Chapter 1-1

2089 Words
1 Steve Merks Mercer raced along the last half mile into the Hoodie One camp. At least that’s what everyone else called it. The Oregon-based Mount Hood Aviation always called itself MHA as if they were too professional to have a sense of humor. The firefighting outfit had been around for decades, and they’d been good, but something strange had happened here. Suddenly, MHA—twenty miles out of Hood River, Oregon, which was hell and gone from everything except a whole lot of wildfires—was the ultimate post. Something had changed up on that remote hilltop. Now every wildland firefighter wanted in but MHA only skimmed the very cream of the crop. MHA became like the ultimate street gang of the wildfire scene—hence Hoodie One. Foo Fighters roared out of Merks’ 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 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. Quite how he got the call up for Hoodie One though, that definitely eluded him. But they called and he’d laid down the big hammer on his Firebird Trans Am and came a-running. Instead of rain, the sun shone down from a sky so crystalline blue that it was hard to credit. High up, he spotted several helos swooping down toward the camp. A pair of Bell 212 Twin Hueys and a little MD 500, all painted the lurid black with red flames of Mount Hood Aviation, exactly 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 pine woods from the town of Hood River. The small town perched on the banks of the mighty Columbia and stared out at Mount Hood. From the road up to Hoodie One, he could practically reach out and touch the damn thing, eleven thousand feet of potentially active volcano owned the whole sky. This was gonna be one fine summer. Helibase in the Oregon woods. Nice town at the foot of the mountain too. Hood River was big enough to boast several bars and a pair of breweries. It was also a big windsurfing spot down in the Columbia River Gorge, which meant the tourists would be young, fit, and primed for fun. The promise of serious sport for a footloose and fancy-free guy. And fire. He’d missed the bulk of last summer. He drove in the clutch and downshifted to regain control of his fishtail, doing 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 be more accurate since they’d barely saved the leg. Either way, the pickup line didn’t sweep ’em off their feet the way it had in the past. Compared with, I parachute into forest fires for the fun of it! had ranked awesomely 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 helos 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 number of 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 half a bucketful 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 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 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. Absolutely 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 short fire watchtower. Criss-crossed 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 Mount Hood’s icy glacier cap worn slightly askew. A long, lenticular cloud shadowed the peak, a jaunty blemish in the otherwise perfect blue sky—the Hood was tall enough to make its own weather up top. 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. He 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. Ah, there. 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. MHA’s firebase had been carved into a high meadow bordered by towering conifers. Only the one dirt road climbed up the hills from the town twenty miles below. The camp itself was typical: a line of scrungy metal huts, a rough and rambling wooden barracks, and a mess hall that might have been left over from a summer camp for kids a couple decades back. A body certainly didn’t visit fire bases for the luxury of it all. A firefighter came for one thing, the thrill of the fire. And for what lay along the far side of the grass-strip runway. A couple of small fixed-wing Beech Bonanzas and a bigger, faster twin-prop King Air were parked to the right end. 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 beating heart of the operation, the helicopters. The 212s and the MD 500 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 MD 500 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. It was used to carry the bucket two hundred feet below the bird and the controls to release the valve from inside the helo. There must be a fire in action. Sure enough. He could see the refueling truck headed their way, and it was not moving at a leisurely pace. Not merely in action, but also 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 anymore… A few fit women would be coming into this camp as well. He breathed the air deeply again, trying to taste 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 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 MD 500s 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 Sikorsky Black Hawk converted to Firehawk felt heavy. The MD 500 could carry four people at its limit, and this bird could carry three times that 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 pilot and copilot doors 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 was 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 seemed to be looking over her shoulder. 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. A retired Army major suddenly flying fire. This should be interesting.
Free reading for new users
Scan code to download app
  • author-avatar
  • chap_listContents
  • likeADD