak which rested at the mouth of the River. The fire was still a considerable distance east of this remote village, butted up against a low range of mountains.
Marion told Claire to bring the Aztec down on the fire line so we could get a more accurate map of the terrain. Already, we were flying a tight circle, wing edges perpendicular to the tundra, me looking straight down through the window, though safely buckled in. As the wind current buffeted us up and down, I questioned my desire to have this adventure.
Claire did a flip to look out, gauged the wind current put up by the fire, and promptly told Marion “No”, she wouldn’t go down further. Marion looked surprised. “I rented the plane, Claire, and I want you to go down further.” “No, I’m the pilot and my judgement counts. I won’t do it,” Claire responded.
Even though in his late 20’s, Marion had quite a bit of experience flying over fire sites. But Claire had the stick. We spotted what we could, then skeddaddled back to home base in Kotzebue. Upon exiting the plane, Marion told Claire to pack up her plane and go back to California. He fired her. Harsh, and unexpected. Perhaps they were both right?
The mapping helped however. Dave L was now to be engaged on the Noatak fire. He looked over our maps, assessed the terrain, and drew a line where he said he would stop the fire from moving toward Noatak. With a mountain to the east with no vegetation to burn, and with two rivers, one on each side of the flat terrain that came together like an arrow head at the village of Noatak, it was obvious that removing a line of vegetation from one river to the other, well ahead of the approaching fire, would stop it in its track.
We had one problem. Manpower. David L told us he would need three 15-man Native crews to do the job within two days. But we had only two available. “What about the aerial backfiring ship?” David asked. “Perfect”, Marion responded. Using the Cessna with incendiary grenade launchers would start a hell of a fire line marching east to meet the west-approaching fire, which generated its own wind.
I called Fairbanks to order the Cessna. Ahhhh. Nope. Higher priority fire in the Fairbanks District far east of us.
So David used an alternative. David knew how to start fires as well as put them out. He suggested a solution, which we happily accommodated.
He order a number of large cases of toilet paper from a store in Fairbanks!
David had two Native fire crews rolling toilet paper across the tundra, setting a backfire. They stopped that fire dead in its tracks at exactly the time he said he would do that.
You respect a guy like that!