A SusanvilleStuff Feature
by Jeremy Couso
Over the years we have grown used to fires here in Susanville.
Other places have tornadoes or tsunamis or hurricanes, but here in northeastern California we have fires… awe-inspiring walls of flame that eat through mile after mile of forests, sagebrush, power lines, homes or anything else it finds in its path.
It’s hard to even comprehend what you are looking at when a 50-foot wall of flame roars through sagebrush or timber at speeds measured in miles-per-hour, and yet it’s a sight that those who have lived here for any length have time have found almost commonplace.
As I write this, almost 250 square miles of northeastern California is on fire. Homes and livelihoods are threatened and the wildfires have touched almost everyone around us in some way, or another.
In the middle of it all there are thousands upon thousands of fire fighters whose job it is to leap, immediately and unhesitatingly, into the jaws of danger.
That’s no exaggeration either, these are men and women who hear a call on a radio and race to their trucks, because when you are fighting fires, time is never your ally.
Five or ten minutes are an eternity when you are battling wind, heat and fire. Every second, every minute counts.
But this isn’t really the story of all those firefighters; this is the story of just one.
Because sometimes when it comes to man against nature you find that the outcome of the war really does depend on just one person… and that one person can make a profound difference.
I don’t know the guy’s name, although it’s a small town and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out I actually do know him, but for now he is just a voice on the late night Cal-Fire frequencies.
During fire events like this, when SusanvilleStuff is covering breaking news, we leave the radio scanner on all the time so that we always have good current information.
Late Friday night, after the storm rolled through our area, we listened as crews tried to locate and contain multiple fires west and north of Susanville. Small fires were spotted along the Eagle Lake ridge and up through the Willow Creek and Horse Lake areas where lightning had stitched an angry path across the county earlier in the afternoon.
Then came the report of a lightning fire burning in rugged terrain southeast of Eagle Lake. The fire had been spotted from the summit, but at night no aircraft could be used for reconnaissance and there were no direct roads into the forested area.
So in the dark, with a flashlight and a radio, this one guy went off hiking into the woods to find a fire.
We all sat listening to the radio and wondered out loud – what do they call him? Is there actually a name for this job? Is he a ‘smoke-hiker’ or ‘fire-walker’?
All we knew for sure is that in the dark of the night this guy had set off on his own through some of the most intimidating wilderness in the county searching for a fire, walking through woods that aren’t easy-going in the daytime, in conditions where smoke filled the air, and made visibility almost zero.
Here at the office we were getting updates on the Rush and Chip fires, and while we were putting together our SusanvilleStuff updates we listened in rapt attention to our smoke-walker’s regular reports as he made his way down the side of the mountain into the old Paul Bunyan logging area, and up a ridge, for more than two hours.
Clawing his way through areas with no road to speak of, crossing gullies and heavy timber… he didn’t know it at the time, but the next morning crews reported that there was a large bear in the area of the fire!
And after two hours of hiking in the dark smoky night through road-less forest, our hero found it… a single pine tree burning in heavy undergrowth which in itself was on fire in every direction for 50 to 100 yards.
It’s a fire that merits attention. This is the same exact spot where in early August of 1977 a behemoth of a fire made residents of Lake Forest Estates and Susanville hold their collective breaths for more than a week as the flames engulfed Eagle Lake Summit.
I’m old enough to remember the fear in town as people prepared to evacuate the neighborhoods around Cherry Terrace, and at night from town the entire hill to the northwest glowed red as the fire burned. First up, then down, and on then across the Eagle Lake summit.
And now in the same spot 35 years later one man had climbed out of his truck into the dark smoky forest and hiked two hours to make sure that it wasn’t going to happen again.
After a short discussion over the radio it was decided that a hand crew was needed to stop the spread of the blaze as quickly as possible. Our ‘smoke-walker’ then began the almost 1-hour trek back out from the fire to meet the crew, turned around and guided them back to the fire as quickly as possible.
He did it. That one man got the hand crew into the fire and they put it out before it could spread any further. And in doing so he made sure that the fire remained just another insignificant number on a fire map, another of the hundreds of fires that ‘might have been bad’ if heroes like him hadn’t of stepped in to help us during the last week.
At 2:30a.m. as our unnamed ‘smoke-walker’ finally signed off with the Cal-Fire dispatcher who had been his guide along the way all during the night, the last thing we heard him say on his radio was, “ok I will get back with you when the sun comes up.”
Now that is a hero.