Authors: M. L. Buchman
Copyright Â© 2014 by M.L. Buchman
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Cover art by Don Sipley
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edicated to the man who led me time and again among the trees: my father.
A Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter refitted for firefighting operations.
On Earth, something is always burning!
âNASA “Fire and Smoke” website
Every fire mentioned here, except those fought by the characters of this book, was real.
Steve “Merks” Mercer hammered down the last half mile into the Goonies' Hoodie One camp. The Oregon-based Mount Hood Aviation always named its operation bases that way. Hood River, Oregonâhell and gone from everything except a whole lot of wildfires.
Foo Fighters roared out of the speakers, a piece from his niece's latest mix to try and get him out of his standard eighties “too retro” rock and roll. With the convertible top open, his hair whipped in the wind a bit. Hell, today it could be pouring rain until his hair was even darker than its normal black and he wouldn't care. It felt so damn good to be roaring into a helibase for the first time in a year.
Instead of rain, the sun shone down from a sky so crystalline blue that it was hard to credit. High up, he spotted several choppers swooping down toward the camp. A pair of Bell 212 Twin Hueys and a little MD500, all painted the lurid black with red flames of Mount Hood Aviation, just like his car. He'd take that as a good omen.
He let the tail of his classic Firebird Trans Am break loose on the twisting dirt road that climbed through the dense pine woods from the town of Hood River, perched on the banks of the mighty Columbia and staring up at Mount Hood.
This was gonna be a damn fine summer.
Helibase in the Oregon woods. Nice little town at the foot of the mountain. Hood River was big enough to boast several bars and a pair of breweries. It was also a big windsurfing spot down in the Gorge, which meant the tourists would be young, fit, and primed for some fun. The promise of some serious sport for a footloose and fancy-free guy.
He'd missed the bulk of last summer.
He hammered in the clutch, downshifted to regain control of his fishtail, and did his best to ignore the twinge in his new left knee.
Steve had spent last summer on the surgeon's table. And hated every goddamn second he'd been away from the fight. It sure hadn't helped him score much, either. “I used to be a smokejumper until I blew out my knee.” Blew up his knee would more accurate since they'd barely saved the leg. Either way, the pickup line just didn't sweep 'em off their feet the way you'd like. Compare that with, “I parachute into forest fires for the fun of it.” Way, way better.
And never again.
He fouled that thought into the bleachers with all the force he could muster and punched the accelerator hard.
Folks would be milling around at the camp if those choppers meant there was an active fire today. As any entrance made was worth making properly, Steve cranked the wheel and jerked up on the emergency brake as he flew into the gravel parking lot.
A dozen heads turned.
He planted a full, four-wheel drift across the lot and fired a broad spray of gravel at a battered old blue-and-rust Jeep as he slid in beside it. Ground to a perfect parallel-parked stop. Bummer that whatever sucker owned the Jeep had taken off the cloth covers and doors. Steve had managed to spray the gravel high enough to land some on the seats. Excellent.
He settled his wrap-around Porsche Design sunglasses solidly on the bridge of his nose and pulled on his autographed San Francisco Giants cap. The four winning pitchers of the 2012 World Series had signed it. He only wore it when appearances really mattered. Wouldn't do at all to sweat it up.
He hopped out of the car.
Okay, his brain imagined that he hopped out of the car.
His body opened the door, and he managed to swing his left leg out without having to cup a hand behind the knee. Pretty good when you considered he wasn't even supposed to be driving a manual transmission yet. And he'd “accidentally” left his cane at the roadside motel room back in Grants Pass where he'd crashed into bed last night.
So done with that.
Now he stood, that itself the better part of a miracle, on a helibase and felt ready to go.
He debated between tracking down a cup of coffee or finding the base commander to check in. Then he opted for the third choice, the radio shack. The heartbeat of any firebase was its radio tower, and this one actually had a tower. It looked like a very short fire watchtower. Crisscrossed braces and a set of stairs led up to a second-story radio shack with windows and a narrow walkway all around the outside. All of the action would funnel through there for both air and ground crews.
An exterior wooden staircase led in switchbacks up to the shack. The staircase had a broad landing midway that gave him an excuse to stop and survey the scene. And rest his knee.
