Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Labor Day weekend

"If I have someone who believes in me, I can move mountains.” 
– Diana Ross

I just had every crazy thing a ranger could have happen, happen all in one weekend.

I was on my way to one of our more popular lakes. On the way there is a very nice large lake on a flat trail just a couple miles from a trailhead. It's popular for families, first time backpackers or people who don't want to exert themselves too much. For those reasons there are often folks that need reminders and education on best practices for how to be a responsible backpacker. It's also one of the few places on our district (besides the developed campgrounds) where campfires are still legal right now.

I came into a camp initially to make contact and go over regulations but found that the party was not there. What I did find was that the fire they made was not completely put out and had gotten away and traveled through the duff into a nearby log, starting to char it.

escaped campfire had traveled through the duff and burnt into the log on the left

It had rained about a half inch the day before so it was good real life example of how even when you are soaked and you think the ground is soaked (there were still puddles on the ground in the area and it was sprinkling off and on this day as well) it takes a lot of rain to saturate the ground. A good example of why burn bans to limit human causes wildfires are relevant even as the weather may try to tell you otherwise.

So you can see in the photo the fire was not flaming at all but it was still smoking, hot, and had red hot embers. It also had no rock ring around it which didn't help. We're supposed to call any uncontrolled fire into our dispatch so I got all the information they would need at dispatch together while I waited for the campers to return. I didn't want to start putting it out because I wanted them to see how hot it still was. I called the fire in to dispatch. When the campers returned I showed them how it was still hot. They acknowledged knowing it had escaped and charred into the log. They told me they poured water on the log (which I believed, the log was cool and damp and no longer smoldering) but left the rest because they wanted to have another fire that night. The fire had charred into the duff and surrounding roots. I was surprised to learn one of the people in the party lived in a city that lost dozens of homes last summer due to a human caused wildfire. Additionally another person in the party confided in me that after seeing how the fire got away, they were so worried about it the night prior they left their tent and slept beside it. I wrote the party up. I don't enjoy writing tickets but this season specifically I have been able to write some for issues that are very important to the Wilderness. Luckily all the roots were very small so to put it out I basically poured water on it (it took over 10 gallons to get it cold!) stirred it around and dug the charred area down through the organic layer to mineral soil so I knew there was nothing else under that could burn.

While my whole escaped fire debacle was going on, my attention was going in and out of monitoring radio traffic regarding an injured person on a trail not too far from me. After the party moved their camp and I put the fire out I called my boss whom I heard relaying information about the injured person and hoping to get information about the Search and Rescue (SAR) operation.

There are two ways my NPS contemporaries can make me jealous: it's by working for the agency that manages the most acres of Wilderness and by their involvement in SAR. While NPS manages their own SAR operations, ones that happen on Forest Service lands are actually under the jurisdiction of the county. So a NPS Wilderness Ranger will likely do lots of SAR while a FS Wilderness Ranger is not often involved in SAR.

A Washington Trails Association (WTA) crew leader who was hiking in with his crew for a week long volunteer trail work party came across the injured subject's wife. The crew leader had problems with his radio so he hiked back down to a Forest Service cabin where he was able to use another radio to call in the initial assessment of the injured man. He returned to the lake where his crew and the injured man were located that evening with a set of fresh batteries for his radio. He never called back with an update because it turned out the radio issue was not battery related. My boss got me in touch with the country to let them know I was available and I left my radio on that night just in case. I hiked in with 6 SAR team members the next morning the county had assembled. The information we had from the call the night prior was the man's back had gone out, not triggered by anything specific but he did have preexisting back issues. It being Labor Day weekend they did not have as many people as they hoped. They were all volunteers and very nice and funny people. "A bunch of 50 year old guys with back problems going to carry out a 50 year old guy with a back problem!" one of them joked. That was a bit of a hyperbole, the age range of the group was fairly balanced. It felt good to help out with a rescue that was happening on my district. I felt useful not just in a people power way to help carry the guy but also because I had pertinent information for the SAR members. I could tell them that the trail was clear of logs, wide enough for a litter carry but still plenty of rocks and roots to negotiate, that it was about 2,000' gain over 2 miles and what part of the lake the man was likely located in since I knew where people tend to camp there.

We got to the lake and met with the man, his wife and the WTA crew member who had called in the incident. The man was laying in his tent unable to move. We disassembled the tent around him (a really obvious idea in hindsight that I'm not sure I would have thought to do on my own. It made it so we could get to him more easily and move him less, very important especially for back/neck/head/spine issues). We put him in the litter leaving him on his sleeping mat and in his sleeping bag (it was chilly out) and strapped him in. With me and two WTA members we had 9 people to help with the carry and a 10th helper from WTA to carry the man's pack out. If you've ever wondered how long it takes to carry out someone 2 miles down a trail I have the answer: 5.5 hours.

the country Search and Rescue crew carrying the parts of the litter up the trail

We rotated through positions on the litter carry each taking breaks because even with 6 of us carrying at a time the man weighed over 200 pounds and it was very hard work. Despite being a great pain and audibly suffering the entire time the man was as upbeat as one could be in that type of situation. The litter had a wheel which had to be negotiated around all the trail tripping hazards so someone would be ahead of the litter talking the crew through what obstacle the wheel was about to hit. Of course being hyper aware of the Wilderness Act I certainly thought about the wheeled litter and how it was mechanized transport but that was obviously trumped by this emergency situation and the reality was there was no way we would get this man down the trail safely with a hand carry...it had to be wheeled or a helicopter. Even with the wheel, it was difficult and heavy and very tricky to manage. I don't have a photo of it assembled but it looked more or less like this.

We got to the trailhead where we met the ambulance, medics and local fire crew. Additionally some of the district's hand crew were just coming back from checking on my runaway fire from yesterday. I wasn't really sure what I should do at that point, my initial itinerary for the work week was toast but I still had one night left I was supposed to be in the field. The WTA crew leader was going to town to get a new radio and wouldn't be able to return to his crew until the next morning. He asked if I could stand in for the night so they could have radio communication if needed. So of course that was a good solution to where I could be useful and I hiked back up 2,000' to the lake I had just hiked up to and down from that day. The crew cooked me dinner and I collapsed in the crew leader's tent where piles of AA batteries and his Wilderness First Responder handbook told a story of the stressful situation he had been thrown into as the first responder to the situation and having to take on the initial injury assessment. The crew leader came back the next morning with a functioning radio and I left the crew to their work and I went back to mine. The weekend excitement wasn't quite over however.

I was headed back down the trail when I started hearing stories from people coming up trail of some escaped stock. People were telling me there were 5 animals unsaddled and unattended headed down the trail. Also, they were still hobbled!! So I start booking it down the trail, trying to brainstorm what I could even do if I came across the animals. After some time cruising down the trail the story changes a bit and I find out the owners of these animals are somewhere on the trail between me and the stock. That's welcome news, I was worried the owners had left their animals for the day and had no idea they had escaped. I radioed some co-workers who were working down along the road where the trailhead was, that way if they saw the animals they would at least know that the owners were behind looking for them. Eventually the owners come up the trail with their stock. The animals were just a few hundred feet from where the trail meets the road when they got to them.

So there it is. This is my third year doing this and I'm pretty sure I just had the most eventful work week of my entire career.