Down East 2013 ©
You usually have to pay for views like this. The woods of Baxter State Park are aglow all the way to the horizon, with waves of flashing yellow birches and crimson maples trundling up and over mountains and around ponds. The imposing bulk of Mount Katahdin is straight ahead with all its spectacular curves, and the ground everywhere seems to reach up toward us.
The old foliage cliché about the woods being on fire comes to mind. Today they really are.
The previous afternoon a local air service had seen some suspicious smoke in a wild, trail-less area south of Kidney Pond and called it in. Hikers high up on Katahdin had confirmed seeing a column of blue smoke. A Forest Service copter arrived to make it a definite. Now Park Rangers Rob Tice and I and Forest Ranger Will Barnum are in a helicopter piloted by the Maine Forest Service’s chief pilot, John Knight, on our way to the fire site to do a quick recon mission.
Will and John are trying to determine the best approach for the pump and the hundreds of feet of hose needed to fight this remote blaze. Rob and I are along because we were part of the crew that paddled across two ponds and hiked in a mile or so to the fire site the previous night. We were on the ground, so we can give some perspective to the Forest Service and come up with a plan of attack before this small conflagration spreads beyond the spruce knoll where it smolders. Everyone knows and fears what could happen if the fire breaks into the tinder-dry forest surrounding it.
The previous day I had been at work at my station at Daicey Pond when I heard the radio begin to squawk about a fire. Though the woodlands here can be flash-fire dry, and there are many miles of them, we haven’t had any cataclysmic wildfires since 1977, when 5.6 square miles burned. The National Weather Service reported that this month, September 2007, “would be remembered for its warmth and extended period of dry weather,” so the conditions were perfect for kindling a spark.
The traffic was back and forth on my handheld radio. The trail crew on the Hunt Trail up on Katahdin, staring out at this region, didn’t see any smoke. One of our search and rescue teams was patrolling on the mountain up higher, though, and they did.
More confirmations came in as the afternoon progressed. I made my way over to nearby Kidney Pond when talk about putting a crew together started coming over the radio. When I got there, a helicopter was roaring overhead and rangers were arriving in trucks. Other rangers were quickly moving about gathering gear — hundreds of feet of hose, backpack pumps, rakes, chainsaws, and helmets. Campers were milling about watching all this with fascination — it looked like the staging area for a military operation.
Bob Howes, the ranking ranger in this part of the park, assembled a crew of eight. We were not going to try to fight the blaze, he said. It was already late afternoon, and there
simply wasn’t time to do it safely. We were going to hump gear in, determine the size and scope of the fire, flag an access trail, and cut a landing zone for the helicopter, which would fly in pumps and crews the following day.
The paddle across ninety-six-acre Kidney Pond was quick and high-spirited. We beached the boats at the Lily Pond Landing on the other side and loaded up with the mass of gear we had, hauling it down the Lily Pad Pond Trail. It’s a short hike to the pond and the spectacular, wide-angle look that it offers of the Katahdin massif all the way over to Double Top Mountain.
From the shore of Lily Pad we threaded down the trail to Windy Pitch Pond, a small basin wrapped by hills and headwalls that would serve as the water source for the pumps. Chainsawing chaps and helmets and water bottles banged up and down on our backs as we made our way south. The trail follows the undulating contours of a valley cut by Nesowadnehunk Stream, and we paralleled the cascades for maybe a half mile before turning in to the woods for another half mile to the pond.
Then it was a bushwhack through woods so thick you had to swim through them, the kind where you pick pine needles out of your underwear later. I followed Ranger Bruce White — compass in one hand, GPS in the other — through a thicket that probably hadn’t seen a boot in seventy-five years until finally, in the gathering dusk, we got our first glimpse: blue smoke, and lots of it. We pushed toward it.
Atop a hill in a fairly contained area was a huge tangle of downed spruce trees, the largest probably eighteen inches in diameter. They were all tangled up like a pile of pick-up sticks and all blackened and charred. On the ground, in a sort of sinkhole of moss, was the blaze. It was smoldering for the most part, though occasional flames would lick up two or three feet high. All around it was dead and down spruce — the kind of wood our park campers like to use to start fires — a hell of a lot of fuel just sitting there ready to burn. If we didn’t stop the conflagration here we’d be fighting it at the shore of Kidney Pond.
