Well, another summer, another fire. It’s almost a year ago that I fled for my life from the CZU Fire. That was an experience that I hoped to not have to go through again. Unfortunately, I very nearly had it happen once more. I’m starting to think that fire has it in for me or something!
It all went down this past Saturday night. It was around 8:30 and I was in the laundry room, accessing the Internet. It’s directly underneath the wi-fi hotspot in the office and only a few steps away from my room so I go there sometimes in the evenings to get online. It’s one of three spots where I can get a somewhat decent connection. While I was persuing the web, my co-worker Brianna ran by yelling something about a fire. Alarmed, I raced upstairs to see what was going on. I ran into some of my co-workers and they filled me in.
It seemed that the boys that take out the swill (food scraps and fish carcasses) to the back bay spied smoke and flame coming from the forest behind the lodge. They take the swill back there so the local bear population doesn’t equate the lodge with food. Lucky for us they took it back there that day instead of out in front of the lodge like they sometimes do. The winds were blowing the smoke the opposite direction from the lodge and we couldn’t see the flames because it was around the point right out front. Speaking of the wind, it had been really breezy all day. Also we had several days of warm dry weather, so the conditions were ripe for fire.
We heard that the fire was burning up on the boundary line between the lodge and Tongass National Forest land. There is a trail that led right up to the fire site, it’s the one that I cleared the second week I was here actually. Since I knew the way I led a contingent up there. As we made our way up the trail, the smell of smoke began to fill the air. Right at the end of the trail, big clouds of smoke started to billow out ahead of us. Suddenly, we found ourselves confronted with the fire! We were on the edge of a 200 foot cliff and the fire looked as if it had started down at the waterline and burned all the way up to where the canopy shaded the mossy ground. It seemed that there was enough moisture there to stop the leading advance of the fire.
The fire was still a huge danger, as trees were burning down the slope and several big stumps were smoking from ground level. The fire was down in the roots. By this point the wind had stilled which was a good thing. All it would take is for the wind to blow in from the west and there would be nothing stopping it from burning its way to the lodge. The generator with several hundred gallons of diesel was only about 500 yards away and if it hit that, it would be disasterous! We needed to contain the fire and do it fast, as night was falling and who knows how much time we would have before we got wind from the wrong direction. Time was of the essence.
We saw that we needed more than the shovels we had brought to contain the fire, so we went back to the lodge to rustle up some fire extinguishers. What we really needed was water but there was no way to get it there. Back at the lodge, we ran into the boss and informed him of the situation. He and some of the captains gathered up all the water hoses they could and headed down to the Waterhorse to try and fight the fire from the water. He was going to try and hook the hoses up to the boat’s spigot and see if that would work. Meanwhile the rest of us on hand grabbed every extinguisher we could find and headed back up the trail.
The sun had already slipped below the horizon when we returned to the fire site. We began to hit every spot that had visible embers and flames. While we did this, a couple of guys deployed a rope they grabbed off a shrimp trap that was long enough to reach the water. They slung it off the cliff to land next to the Waterhorse and the guys below tied the hose to it. We then pulled it up towards us, and after some wrangling managed to get it all the way to the top. Down below they turned on the water, and nothing happened. The water pressure from the boat was insufficient to reach all the way up to us. Even if it had, it would have been like pissing on a housefire. We needed serious water flow.
It was around 10:30 when we decided to pull out. It was too dark to see and we were in grizzly territory. Not to mention the aforementioned cliff we were on the edge of was even more of a risk when we couldn’t even see where we were stepping. None of us knew what we were doing, but out here in the bush, help is a long ways away. We had a full house of guests we needed to protect, so we did the best we could with what we had but it wasn’t enough. We hoped what we had done was enough to contain the fire until we could get professional help the following day. Three guys volunteered to take shifts to watch the fire and to radio back if it started to spread again.
Back at the lodge, the boss took out this big pump from storage along with a few hundred feet of firehose he had stored for just such an occasion. He got it running, but as it was so dark he decided to postpone loading it on the boat and fighting the fire until first light the following morning. We all decided to call it a night and to get some shut-eye. I didn’t get to sleep until very late, and had bad dreams about fires and fleeing flame. I slept very poorly, all the anxieties from the past came rushing back and I kept waking up in a panic.
The next morning I got up and went down to the dock to see how things were progressing. The boss and a few guys were down there and the news wasn’t good. The attempt to hose down the fire from the boat had failed when the hose (that wasn’t built for pressure but for volume) blew up when they turned on the pump. It was the only kind of hose we had so the boss was on the horn to the Forest Service to come out and fight the fire. They were dicking around and weren’t getting back to him, so he was on the verge of hiring a private helicopter to come drop buckets of water on the thing. Right as he was about to do that, the Forest Service finally got back to him and said they’d send out some people. What a relief! Finally we had the cavalry on the way.
A couple hours later a couple cutters arrived with several firemen. I volunteered to take the captain of the crew up the trail to the fire site. When we got there things looked a lot better then they had yesterday. It was still smokin’ up pretty good, but it hadn’t spread. In the daylight, I could see that the fire’s footprint was probably about 60-70 yards wide and most of it was inaccessible due to the steep cliff. The day was overcast with more moisture in the air and the winds were still which helped out a lot. Still, the remains of the fire needed to be dealt with as it was still very much a danger as long as even one ember remained.
