CHAPTER Seventeen: FIRES AND STORMS

    Sunday felt very strange to Greg. Partly it was knowing he wouldn’t see Vic again for two weeks. Partly it was that he was completely alone on the refuge. Usually - except for Vic - he didn’t see much of the Andersons on the weekends, but they were always either there, or back soon. Now, he couldn’t expect to see anybody until Tim arrived Monday morning. It was a lonely feeling.

   Out of habit, he was up early. He ate a quick snack, then went down into the woods. Now that nesting was well underway, most males had stopped their courtship singing, and it was pretty quiet. You could see plenty of birds if you took the time, but they were furtive and inconspicuous. After about a half-hour, Greg gave up and went back up to the office. He checked the weather station, and recorded the temperatures (a pleasant 70 degrees yesterday, a chilly 38 that morning) and rainfall (none). He made a quick check of all the buildings to make sure everything was secure. (Why wouldn’t it be? he asked himself.) Then, he was done.

   He went back home, and cooked a real breakfast. After that, he brought a second cup of coffee out onto the porch step, but Vic’s absence was just too poignant. He went back in the house, cleaned up the breakfast dishes, read for awhile, and listened to the news on the radio. After that, he just sat around, waiting for Monday.

   During the week, Greg did his usual wildlife counts (lots of duck broods in evidence, now, mostly mallards and teal), and adjusted the water levels in several of the ponds. Other than that, he and Tim spent the entire week around headquarters, doing minor repairs of buildings and preparing them for painting.

    On Wednesday, Greg and Tim were working on the outside of the bunk house, when a government vehicle pulled into the yard. A man in Fish and Wildlife Service uniform – maybe a little younger than Chuck – got out. Greg walked over to meet him.

   “It is a god awful long way out here,” said the man. “I didn’t think I’d ever get here. And I don’t think I saw another car after I left town”

   “That was pretty much my sentiment the first time I drove out. I thought for awhile I was lost. Of course, you missed the morning rush.”

   “Morning rush?”

   “Local joke. In the morning, we have the school bus and the mail truck. In the afternoon, it’s just the school bus.”

   “Yeah, I can understand why I thought I was the only one who traveled that road.. Hey, I’m John O’Brien, manager of the next refuge to the northeast. I was in a fire management meeting in Boise, and thought I’d visit another refuge.  Is Chuck around?”

    “Family vacation this week and next. I’m Greg Cleveland, his assistant – just got here in April.”

    “Pretty new to be left in charge. Everything going okay?”

      “Yeah, it’s not a complicated refuge. With our maintenance man Tim’s help, I’m doing okay. Say, do you have time for a quick tour to see the sights?”

   He did. Greg introduced him to Tim, then they took a couple of hours to wander the refuge roads. They chatted about the refuge operation. Greg mentioned the attempt at water theft, and also described the songbird migration.

   “I’m surprised that Chuck is still here. It seems like he would have moved on, by now.”

   “I think Chuck and Alice decided to stay here until the girls graduated from high school. Victoria, the oldest, just graduated last month. Amanda has one more year. Then, I think Chuck will find another spot. I admire them for thinking it’s important for the girls to go all the way through high school with their same classmates.”

   “That is great. It’s hard to accomplish sometimes, with our types of jobs. What about you? What are you thinking about for future employment?”

   “Having this refuge as my first assignment is kind of a good news--bad news situation. For training purposes, it’s good because I have to get involved with everything that happens. But in another sense, it’s not a very good training refuge because there just isn’t that much happening. I think a refuge with a broader management program would have been better. I suspect I’ll move along next spring – either by choice, or because the Regional Office will be ready to move me.”

   “Any geographic location you’re thinking about?”

   “I’ve lived in California my whole life. This is the first time I’ve been gone from there for more than a few days. I think I’d like to get more familiar with Idaho, or somewhere else in the intermountain area. I mentioned the songbird migration. I enjoy being in a place where there are new wildlife discoveries to be made.”

   They drove in silence for awhile. “You know, my refuge might be just what you’re looking for. We have a small farming program, and more marsh management than you can do here. We’re closer to town, so we get quite a few visitors. The university is only an hour and a half away, so there’s always potential for student projects. I mention it because my assistant will almost certainly be leaving next spring, and I’ll have that slot to fill. If you like, when the job comes open, I’ll mention to the Regional Office that you might be a good candidate.”

   “Sure. That would be much appreciated.”

     After John left, Greg took some time to think about their discussion. He didn’t know if he wanted to stay working on wildlife refuges, but certainly the kind of refuge described would give him a much better feel for what they were all about. Of even more interest was the thought of being only an hour and a half away from Vic through her last three college years. The possibilities were tantalizing.

 

   Being alone on the refuge through the nights wasn’t as bad as Greg thought it might be. He went inside when it grew dark, listened to the radio or read until bed time, and then slept fairly soundly. It was only Saturday and Sunday that were big problems for him. The thought of the porch steps without Vic was too painful. He spent most of both days indoors, even though the weather was warm and lovely.

