FIREPIRATES.COM

home

photos

stories

guestbook

the code

ornbaum

expats

booty

video

links

atc

roger that


arguing with a fire pilot is a lot like wrestling with a pig in the mud:  after a while you begin to think the pig likes it.

Why You Guys Have A Job
By Mark Clifton

I see that most of the stories here are from the point of view of the pilots, but I thought you might be interested in a story about one of the reasons fire pilots have a job -- a sort of customer-appreciation story ...

This happened, if I recall correctly, during the summer of 2004.

Until two years ago I was a welder. (I can hear your thoughts already, “Welders start fires.” Yes, but it wasn’t my fault. (I can hear you laughing.) Anyway, I had been welding for about 30 years at the time of this anomaly and I had NEVER had a fire I couldn’t put out with my foot (unless it was me that was burning, and then I just put it out with my hand).

Clifton before the lurching experience Anyway, my company had sent me to work with a wind turbine maintenance company near Livermore, California. The old turbines go wild, fall over, throw blades, and generally tear themselves apart. I would climb the 60-foot (or 80-foot or 140-foot) towers and weld-repair cracked and broken parts. During the summer (I can hear you again), we used a 200-gallon water buffalo with a gas-powered pump to wet the area under the tower and keep it wet during welding. I was going on my second summer with no problems.

Early one clear morning, my crew and I arrived at the first tower of the day. A 60-footer set halfway up a 300-foot hill above Vasco Road, with dried grass about 8 inches tall, and a 5-10 mph breeze blowing uphill. No problem.

RIGHT?

We park our trucks at the base of the tower ... then one-handed Ned (stitches in his left hand) and Fred deploy the water buffalo as I set up my equipment. We have our safety briefing and the last thing I say is if there is a problem, shut off the welding machine in the back of my truck. I climb the tower and attach my safety belt. Getting equipment up-tower is easy. A pulley and line are carried up the tower and hooked to an attachment point. A series of pulleys are attached to the bottom of the tower and the back of a truck, and you then hook all the tool buckets, air hose, and welding leads to the pulley line ... then voilá! - you drive the truck forward and raise all the tools.

So as I'm getting ready up the tower, Ned and Fred hose down the area upwind of the tower. This turbine has an 18-inch crack along the downwind side of the frame, so my first job is to remove all the old weld. The tool is called an Air Carbon Arc Gun. It uses a 3/8-inch-diameter carbon rod in a special holder that supplies compressed air along the rod’s length, then adds 350 amps of power; it can gouge a 3/8-inch-deep furrow in any thickness of steel plate. It looks like a flamethrower and sounds like a jet on afterburner (you're thinking again, aren’t you?)

I check again with the fire watch twins below, screw in the earplugs, drop my hood, and away I go. About five minutes into my noisy gouging, I notice my left pant leg getting hot. I figure it must be either the sun finally coming over the hill or my pant leg is on fire (a common occurrence), because they haven’t shut the welding machine off. I flip my hood up, and the first thing I notice is a line of fire across the hill in front of the tower. Fred is yanking mightily on the pull start of the water buffalo (the engine had stopped for some reason), and it finally re-starts. But he needs more hose, so one-handed Ned tries to pull more off the hose pulley -- but the safety catch keeps catching and he can’t pull and unlatch it at the same time. In the meantime, though, the fire is moving downwind and up the hill. Ned finally gets the hose and Fred charges up the hill to head off the fire. The fire cuts across the hose, though, and Fred then abandons the advancing fire to fight his way back down the hose. Fred turns the hose over to Ned and calls in the fire on the radio. Meanwhile, I've got all my gear secured and am ready to climb down to assist.

Total elapsed time here about a half minute.

Fred, obviously thinking clearly, decides at this point that he needs to get to the gate where the fire engines will be coming through. He jumps into our truck and starts to drive off -- forgetting for the moment that his truck has the pulley lines attached -- and the air compressor in the bed. The air hose stretches out like the world's largest rubberband, and the tower I'm on lurches (a lot -- more than you think -- like heart-stoppingly). Fred and the truck come to a stop. Without backing up, though, he jumps out and disconnects the quick-release air hose fitting.

Just barely missing decapitating Fred, the air hose launches itself through the air, and the tower where I'm still stranded lurches again (a lot -- more than you think -- like heart-stoppingly). Fred jumps back in the truck. I realize what is going to happen and am frantically trying to secure the tool buckets as Fred drives off with the pulley line still attached -- a half-inch-diamter open-ended hook around the tow ball on his bumper. The hook, of course, unbends and launches back bigtime at the tower -- narrowly missing Ned. The tower lurches (you know this one by now). I was starting to feel a lot like a paddle ball.

But off goes Fred.

I manage to climb down, the fire roars up over the hill, and Ned and I stop it from going downhill. Next thing we see is a spotter plane overhead, then two airtankers and a helicopter.

Cool - our own personal airshow!

The helicopter starts dipping and dropping water, the tankers are dropping on the far side of the hill, and the spotter is spotting. In very short order, 11 engines and a lowboy with a dozer have arrived. They spread out and work the fire.

Clifton in 12-step programMeanwhile, I pack all my stuff up on my truck and head up the road to find the incident commander, whom I'm sure would like a word with me. I try to explain what happened; he gives me a funny look.

No sooner do I finish my report, though, when a radio call says there's another fire just two ridges west of our position. I say "It wasn't me!" and gain my second funny look. The engines and aircraft head that way, but before it all comes together, one of the engines gets high-centered and the crew end up defending themselves from the fire -- which was otherwise quickly contained.

That fire, it turns out, was ignited by a bird shorting itself out on a power pole.

MY BURN, it turned out, was 57 acres. That really pissed me off. I mean, I welded for YEARS on nuclear reactors for the Navy while wearing plastic clothing (anti-contamination) inside plastic containment and cleaning everything with alcohol -- and never once started a fire.

Ned and Fred got a stern talking-to. Fred became a supervisor (isn’t that the way). Ned is doing maintenance on wind turbines (he's a windsmith, as they are called). I am now an estimator for my company after a year and half recovering from a non-fire-related operation. I am slowly weaning myself away from the need to live with sparks and flames and burning clothes -- Fire is my friend!

Mark Clifton
Project Manager
UCI Construction, Inc.