The firefighters ran a hose from a beach down below the cliff and worked on it all afternoon. I wasn’t able to see the efforts in person as I still had my job to do, but I got reports that things were going well. Finally, the firefighters came over to tell us that they were pretty certain they got it put out completely and that we were in the clear. What a relief!
There had been a lot of speculation as to what had caused the fire, some thought it was from an earlier garbage burning on the other side of the bay, some thought it was arson. According to the firefighters, the fire was caused by a lightning strike. Now, the day the fire started was hot and sunny, and no one heard any thunder. The boss said that he saw a lone black cloud pass overhead around the time the fire must have started (I saw it as well) that could have been capable of sending out bolts. Supposedly lightning can strike without thunder, it is rare but can happen. I guess this is what happened in this case. Just one of those ‘Acts of God’ I reckon.
Anyways, it was a joy to see people win the war against fire this time. It was pretty touch-and-go there for a while, but I was really proud of the work we did as a crew to band together and do our best to save the day. It was a real bonding experience. For not having any idea what we were doing we did pretty damn good. I think the firefighters were pretty impressed at our containment job. I never thought I’d be doing volunteer firefighting work at this job, but you never know what to expect around here. Anything can happen out in the Alaskan bush!
So after all the fire business was handled, my day off arrived. I was anticipating my return to the honey hole for my rematch with Team Salmon. This time I had my new collapsible pole to take with me to give me an edge. Unfortunately, my new net that I had ordered hadn’t come in yet. Devin let me borrow his however, so I was set! The day before, my co-worker who does freshwater guiding told me the stream and lake was teeming with fish even more than last week so I was stoked. I headed up there looking forward to getting into some good fishing.
I arrived at my spot and got all set up. There was a little bit of drizzle going on, but it wasn’t anything my foul-weather gear couldn’t handle. I noticed that the water was quite a bit lower and there were many more fish there than last time. There wasn’t a place in the stream you couldn’t see fish actually! On my very first cast I caught a big cutthroat trout. He was a fiesty little joker. He leaped all over the place like he was a bass when caught! It would have been good eating, but I was looking for sockeye or coho (silver) salmon. Back into the creek he went.
My second cast, I hooked up. This time it was a salmon! It gave me a merry fight, but after a few jumps and runs I managed to land it. Having the net was a game-changer, but there was enough of a beach there from the low water that I almost didn’t need it. Unfortunately, the salmon was a pink, the least desirable of the salmon species. Don’t get me wrong, pinks aren’t bad or anything. The pale, pink fillets are nothing compared to the taste and the look of the deep red of the sockeye and silver fillets. They’re best for smoking (or dog food, as they say around here). Also, the pinks are undergoing the change they go through when they start to spawn. They get this zombie sort of look and are pretty funky-looking. Not something I’d want to eat. The males also get this hooked mouth and hump on their back that makes them look even more weird.
I revived the salmon after the landing and it swam off to rejoin its buddies. My third cast hooked a salmon, but it broke off. “Hot damn!” I thought. It’s on today!” Indeed it was. Never in my life had I been in such a target-rich environment with such large fish. I actually kept missing fish once they got on. I solved this by swapping the tiny treble hooks my lures came with the big trebles that my new 1 oz Crocodile lures came with. Then I was able to get better hooksets in the hard mouths of the salmon. My second salmon was similar to the first, but the third was a real beauty. It looked like the ones they catch out on the boats out to sea. It was yet another pink but it was the biggest one I’d catch all day.
It was around this point I was actually starting to get tired of catching fish! Since the water was so low, I was constantly getting snagged and had lost a couple lures. It seemed like there were nothing but pinks out there. Plus, the drag on my new Daiwa reel was getting quite a workout and I hate to stress my gear out for no reason. I’ll have to admit that it was super fun and impossible to walk away from the aggressive bite! So I kept on until I had landed & released 6 fish and probably lost a dozen more. It was getting time for me to get back to the lodge in time for dinner so I got packed up and headed back down the trail.
Well, I have to say that I got my revenge on the salmon! I built upon the skills I learned last week and got in some good practice on salmon angling this time around. These skills will come in handy when the sockeye and silvers start running hard. In the next week or two we’ll start seeing dead salmon start to wash down the creek, their spawning done. They’ll pile up at the mouth of the creek and the bears will start coming into sight of the lodge to feast. I suppose I’ll have to be really on alert at that time going up to my fishing hole. Since the bears will be full of salmon I doubt they’ll pay me much mind, I’m not worried about it. I look forward to seeing the bears! I’ve been here two months and I’ve not seen any. I’m ready to remedy this situation!
This week marks the halfway mark of my time here. It’s all downhill from this point. Actually the longer I’m here the faster the days seem to fly by. Now I’m looking forward to things like seeing the sockeye and silver salmon run and the start of the king salmon season on the 15th. The end is not yet in sight, but I’m a good ways down the road.
We’ve arrived at what the lodge vets call ‘Angry August’. It’s when you’re at the point that everyone is starting to crack up and the end is still too far away to be of much use to one’s sanity. The cracks are beginning to show, there’s definitely a lot more bitching and complaining going on in the crew than previous. I’m actually doing pretty good, I’m actually no more at my wit’s end than I was before so I guess I’m in a good spot! I’ve still got a lot of fishing to do and money to make first. I’m real glad to mark this milestone in my stay here though. There’s still a lot of Dogfish Tales yet to come I’m sure! Till next time!