It was a gorgeous Saturday night, Sept. in Montana's mountains the weather was hanging onto summer's 70 degree temperatures, warm and dry. Working all day at the hospital and finishing some of my home preparedness projects gave me a satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. Time to relax, I sat down, put my feet up and was sipping my week's end treat, a cold beer. I phoned my friend, “Brett” to finalize our plans to butcher a few of his farm animals tomorrow. He was finishing a Bible reading with his boys and was putting them to bed, and would call me back in a few minutes.
It was quite strange, as soon as I hung up, the phone immediately rang. It wasn't Brett, it was “Eric.” His voice had a tone and panic I'd never heard before. Through his hollering and shouting I gathered a forest fire had just erupted a mile from his home. He was pleading for me to get to his parents' home and tell them he is being evacuated! He was about to loose his house, horses, tools, everything. His call ended any type of relaxing for this Saturday night.
Eric and I have been friends for years. We live about 30 miles from each other. His parents and I are only 5 miles apart. He was unable to phone them. They have discontinued their land line, living tucked away on the side of a hill, far in the country and far from cell service. We of like minds prefer it that way don't we?
My job in the health center was to train staff to respond to emergencies. We prepared for heart attacks, missing children, chemical spills, the usual. I am also a martial art's instructor and former fighter. Eric's call had ignited my fight or flight response dumping adrenaline into my body. My mind was racing, hundreds of thoughts and ideas all at once. I had just let my guard down. It was my time to relax, but my friend needed help. His request, and my urgency was to notify his parents, get people to the scene!
“Should I ride my Harley”? It would be quicker than my truck, but the thought of being in a smoky fire on a motorcycle wasn't appealing. I'd ridden it before during a bad fire season a few years ago, the memory of the smoke stinging my eyes and my lungs burning made my decision easy. I ran to my truck.
Oh adrenaline, how amazing you are..more thoughts flooded my mind, simultaneous, in a moment, “grab my boots, Carhartts, jacket, chain saw and Pulaski to fight the fire. I'll need my cell phone and lights, No, don't waste time get going! Hurry! I can always come back for my gear. It's only a few miles. Got to get to his parents! The fire was at least 30 miles from my home. My two daughters were safe, my wife was out for the night, the animals were all in their pens, go now, go fast!”
I blasted off in my truck. My mission, my friend's request was clear, notify his parents. I took off wearing a pair of worn out sneakers, blue jeans and a T-shirt, no wallet, no ID, no phone. I raced my pick up to Eric's parents' home. “I can come back for my gear” disappoints me to this day.
Completing my mission caused another families' Saturday night to change quickly, crying, disbelief and shock. It took them an eternity to accept this, get dressed and get on the road to help Eric. I followed them at 80 mph for the next 30 miles. Of course, we got stopped for speeding but the considerate officer knew of the fire situation and let us go, no ticket. I hope he reads this. I'd like to thank him.
As the miles passed, the outline of the mountain tops were easily seen glowing a dull red. Smoke was now thick from the burning trees. I shut the truck's air vents. As we turned off the main highway I was suddenly cut off by a frantic heard of deer, several horses and a few dogs. They were crisscrossing the old road running wild. The fire was spreading quickly. I wondered, what I was getting into? This isn't safe. This really happening!” My friend needed help, there was no hesitation, only my commitment.
The country dirt roads were not made for the traffic created from fire and pumper trucks, pick ups and trailers. The dust from the vehicles choked any attempts at normal breathing. I wrapped a bandanna around my nose and mouth but they were already dry and burning. It was quite dark but the glow from the fire and headlights created an eerie radiance. Any form of light was now encased in an evil combination of smoke and dust. Nothing was seen clear. Nothing was for certain. My Saturday had changed so quickly I couldn't keep up.
My thoughts drifted to how valuable my gear would have been. Great planning and preparedness on my part. I never drove back to gather my equipment. I even have it organized for this type of grab and go situation. Wondering if the extra time spent would have been worth it? Saving those few minutes and racing off could prove costly.
My instincts told me to drive my truck. My gas tank was rarely below ¾ full, and true to my nature, I'd even topped it off after work. I had a full tank, (no wallet). I always stocked my first aide bag, pistol, extra mags, leather work gloves, 120 ft. of rope, jumper cables and a spot light in my truck. I plugged in the spot light, holstered my pistol, put on my gloves, grabbed the first aid bag and rope and set them on the front seat. I lit up the spot light and in this smoky confusion of animals, firefighters, trucks, trailers and flashing lights, I found Eric. He was standing in a grass field, sweating, dirty and holding two of his five horses.
I jumped out. Eric was in shock, my friend and brother needed help and lots of it! I used my 120 foot rope and several of us banded together forming a human fence. We were able to coral two more frightened horses. It took several attempts and over an hour to trailer those two. We roped off others and tied them to the trailer Like us, they were scared. confused and running on adrenaline One horse, was cut and bleeding bad. Her chest and legs sliced open, looked like she tangled with barb wire. I released my right hand from the rope and rested it on my pistol, assessing her, wondering?
One lady was standing alone in the middle of the dirt road, trucks and trailers driving around her. I grabbed my first aide bag and went to her. She was stiff, didn't speak, didn't answer my questions. I checked her, no signs of injury, B/P and 02 sats were within normal limits, pulse was racing, whose wasn't? No cuts or bruises, shock. I drove her down two miles to the small country town, Lakeside where others had gathered by the Red Cross station and were sharing information and horror stories.
