Thrown into the Fire

“Wildland Fire Training at Crescent Moon”. Photo: Coconino NF Photography. CC0/Public domain.

The summer after graduating from high school I worked as a janitor at Yacolt elementary. I didn’t want to think about going to college. I figured with my lousy grades I’d have a hard time getting in to any school. The regular janitor’s name was Albert Benge. He owned the grocery store in Yacolt and had once been the mayor. He had two daughters, one in my grade at Battle Ground High School, the other two years older. Mr. Benge had originally been from Louisiana. He had a definite idea how things should be done. He gave me specific instructions on how to mop a floor. He said it had to be done side to side in a rhythmic way, not pushing and pulling like sailors did in the movies.

I was in charge of general cleaning. There were repair projects that I would work on with Mr. Benge. He had a favorite word: goodie. For him it was a noun. He would point at a wrench or part he needed and would say “Dennis, hand me that goodie over there.” Goodie could describe anything. One big project we worked on was building new garage doors for the bus barn. There were four of the doors. Mr. Benge thought it would be cheaper to make them out of wood than order them ready made from Sears. First thing in the morning I would back the bus out of the garage we used as a work room.

I rode my bike to work each morning and would ride home for lunch every day. It was only a couple of miles. For lunch I would make a sandwich and then lie down on the couch and watch Perry Mason re-run. When I would get home in the late afternoon I would usually find my grandma Fiina sitting in a chair at a window on the west side of the house. She would use the afternoon light to read letters and newspapers that were sent to her from Finland. After living in America for over sixty years her English was poor. She could understand most things and make herself understood but she hated talking on the telephone. More than once I called home and would I would say “Grandma, this is Dennis,” She would then reply “Dennis not home!” and hang up.

As soon as I had finished washing, scouring, mopping, stripping, and buffing just about everything in the school, just before the academic year would start for the children, I was out of a job. I decided to attend the local Jr. College for a year in Vancouver. Anyone could enroll and the tuition was cheap. My janitorial wages paid for it.

A week before school started there was a big forest fire across the Columbia river in Oregon. It was called the Tom Lake fire, near Mt. Hood. It had been a bad fire season all over the west and experienced fire fighters were stretched thin. My dad, employed by the forest service, had worked on several fires in the Mt. Adams area on the Washington side of the Columbia.

Early in the morning I heard a news report on the radio saying able bodied men were needed to battle the Tom Lake fire. Good pay was offered. I went up the attic of the farm and got some logging clothes and calk boots. The basic outfit are jeans cut off just below mid-calf, red suspenders (called Gallusses by old timers) and a hickory shirt. The calk boots, with metal spikes, laced up almost to my knees. I also grabbed the circa WW I back pack board and a down sleeping bag. The last thing I grabbed was an old tin hard hat. My sister Debbie took me to the address mentioned; where I signed up. I didn’t tell anyone that I was prone to extreme allergic reactions that could incapacitate me. Just like that, I was put on a bus with other volunteers and we were bussed away.

Early in the afternoon we were let out in an open field in a high meadow of the forest. There we were each given a Pulaski (a combination pick and axe), a shovel, and very little instruction. A helicopter flew twenty of us at a time into the fire zone. It was an Army National Guard copter with no passenger doors, just fifteen foot long floor to ceiling openings on the sides . There were seats with seat belts. I strapped myself into a seat next to the edge of the right hand open side. The flight was like being on the edge of nothing with tree tops fifty feet below rushing past.

The copter landed in an open area in the burn area. The fire hadn’t leveled everything in sight. It seemed to be capriciously selective. Stands of unburnt trees stood among burned areas. In places the fire had raced down a lane of trees and left everything standing on either side. It was very hot. A guy dressed like me, but a lot dirtier, was at the drop site. We followed him up a trail into the forest until we found a place in the trees to make a camp. Our group of twenty men had not been selected in any organized way. A hundred of us had been in a bunch waiting for the helicopter. We had then been counted up to twenty and told to get on board. Those random twenty made up our crew.