He could have done worse. Much worse.
Hoodie One helibase was nestled deep in the Cascade Mountains just north of Mount Hood. From here, he could see the icy cap of the eleven-thousand-foot-high dormant volcano towering above everything else in the neighborhood. A long, lenticular cloud shadowed the peak, a jaunty blemish in the otherwise perfect blue sky.
The air smelled both odd and right at the same time. The dry oak and sage smell of his native California had been replaced with wet and pine. You could smell the wet despite the hot summer sun. At least he supposed it was hot. Even in early summer, Oregon was fifteen to twenty degrees cooler than Sacramento in the spring. Sometimes the California air was so parched that it hurt to breathe, but here the air was a balm as he inhaled again.
He inhaled again deeply.
Every wildfire airbase had it, the sting of aviation fuel and the tang of retardant overridden with a sheen that might be hard work and sweat. It let him know he'd come home.
The firebase had been carved into a high meadow bordered by towering conifers. Only the one dirt road climbing up the hills from the town a half-dozen miles below. A line of scrungy metal huts, a rough wooden barracks, and a mess hall that might have been left over from a summer camp for kids a couple decades back. You certainly didn't visit firefighting bases for the luxury of it all.
You came here for the fire. And for what lay between the radio tower on which he perched and the grass-strip runway.
A couple of small fixed-wing Cessnas and a twin-prop Beech Baron were parked along the edge. They'd be used for spotter and lead planes. These planes would fly lead for each run of the big fixed-wing air tankers parked down at the Hood River airport or flying in from other states for the truly big fires.
Then there was the line of helicopters.
The 212s and the MD500 he'd spotted coming in were clearly new arrivals. Crews were pulling the big, orange Bambi Buckets from the cargo bays and running out the lines for the 212s. The MD500 had a built-in tank. Someone crawled under the belly of each of the 212s and hooked up the head of the long lead line used to carry the bucket two hundred feet below the bird and the controls to release the valve from inside the helicopter.
There must be a fire in action. Sure enough. He could see the refueling truck headed their way, and it was not moving at some leisurely pace. Not just in action, but somewhere nearby.
With a start, he realized that he wouldn't have to go trolling off base for company. He'd always been careful not to fraternize with the jump crews, because that made for a mess when it went south. But if he wasn't jumping anymoreâ¦ Some very fit women would be coming into this camp as well.
He breathed the air deeply again, trying to taste just a bit of smoke, and found it. Damn, but this was gonna be a fine summer.
“Climb and left twenty degrees.”
As the pilot turned, Carly Thomas leaned until the restraint harness dug into her shoulders so that she could see as much as possible. The front windscreen of the helicopter was sectioned off by instrument panels. She could look over them, under them, or out the side windows of her door, but she still felt like she couldn't see.
She really needed to get her head outside in the air to follow what the fire was doing. Taste it, feel the heat on her face as it climbed the ridge. Could they stop the burn, or would the conflagration jump the craggy barrier and begin its destruction of the next valley?
She needed the air. But the doors on this thing didn't open in flight, so she couldn't get her face out in the wind. In the little MD500s she could do that; they flew without the doors all the time.
This was her first flight in Mount Hood Aviation's brand-new Firehawk. It might rank as a critical addition to MHA's firefighting fleet, but she was far from liking it yet. The fire-rigged Sikorsky Black Hawk felt heavy. The MD500 could carry four people at its limit, and this bird could carry a dozen without noticing. The heavy beat of the rotors was well muffled by the radio headset, but she could feel the pulse against her body.
And she couldn't smell anything except new plastic and paint job.
When she'd suggested removing the doors, the pilot had laughed at Carly. Well, not laughed; the woman looked like she didn't laugh much. But she certainly implied that Carly could never get her to do that. Whoever she was, the pilot was new to the MHA outfit and Carly didn't appreciate the brush-off. When she'd insisted, she was told she could sit in the cargo bay, which had a great view with the doors open, but only to the sides. At least the Firehawk doors, on both sides of the craft, had a large, rounded bulge in the Plexiglas window. That allowed Carly to lean over enough to see straight down, which would help once they were dropping loads over the fire.
