At the end of last week’s column, I was describing myself (circa more decades ago than I care to admit) staring in horror at my wonderful U.S. Forest Service garbage truck fully engulfed in fire. Instead of being a hero in detecting a possibly catastrophic forest fire, it turned out I was the fire!
Regardless of the danger, somehow I had to put the truck fire out. First, however, I grabbed a joint out of the glove box and threw it into the fire. If I died, i.e. from the truck exploding, I didn’t want my epitaph to include the word “stoner.” I then set off the fire extinguisher equipped on the truck but the flames swallowed the foam as if to say, “Is that the best you got?!”
In the distance, I saw a lone camper. I raced over and immediately “deputized” him to drive to Alandale, the nearest U.S.F.S. Fire station. Seemingly more frightened than I was, he jumped in his car and sped off. I dashed back to the truck and grabbed a shovel.
Machine-like, I began tossing dirt into the inferno but to no avail. The wood frame that covered the bed was going up like kindling. Much of the roof was burnt open allowing flames to shoot skyward and embers to fly dangerously close to low hanging tree branches. I had to do something and fast.
I quickly got behind the wheel and drove this inferno on wheels as far from the trees as possible. I got out and returned to shoveling dirt faster and faster, all the while breathing in toxic smoke. I could taste it and my throat was raw but I didn’t slow down as the adrenaline was pumping through my body.
In the way of background, the Forest Service was divided into two employee categories: Fire Control, including macho firefighters and Recreation, which serviced campgrounds, trails and wilderness, considered hippie wimps. Apparently, I was willing to get injured (or die?) rather than be called a “hippie wimp.” Go figure.
As fast as I was throwing dirt it still felt futile. Until one moment, perhaps ten minutes into this process, I heard a slight dampening of the fire. Encouraged, I shoveled faster and with each toss of dirt, the dampening got louder. Amazingly, I was gaining ground.
Then I heard a fire engine in the distance. The Alandale crew were guys I knew well. I was determined to put the fire completely out before they arrived or face endless ridicule.
My throat on fire, my head and back aching, I shoveled faster than ever and could hear the thud of the dirt smothering the flames. Exhausted, I finally looked up and lo and behold, the fire was totally out. Kaput. (And, frankly, so was I.)
As the sirens got closer, I heard planes and helicopters in the distance. Meanwhile, I hurried behind the truck and posed like Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke.” I leaned proudly on my shovel to indicate to the arriving Alandale tanker, “Relax, I’ve got this.” Dizzy, I still stood tall (or as tall as someone 5’8 1/2” could stand) to deflect the barrage of jokes I was undoubtedly going to get.
The Alandale crew unrolled their hoses and began spraying water in mop-up duty but I didn’t hear a negative word, or what would have been worse, laughing. Not yet, that is. The foreman looked at me like he thought I was going to faint or was in shock. He calmly insisted I lie down in the tanker’s front seat.
My head was spinning as I closed my eyes while planes and helicopters circled above. It was like “Apocalypse Now.” On the tanker’s radio, I could hear chatter back and forth with headquarters in Riverside, “Jack Fire under control, heading back to base.” Jack Fire?! The SOB’s had named the fire after me. That meant I would live in infamy, at least for that fire season.
I was taken to Hemet Valley Hospital for smoke inhalation. Meanwhile, Fire Control investigators found the camper who confessed sheepishly he had put ashes in the trash can but thought they were out. Clearly, they weren’t. When I picked up his garbage I had no way of knowing there was a problem. That is until I smelled smoke and assumed the forest was about to be under siege.
I hadn’t thought of the “Jack Fire” for decades, until seeing news of the Cranston fire, which, thankfully, is under control. As written up in the L.A. Times, the residents and first responders of Idyllwild deserve credit for their preparedness.
I miss the people of Idyllwild. Actually, I miss everything about Idyllwild, except for a certain careless camper who gave me one of the biggest scares of my life. Then again, I guess he also gave these past two columns.
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and firstname.lastname@example.org