Chris, Mark, and Kevin Cotter, retired fire chief, firefighter, and civilian, respectively. (Photos courtesy of author.)
By Mark J. Cotter
Sometimes, circumstances align to place the right person, in the right place, with the right tools, to be able to help make things right. Firefighters, who are usually in a continuous state of “size-up,” often carry that awareness and planning with them when they travel and find themselves imagining how they would handle a fire in various settings they encounter. (At least, this firefighter does.) What are usually lacking in such musings are the means to actually address a fire, should it occur, short of calling in a report to the local department, doing a scene survey, alerting occupants, and (maybe) controlling an incipient blaze if an extinguisher or garden hose is available. We don’t carry the necessary tools to handle much more. (At least, this firefighter doesn’t.) Furthermore, jurisdictional regulations typically prevent us from taking on any more than an observer role at an incident outside of our home territory. This summer, though, the fire gods aligned more than a few stars and allowed me the opportunity to use my firefighting skills in Big Sky country.
I grew up, and have always lived, on the East Coast, but my mom was from Montana, and that state has always had a strong attraction to me and the rest of my family. My maternal grandfather was the fire chief in Anaconda, Montana, for almost 20 years, a position that included an apartment in the combination City Hall/Fire Headquarters, and my mother’s tales of growing up in that setting would inspire two of us grandsons to enter the fire service. We journeyed there as children several times during summer vacations, and I would return later with my wife and children to share with them its majestic beauty. An older brother of mine is a lifelong fisherman, and he has been traveling to Montana every summer for decades to practice his fly fishing skills, occasionally accompanied by one or another of the five of us “Cotter Boys.” This year, all of us arranged for at least a part of the same week to gather there, a coincidence that had not occurred since our childhood vacations over 50 years ago. Now, I have no great love for fishing of any kind, but I’ll use any pretext to be able to go to Montana, and I’ve developed enough skill with a rod, reel, lightweight line, and lighter-weight flies to at least appear to be fly fishing. (Anyway, I fool the occasional trout, which is what counts.) Truth is, I would settle for just driving my brothers around to the many rivers and lakes available; the place is that amazing.
Our base this summer was a rented cabin on a working ranch, with many Blue Ribbon fly fishing rivers within an easy drive. (By Montana standards, that’s anything under about a hundred miles, but in this case we had more great sites within a mere 20 miles than we had time enough to even try out in the week we had available.) The ranch itself was merely the setting for our sleeping quarters, and the operators our hosts; we weren’t there to play cowboy. They went about their business of raising cattle and growing hay, while we went about trying to locate trout and entice them to eat our artificial insects. Still, the frenzy of activity required to manage a farm larger than the town in which I live, and to take advantage of a growing season that lasts only a few months, made for some interesting observations. The vast array of heavy equipment and implements stored in the open-sided sheds was itself impressive. One vehicle that caught my eye was a dual-wheel diesel pickup with a pump rig on the back that looked like the skid mount on my department’s brush truck. One brother, who retired as chief from our hometown fire department after a 26-year career, suggested it was probably used for spraying insecticides and such, but a closer inspection showed that the apparatus was, in fact, a fire pump, with turnout gear and brush fire tools in its cabinets. A ranch hand informed us that they had purchased it after a fire in a neighboring ranch had extended due to a prolonged response time by the local department, leading to significant damages, but that it was, in fact, used mostly for wetting down the dirt in corrals before rodeos to minimize dust. Having such an unexpected asset available, my brother and I joked about being ready should a fire break out but had no expectation that such a circumstance would present itself nor, as it would turn out, so quickly.
The Cotter boys and ranch staff worked to control the blaze before the water supply arrived.
This past summer has been unusually hot in Montana, with temperatures reaching into the upper 80s during the day, though still dipping into the 50s overnight. With a clear view of surrounding mountains some 20 miles away, we would regularly watch thunderstorms pass over and around us. (They don’t call it “Big Sky” for nothing.) One such storm passed over us on the morning of our second day, with lightning strikes driving us inside, but little rain, and the skies clearing soon after. Looking afterward at a ridge maybe two miles from our cabin, I spotted a wispy column of light grey smoke rising from among a cluster of pines. Again, the retired chief was skeptical, suggesting it was from a cabin or campfire, but, when contacted, the ranch manager advised us there were no structures or camps in that area. We had a forest fire!
The foreman notified the local authorities, a story of its own that was broadcast on speakerphone as it unfolded. The initial call to the county sheriff’s office required the recitation of the names of the previous landowners and surrounding neighbors before the operator recognized the location of the ranch; she had some difficulty locating the telephone number of the state forestry office, located in our ancestral home of Anaconda, and described her search as she rummaged through myriad files (“Now, where did I put that number!?”); the subsequent call to that agency required a repeat naming of prior owners and nearby landmarks, further complicated by the need to describe the specific location of the fire itself on the huge spread. Eventually, it was decided to leave one of the cowboys at the entrance to direct the fire crews, who had an ETA of about 45 minutes.
