No Way Out
The Indian Hill Fire
Bear Lake, South Dakota
June 5th, 1986
Bull Dreger, crew superintendent for the Bear Lake Hotshots, looked around, tranquilly and contentedly at the view before him, taking in the glorious sights of the Mount Boaz National forest. His fireman’s pack weighed heavy on his broad shoulders and his fair, sun-beaten face continued to scout out the horizon. After hours and hours of cutting brush and digging up the firebreak lines with the help of the Mount Shasta Hotshots, a team from northern California, he was satisfied in thinking that at last they had contained the fire. But his contented state didn’t last for too long.
About a mile or two out, he could see the huge billows of dirty, yellow-black smoke pouring up into the air and small licks of flames flashing from the ground. In all the years he had been crew super, he had never seen anything like this before.
“Air Attack, Crew Ten how are we looking out there?” one of the helicopter pilots radioed.
“Uh…..We’re lookin’ ok for now,” Bull said. “We’ve got us a creepin’ fire comin’ up towards the hill. I’ll radio if in need of assistance.”
“Copy that, we’ll be on standby.”
All of a sudden, Bull spotted a small burst of flame coming up from the underbrush. It was a sight he had seen before, a spot fire from a stray ember that hit a dried out juniper bush. He squinted his eyes and within seconds he had seen the spot fire turn from a small, insignificant nothing into a burning patch that was almost as big as a house. A rather large gust of warm wind blew in his direction and fanned the flames towards the lookout spot. The thirty-nine-year old crew chief was suddenly overcome with a terrible feeling of dread…..a feeling that told him to go back the other way and get the rest of the crew to safety.
Bull turned back around and saw that the fire was advancing quickly across the dry, dusty plains; eating up dried ponderosa, cottonwood and scrubby Rocky Mountain juniper. Panic and alarm spread deep inside Bull’s mind as he moved further away from the lookout spot and began to head back towards Indian Hill. With every footstep Bull made in the dirt, he kept looking back over his shoulder only to find that the fire was getting closer. He could smell the smoke for miles and the intense temperatures that radiated off of the burning forest whipped at his back and left his reddened neck a sweaty mess.
Where in the hell are ya’ll…..? his mind questioned. Dear Jesus, please don’t let’em go any further……do not let them go down that hill…..
Bull picked up his pace, scrambling through the juniper and dried grasses, over rocks and ruts made in the dirt from wind and rainfall. Kelley Lee was leading both crews down the hillside, all of them marching in a straight line with their heavy firefighter packs on their backs and their yellow fire shirts darkened from the sweat that leaked out of their pores. They carried their pulaskis in their hands while the four sawyers carried the chainsaws on their shoulders. All of them were perfectly uniformed in their soot stained fireshirts and slate grey hardhats that bore the image of a black bear standing on its hind legs against the crescent moon. Kelley kept ordering everybody to keep up, occasionally dropping some very colorful curses when the lower ranks fell behind.
“KELLEY!!” Bull shouted as he rushed up the hillside.
“What’s up chief?” Kelley asked.
“All of ya, drop your gear and prepare a deployment site! Right now!!”
“I said get to it!!”
Kelley shouted orders for everyone to start getting rid of their hand tools. The skies grew dark and smokey with an eerie yellow haze as the deep blue disappeared from sight. The heavy smell of smoke choked their lungs and burned their throats dry, stinging their eyes until they ran wet with tears. The men and women hurled their tools away into the brush, sawyers revved up the saws that buzzed like a swarm of angry bees, cutting away a clear ring before tossing their saws out of the way. Sam, Josh, Kevin and Charlie hurried to light a backfire with their drip torches in the hopes that it would burn off the rest of the dried out fuel.
Bull looked around at each and every member of his crew through the showers of red-hot embers that rained down from the blackening, smokey skies. Some of them were just kids, others he had mentored when they first joined…..a terrible thought came creeping into his mind, creeping like the fires that would come sweeping down the hill and consume them all.
“Crew Ten, Air Attack, this is Bull Dreger of the Bear Lake Hotshots!” Bull spoke into the comm on the shoulder strap of his pack. “Air Attack do ya copy?!”
“Copy Crew Ten what’s your status?”
“My crew and I are trapped down here at Indian Hill with a team from California. We’ve got spot fires above and below us! The flaming front has cut off our escape route, we need a bucket drop right now!”
“Negative,” said the pilot. “We cannot get in to give air support at this time.”