The guy who led us in looked us over. He picked a guy who looked like a school teacher to be in charge of our group. He was just a volunteer like the rest of us. I was probably the youngest guy there. Most were in their twenties. There were a couple of guys in their forties who looked like they’d been living on skid row but weren’t in too bad of shape. Our leader’s name was Mr. Allison. My tin hat was the flat kind that was obsolete around 1930. I was instantly named “Doughboy.”

For our first job we hiked to a valley in the woods where another work crew was already busy. We joined them in making a fire break. With the shovels and Pulaskis we stripped vegetation in a strip across the valley floor and up the sides. I guess they figured the fire might be shooting down that way. There was smoke in the air. Occasionally a helicopter would fly over head with a huge bucket hanging underneath. We later learned that the helicopters would dip the buckets in a nearby lake and then empty it on the fire that apparently was close by. It was hot work and I was glad I’d stuffed a pair of work gloves in my pocket before leaving the farm.

Several guys didn’t have gloves and their hands would be raw before too long. We worked till early evening and then trudged back to our camp. A box of orange work gloves had arrived for people who hadn’t brought their own. For dinner we were given army rations. Everything was in green tin cans and there was a tiny can opener in each box. A guy who had been in the army called the opener a P-38. It took instructions to operate but after that worked great. The best thing in my meal kit was in a can marked Pound Cake. It was surprisingly good. I had never had cake from a tin can. The meat can and the vegetable can were so so. A trench was dug at the base of small fallen log. It was the latrine. It was a good walk from our camp sight to keep the stench away. The log worked OK for a toilet. You could sit on it with your butt hanging over. As soon as it was dark we all found places to sleep. For the guys who didn’t have sleeping bags, blankets were provided. I fell asleep soon after I lay down.

The next morning we walked down to the helicopter landing and were given rubber bladders full of water with back straps. They were called piss bags. A hose ran from the bottom of the bag and ended with a nozzle. We donned the bags, each weighing about seventy pounds and hiked to an area that had been burned. Our job was to walk through the burnt area looking for hot spots. When we found one we squirted water on it to put the little fires out. When we would run out of water we would walk back to the camp and get more.

I was diligently walking, looking and squirting, when I found myself in a little stand of trees. Some were burned and others had been missed. There was no one within fifty yards of me. Suddenly a fire sprang up in the trees I was in. Instantly it was burning all around me. The urge to panic was great. Smoke and flame were everywhere. It was hard to breathe. I suppressed the panic urge and looked for an escape route. I found one and ran toward it. I broke into the open and collapsed on the ground. I watched as the small stand of trees was completely engulfed in flames. Luckily the fire didn’t have anything to jump to and soon burnt itself out. That evening at dinner a large soft looking man with very curly hair complained to Mr. Allison of chapped lips. They looked red and raw. Mr. Allison said he would try to get lip balm for him.

I talked to Mr. Allison about baseball. I told him I had been a fan of the Minnesota Twins team that played in the 1965 World Series. I really liked their player Bob Allison. Mr. Allison told me Bob Allison was a distant relative. A lot of trading went on among the army rations. Pineapple was a hot commodity. I traded meat for pound cake with a guy. Guys would peer into other’s kits to see if there was something really good they could swap for. There was plenty of food.

Nobody really knew what was going on. A couple of guys wanted to bag the whole thing and go home. A couple of guys were sick. Mr. Allison was a calming influence. He never raised his voice when addressing complaints. I wondered if the guy who’d picked him, had recognized good qualities in him, or maybe it was just he rose to the occasion.

We stayed in our camp for five days. Each day was about the same, mostly piss bag action. I never got close to a flame up again. Every evening the curly headed man would complain about his chapped lips. He was really suffering. I’m not sure how Mr. Allison was able to requisition it, but on the fourth day he gave the man a jar of lip balm.

At the end of the sixth day we hiked down to the landing area and were flown out of the fire zone. Our crew rode together to the recruitment station where we’d signed up. I called my sister who came and got me. We went home.

Categories History

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

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