The travails of fighting fire in wilderness: Fly in helicopters but rely on mule teams for supplies

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A team of mules had to pack supplies into firefighters on the front of the Salmon August Complex fires that burned from August to October in the Klamath National Forest.

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts. The Salmon August Complex burned from July into October. The final U.S. Forest Service post about the complex fire was Oct. 6. From the middle of August until early September, Battalion Chief Mark LaMont of the Idyllwid Fire Department was a division group supervisor on the Wallow Fire, one of seven fires included in the Salmon August Complex. The first part appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of the Town Crier.

By JP Crumrine

News Editor

As division group supervisor, Mark LaMont was preparing to head out to the fire front. He studied the maps for the three “Rs” — rivers, ridges and roads. These might be areas where his group could thwart the spreading fire.

“It’s wilderness, so roads were out of the question,” he said. “There were some river drainages, but the number one tactical advantage would be ridge lines. That was one of the first things I looked for on the topo[graphical] maps.”

With his plan, equipment and experience, he was ready to transport to the fire. Getting to the fire zone was a special experience, too.

The first leg of the trip was a 40-minute helicopter jaunt. Once he landed, he then had a 5-mile hike.

“My first thought was, ‘Wow!’ This is going to be as taxing a trip as I’ve ever been on,” he said. “The logistical support was overwhelming. It was an extremely remote locale.”

After arriving and assessing the situation, he realized it was getting worse. The smoke was deep and unrelenting; visibility was negligible.

“I had to plan on three or four days without any aircraft support,” LaMont noted. “If your plan depends on aircraft, you need a new plan.”

The lack of air support and availability created another worry for the group leader. “What if someone got injured and needed medical treatment?” he asked himself. “I was very anxious about all the lives on the line that I’m responsible for.”

To get supplies to the firefighters, base camp went “retro.” Mule teams became an absolute necessity. While able to bring sufficient supplies, such as food, the mule teams still required four days to arrive.

Until that first pack team arrived, LaMont and his team worried about running out of food. “I had to pay attention to how much food was being consumed. There was only a 96- to 120-hour supply.”

And he worried that the firefighters’ morale might weaken, affecting productivity. But then it arrived and they had Alaskan fish, burritos — fresh food in the evening. “Meals cooked over campfires,” he said with a smile.

Besides the food, rest is another important ingredient for firefighters. That included finding a comfortable place to sleep. “Almost impossible,” he added. Again, after three or four days, he was finally sleeping well.

Idyllwild Fire Department’s Battalion Chief Mark LaMont is a member of the Southern California Incident Management Team 1. This summer, the team was called to the Salmon August Complex fires in the Klamath National Forest. Here, LaMont poses for a portrait at the site. Photos by Mark LaMont

As they prepared to combat the conflagration, LaMont said, “When you arrive, there is a slight difference between what you perceived before leaving base and what you see on the ground. The fuels are always bigger and drier,and the terrain steeper.

“Several times I felt my plan was not going to work,” he said. The fire kept making longer runs. While they were essentially keeping up with the fire’s progress, every day was new and predictions were of limited value.

On the third night, they were lighting fires to try to stop or slow the Wallow Fire. But the fire was more than expected. Firefighters were torching fuel and the wind was favorable, but the results were not quite what was expected. But the wind changed and the back fires did help.

On day nine, LaMont learned he had charge of a second division, too. Getting to these firefighters was an hour-and-40-minute trip.

His teams successfully slowed the fire. It was not contained, but its spread was limited. After 16 days on the line, LaMont’s time was up. After another hike, he was flown back to base.

“My knees were destroyed, my hips hurt and flat ground felt different from all the time on the steep slopes,” he said.

Looking back, he acknowledged, “It is very difficult walking away from an unaccomplished task. It’s my least favorite moment when time is out and I don’t have completion.”

And his top priority that day was calling his wife to let her know, “I was out OK!”

He also had to prepare his replacement. He explained what he would encounter and what to plan for the next week.

“That last flight, I was watching the crews and they watch as you fly away,” he said with remorse. “They’re family that you’re responsible for.”

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