Some of my friends…one Mike Nehring in particular have been grousing that I haven’t published anything on the blog lately, which is true. I think Mikey brought it up because I write about him a lot and he probably just wanted to see his name on the internet again. Well the joke’s on him because I won’t be mentioning him at all in this post.
One reason I haven’t posted anything is because it was such an uneventful summer. There was no rain to speak of. No. Rain. Up and down the Columbia River valley from the Canadian border down into Oregon, hardly anybody flew. This was great for the growers, but not so great for us. The helicopters (and we pilots) all get paid a “standby” fee whether we fly or not, but it’s better if we fly, obviously.
Since it was such a dry summer, the U.S. Forest Service was on high-alert. They did not want a repeat of last year’s devastating Carlton Complex Fire, the biggest fire in the history of Washington State. Everyone was on pins and needles, with (ground) fire crews and helicopters stationed everywhere “just in case.” As soon as a small fire would start, the crews hustled to put it out.
This worked well for a while. Eventually there were too many small fires all up and down the west coast. Resources got stretched thin…as thin as Deez Nuts’ chances of winning the presidential election. (I would’ve said “Donald Trump’s chances,” but in this bizarro-world of 2015 America, I suspect The Donald could actually win!)
And as we got into August, the air around Brewster filled with smoke…again! It was a time of perpetually foggy days. Step outside and you could taste smoke. It was relentless and depressing. The fire dominates our lives. Just like last year.
We evacuated to safer ground some helicopters of our own as well as a couple of airplanes owned by some friends. We got one out in just the nick of time: Another twelve hours and it would’ve burned to the ground. The owner was happy…and lucky…to save his house.
We own a little grass-strip airport up north on the river between the towns of Brewster and Omak. It’s out in the desert surrounded by sagebrush. If the fire, which was well north of us came south blown by the wind, the airport, a house, two hangars and a workshop would all be in serious peril.
The owner of the company and I were there, assessing the situation when the wind suddenly picked up directly out of the north. Suddenly we were enveloped in a thick cloud of smoke. We could not tell how close the fire was, but we knew it was coming. Thus began a mad dash to move as much stuff of value out of harm’s way. We left with the uneasy feeling that there wasn’t much more we could do. However fortune smiled on us - the wind died and shifted and the fire never came. You just never know…
Around us, small fires joined together. The end result is that in terms of acreage, for the second year in a row Washington State has its biggest fire in history: The Okanogan Complex.
While all of this was going on, we received a call from a cropduster in North Dakota. A long time ago he had operated Sikorsky S-55’s, the same kind of helicopter we use for drying cherries. We’d made some entreaties in the past, but he never would sell. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t sell anything. Finally, more than ten years after our first contact, he called. He’s getting old and wants to sell. He made us an offer; a deal was struck. It was six helicopters in all (non-flyable anymore) and a shit-ton of parts and equipment. It would take numerous trips with multiple pickup trucks/trailers. And it was 1,300 miles away - two full days of driving. The timing could not have been worse.
We wanted (and needed) to get these helicopters home before the weather and roads turn bad up here, which it will soon. Once we were sure that the company property in Brewster was as safe as could be, we reluctantly headed eastbound.
So far we’ve made two trips there and back. Each one was an adventure worthy of its own blogpost. Oh, the tales I could tell of overheating vehicles, a blown transfer case in one truck, an impending transmission failure in another, an alternator failure that boiled the juice out of both batteries, and a truck that would randomly go into “limp-home” mode and limit our speed to 45 mph. Great fun.
I think we can get all of the remaining parts and stuff in one more trip. If all goes well (hah!) I’ll finally be able to get out of here and go home around the middle of September, before it starts getting cold, which you know I‘m not looking forward to. So there's light at the end of the tunnel. It’s always fun to come up here for this gig, but it’s always nice to go home too.