Charles Schmidt: Helping on the 49er Fire, however we could
I operated Charles Tractor Service in Grass Valley back then. I thought I could be of some use with my Kubota and special brush rake I’d made, that even some Japanese people came here to look at.
My tractor was small but I moved a lot of Manzanita commercially with it, and I could carry and stack it, unlike a dozer that just piles it up. But Cal Fire felt I would just be in the way and turned me down.
So I reported to the base camp at the fairgrounds, with my brush rake on and nosed around for things to do. Right away, pallets of generators, food, parts, fire clothes, tents bags and all manner of stuff to support firefighters was dropped anywhere off of trucks. I’d find out where the pallets needed to go, my brush rake would fit in the pallets and off I’d go to the appropriate staging area in the base camp and deliver the pallet.
Getting there, staff would have me look out for something they needed quickly. So I’d track that down at the drop pile, and deliver it. I worked out of the Admin table with a team from Redding, to get dispatched to solve other problems. Big crews came down from Redding to put this thing out.
I was a HAM operator and had my pickup with a tall steel camper on the back. A terrific antenna platform. Communications between Cal Fire units, though not known as Cal Fire then, were pretty poor with just handhelds. And the battalion chiefs knew the name of some place to report in the woods, but not how to get there. There weren’t many places in the county I hadn’t been and worked. So they used me as a taxi to get them to the fire scenes; and my steel roof and mag-mount antennas to improve radio reception.
HAMs had repeaters all over the place, and I could get info out of a hole and relay it back to command, that way for them. The Amateur Radio Club here had “Shadows” with the fire captains, Red Cross and a number of people in charge.
Then as the firefighting took its toll on equipment, the Redding repair trucks would be dispatched, but had no idea where to go. So they would follow me into the fire zone to reach a dead truck.
My most memorable one was when I left the utility truck and crew up in a meadow on Jones Bar at Owl Creek. It was a real inferno down Owl Creek. An engine with brake failure was reported down in Owl Creek. I knew the road got quite narrow down there; hence leaving the utility guys up on top.
I’d driven in fire before somewhat. As a kid in Montana, my father was United States Forest Service, and we used to bring strange things to staging areas and fire lines. So I felt confident enough to go down, since there was no wind apparent and the flames were going straight up. So I went down there to the bottom and couldn’t find that engine. I got back out with flames on either side of the road 30 feet in the air. We called around and finally found the dead truck towards the end of Jones Bar, on Yuba Trail, if memory serves.
Towards the mop-up phase I would guide engines to smoke calls from civilians. Most of these were unnecessary as in many of these places there wasn’t anything left to burn. But homeowners were jumpy then. We were sent over to Personeni’s land on Jones Bar and Bitney Springs area. Some kids showed up and were running around the burned-over hill there. There was a lot of “skunking” and “skunk-holes” there. Since the engine was there, the crew killed a few hot-spots and they had me warning the kids to stay out of there. Well, adults are always warning kids of dire disasters waiting for them; so they pretend to pay attention but take their own way when they get a chance. I knew they would be running around there as soon as we left.
So I gathered the six or so of them up and showed them how to approach an area downwind, using their nose to detect “fresh” smoke, through the acrid burn smell that pervades. And how to walk with a sound stick, the longer the better. When I detected a “skunk-hole” smoke, we all stopped to see that everyone got it. And we approached slowly and used the stick out ahead to listen for the hollow “lid” on the hole. These are underground burned-out tree root holes 3-6 feet deep and have a crust “lid”over them that looks just like the forest floor to the untrained, and often trained, eye.
I spread them out so they could all see what I was talking about, and told them of the inferno that waited to toast them alive two steps in front of them. To add to the warning, I told them that if they fell in they would instantly be paralyzed and burnt to a crisp in seconds.
Disbelief on their faces, but not so much now. I broke the crust with the stick and they all jumped back as the white-hot pit growled at them and singed some eyebrows. Soon they were able to work their way back, nearer the edge to look down into iron-melting heat; and learned a lesson, I’m sure.
When I wasn’t on the road somewhere, working at the Admin desk at the Fairgrounds fire camp, I got the constant updates. I remember having 72 dozers in the staging or on the line, from all over the West. I learned that some operators make their living following the fires. They often defy death doing the things they do with that machine. And death takes some of them.
While I was working there, volunteering to help them however I could to help out my town and county; they got my name address, phone and social. They needed all that in case I got killed they said.
Unbeknownst to me they had other motives in mind. In the winter when things are wet — this is when things were wet and cold — tractor work was scarce, as is therefore money. Pleased and surprised was I to find an $1,800 check in the mail. I had been hired on without knowing it.
Charles Schmidt lives in Grass Valley.
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