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Fighting forest fires
JOHN GIBBS is a resident of Gays Mills, Wisconsin. He is an award-winning weekly columnist for the Crawford County Independent newspaper in Gays Mills, Wisconsin.

GAYS MILLS - TV watching at the Gibbs house currently consists of watching quite a bit of news about politics and the Corona virus situation. Some of the political talking heads seem like old friends by now; we know what they’re going to say before they say it. The heightening tension of the upcoming election is like a train wreck, if you’re a ‘fan’ or a concerned citizen, it’s hard to look away. And the evolving Covid-19 story isn’t evolving fast enough to suit us, as the rest of the world seems to have figured out how to effectively combat the pandemic better than we are.

So it was quite interesting, as a change of pace if nothing else, to see TV coverage of the terrible California forest fires currently raging there. It didn’t take long to be completely gob smacked by the size and seriousness of the record setting fires of 2020 in the Golden State. Wild fires here are measured in acres and sheds, California fires are measured in square miles and houses lost. 

Anyway, it put me in mind of the only forest fire I ever fought. It was when I was working at the ZX Ranch in Paisley, Oregon, where I spent three summers during college in the early 60s. I was on the haying crew which consisted of five swathers, five balers, and enough trucks to haul the bales to stack yards for the winter feeding of 10,000 beef cows.  The baling crew of 15 worked 11 hours a day, seven days a week; every day in the eastern Oregon desert country that was perfect haying weather. We prayed for rain and a day off and our prayers were answered.  The answer was ‘No.’

However, we were right on the edge of the desert. From our machines, we could look west and see mountains and timber. We were in the rain shadow of those mountains. The Fremont National Forest bordered the valley where we made hay. Well, one summer, there was a forest fire. We could see the billowing smoke and, at times, flames. One thing I remember was that every night the fire died down, the cooler night air and lack of wind dampered down the fire. But every morning, the fire picked up again where it left off. This went on for several days.

Finally some ‘neighboring’ ranchers, 20 miles away, put out a call for help. The fire was threatening their cattle and buildings and several members of the hay crew were called into action. I was working at the shop at the ranch headquarters at the time and was told to quickly drive the water wagon up to help fight the fire. I was quite excited, this was the best excuse I’d ever had to drive fast.

The water wagon had other ideas. It was a heavy duty WWII military relic that was designed for work, not speed. The ranch used it to haul water out to remote, unfenced desert grazing areas and it could go anywhere you aimed it, just not fast. I got her up to about 45 and that felt (and sounded) like enough. Oh well.

A fireman used the water from the wagon to hose down an old wooden barn the fire was advancing on. We volunteers proceeded to cut barb wire fences to let cattle escape the blaze.  We also had wet burlap sacks we used to snuff out fires in a grain field as embers blew into the field from the burning evergreen forest that surrounded it. It felt like a new version of Whack-a-Mole.

Oh, it was exciting. Nobody got hurt and we did some good. It sure makes you feel small when you’re dealing with a raging forest fire. One day a week or so later, we had a pleasant surprise: turns out we were on a government payroll as we worked on the fire. We got checks for $3 an hour compared to the $1.11 (plus room and board) we were getting at the ranch, the minimum agricultural wage at the time.