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Big Creek Forest Fire - Saturday July 29th

Sunrise
The sun rises over a smoky Paradise valley
Saturday July 29th, 2006 - 7:24 AM

Another beautiful sunrise greets me while I eat my breakfast and savor a warm cup of tea. I thank God for my early morning meal, for granting me another day and for allowing me to live in such a beautiful place. The remnants of a smoky forest fire across the valley add shades of pink and grey haze to this mornings sublime show. Called the Pine Creek fire, it is contained and about 25 miles away. Not bothered I ready myself for the day. Today is Saturday and I have 21 orders to fill and mail. My friend Debbie calls from Florida and we talk for an hour before I go to work. Part of our conversation is about the fate of my old log cabin in Connecticut which vandals set on fire many years ago. I jokingly state "the folks in Montana are much nicer. I do not need to worry about coming home and finding a pile of glowing embers". We both laugh. Later I head to Livingston to mail Branford Bike packages and enjoy the annual Garden Club tour.

Big Creek Fire
4:29 PM Pine Creek fire viewed from Livingston
Big Creek from Emigrant
4:57 PM Pine Creek fire viewed from Emigrant
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Route 89 View
5:06 PM Big Creek fire viewed from
Route 89 and Dry Creek road

Ifinished my chores in Livingston. The day was growing late so I decided to skip the Garden Club tour. The mercury was near 100 degrees and a stiff afternoon wind offered no relief. I drank a pint of cold bottled water while admiring the flowers in Sacajawea park. Then I got in my Jeep, turned on the air conditioning, picked up a fresh cup of latte and settled in for a cool and comfortable ride back home. Just outside of Livingston I shot a few pictures of the Pine Creek fire. It was picking up well but did not threaten any homes for it was confined to the high mountains. Later I saw a small plume of whitish gray smoke on the west side of the road and south of Emigrant. By the time I turned on to Dry Creek road the smoke was thick and dark; a bad sign meaning that the fire was now burning more than prairie grass. The stiff, hot, dry and steady southerly wind kept the smoke and embers low and forced it to flow over the hills towards South Glastonbury; the community I live in.

 
Hercules Road
5:17 PM viewed from Hercules road in South Glastonbury

As I snapped the above photo an Emigrant fire engine raced by with a few courageous volunteer firefighters in pickup trucks speeding behind. I followed them up Dry Creek road past where the pavement ends. The fire engine went up Glastonbury road towards the Dry Creek homes. I turned right on to Hercules road; South Glastonbury's main road into the hills. About a mile later I encountered a road block. I could see that the fire was still two to three miles south and west of South Glastonbury. I wanted to close the shop and house windows to prevent smoke damage. If time permitted I also wished to place a few personal and valuable items in the bomb shelter for protection. One person screamed "If you die they will hold me responsible." The other wrote down my plate number and threatened to call the Sheriff to "come and drag you out" if I proceeded up the private road to protect my private property. I turned my Jeep around and headed down the mountain.

 
Libra Drive
5:34 PM viewed from Libra Drive in
South Glastonbury with a 135 mm telephoto lens

Afew minutes later I turned left on to Libra drive. I drove over gently rolling hills covered with short grass and sage brush for about a mile. At the end of the road was a cute little red and white cottage with a statue of Mother Mary with the infant Jesus. It was a peaceful setting and I felt safe. I parked the Jeep and climbed a nearby hill. The fire was moving quickly to the west and north. From my vantage point it appeared that the fire would skim past the highest hills of South Glastonbury where I lived and worked on Sagittarius Skyway.

Helicopter
5:41 A helicopter ferries water to the fire 3 miles from Libra drive.
Close up view with a telephoto lens (135 mm)
Fire Clouds
5:42 A normal, human eye view
Shot with a 55 mm lens from Libra Drive
 
Steam and Smoke
6:39 PM Steam and smoke clouds viewed from Libra Drive

At 6:39 PM a three helicopter bucket brigade was making good progress in damping the fire and pushing it to the west, away from South Glastonbury homes. All three choppers were picking up water from nearby Storey pond and dumping it on the fire. The thick, black and dark brown smoke was replaced by grey white smoke and steam.
The brave helicopter pilots flew to my west into the flames and then returned for more water by flying south of my hill top perch. One pilot flew directly over my open hill top view point several times. When his water bucket in tow passed just 150 feet over my head I decided it was time to hike into a nearby ravine.

A Brave Pilot
6:40 PM A helicopter is dwarfed by a fire cloud and late afternoon sun
Chopper and Bucket
6:53 PM Close up view of a helicopter and trailing bucket
 
Fire Chopper
7:05 PM The sun and fire reflect off a Vietnam era helicopter

Three small helicopters flew steadily and dropped water from about 5:30 Saturday evening until just before sunset. They dumped thousands of gallons of lake water on the fire under dangerous, life threatening conditions. In the nearby Fridley Creek fire of 2001 a helicopter crashed and two fire fighters died. The helicopters have global positioning via satellite (GPS) navigation equipment, but they lack night vision equipment. Thus they can only fly during day light hours.

