Part 4 - On to Wyoming and South Dakota

Rafael Mcleod NO Comments

Barrel Fire

A Type 1 helicopter flies above a fire burning down a hillside.During the Barrel Fire in Wyoming/South Dakota, I saw the importance of brotherhood within the crew. That night during a burnout operation, we were holding the line, and our eyes were in the green, watching for spot fires. The smoke wasn't lifting at all. It was just hanging in the air, making it difficult to breathe. We held this line for about four hours, and later in the evening the smoke got so thick that I couldn't see the person next to me.

My eyes were burning to the point where I could barely open them, my lungs were on fire, and I just wanted to get out of there. Then Lucas, a fellow crewmember, came over and began a conversation with me. We laughed and talked strategy on minimizing the amount of smoke exposure so that our eyes wouldn't burn so bad. Talking periodically while holding made everything go by much faster. But more importantly, it made me realize that what I was doing was bigger than me, as an individual. What I do, what WE do, we do for our brothers on the crew. Everyone has a hard time with one thing or another. The secret is sharing the burden. That was a huge lesson to learn.

Wind Cave National Park

Well, after the Barrel Fire, we received an assignment to travel to Wind Cave National Park, and during the short, few days we were there, I learned a lot more about crew safety and situational awareness. Our crew was ordered up to assist with fuel reduction projects. We removed fuels around park campsites, and we helped prep line for a controlled burn park fire managers were planning.

After getting briefed on the project, we pulled into the first campsite, and as the buggies came to a stop, I immediately felt the humidity and heat. The steady flow of air streaming from the open windows came to a complete stop. Right then, I knew the heat would be a challenge.

The next day, our assignment was to remove all of the dead and down trees scattered around the campsites. I pulled my Hickory shirt over my t-shirt, which already was a bit soaked from the heat of the morning, and received instructions to grab a pair of saw chaps (This meant I was going to be swamping). I put on the chaps, grabbed my water bottle, and joined the line to hike down to the worksite.

We broke out into teams, and I was working with Mark Fogg, a fellow crewmember. I put in my ear protection and made sure that all of my PPE (personal protective equipment) was in place before I began to swamp. I heard the other saws come on around me, and I knew that, in spite of the heavy heat, this day would be productive. I had not spent much time working close to a saw, so I took this opportunity to watch carefully. I watched how Mark ran it, and observed correct bucking techniques. This was a great learning experience for me. About halfway through the day, Fogg asked me if I had taken S212 (beginning chainsaw class). I had taken this class, therefore I was allowed to use the saw under supervision. When asked if I wanted to use the saw, I was kind of caught off guard, but then I got excited. I finally was going to hold a saw and do some cutting.

On my parents property back home in New Mexico, I had had some previous experience handling a chainsaw (thinning our forest for fire safety), but, of course, I had never used a saw in this setting before. I wrapped my hand around the bar, making sure that my thumb was wrapped all the way around (this was to prevent the saw from kicking back and to allow greater overall control). I put the handle between my legs (proper starting position and posture), made sure the lever was in the right place, then pulled the cord.

The saw came to life in my hands. I pulled the trigger and gave it some gas, spinning the chain, fast, around the bar! I carefully looked at the log to identify places it might bind when I began cutting into it.  I asked myself these important questions: What's holding it up? Do I need anything else? Where are the binds?

After analyzing the situation, I dug the dawgs into the log and pulled the trigger, full throttle. Sawdust began to fly out of the bottom of the saw as the chain teeth slowly sank into the log. I was cutting for the first time on the crew. This was exciting to me, and I felt I was given another level of responsibility. 

After cutting a couple of rounds off of the log, Fogg emphasized, again, that I needed to know the location of the tip of the saw, at all times. I began to pay careful attention to what the saw was doing, and I listened to the sound of the engine as I neared the end of my cut. I cut until the tank on the saw ran dry. Then I walked down to the road where we staged the dolmar (container holding fuel and bar oil). I placed the saw on the ground, turned it on its side, and kept my face away from the lid as I opened the gas tank. A burst of compressed gas/air came out from the seal. I opened it completely and filled the gas, then did the same with the oil. Fogg cut the rest of the day, but I paid close attention to his technique. I am always aware that I am the rookie. I constantly remind myself that I need to learn through observation, listening, asking questions, and taking direction from my superiors. 

That night we went out to dinner, then purchased groceries to prepare meals for the entire crew. The crew would be self sufficient during this assignment. It was crazy. Imagine 20 guys in uniform, hot and dirty walking into a small supermarket, filling baskets of food. Quite an image! Each module was given a different list of groceries to collect, and after everything was purchased, we had to get all of the food into coolers, then somehow fit the coolers onto our rigs.

