Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

August 19, 2021
I once fought a wildfire and won

I fought a forest fire once.

I hesitate to mention it. I was an amateur. It was a small fire. 

My experience was nothing like fighting the huge blazes that are currently burning in the west and northwest.

But I got close enough to giant flames and felt the heat of the fire enough to have a lot of respect for the firefighters that put their life on the line to protect our land, people, and communities.

I worked at a Boy Scout camp in Washington state during the summer for many years. 

Each year, as part of our staff training, we learned how to build a clean fire trail around a forest fire.

Many Boy Scout camps were located way out in the boondocks. 

If, for example, an errant Scout were to accidentally start a fire, it might take a long time for firefighters to reach the scene. Fire advances quickly in the dry outdoors. Time is important in containing a blaze.

But our camp was located on a populated lake with a very well trained and competent community volunteer fire department. And we were only 20 miles from the state’s capital city.

Old-timers told stories about the fire that destroyed this camp or that camp here or there, as well as a lot of other property. Sometimes the fire wasn’t started by a Scout.

So it was required by the National Boy Scout Council’s summer camp standards that camp staff be trained in firefighting.

We had a bright red chest of firefighting tools kept in our Scoutmaster’s lounge building right off of our parking lot. 

Provided by our state Department of Natural Resources, the chest contained enough tools for two firefighting teams. I can’t remember the names of all the tools — there were axes, pulaskis, grub hoes, suppression rakes, bow saws, water cans, and an eight food long cross cut saw.

Each year, after learning how to use the tools, the box was sealed shut to make sure that if a fire broke out the tools would be there, instead of borrowed for something else and never returned.

It was the summer I was 17, my third year working at the camp. Our camp ranger — resident caretaker — was a former U.S. Forest Service worker. He took the fire crew training to a much higher level. 

We were split into teams, assigned a tool, learned how to use it, and what our place was in the firefighting line.

We had a real fire drill. They lit a huge pile of combustible junk on fire and rang the alarm — an old ships bell on the dining hall. We ran to the box, grabbed our tools, waited for instructions on the location of the fire and took off and built a trail down to dirt around the fire.

Little did our ranger know his application of the Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” would be used that summer.

I worked in the dining hall. Our camp intercom phone started to ring one afternoon. I picked it up and was instructed to sound the alarm. This was a real fire, not a drill I was told.

I rang the bell until it rang in my ears when I stopped.

Scouts and leaders gathered as instructed. Staff responded to the big red box as trained.

Out in the middle of nowhere, maybe a mile or two off of the county road, the wilderness survival merit badge people were camped.

Apparently one of the Scouts started a fire, before being instructed to do so. The instructor called the group together for instruction. The early bird fire starter returned to his overnight shelter to find his fire burning halfway up a tall Douglas fir tree.

That’s what we were told.

After I was relieved of bell ringing duty, I ran to the parking lot, grabbed my tool — I think it was a grub hoe — and ran, yes I ran, to the scene of the fire.

I joined my team as we dug a trail around the fire in the direction the wind was carrying the fire. We started the trail far enough out from the fire so we could work safely as the fire progressed.

I didn’t pay attention to how much time had passed. We were nearly done with our trail on the advancing side of the fire when the wind shifted. 

Now we had to box in the fire on the other side.

As we were almost finished completely encircling the fire, the DNR fire crew arrived and the local volunteer fire department also showed up at the scene.

While we finished the firebreak and the fire burned within our circle, the two fire departments were overheard having a discussion, not quite an argument, about whose hose they were going to use to put out the fire.

One department said they had just got back from a fire, had cleaned their equipment and didn’t want to get their hose dirty again.

After more than a few minutes of discussion the decision was made to use the pump from one department to pull water out of a nearby small stream and to use the other department’s hose.

Collaboration, cooperation, and compromise.

I slowly walked back to camp, exhausted from running, worn out by the labor, and ready to collapse as the stress hormones wore off.

Perhaps in a divine foreshadowing of a future occupation that I didn’t know at the time I would ever have, as I reached the parking lot I saw a man get out of his car with a small notebook in hand.

He approached me in my sweat drenched and smoke infused Boy Scout uniform, complete with short pants and knee socks,  and identified himself as a reporter from our local newspaper.

He said he heard something about a fire at the Boy Scout camp on the scanner in his newsroom.

“Too late, it’s out,” I said, and I walked away.

They estimated the fire consumed 5 acres.

The next summer I walked back to the site of the fire. You could see a little erosion from the rain and some small green leaves popping out of the ground. Nature was doing its best to restore the area.

Over the years I visited that place a few times. For awhile it was a great place to pick huckleberries, red huckleberries.

Now that’s a story for another time — my mother’s red huckleberry pie.

I didn’t even know there was such a thing as blue huckleberries until I spent a summer in Jackson Hole.

Tim Gillie

Editor at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Tim has been writing for the Transcript Bulletin since October 2017. In February 2019 he was named as editor. In addition to being editor, Tim continues to write about Tooele County government, education, business, real estate, housing, politics and the state Legislature.A native of Washington state and a graduate of Central Washington University, Tim became a journalist after a 20 year career with the Boy Scouts of America.

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