The area on fire was about the size of a large house, which sounds small, but it was far too big for us to extinguish that evening. Down below the hill was a big clearing that from above looked as if it would make a perfect landing zone for a helicopter.
Part of our team began to cut a ring around the fire, pulling the dead, unburned wood away to try and prevent any spreading, while the rest of the group flagged an access trail. As the sun set, some of us moved down the hill to the bog to cut a landing zone for the helicopter, using headlamps on our helmets to light our work as night fell.
The dark gathered ever more deeply as we cached our gear for the firefighting crew to use in the morning and started to move down the trail that had been flagged. Bushwhacking itself is a difficult prospect, and bushwhacking by the light of a headlamp is painstakingly slow, especially when you’re in a large group. You never know when you’re going to get fwapped in the face by a branch or trip and faceplant on a rock. Luckily, we had less than a half-mile to go and the “trail” had been at least marked. I made it to the wide-open, corridor-defined, beautiful Windy Pitch Trail with only a few spots bleeding.
Paddling back across Kidney Pond we landed in the dark, by the light of our headlamps. Sort of like loud and brightly lit Navy Seals. A camper thanked us for giving his preschooler a show. We finally made it back to the Kidney Pond ranger station, where we found a three-course dinner waiting — chips, sandwich, and cookies. I slid half of my enormous sandwich into my pack, knowing I might need it in the morning.
The next day we meet Forest Ranger Will Barnum and head to Slaughter Pit, a wide gravel hollow not far from Kidney Pond. It’s one of the few places in the park that can
accommodate a helicopter. Pilot John Knight touches down and we climb aboard, heads low to avoid decapitation. Knight banks to the southeast across the magical spectacle that is Baxter State Park in autumn. Then we circle the fire and reality returns — the hole in the bog that we cut the previous night by headlamps isn’t big enough for the helicopter. This means a large-scale change to the game plan — we’ll have to hump hose and pumps all the way in on our backs.
Knight buzzes over Lily Pad Pond, surprising both a canoeist and a moose, and we find a small neck where supplies can be off-loaded, which will get us to within a mile of the blaze. From there it will be people power. At least we’ll have help from a big Island Falls crew of Hotshots, trained firefighters who can be called upon by the Forest Service to combat wildfires.
Or, we don’t. When we return to Slaughter Pit we find out that half of our Hotshot crew has been diverted to another fire in The County. The job has just gotten much bigger and our resources are now cut in half. We hastily scramble a few more rangers from the park.
The new plan is for eight of us to hike into Lily Pad Pond, where we’ll meet the helicopter and all of our gear. We set off, passing a few hikers who seem intrigued to see rangers and yellow Nomex-clad Hotshots hustling down the trail.
The afternoon is spent struggling with the pump and all of the hose. We have to run nearly a mile of it and each section comes in a canvas backpack that weighs about forty or fifty pounds — a lot to carry for a relatively small crew. By about four we manage to get everything in place, and we fire up the pump.
So far away we can hardly hear it, the pump begins to blast water up the hill and, finally, out through the nozzle, and the Hotshots begin to give it to the fire. Park Ranger Bruce White and I take rakes and pulaskis — a half-ax, half-pick tool designed for forest-fire work — and start digging around the edges to ensure that the water reaches all of the underground embers.
After all of the effort to get things in place, the actual battle seems anti-climatic. The crew spends a couple of hours digging and spraying water on the fire before Will Barnum deems it sufficiently out. The Hotshots will return the next day to pump more water and saturate the ground, but without the need for hauling, they can do it with a small team. Our duty is done.
Two days later, Bruce and I are sent back in. Someone has to lay eyes on the site and make sure it, like a good campfire, is out. We find the mossy knoll a big, ugly, charred mess of wet, black goop. Hoses still snake all around it. The pump and the hose will stay in place for days to guard against the possibility of a flare up.
We poke at the site a while and marvel that the fire didn’t travel farther than it had with dry leaves and needles, desiccated branches, and dehydrated spruce trees around it for as far as the eye can see.
And we’re glad we got to it when we did.