Who Am I?

My photo
A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

20 August 2014

The 2014 Cherry Drying Wrap-up

As many of you know, I live in Florida but spend my summers up in Washington State where I do the odd job of drying cherries by helicopter after it rains.  Thing is, it doesn’t rain much in the interior of Washington State, which makes it a good place to grow cherries.  But when it does rain, the farmers freak-out because too much rain is bad for their crop. (They can always add moisture if needed via irrigation.)   Cherries absorb moisture, and if they absorb too much they’ll split open and be rejected by the packing plant.  We helicopter pilots (and there are dozens of us from Oregon north to the Canadian border) sit around on “stand-by” waiting for it to rain so we can go out and do our thing.

Some years it rains a lot.  This past summer was particularly dry; we hardly flew at all.  Plus it was blisteringly hot – over 100 degrees nearly every day in July.  So we sat around…inside mostly, trying to keep cool.  There was not any relief in the evenings – most days it wouldn’t get below 90 until after nine p.m.!  So much for lazy, evening barbecues.

The season started early, and for some reason it caught us by surprise although it shouldn’t have.  Normally the growers want their stand-by charges to start in mid- to late-June.  This year the spring was unseasonably warm which accelerated the cherry growth.  Thus, when we got some rain in early June the farmers all hit the Panic! button.  It nearly caught us with our pants down.

After that initial spate of flying, the probability of precipitation dropped to zero and stayed that way in the forecast through Christmas.  Oh occasionally a little stray shower would make it’s way across the Cascades and into our orchards.  I flew a little in the middle of June, a little at the 24th of June, and then not again until July 27th.  Can you say, “boring?”  I knew you could.

Then there was The Fire.  Officially it is called The Carlton Complex Fire.  It started on Monday, June 14th near the little town of Carlton which is northwest of us in Brewster.  So far it has consumed over 250,000 acres and more than 300 structures.  It is being called the biggest fire in the history of Washington State!  Although it is pretty much contained (98%), it still burns today, August 20th. Some say that it won't be completely out until the first snowfall.

By Wednesday we knew the fire was serious – the smoke was really heavy.  And since the smoke was right over us, we knew that we were downwind of the fire – not a good place to be.  By Thursday it was approaching the towns of Pateros and Brewster.  We went out to eat at the local Mexican restaurant, and watched the fire come over the hill and down into town.  People were racing around, evacuating the hospital, trying to save homes in its path while we calmly (blithely?) munched on burritos and drank Dos Equis (although I don’t always drink beer, but when I do…).  It was kind of surprising to see.  The area around Brewster is mostly sagebrush and fruit orchards, so we didn’t think it would get as bad as it did.  But it did!

Brewster was spared, but Pateros got hit hard.  Many homes were burned to the ground, including the topless mayor’s.  Power was out because the fire burned the wooden power poles which took down the lines as they fell.  All in all it was pretty hairy.

Fortunately our beloved SweetRiver Bakery was spared.  But the whole town was out of commission for about a week due to the smoke/ash damage and no power.

The Washinton DNR’s (Department of Natural Resources) response to the fire had been…uhh…“late and inadequate” are the only terms that can be kindly used.  They really could have put the fire out while it was still small (all fires start small).  But they did not; their efforts were apparently directed more at containing it, which they could not do because the weather started getting really windy.  One morning we awoke to find that the management of the fire had been taken over by crews from California.  Suddenly we were seeing many more aircraft of all type fighting the fire as well as a more concerted effort on the ground.

The fire threatened the three locations at which we keep our aircraft, but thankfully it never came too close although we did move aircraft out of harm’s way a couple of times just to be safe.  I am assigned to a job at a remote orchard north of Brewster up near the town of Okanogan.  With my helicopter moved to a safer location, I sat in my RV one night watching the fire approaching…cresting and then descending a nearby hill as it made its way down toward “my” orchards.  I stayed up, ready to leave at a moment’s notice.  But by morning we saw that the fire stopped at the edge of the orchard, as it usually does.  There’s lots of moisture in those cherry and apple trees.

Then the fire just…sort of…went away.  The winds shifted/died, everything burnable around us had already burned, and we got a little rain.  Suddenly we were out of danger.  But the fire had put a damper on everything, stifled our ability to have “fun” when so many people had lost so much.  You’d be in a restaurant and overhear people talking about their house had burned to the ground and they’d lost everything.  It was heartbreaking. It was not enjoyable. Usually I stick around after the cherries are all picked, but this year as soon as my contract was over I left.

It’s still summer down here in Florida, with daily temperatures in the mid-90s.  I walked out of my house the other day and was suddenly hit by the heavy, humid air.  So different than the dry 100-degree heat of interior Washington.  Different, but…I don’t know…comfortable in an inexplicable way. Familiar, maybe.   And I thought to myself, “Gee, it’s good to be home!” I've done four summers up in Washington; I'm not sure whether there will be a fifth season for me.

Above is a shot of downtown Brewster on July 17th, 2014 as we'd just come out of the restaurant. The fire is coming down the hills just north of town. We're starting to think, "Hmm, maybe this fire is more serious than we thought?" How or why it didn't burn right into the town is beyond me.

The shot above is of the fuel truck at my LZ (landing zone) near Okanogan. The fire had come down the hill in the background and is right at the edge of the orchard (covered in the white bird netting). With the naked eye you could clearly see flames in the sagebrush but they did not show up in the shot.

Fire is a curious thing. See here how it burned the sagebrush right up to one post of the sign for the Alta Lake Campground near Pateros. But if that leg of the sign happened to be part of your house...the house would probably be gone.


Anonymous said...

Wow, that pic of the fire on the hill above town is pretty incredible. Glad to have you back in the south! Later Bobby.


Bob said...

Only fitting you drink Dos Equis -- you're a very interesting man!