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Fighting Fire With Fire (Patrick Ford, Part 3)

That last tour with Charlie Musselwhite was pretty brutal. Sharon and I wanted to have kids, and this is where we wanted to have them, so we moved back home to Ukiah in 1974.

I kicked around for awhile trying to figure out what to do. I liked gardening and was knowledgeable in the area, so I went to one of the nurseries and the owner picked me up as a landscape maintenance guy. In about a year, Gabriel was born, and I was getting a little bored with my job. I liked the gig, but I had been playing music for a lot of years at that point and I was getting anxious… I needed something more exciting than maintaining PG&E’s landscaping.

At one point, because we were really in trouble for money, I had to sell my drum set to a friend down in the Bay Area who had always wanted it. To this day, it makes Sharon so sad when she remembers watching from the window at my folk’s house, loading up my drum kit on a friend’s truck and the look on my face as the truck rolled off down the street. She had told me not to do it, but I said we were out of money. That carried us for a couple of months between jobs.

Anyway, I was getting antsy and I saw an ad in the back of the Journal (UDJ) that the US Forest Service needed fire fighters. It was Fall and their seasonal employees were going back to college. I went over to Upper Lake and signed up. I got stuck out in Bartlett Flats in Lake County, about an hour on this dirt road from Nice. It was hot and miserable and pretty funky there in a quonset hut. Chester, my foreman, was this American Indian who was just the sweetest, most wonderful guy… the greatest to get for my first boss. He put me to work learning to drive one of these little pumper units, fire techniques, and how to operate a chainsaw. He took me under his wing and was very patient when I would screw up.

Bartlett Flats crew, Pat on left
Bartlett Flats crew, Pat on left

So we went out on our first fire and when we got back to fire camp, Chester was complaining about his leg. I said “Let me see your leg, maybe something bit you…” and there were these blue streaks running up his leg, and I said “Chester, you’ve got something bad going on,” so we took him in to emergency services. I didn’t know there were these papajuala ticks where we had been… we don’t have them around here, but Chester had one in his leg and one in his hand… he had three of these tick bites. They rushed him to the hospital in Chico where he stayed for days. It was real serious.

pat-logoSo I spent 10 years working for the US Forest Service. I rose through the ranks first becoming a driver of a big engine, then a foreman, then a Captain, then was a Captain of the Mendocino Hot Shots, which was a 20-man hand crew that got special training that got us thrown into the worse spots. I loved that gig. It was really, really something.

We went out on big fires all the time. We’d be building a line, using hand tools to cut a down-to-earth line wide enough to stop the fire, down in Southern California in the the middle of the night along some ridgetop in some brush field, chainsaws running, brush flying, and suddenly my Super says, “Pat, I want you to stay here with 2 sawyers and build me a clearing about 40 feet across, big giant circle right here.” This guy was an old pro that could “feel” air currents, and knew what was happening. He knew the wind patterns were changing, and he wanted a safety zone right there. Later in the day when the fire “blew up” we were a long ways away from that spot, but the crews that were coming up behind us ran to that spot. He knew what he was doing, and I was learning everything I could from him.

When I was running a section of line near a fire, he’d teach me things like “Pat, that is called ribbon wood.” It looked like Manzanita to me, but he’d say “That stuff has alcohol in its bones. The makeup of that plant contains alcohol, and it is explosive. If a fire hits it, it will just blow.” He’s teaching me this stuff because I’m starting to put my line through the middle of it, and he says that I don’t want to put my line through it, but on one side or the other of it. Later I heard about these guys dying in a fire in Southern California. They didn’t know the area and they were in the middle of ribbon wood when it blew up. When you see these bluish gases coming out of this wood, it’s right at the point of combustion. When the flame hits those gases, everything just blows up. I would just store this knowledge away.

When you go on a fire, they have crew bosses, then sector bosses, then division bosses… guys in charge of bigger pieces of turf. Pretty soon I became a sector boss, which has a small section of line with quite of few crews working the line. I began establishing my credibility as a person who knew fire, and knew how to use fire to fight fire. When I was first with the Hot Shots in the US Forest Service, our superintendent was like me… use fire to fight fire whenever we can. But CDF (California Department of Forestry) used to be scared to death of fighting fire with fire. They believed in the standard: you cut a line and use water to put it out. But the Forest Service had gone to this “fight fire with fire mode” long before. When we’d come charging into a fire area in our bus, with the big “Hot Shot” fire logo on it, the CDF people who were in charge would come up to us and say “Leave your fire stuff in the bus” because they knew we’d start using it. But they’ve since switched to it as well.

humantorchBecause I was good at it, and knew how to work it, the guys called me “Johnny Storm.” In the Fantastic Four comic books, Johnny Storm was the Human Torch. I loved the Fantastic Four. Just before he would turn into the Human Torch, he would yell “Flame On!”

One of the first fires I was put in charge of the actual burn, we were going to use only “fusies” [similar to a common road flare]. We were going to burn this section of line we were building, and my foreman at the time told us to start torching it. And when I picked up this fusie I yelled “Flame on!” and the guys are all looking at me, and that became my thing from then on. Pretty soon we were using burster bombs, “Flame on! Flame on!” and drip torches “Flame on! Flame on!”… and so I got this nickname Johnny Storm.

I was responsible for burning several thousand acres in order to save tens of thousands of acres. I never had one of them bite me, but it easily could have happened. It was just luck because you’re so dependent on what the weather wants to do. You can make all the right decisions, but if the weather goes wacky on you it’s a problem. I had to pay real close attention to what was going on with the clouds. These inversion layers would sit over the top of some canyon and just hold the smoke and all the gases down in there. When the heat of the day pops that inversion, and you’re standing on a hilltop looking down on it, you see a bubble begin to form on the top of that big inversion layer, then pow!, it breaks open and you see all this stuff come rushing out… and as it rushes out, air rushes in, and the fire takes off.

During one fire season, five months long, while I was with the Hot Shots, I was home only 21 days. I did that for a couple of years, and that was enough of that, and I went back to being an engine captain at the local fire station again. Altogether, I did the Forest Service for ten years. Eight years in, things began to change in the fire service… it became a cut-throat world, and if you were a guy in my position, a white male, and you were trying to move up the ladder, you knew that it was going to take a long time, because they had new rules for having an X amount of women, an X amount of other groups, and you couldn’t get that position that you had worked so hard for. I wanted to get a position where I would be in charge of a whole, humongous fire, but I was being held back, and the whole organization was getting to where I just didn’t like it. People would stab you in the back just to get the few jobs that were around… it just got ugly. Though I knew it was getting time for me to move on, I really did love being a fire fighter… and I cherish all those memories.

I started telling Sharon that I was needing to start phasing out of this, and start getting back into music. Sharon was getting her teaching credential and I told her, the day you get hired is the day that I quit…

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