Thursday, May 29, 2008
Fire season approaches and every year as it does, my mind is filled with the smells, sounds, and visions of the summer of 2000. Fire season opens doors of opportunity for those who are looking for a little adventure and some extra cash. For me, I needed a little of both during that year. I had moved my family from the Seattle area and turned in my badge after 18 years in Law Enforcement. It was a huge gamble and one that I was not really prepared for. Moving back to the little town where I had been born and raised, into the house my dad had built after WWII. It seemed like the thing to do at the time.
Making a living in Northwest Montana is just not that easy. I was not popular in high school while growing up and most certainly never displayed any ability scholastically. I will be damned if those that used to snub me in high school feel it necessary to continue down that road almost thirty years later, amazing. Life was tough and it was difficult making the money needed to feed my family. Over a period of time I was able to work for a couple, that I consider to be two of my closest friends and the subjects of a future blog that will make you say “holy shit,” more than once.
The summer of 2000 brought to the northwest, record dryness. Wildfires ripped into the state of Montana, like Texas Chile rips into the bowels of an 80 year old Minnesotan. The skies turned orange and grey, depending on the angle of the sun. The fires were out of control and I decided to sign up with the Forest Service as a support member. My 98 Ford Expedition was enlisted into the ranks of the transportation group and I was hired as the driver.
A rugged area known as the Yaak, west of the city of Troy was my assigned area. The Yaak is known for its independent thinkers and has some of the most beautiful forest land in the country, filled with Elk, Black Bear, Grizzly, Moose, to name a few. The staging area for our battle against Mother Nature was established at an old Forest Service facility off of the main Yaak road. Men and women wearing bright yellow FRC’s, (fire resistant clothing,) could be seen throughout the large camp. Small tents in the meadow provided shelter for the fire crews. A large light colored tent served as the dining area set up next to Semi and trailer which housed the mobile kitchen. I was fortunate enough to be able to bring my 32ft. motor home on site which provided me with everything I needed to be comfortable including, a hot shower every night. Not exactly roughing it, but what the hell.
Fires burned out of control all over the west. Men and women had come out of the wood work to help fight the fires and the Forest Service found itself with a shortage of experienced people to plan and direct the attacks on the fires. Help came from Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. A large group of these fire suppression experts were assigned to the Yaak.
My SUV was one of the larger trucks in the small transportation fleet which was lined up waiting to be called into service. I stood next to my truck like a used car salesman waiting for a sale. A tall slender man with glasses approached and asked if I was the driver for the blue Ford. Indeed I was and I found myself transporting a man who introduced himself as Tony Lovick, from Australia. A very soft spoken man with a great sense of humor and as I found out throughout the next three weeks, a very knowledgeable man.
Tony’s expertise and interest was in controlling noxious weeds for Australia’s land management. He of course also had vast experience in battling the fast burning fires in Australia which sometimes feed off of the explosive eucalyptus trees.
Three or four days into the routine of driving Mr. Lovick into areas that at times felt like remote trails designed more for tracked vehicles than the family SUV, I realized that I was on a true adventure with a guy that possessed outstanding knowledge of fire suppression and a true admiration of the Montana wilderness. This guy would have me drive to the top of a mountain. Upon reaching the top he would point to a spot on the road below and say I will meet you right there in about 45 minutes. I was skeptical at first but then after a few days of this I realized that he was very accurate not only in his ability to pinpoint a spot where he would emerge from the woods, but the amount of time it would take to do so.
I was approached by one of Tony’s fellow countrymen who asked if Tony had told me that he is considered a celebrity in Australia.
He asked if I was familiar with the movie, “Man from Snowy River?” Of course I had seen it in a theater when it had been released, and later, on VHS. A very entertaining movie and one of the first from Australia to become a hit in the U.S. The gentleman I was speaking to said, “Well mate, Tony is the one responsible for the idea of turning that story into a film.” He also told me that Tony was well known for his abilities on a horse and was referred to as, “the Mountain Horseman of Australia.” Tony downplayed the information I had been given by his pal. For the next few weeks we talked a lot about it and I learned that Tony was a relative by marriage to the man that actually made the movie at Tony’s suggestion. Tony was also in the sequel as one of the Crack Riders. We refer to them as stunt riders in the U.S. I learned a great deal from Tony, not only about Australia, but fire suppression and being a good human being as well. Tony left me with his Australian hard hat with an autograph across the front.
I keep in touch by e-mail with Tony as do a number of people he met in the Northwest corner of Montana on that dry summer of 2000. He sits high on my list of most interesting people I have met.
Update: June 2nd E-mail from Tony Lovick.
I was overwhelmed and very flattered with this but very pleased that you thought enough of me to write it . A little too flattering I think but it was good to reflect on our experience together as it was one of the good things I really enjoyed - you and your mob were very good to us Aussie's.
You have real ability as a writer and photographer.
Program Manager - Victoria East & Pest Plants
Farm Services Victoria
Department of Primary Industries
89 Sydney Rd