I could hear conversations of those who needed to get gas at this time of night, without success. Most stations were closed and the one that was open was choked with long lines, and taking credit cards only. Beautiful 350 Turbo powered Cummings trucks sitting, going nowhere, without fuel. Frustrated drivers, swearing, pounding their fists on their hoods as the fire threatened their homes.
One lady was standing in shorts and a tank top, great for the warmth of the day but more than exposed to numerous dangers in this situation. Her home was directly in the fire's path. She had called the police prior to attempting to go to her home. They told her not to worry she would not be evacuated. By the time she got home, the fire had changed directions and she was not permitted to go near her home.
Eric had made several phone calls and other friends arrived. Some were quite prepared, some not. With his friends there to help him, all Eric could do was stand in disbelief, mumbling, “I've lost everything. I've lost everything.” I held both his arms, looked him square in the face and reassured him he hadn't lost everything. “There still is time. Look, your house is right here, the fire's still up on the mountain top. What can we get out of it? What's first?” He didn't answer. He ran off to get a chain saw.
What are his priorities? What did he want out of his home? If his house did burn down what is important to him? We may only have this one chance. How can I help? What do I get for him? birth certificates, insurance papers, cash, guns? Where is all this?
Then amongst all the fear and shock, unexpectedly, an angel gently touched my arm. It was Eric's mom. She was a calm in all this confusion. Her and Eric's dad are older, not in the prime of health and took a little longer to find us. His dad, Charles may not be in his youth but he sure proved his efficiency on the front end loader. Charles took up his position on Eric's loader and immediately started pushing over smaller trees and brush, dragging them away from the house and work shop. He was also building 10 ft high mounds of dirt around the house at the same time. He was amazing! Efficient, productive, we were making gains now! We were on the offensive! We rallied behind their calm wisdom and experience.
All too sudden, it was quite, very quiet. The front end loader stalled while dragging a tree and wouldn't start. After several attempts to restart it, the battery died. At this moment I felt the weight of the Red Sea crash in on me. I felt the fatigue. I was exhausted. I couldn't breath. My knees, ankles and feet were throbbing, the past few hours walking, running and tripping in unfamiliar fields and dirt roads had taken its toll. My boots were now worth millions.
“My boots, my gear, Wish I would have....wait! I always carry jumper cables in my truck! I hobbled to it and eased into the front seat. Shifting and pushing the clutch sent waves of pain through my battered ankles and legs. I drove through the field right up to the Bobcat and popped open my hood. Charles had been trying to restart it and grabbed my jumper cables. In a few short minutes, we had her running again! Guess I wasn't that sore after all and Charles didn't seem quite as old.
As I moved my truck out of Charles' path, the headlights caught an outline of Eric at the base of a tree. He found his chainsaw and had started to cut down the larger trees close to his home and shop. Charles could push them away from the house once they were on the ground and the fire would not have any fuel. Great idea.
Eric was halfway through a 60 ft. Tamarack and found his chainsaw had no fuel either. He ran out of gas and had none stored. Vehicles, people and animals all racing in the glowing dark and now a 60 ft. pine tree ready to come down at any time. We had an experienced logger, a Stihl chain saw but no fuel. This was very dangerous and we created it.
Tired, thirsty and frustrated, I lit up the tree with my spot light and parked my truck sideways on the dirt road blocking any traffic from the North. Others stood on the South side and stopped any flow from their direction. Charles inched the Bobcat closer and closer and was able to push over the 60 ft. danger without incident. We all sighed in relief.
The whole night was filled with events like this, success mixed with failure. You never experienced any one emotion for more than a few minutes. The burning fire created a constant urgency in everything we did. The eerie backdrop of a mountain glowing red with an uncontrolled fire wouldn't let us rest.
Time changed that night. It would slow and pause for a moment, then by the time you blinked the smoke out of your eyes and it sped up creating situations and forcing immediate decisions throughout the night. There were times when I was watching all this unfold, far away from the fire, danger and confusion. There were times I was in the middle of everything, eyes stinging, scared, tired, wanting to do more for my friend.
1) Take the next step, if you have been preparing, don't let up.
2) Emergencies seem to happen when we let our guard down
3) Do not become drunk with wine or strong drink
4) Help your friends prepare.
5) When a situation occurs, it will probably be at night and dark, you'll be hot or cold and definitely tired
6) You respond they way you practice/prepare
7) If you do not practice or prepare............things will get ugly
8) Little things we do on a daily basis, our habits, make big differences in crisis situations
9) Have fuel
I'd like to thank Mr. Rawles and your blog page. I've been a regular for almost two years now. It has been very valuable to read it and your books. You have given sound advice and enhanced my sense of preparedness. Because of your mission people were better off in a Montana wild fire. I hope and pray similar situations never come again but I feel it is only a matter of time. When the next one occurs, I will be even better prepared and will react with more efficiency thanks to you and others like us.
Since I initially started writing this our weather has changed. In a 48 hour period it has gone from sunny and 70 to 4 inches of snow, icy roads cold, and minus 4 degrees at night.
God Bless us all. - Daniel in Montana