I greatly admire forest firefighters. Watching four or five large semis filled with equipment take a wrong turn in Camp Sherman, Oregon a few days ago doesn't lessen my admiration for them in the slightest.
It just shows that they're human.
(Maybe these guys hated to stop and ask someone for directions, like me; or the government needs to fork out a few bucks to get them a GPS app like Navigon for their iPhones, which I have -- and love.)
Tuesday my wife and I were at our co-owned forest service cabin in Tract C along the Metolius River, which is near a bridge over the river, a mile upstream from the Camp Sherman store.
That morning I'd ridden my bike to the store along the unpaved road to get a newspaper. Paying 75 cents for the Bend Bulletin I noticed a stack of flyers on the counter. It was a Shadow Lake Fire Update, describing the status of a forest fire in the Mt. Washington wilderness, which isn't too far away.
I picked up a flyer to show my wife. I read it quickly, noting these paragraphs with mild interest:
Due to fire location and complexity, Agency officials have made the decision to bring in a National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) and a Long Term Assessment Team to assess potential long term fire behavior and spread along with fire suppression organizational needs. The Incident Management Team from Central Oregon (Travis Moyer) will retain command of the fire, until further assessments have been finalized for longer term needs.
Incident Command Post (ICP) will be located at Allingham Guard Station; as a result there will be increased traffic along Forest Road 14. With Labor Day weekend approaching motorists are being asked to drive with caution.
That afternoon Laurel and I were sitting on the deck of the cabin, idly looking toward the little-used dirt road along the Metolius that leads to the Camp Sherman store.
Suddenly a convoy of impressive semi trucks -- silver, sleek, powerful -- zoomed up the road in a loud cloud of dust. We'd never seen any truck that large on the forest service road, much less several of them in a purposeful line.
I didn't get my iPhone out right away. But they looked the same leaving as coming.
There weren't any obvious markings on the trucks. The scene was kind of surreal, like a disaster movie where a peaceful pastoral landscape is transformed by the incursion of unmarked government vehicles out to combat an alien invasion.
I was sure that we'd be detained, never to be seen again, once one of the agents noticed that they were being observed from a nearby cabin.
However, I calmed down a bit when the convoy came to a stop as the lead truck reached the end of the one lane bridge over the Metolius River. I had a sense that the semi driver was trying to decide whether his truck could safely make it over the bridge (which probably was the case; see below).
This pause in the action spurred my wife and me to get our binoculars. I could barely make out lettering that said something like "Fire Management Team." This was reassuring, alien invasion-wise, yet disconcerting for another reason.
That word, "fire."
There weren't any in the immediate vicinity, so far as we knew. Yet five large semis filled with some sort of fire equipment were heading our way. What did they know that we didn't?
Actually, the truth was that we knew something that they didn't. Namely, that the Allingham Guard Station is reached by turning left on a paved road at the Camp Sherman store, not by turning right up an unpaved road that has a sign saying "no turnaround for campers."
The next morning I told a clerk in the store about how we watched the convoy of trucks pull up to the bridge, and how the lead truck went across, then parked, and eventually backed up into our cabin's dead end road to laboriously turn around, while the other semis also turned around with considerable difficulty on the other side of the bridge.
"One of those trucks went across the bridge!" she told me. "Wow. Even the school bus doesn't cross that bridge. It's not designed for large trucks. When we saw them going up that road, we wanted to run out and wave our hands, yelling wrong way, wrong way!"
The clerk said that the trucks were on their way to set up at the Allingham Guard Station, a campground downstream of the Camp Sherman store, but somehow made a wrong turn and headed upstream on the dirt forest service road.
I said to her, "You'd think that firefighting professionals traveling in five giant trucks would have a decent map with them, or at least good directions, plus a GPS device. After they got to the bridge I saw the drivers congregate, seemingly trying to figure out where they were and how they could get to where they needed to go."
At the time I briefly thought about walking over and asking them if they were lost. But knowing how much it irks me when my wife says, "I think you made a wrong turn" when I'm driving, I quickly dismissed that idea.
They figured things out on their own eventually. The trucks convoyed back down the road in a cloud of dust just as impressive as what they made going the other way.
Like I said at the start, what I learned is that firefighters are human. They can get lost. They can make mistakes. Just like everybody else. This made me feel closer to them. I felt a bond with them, watching them turn those big impressive trucks around on a narrow dirt road.
I just hope none of the drivers had his wife with him. I could picture her sitting in the passenger seat, telling him "I told you to turn left at the Camp Sherman store!"