No……..no, no…….please…..not now…..not now……
“Crew Ten, do you have an exact location and accountability for all crew members?”
“We are at the e----east em---embankment of Indian Hill….” Bull stammered.
“BULL!!!!” he heard Bob McAuliffe, one of the crewmembers call out.
Bull turned his gaze towards the north embankment where a huge burst of flame blew up into the air. His eyes grew wide with terror at the sight of the one thousand foot tall wall of flame before them and his heart hammered violently in his chest, hearing the winds howling along with the snapping and crackling of burning brush.
Shouts of “Deploy! Deploy the shelters!” could be heard echoing over the terrible roar of the flaming front that had now reached them. The firefighters loosed their packs from their bodies just as they had been taught to do in training, taking only the pack that contained their shelters and hurling the rest of their hindering gear into the brush. Trying to unfurl the shelters in those howling winds was a task that seemed almost impossible……one loose grip and the shelter would blow away, denying the crewmember his or her protection.
Some of them had barely bothered scraping a spot in the dirt before falling to the ground and sticking their feet towards the fire. As soon as they were inside, each one dropped to the ground and buried their faces in the cool earth, keeping their hands and feet firmly on the corners so that they would remain anchored in position as the firestorm howled over the hills
“A----Air Attack, We are in our shelters, waiting out the burnover.” Bull radioed again.
No more was to be said at that moment. Inside each of the shelters, the firefighters lay in wait, wondering what his or her fate would be. They lay next to each other, side by side with only that double layered blanket of shiny aluminum standing between them and the blasts of searing air that hit them over and over again, the radiant heat roasting their skin red. Some of them could hear muffled voices of their fellow crewmembers praying for their families, friends and loved ones, never once thinking about themselves. Tears streamed down their dirt and soot covered faces as they thought about their parents, husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends and their children. The last thing any of them had said to them was that they would see them as soon as they got home.
Mom……..Dad…….if I don’t make it, know that Grandmother and I will be together again…..
Chloe…... Take care of Thomas, Luther and the baby…..
Dear God……please get us out of here…..save us, save us all!!!
Pat……. You were my love, my life and my rock……know that I love you and the kids…..
Bob……you were my best friend……Melissa was the love of my life……I guess best friends who stick together, go down together……..
All of them lay there beneath their shelters, the air blowing over them and the hellfire reaching out to grab ahold of them all. Flame and fury spread throughout the hillsides, consuming everything in its path. Grass curled and crinkled into glowing orange embers, trees snapped, crackled, popped and clicked together in the storm that blew right over the firefighters and came right down on the hillsides. All they could do was lay there in the hopes that rescue would soon come.
Through the cloudy, overcast skies, a large helicopter known as 61 India, cruised over the blackened landscape with huge chunks of land charred and marbled black and grey. Long, black toothpicks stuck straight out of the ground, the remains of what once had been tall pines that dappled the hillsides of the Mount Boaz Forest. The buzz of its engines and the chop of the spinning blades were the only noises that could be heard for miles as the helitack crews searched for the missing firefighters.
“Hunley, you got eyes?” the pilot asked.
“Eyes above, eyes below,” said the young helitack.
Brian Hunley looked down at the ground from the open doors of the chopper, eyeing the apocalyptic scene before him. Nothing could have survived an event like this. His sharp eyes were suddenly turned to a lone figure, perched on a rock with the other survivors beside him, hard hat in hand and covered in soot and ash while the charred remains of ten other fire shelters barely poked out of the ash covered ground, some of which were still smoking.
“Air Attack, Crew Ten do you copy?” Brian radioed.
Seven long seconds dragged on before a reply came. “Crew Ten, Air Attack…….copy,” answered the forlorn voice of Robert McAuliffe.
“Do you have accountability for all crew members from both teams?”
Silence…..complete and dead silence……no words….no voices….nothing.
“Negative,” Bob choked. “We’ve got ten……four of ours….six from Mount Shasta.”
Brian’s heart dropped at the news. He had to clutch the side of the open door to keep himself steady. Ten firefighters, four from Bear Lake and six from Mount Shasta……gone.
“Air Attack, Fire Command,” Brian radioed. “We’ve found them……thirty alive…..ten fatalities.”
A crushing weight strangled his heart and a lump burned in his throat. Brian could barely breathe knowing that ten families would have to be informed that their loved ones had perished in one of the worst fires the state of South Dakota had ever seen. Until then, there was nothing more to do but pick up the pieces and the survivors.