I headed to the trucks, ahead of the crew, to help Dan get the coolers, containers, and bear-proof boxes out of the support truck. We managed to get all of the boxes out and ready just as the train of shopping carts began to arrive. I wondered how we would fit all of that food into the little space that we had. But, again, like clockwork, everyone jumped in and began to take on a job. I took all of the perishables and put them in a bag. Others dealt with the breakfast food. Gallons of milk and juice were neatly tucked into the coolers without taking up too much space. Amazingly, we managed to get everything into coolers and compartments in a relatively short amount of time. That was teamwork, I would say! If only one person were in charge of putting all of that stuff away, it would have taken forever. But when we all came together and stepped in where we were needed, the job got done fast and efficiently.

Working with Alpine, I am learning about efficiency. Everything needs to be done quickly and correctly. We cannot afford to waste time by working slowly or making too many mistakes. Even buying food is part of teamwork training. We need to be able to do this in every situation. Therefore, each time we fuel up the trucks, get food, set up camp, etc., we practice teamwork, and efficiency increases automatically. There were many different types of jobs that had to be done in order to put out a meal for 20 hungry guys. But boy did we eat good. Hamburgers, bratwurst, tacos. And the cooking was great, because it brought out the crew's sense of humor.

I woke up in the morning with my bag moist from the dew that had accumulated overnight. Bravo squad was going to begin prepping for the burn. After eating a quick breakfast of frosted wheat and poptart, I put on my salty, sweaty, Hickory shirt and got into my seat in the corner of the buggy. It was already hot and muggy, and I looked out the window, listening to the glow plugs preheating the diesel engine. The truck rumbled to a start amidst a small cloud of black smoke from the cold engine. We started our 15-minute drive to the worksite (this would be my first time seeing the burn unit and area to be prepped). We parked the buggies in tall green grass, hopped out, and while gearing up, I was informed that I would be swamping for Lucas. He handed me his radio (one of the jobs of a swamper is to hold the radio because the person holding the saw often can't hear the radio), and, once again, we lined out and began to hike into the prep site. I felt the sweat start to accumulate under the sweat band on my hard hat, and I knew that soon it would be running down my face from all of the humidity in the air. Prior to the hike in, the crew was told that there was Poison Ivy around the worksite (a few of the members on the crew are very allergic to the plant). I looked to my left and saw a huge, three-leafed bush of ivy. It was some of the biggest I'd seen.

Well, we cut all day, removing all snags and small trees within 55 feet of the intended control line. At one point that afternoon, Lucas said that he wasn't going to cut a specific area because of the ivy. I think Lucas's decision showed good judgement and leadership. Here we were, called in to do this project, and the mission was to clear everything. But then here we were, skipping this whole section because of a plant. Lucas wasn't going to risk getting ivy on himself or me. Our safety came first.

The next day, an NPS employee came along to experience what it was like to work with a shot crew. Once again, I stepped out of the buggies, geared up, and lined out to hike in. I hadn't been feeling one-hundred percent, because I was a bit dehydrated from the day before. Also, I carried a 10-liter container of water so that the crew had extra, on site, to drink. The container was uncomfortable, and it threw me off balance when I put it over my shoulder, but I made it work. Well, we headed out, and I noticed halfway through the hike that the NPS employee began to fall behind. I didn't really know what to do, other than to keep hiking. I thought: This individual wanted to experience what it was like. Here it is. I understand it can be tough (hiking is sort of a mind game for me. It might be hard or long, but I just look at the person's feet in front of me and stay on their tail). Twenty minutes into the hike, we hit a fence line, and I look to my right to see a fairly steep rocky slope. I thought: Boy, I really hope we aren't hiking up that. But sure enough, that was exactly what we did! We branched off the main trail and headed straight up the slope. I had to push myself, because I still had all of my gear and that extra water. The mind game again. I knew that I was physically capable of hiking that slope with all of that weight, but to succeed I needed to do it right foot in front of left. Don't look up. Keep going. More sweat began dripping down my face, and my legs began to ache. But I was still going. I made it to the top, breathing heavily, soaked in sweat. I looked back at what I just went up, and I noticed that the NPS employee was not behind me anymore. The individual had fallen back during the hike, but showed up about five minutes later looking tired and worn out. The individual was pale in the face and shaking from overexertion. John Hussey, one of our EMTs, sat the individual down in the shade, had the employee drink some Gatorade, and then suggested eating something. The individual tried, but couldn't. To be safe, we ended up hiking this individual out.

Rafael McLeod in a meadow with forested slopes and burnt hillside in the distance.

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