   Monday morning, he had only been in the office for a few minutes when the phone rang. He answered it.

   “Oh, goody!” said a familiar voice. “I hoped you’d come to the office before you went anywhere.”

   He never imagined he could be as pleased as hearing that voice made him feel. “Is this an official call, Miss?”

   “You better believe it. I officially love you, I officially miss you, and I officially was dying to hear your voice.”

  “Well, being as how it’s that official, I guess I can take a little time to discuss business with you. How is business, my lovely Vic?”

   “Other than I just ache to be with you, we’re having a lovely time. We’re at Grandpa and Grandma Andersons, right now. Grandpa gave me a long distance call to my boyfriend as a birthday present, so you can thank him for me passing on the gift to you.”

   “I do thank him, sincerely.”

   “We’ve seen the place where I was born, and where Mandy was born.  We’ve seen various cousins and friends. We go to visit our other grandparents tomorrow. It’s been really fun.”

   “I’m really glad, Vic.”

   “So, how has it been for you? Have you been as bereft as you thought you would be?”

   “It’s been pretty tough, all right. Saturday, I made my coffee, then I brewed a cup of tea. I took them and your prom picture out on the steps, and sat for an hour. The photo and the tea helped. I’m getting pretty fond of the photo, but I think a real, live woman would be more satisfactory.”

   “So I haven’t been replaced entirely?”

   “If I may be serious for one moment, Vic my love, you are irreplaceable.”

   There was a moment of silence on the line. “That’s good,” she said.

   They chatted for a few more minutes. “Tell your Dad that we had a visitor, the manager from the next refuge northeast of here. His name is John O’Brien, and he says he knows your father. He was at a meeting of some kind in Boise and, as he’d never been in here before, he decided on a little detour. He said that it is – and I quote – ‘a god awful long way out here.’ He stayed a couple hours, and I gave him a little tour of the refuge. It was a nice break for me, to meet another refuge person.

   “Other than that, things have been pretty quiet. Tim and I haven’t killed each other yet, and we’re getting a lot of chores done. We have had a number of lightning storms, and there are a few range fires burning in the vicinity.”

   A few more minutes of each trying not to end the phone call, and then she was gone.

 

   The daily electrical storms continued. Most had lots of lightning, but little rain, and the number of range fires in the vicinity increased. When Tim came to work Tuesday morning, he said that one to the north of the refuge was visible from the top of the grade. He and Greg drove back up there, so Greg could see it.

   The actual ground over which the fire was moving wasn’t visible, but Tim explained what was probably happening. “Most of that country is fairly open cheatgrass, with clumps of sagebrush. The cheat is pretty puny in this dry year, but there’s enough fuel there to keep a fire moving once it starts. It runs really quickly across the cheat, with almost nothing to cause smoke or create big flames. Then, it hits the sagebrush, and kind of explodes with all that new fuel. We probably couldn’t see flames from here, but you’ll see these really big plumes of smoke suddenly appear whenever the fire gets into the sagebrush. The burning sage creates enough energy to start the next area of cheatgrass burning, and the fire marches on. Okay, right there! That big column of smoke rising right now says the fire just ran into an area of sagebrush.”

   There wasn’t much to see from that distance, but an occasional helicopter or spotter plane appeared from time to time. Tim guessed that a ground crew of maybe a dozen firefighters were on that particular fire, with a couple of bulldozers working the fire lines. They returned to headquarters, and continued with their house painting.

   Just before noon, they were surprised to see a government pickup coming from inside the refuge, rather than from the highway. The occupant was a Bureau of Land Management fire management officer, who had been out evaluating the same fire they had been watching. He had a proposal.

   “It’s likely that this particular fire will continue to burn to the west. However, if it came south toward the refuge, there’s the possibility that it could burn all the way south to the highway. What I’d like to do is start a backfire on the refuge.”

   “A backfire? What does that mean?”

   “We could use your farthest east pond as a backstop, purposely light a fire there, and start it burning to the north.  By controlling where it went, we could create an area of burned-over land. If the main fire decided to move south, it would reach that burned area, and would stop for lack of fuel. We wouldn’t have to worry about a southern escape, anymore.”

   Greg knew nothing about fire management. He suggested they go out and look at the actual site proposed. He asked Tim to come with him. The location the BLM man had in mind was just inside their eastern gate; in fact, in the area where the water pirate had diverted water. At most, it looked like maybe two or three acres of sagebrush and cheatgrass would burn on the refuge.

   Tim took him aside. “There’s almost no chance that fire will ever get close to the refuge. Both the terrain it’s burning over, and the wind direction, are against it happening.”

  “From what he said, the BLM guy agrees with you. He’s just looking at worst case possibilities. Tell me, why do they need to start the backfire on the refuge. Couldn’t they go somewhere halfway between us and the fire, and start their burn there?”

