Facing my first test on the fire line
by Lee Rentz
The summer of 1969, now so many years ago, was a time when I was a young nineteen years old and a long way from home. It was my first summer job during college, and I had travelled out west to California, where I started work in June on an initial attack fire crew on the Lassen National Forest. Stationed at Bogard Guard Station, I worked as a crewman on a fire tanker truck. My boss, a man built like a military vehicle, was affectionately known to all as "Tank."

Several weeks went by without any fires. We spent our time sharpening shovels and Pulaskis for use on the fire line, inspecting linen fire hoses for leaks, hauling tankfuls of water to fire lookouts, and generally making sure we were ready for a long fire season. In my spare time I explored the wild country in this beautiful corner of California. The forests were open ponderosa pine woodlands carpeted with aromatic brown pine needles; vast sagebrush-filled meadows gave a sense--and scent--of the old west.

Then one late June evening a thunderstorm rolled over Lassen National Forest, and the fire lookouts reported scores of lightning strikes scattered over the high country. The next morning an emergency siren sounded: I grabbed my yellow fire shirt and hard hat and ran to meet Tank at the firetruck. After briefly looking at the map to plot our best course to the fire, we left the fire station with our siren wailing and lights flashing.

The ride to the fire was a bone-jarring trip over dirt roads through the back country. About two hours later we spotted a small column of blue smoke rising in the distance; we were lucky that day and were able to drive right to the fire. Lightning had struck the top of a very tall, old, and dead ponderosa pine snag, and we could see orange flames at the very top of the tree. It would have to come down.

Tank surveyed the lean of the tree and decided which way he could make it fall. My job was to scrape a fire line around the place where the tree would (hopefully) fall so that the fire couldn't take off in the sagebrush.

When I finished my fire line, Tank solemnly came over to me with a long coil of string. He explained that with fire burning in the top branches, this tree had the potential to be a "widowmaker:" that is, a falling limb could easily kill him. Since his concentration would be fixed on the three foot diameter base of the tree where he was sawing, he would be unable to watch for limbs falling from above. That would be my role. He tied the string to his wrist and had me uncoil the string and walk to a safe place 150' away where I could watch the tree. I was to hold the other end of the string and to watch the tree. If a limb started to fall, I was to yank the string and point in a direction where he could safely escape.

He revved up the big McCullough chain saw and began slicing through the old tree. Here I was, a young kid holding the responsibility for life and death in a piece of string. I was terrified that something would go wrong and I would be responsible for the death of a fine man.

Fortunately, the tree fell where Tank planned; no limbs came crashing down unexpectedly, and I made it through my first big challenge on the fire line without disgrace. With the tree down, we used water from the tanker truck to put the fire dead out, then headed back to the station.

The rest of that summer out west brought plenty of fresh challenges of fires big and small. I saw whole trees explode into flame and came away from each 16 hour day exhausted and proud. That summer was a big step toward becoming a man. I still have fond memories of Tank; he took me, a green kid from the Midwest, under his wing and helped make me an aggressive firefighter. I still think he was the best boss I ever had.

The photographs above were taken during subsequent years on the fire line, when I was older and tougher than I was during my innocent summer of '69. The bottom photo is a self-portrait in 1972 after a long day on a big fire; I took the photo by holding the camera in my hands and pointing up at my face.
The summer of '69
1969 was an eventful summer for the nation as well as for me. While I was fighting forest fires in California, men from Apollo 11 walked on the moon for the first time. The country was still stuck in the mud of Vietnam. It was the summer of Woodstock. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. Gosh I feel old as I write this.
Story and photographs Copyright © 2000 by Lee Rentz
Copyright © 1999 by Lee Rentz. All rights reserved.
Your phone and e-mail messages and inquires are welcome
Phone & fax: 360-427-5310
E-mail: leerentz@ix.netcom.com

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