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Good pay and good fishing

by Warren Illi
| July 21, 2022 12:00 AM

Here it is, mid-July, and we aren’t breathing unhealthy air from forest fires. We can be thankful for a cool wet spring, so lots of forest vegetation is still mostly green, not yet burnable.

In the last decade or two, large forest fires have occurred with increasing frequency. Experts have come up with a number of reasons for these more frequent large fires. But that is a subject for another column on another day. What I want to share with you today is that forest fire fighting is not always hot, dirty and exhausting work. Firefighting can be exciting and challenging, and sometimes fun. Here’s an example.

When I was a young man, in the late 1950s, I fought forest fires throughout most of the West, including Alaska. Wages from fighting forest fires paid for most of my college education. Myself, and many other young male firefighters, loved the challenges, hard dirty work and good pay of fighting forest fires.

While there are probably many other old retired smoke-eaters in Montana with more fire experience then me, I suspect, I may be the only old smoke-eater that fought a forest fire north of the Arctic Circle. Yep, about 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle!

I graduated from college early in the spring of 1961 with a degree in forest management. That degree and a lot of firefighting experience, landed me a young man’s dream job of fighting forest fires in the interior of Alaska. So, in the spring of 1961, I flew to Alaska where I received more fire training, then waited for the fire season to start.

On a late June evening I received a call from our fire dispatch office asking me to attack a forest fire along the Alatna River in the Brooks Mountain range, about 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The fire was about 75 miles from the nearest road or town. So, Bob Johnson, the Bureau of Land Management pilot and I drove to the Fairbanks airport and loaded his two engine amphibious aircraft, a Grumman Goose, with fire pumps, hoses, gas, food, drinking water and other fire equipment. An hour or so later we were over the fire.

Keep in mind this is the land of the midnight sun, so it was semi-daylight, even at midnight. The fire was along the east side of Alatna River, in some spruce timber. The river was about 100 yards wide, but mostly too shallow to land the loaded amphibious aircraft.

I climbed into the back of the aircraft and attached the fire equipment to cargo chutes, opened the cargo door and dropped the fire supplies near the fire.

We then flew to the nearest native village where I hired eight men to be my fire crew. Since we couldn’t land our aircraft in the Alatna River, we landed on a nearby lake, about a mile west of the fire. As we were landing, one of the native men mentioned this was a good fishing lake. I passed the fish comment to the pilot.

After unloading the crew, the plane returned to Fairbanks and l hiked the crew across a timbered ridge to the Alatna River. The river was about 100 yards wide and most of it could be waded. But the main thread of the river was 8-10 feet deep. None of my native crew could swim. So, we built a raft from some dead spruce trees and poled our way across the river.

We spent the next eight days on the fire, until it was dead out. Then, I radioed Fairbanks to send up a helicopter to ferry the men and equipment back to the lake, where the Grumman Goose would pick us up.

I was on the first helicopter load to the lake. While sitting on the shore waiting for the rest of the men and equipment to be shuttled to the lake, the Goose landed. The plane had to remain in mid-lake, otherwise the prop wash would blow the helicopter over. As the plane drifted on the lake, I saw Bob, the pilot, slide open his pilot window. Out came his telescoping fishing rod with a bright metal lure dangling from the line.

The lure dropped into the water and I could see the pilot jig the lure up and down. I thought he would never get a fish. Wrong! A couple of minutes later, he hauled up a nice 4-5 pound lake trout. Five minutes later, in came another trout.

About this time the helicopter finished its job of delivering all the fire equipment and men to the lake. We had two plane loads of men and equipment. So, I loaded the native crew into the airplane and flew them back to their village, finished the employment paper-work, then flew back to the lake. Two other BLM employees had flown up with the pilot. One of them suggested we try some fishing. No one disagreed.

Packing a telescoping fishing pole was a standard item in my wilderness firefighting pack. The pilot fished out the sliding pilot’s window, I fished out the co-pilots window, Another guy fished out the cargo door and the last man fished out the passenger door. So, we trolled up and down this Brooks Mountain Range mountain lake in a twin engine aircraft, catching fish. What fun!

Then, the weather started to close in, so we reluctantly stopped fishing, closed the doors and windows and flew back to Fairbanks.

What an adventure for a young man! Good pay and good fishing. Could life get any better? Who says that forest firefighting is all work and no play!

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