Fire Chopper
7:21 PM A fire helicopter heads towards the ridge west
of Sagittarius Skyway and my home
 
Fire Map
Contour map of South Glastonbury
Courtesy of Newwest.net

The contour map shows the houses in South Glastonbury. The red line is an intermediate fire line. The path I traversed, which ends at Branford Bike on Sagittarius Skyway, is drawn in yellow.
Due north is straight up. Note that the fire came from the west and moved east. Storey Lake can be seen to the east and slightly north of Golmeyer creek. It was a filling spot for the water dumping helicopters. Most of the Glastonbury roads are not depicted on this map.

 
Moving towards the fire
7:37 PM Heading up Golmeyer creek east of Hercules road

As I descended into the ravine I could see the fire moving towards the ridge beyond Branford Bike. Since the fire was moving away and settling down I decided to hike another two miles or more to reach my home and business. Slowly, I picked my way over steep, rock covered slopes in the blistering heat. I watched for signs of heat stroke; I moved carefully and slowly. Every five to ten minutes I would stop and rest for a minute or two. It was just enough time to catch my breath and let the cooling sweat evaporate. I was near the roads but stayed off of them for fear of being caught trying to protect my business and home. At one point a small single person helicopter without a water bucket flew below the tree line and close to me. I could see the pilot's eyes searching the forest just 150 feet away from my hiding place behind a large log covered with bushes. After 10 minutes or so he left. I waited a while and then carefully hiked through the dense underbrush to the corner of Hercules and Sagittarius Skyway. There I crawled under an abandoned trailer parked in the tall and unburnt grass. I was hidden from view but had a clear line of sight up and down the road and of the fire.

Sagittarious Junction
8:20 PM A helicopter makes a few more
water drops before calling it a day
Burning ridge
9:12 PM The ridge west of my home
and Branford Bike burns brightly
 
Night Fire
9:20 PM My trembling hands capture a slightly blurred photo
of a setting moon amidst light smoke from a subdued fire

While I was hiding under the trailer I saw a fire truck, a pickup truck and a Sheriff's department SUV driving down Sagittarius Skyway and away from the fire. The helicopters stopped flying around 9 PM just as the sun was setting. I rose from my rest stop and slowly hiked up the mountain towards my home and business. I was tired, hot and thirsty. My feet ached from clambering over the steep canyon loose rock slopes. My bare legs and arms were scratched and bloody from the dry, sharp underbrush. I felt fine though and had plenty of strength left in me. I pushed on, determined to reach my home and business so I could do my best to protect them from harm.

Fire in a dark forest
9:36 PM The fire moves west and north
of my home and Sagittarius Skyway

Just after 9:30 PM I clambered up a loose rock and dusty slope to Sagittarius Skyway. Thick, acrid smoke hung heavy in the rapidly cooling high mountain air. A few stars peaked out over Emigrant Peak to the east. The wind died down. To my west and north the fire was glowing brightly on the horizon but clearly moving away from me. I trudged on for another mile before turning the bend and cutting through the Aspen and Douglas fir forest that borders my home. I expected to see a fire truck or at least a fireman in the driveway or along the road. All was quiet; not a soul or vehicle was around. Fresh tire tracks revealed that someone stopped by and left in a hurry. Nothing was burnt; no smoke was emanating from the forest on my property. A closer inspection revealed that both my home and business survived the tremendous fire unscathed except for a little smoke damage inside the buildings.

 

The electricity worked fine as did the phones and the propane range. I drank four cups of water before finally adding crushed ice to a fifth and sitting outside on my deck so I could figure out what to do next. I saw flickering flames on a ridge two miles to the west and north of my home. Every once in a while the fire would flare up and the horizon would glow pink and orange. Just as quickly it would die down again. The thinning smoke directly to my west revealed a million brilliant stars; the central band of the Milky Way shone brightly overhead. I decided to stay at my home and reevaluate the situation in the morning. If all was quiet then, I would rise early, walk out to my Jeep parked 3 miles away, and drive to church. In a short while I rolled down my sheets and attempted to get some sleep. I rose several times during the night to check on the fire; every time it seemed weaker and more distant than the previous check. Once I heard an SUV coming up the road. It went past my house and then returned about 15 minutes later as it headed back down the mountain. The next morning an emergency worker told me that him and his buddy were sightseeing on Sagittarius Skyway Saturday night. They watched the fire jump over the last house on the road and burn the surrounding forest and grassland. He commented that "in the darkness the show was spectacular". I asked how many firemen and pumper trucks were present. He replied that everyone was gone; he thought that he was the only person on Sagittarius Skyway.
I finally caught a few hours sleep after 3 AM. I rose with the sun at 6 AM.

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