The three of us fishermen who had not yet departed the cabin offered our assistance. With just three workers on the ranch at the time, and one designated to be the guide for incoming responders, our help was welcomed. Because I was familiar with operation of the pump, I was chosen to drive; retired chief would be the officer in charge; and youngest brother, an investment banker with absolutely no firefighting experience, was given the coveted position of nozzleman (he was in the best shape of all of us and, most significantly, lives in Denver, Colorado, and was therefore acclimated to the 6,000-foot altitude in which we were about to go to work). I went about refamiliarizing myself with a pump I hadn’t operated in a few years, and we reviewed the available equipment. Hand tools included several shovels; long-handled, heavy rubber “slappers” for beating out grass fires; and a single, rusting Pulaski tool, the forest service’s traditional combination ax/hoe. There were no portable water pumps, so the vehicle would need to be maneuvered in closely.
Reaching the fire would present a series of contradictions: Although we could see where we needed to go, on a north-south ridge located west of us, we had no clue how to get there (no map book on this rig); despite the line-of-sight location, we were required to take a meandering route up, over, and around hills, navigating fences, wandering cattle, and even a frightened herd of elk; and probably the slowest fire service “run” that I ever drove would also be the most harrowing, involving bushwhacking along mountainsides and traversing ravines on a 45-degree grade. (Our youngest brother rode the entire time with his hand on the passenger door handle, providing a false security that I likely would have also tried if not for having both hands glued to the steering wheel!) This take-up team of firefighters followed the manager’s four-wheel-drive pickup on what would be an amazing back-stage tour of a Wild West ranch.
Finally, after about 30 minutes of driving along unpaved, switchback “roads,” with grass at times higher than the hood of the truck, we had reached the approximate elevation of the source of the smoke, although it remained about a quarter mile to our south and across a deep, grassy gully that slanted almost as steeply west to east as it did down and up. Seeing the road seeming to wind up and around the head of the ravine and continue south along the ridge, which, in my uninformed estimation, would have spotted us somewhere above the fire, I assumed we would continue on our current route, but the lead truck had stopped. The road, it seems, continued over the ridge, and we could likely get no closer than our current position. The foreman pointed to a tiny break in the trees across the ravine, where he said a road once existed, and suggested I could make my way over in low gear. I suggested instead that he might drive his fire truck himself for such off-roading. After further consideration, we decided to first cross in his smaller pickup to see if the vestigial roadway was even passable. In the event it might not be, we grabbed the shovels, slappers, and Pulaski before piling into the back seat, and this time I had my hand on the door handle.
After more pitch and yaw than I had ever experienced while riding anything other than a pair of skis, we reached the other side of the grassy gully and discovered the “road,” which our guide said he last traveled on some four years prior, now was home to 6- to 8-foot-tall pine saplings. While the chainsaw we had brought along would have done quick work to any one of these young trees, the long row that extended into the distance meant it would take hours to clear a path to the fire, so we continued on foot. Grabbing our hand tools but leaving our water source behind on the far side of the ravine, we began hiking down the path along the ridge. The ranch manager’s familiarity with the terrain was confirmed when about 400 yards in we came upon our goal: a 10-foot-diameter circle of smoldering pine duff surrounding a charred pine, on the downhill edge of a cluster of trees, with lazy flames on the edges.
We quickly went to work smothering the fire, then dug a fire line to contain it. Lacking water, and throwing shovelfuls of what were actually compressed pine needles, we were successful in merely slowing the combustion and had to repeatedly circle and re-cover newly sprouted flames. We were therefore relieved to see the two state forest service firefighters and the third ranch hand arrive about 30 minutes later with their backpack water pumps. Where before we had just been pushing the fire back down onto itself, only to see it try to rise again, the water–even the paltry hand-operated streams–allowed us to get, and keep, the upper hand.
After exchanging pleasantries (the fire crew chief taught school with my cousin, the other firefighter was related to one of the ranch hands by marriage, and everyone there except the Cotter brothers had attended a rather epic western wedding the weekend prior, complete with a brawl at the after-party), we handed off the scene to the authority having jurisdiction. Their stated plan was to soak the site well, cut down and “buck up” the tree, monitor the site for about an hour, then return the next morning to ensure extinguishment. It would prove to be an adequate plan. Also, having precisely located the fire, additional nearby routes were recalled–a snowmobile path, to be exact–and the state fire truck, with its more substantial water supply, was eventually maneuvered to the site itself.
We hiked out of the woods and back across the draw to the brush rig, thinking this had been a great experience but a lot of effort for what turned out to be a small fire. Apparently, though, that same storm had dotted the landscape all the way from Idaho with lightning strikes, resulting in more than a few fires that weren’t immediately spotted by some firefighter tourist who happened to have a fully equipped brush truck at his disposal. In fact, the next day, we could see a virtual mushroom cloud of smoke on the western horizon that arose from one such blaze and, at the time of this writing, about eight weeks after returning from our trip, forest fires are still burning in southwest Montana.
The rest of our stay was not as eventful, at least from a public service point of view. Thunderstorms continued to pass by and over, with lightning hitting the surrounding terrain, and afterward I would survey the distant landscape, searching for another incipient blaze to address. When I once pointed to a distant ridge on which lightning had struck repeatedly, announcing that no smoke was visible, both of my fellow ranch firefighter brothers said, in unison, “Stop looking!”
So, we had new experiences, lent a hand, and did some good. Thanks to preparation and circumstance, this was a memorable and satisfying addition to a great vacation.
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Mark J. Cotter has more than 40 years experience in emergency services and is currently a volunteer captain with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. He can be reached at email@example.com.