   “The trouble with controlled burns is that they’re only ‘controlled’ until they’re not. They could make a bulldozer fire line, and set the fire north of it, but there’s always a chance that something could go wrong – maybe they don’t get the line wide enough, and a big shift in the wind occurs, or sparks from their burn fly over their line, and ignite the vegetation on the south side. What they like about the refuge is that our water area is a definite backstop; there’s almost no chance of their burn getting away to the south.”

   Greg pondered. “Well, this is a decision I’d gladly let Chuck make, if he was here. If I say no, and the unbelievable happens, it’s going to be bad for Chuck and for the refuge. If I say yes, does anything worse happen than we have a couple of charred acres of land?”

   “Probably not, said Tim, “But I would make it clear that no mechanical fire lines – no bulldozers – can be on the refuge. The controlled burn has to be done completely with personnel.”

   “Is that realistic?”

   “Sure. That’s why they want the marsh as their backstop, rather than a dozer line.”

   It was agreed that BLM could make their backfire the next morning.

 

   Wednesday morning, Greg and Tim drove out to watch the BLM fire crew do their job. After a little shovel work to establish a line, the fire was started. It quickly burned north, and out of the refuge, charring only a couple of acres. Greg took a few pictures. With the help of the crew, the fire  continued slowly north. There was a burned area of maybe 20 acres when Greg and Tim went back to headquarters.

   Yesterday, after returning from the fire area, Greg had checked the refuge manuals for what to do in case of fire. He quickly learned that this small, cooperative fire was going to take as many reports as if the whole refuge had burned. He left Tim with the painting, and got on with the report writing.

 

   There had been another dry lightning storm during the afternoon, and the radio reported several new fires caused by lightning strikes. None were near the refuge. Greg finished his paperwork, chatted a bit with Tim before the end of the work day, and then retired to his house.

   About 11 o’clock that night, he heard the first distant rumbles of thunder. They woke him, but he didn’t think much about it, and dozed again. By midnight, the storm had hit with full force, and could no longer be ignored. Unlike the others that week, this one was rain-filled, and he could hear it pounding on the roof. The roar of thunder was continuous, and there was often no pause between one lightning strike and the next. Several bolts hit nearby, and one was so abrupt and jarring that he thought it had to have targeted something within the headquarters area, itself. He went to the door and looked out, but didn’t see any flames, so figured he couldn’t do anything until the storm abated. It continued at nearly full force until about three in the morning.

   By dawn, the skies were clear, and rain puddles were the only obvious signs that anything had happened. He turned on the radio while he made breakfast. On the news, he heard that “a severe electrical storm accompanied by heavy rain  moved across the Magic Valley area Wednesday night and early Thursday morning.” (Do tell!) “Old timers said the storm was one of the worst electrical storms they could recall.” (Even considering news reporting hyperbole, and the imperfections of elderly memories, Greg thought that was probably accurate.) “The rain put out five range fires in the Shoshone District of the Bureau of Land Management that had been started by lightning.” BLM had sent their fire crews home. So, their little backfire was even less meaningful that it had seemed!

   When Greg got to the office, he found more storm damage. The telephone was dead. He went outside to look at the metal box that he knew held the telephone connections. Down the side of it was a long burn mark, almost certainly caused by the closest lightning strike in the night. He didn’t know anything about telephones, but he assumed that the wiring in the box was probably fried.

   Tim arrived while he was pondering that, and confirmed his speculation. Since they had no way to contact the telephone company, Tim offered to go back to his ranch and call from there. Greg agreed.

   “I suspect there may be a lot of electrical problems around the area,” said Tim, “but probably not too many telephone issues. Hopefully, we can get a repairman out pretty quickly.”

   While Tim was gone, Greg looked around the compound for other signs of damage, but couldn’t find any. He assumed the other close lightning strikes had been on trees down in the woods. He checked the rain gauge, and was surprised to find only about a half-inch recorded. In many parts of the country, that amount of rain wouldn’t even be worth mentioning, but in the arid West, it was significant. It had certainly come down hard for awhile.

   Tim returned with the news that the phone could be fixed that afternoon or tomorrow morning. That was hopeful. While Tim finished the painting on the manager’s house, Greg drove to the east gate and back, checking for any damage. There wasn’t any. Their backfire area showed as just a lonely little black spot in an otherwise spotless landscape. Greg thought that the paper needed for the fire report might just about cover the damage.

 

   The telephone repair didn’t get done that day, but the repairman came early Friday, and had the phone working before noon. Tim and Greg finished up the last bits of painting on the various buildings, and cleaned up after themselves. Tim and Greg both went home for the weekend.

   About an hour later, Greg heard a vehicle approaching. The Andersons were home. The engine  had barely stopped, and Greg was barely down his front steps, before Vic had exited the car in a rush, dashed across the space between them, and hurled herself into his arms. His brief thought as she started to kiss him was “So much for not flaunting our feelings in front of parents!” That thought was completely forgotten in the ensuing few moments.


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