Carly wanted the wide view through the forward windscreen, in addition to the smoky air stinging her eyes and clogging her lungs. Well, she wasn't going to get it, so she'd better focus on what she could have. She shoved her hair aside and leaned her head into the Plexiglas bulge in the door and stared down.
At her command, the pilot lifted the Firehawk another five hundred feet and tipped them left. As they topped the last of the ridge, the vista opened before her. The morning sun shone down as if it were another peaceful day in the forests of Oregon. Everything was quiet on the yet unburned west side of the ridge. Stately conifers climbed, stacked like pillioned soldiers, rank upon rank of forest dripping with intensely flammable pitch. The mid-July sun baking the stands of bone-dry timber didn't help matters at all.
Mount Hood towered to the east, its glacier-wrapped head glared in the morning sun and looked so close she could touch it. This fire was still reported as small, but it was in a remote and inaccessible corner of the Mount Hood National Forest. MHA had no other fire calls, so the Forest Service had dropped this one into their laps to snuff before it got too big.
Carly waited to see what the pilot did when they crossed the ridgeline. Some retired Army major suddenly flying fire. This should be interesting.
“You fly much?” Major was some kind of high rank. Carly wasn't sure how high, but definitely senior officer. The woman had probably been a desk jockey who only touched a machine once a year to keep her certification.
“First time in a year.”
Ka-ching, nailed that in one.
But the woman's voice had been dry. Or perhaps it was droll? Was she making some kind of joke?
“Ever flown fire?”
That almost earned Carly a laugh. “Not the way you're talking about it. Had to have a kid to do that.” Her age was hard to tell. The woman had a sort of ageless blond beauty. Thirty maybe. But how had she made senior officer by that age?
“What was your last flight?”
“Oil rig.” The way she said it was obviously a conversation ender so Carly let it die.
Maybe this Major had been thrown out of the Army for being hopeless. So bad that she'd even been chucked off the relatively mundane task of flying oil workers back and forth to their offshore rigs. If she was a Major and any damn good, rather than just having passed on her good looks, what was the woman doing in a Sikorsky Firehawk over a forest fire?
Though Carly had to remember that she'd often been discounted for being too pretty to know anything. Tall, slender, and bright blond hair, unlike the ex-Major's darker blond, always made guys assume she was an idiot, though even the densest ones soon learned she was way smarter, at least about fire, than all of them put together.
Carly had been up on a thousand flights over hundreds of fires. She'd seen them scorching across the hillsides from firebases since before her first toddling steps. She'd spent every summer of her life at air base camps. In her late teens, she'd gotten her red card and joined the mop-up teamsâendless hours trudging through clouds of ash and charcoal seeking any stray heat or scent of smoke.
Her college summers were spent hiking the burning hills with hotshot crews, chasing the active fire up close enough that the heat was a continual prickling wash across her skin despite the Nomex suits. She'd worked her way up the ranks, and now she lived at the helibases during the fire season.
Lead spotter. Senior fire-reader for Mount Hood Aviation, the contracted flying arm of the Goonies, the Oregon wildland firefighters. The Flame Witch. She rather liked the last one. Never reacted when someone called her that behind her back, but she'd considered it more than once for a bumper sticker on her old Jeep.
At the crest of the ridge, the entire vista changed. The clean green of comfortably resting Douglas firs and larch spreading across rolling hills to the horizon was replaced by the fire giants of lore and legend. The quiet legions on the western face of Saddlebag Gap had been transformed into towering infernos, shooting flames to twice their majestic height. Eighty-foot trees had been turned into two-hundred-foot-tall blowtorches.
The pilot didn't flinch. That was a good sign. More than one rookie flyboyâor flygirl, in this caseâhad simply lost it and returned them to base before Carly could even get a sense of the fire. They'd land with a full load of retardant still in the belly of the aircraft.
A complete waste.
At least something like that usually happened early enough in the season that it didn't cause too much trouble. When the late-summer monster burns rolled across the Cascade and Coast Range, a lost minute could mean success or failure in the firefight, even life or death for the ground crews.