Bull Tales

Jul 29, 2011

Caught in the line of fire

Dear WLJ Editor:

I apologize for missing the deadline on my monthly Bull Tales column. I was preoccupied at the time.

You see, I was headed into my office when I spotted a plume of smoke a couple miles southeast of my place.

So I hollered to my wife and told her what I’d seen. Then, whistling up my dog, we hopped on my ATV and took a quick ride to the top of the butte for a better view.

Shortly after I returned, a phone call came in and explained one of our neighbors had been baling hay. About halfway through the field, he glanced into his rearview mirror and saw the field was on fire and spreading uphill into his rangeland.

Our tiny ranching community has no fire protection. There isn’t enough public land for federal agencies to be interested. If they have a brush rig available, they’ll send it over to assist, mainly with the idea of keeping it from spreading onto their ground.

But that’s okay. My neigh bors have been fighting their own fires for generations. They know the turf and what works. Plus, they’re maximally motivated.

The younger and stronger guys were roaring off on bulldozers and ATVs to stop the front line. Several people rolled unburned bales away from the creeping fire and a few of us worked our way around the hay field moving handline irrigation pipe out of the smoldering path.

Shortly, I heard a heavy truck engine working its way across the field toward me. This is one of our community spray rigs—a two-and-ahalf-ton truck from the WWII era. It was operated by the brother of the man whose baler had started the fire.

“Hop in back,” he said, “I need a hose operator.”

Yours truly climbed up the side of the truck.

Now, Mr. Editor, I don’t know if you or anyone on your staff has ridden a deuce and a half through rough country on a cab-high flat metal water tank operated by an excited driver.

But, it’s a lot like mounting a dining room table on the back of a bucking bull and handing the rider a live python-like hose instead of a grab rope. The ride is breathtaking.

I didn’t get any points for style or skill, but managed a small score for surviving the incident. At one point, as I was skidding across the deck leaving black boot-heel marks, I recall bumping into something. The next time I slid across the tank in the opposite direction, I noticed the CB antenna had been ripped loose.

I think I got more water on the fire than the driver’s rear view mirror—but I’m not sure.

By the end of the day, the fire was burning in on itself. Most of us went home to get some sleep. It’s not easy, however, to get much rest with the smell of cold smoke wafting in the open window. My imagination is too vivid.

The following morning, way too early, we got a phone call saying the fire was headed in our direction. Coming out of a sound sleep, there are few things that clarify a man’s mind as quickly as hearing those words. A good cup of coffee doesn’t get close.

I spent the rest of the day on an ATV—avoiding the deuce and a half this time— with a bladder bag following bulldozers through the canyons and putting out spot fires which threatened to cross the fireline.

When everyone went home that night, the fire was, once again, burning in on itself. The next day dawned with no wind and 15 degrees cooler. Mop up began.

In the end, our little fire didn’t even make the news. It burned almost 2,000 acres of range. There were no bodies, we lost no barns, equipment or livestock. All agreed the grass next spring would be gorgeous. Outside of lost time, the only complaint was that more junipers—waterhogs of the desert—hadn’t burned.

I must admit, Mr. Editor, that I didn’t hop off the fire line and send my column off to you. I flopped in the sack and did little more than wiggle for a couple of days.

I promise I’ll do better next month. — Bing Bingham [Bing Bingham is a writer, rancher and storyteller. As you read this, he’s fixing his neighbor’s CB antenna. If you have a fire story to pass along, contact him at bing@ bingbingham.com.]