Condensed from the book, Fire in the Sky
It was the morning of Wednesday, November 5, 1975. To us, the seven men working in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, it was an ordinary workday. There was nothing in that sunny fall morning to foreshadow the tremendous fear, shock, and confusion we would be feeling as darkness fell.
We were working on the Turkey Springs tree-thinning contract.Basically, thinning involves spacing and improving the thick stands of smaller trees to allow for their faster growth. That day, November 5, we were cutting a fuel-reduction strip up the crest of a ridge running south through the contract. Fuel reduction is the process of cutting the thinning slash into lengths and piling it up to be burned in the wet season.
The boss, Mike Rogers, was twenty-eight,the oldest of the seven men. He had been bidding these thinning contracts from the Forest Service for nine years. That had been long enough to learn (the hard way) all the tricky pitfalls of the business. He was getting to where he could fairly consistently gauge the price per acre that would underbid the other contractors and still allow a profit margin. Turkey Springs was the best contract,profitwise, Mike had ever been awarded. In fact, it paid the highest acre-price he had ever received.
When we are piling, some of the men run saws while the others pile. I was running a saw, as were Allen Dalis and John Goulette. Dwayne Smith, Kenneth Peterson, and Steve Pierce were piling behind the cutters as we worked our way up the strip.
Dwayne Smith wasn't aware of it, but I had to beconstantly careful to fell my trees so as to miss him. His inexperience, or maybe over eagerness, was causing him to work too close to me, instead of allowing a little accumulation of slash to put some distance between us. But at least he was trying.
I could not say the same for Steve. I could see Mike far back down the strip, restacking some sloppy piles to bring them up to specification. Stevetook advantage of the boss's absence to rest his can momentarily on a handy log. He was ordinarily a good worker, but was a little disgruntled today because Mike had blamed him for some bad piles Dwayne had made.
I was trying to keep my distance from the other men, but we were coming together on a thick place to one side of the piling strip. The noise of my own saw is loud enough, even withearplugs, without revving all three of them in one spot. Just then I saw a shadow and jumped barely in time to escape a falling tree. I looked to see who had cut it. Allen. His mocking grin let me know it was no accident. I didn't let on that he had needled me. I moved farther up the strip to work. Allen always cut like a crazy man. He was a faster sawyer than anyone out there, even me. His speedhelped acre-production, but it kept him from being up to working every day. His uncontrollable temper was probably what made him saw like that, taking his anger out on the trees. Allen had nearly come to blows with almost everyone on the crew, including me. He had a way of picking fights he never finished. Although our differences were forgotten as far as I was concerned, and we were friendly on thejob, I suspected that Allen might have one or two lingering bad feelings toward me.
The afternoon sun was starting to cool as it began angling steeper down in the west. In the mountains, sundown comes early. It gets dark very quickly when old Sol slips behind the trees and out of sight behind the high ridges. The gathering chill was beginning to numb my nose. With summer ending, it was startingto get down to five or ten degrees at night. I worked a little faster to ward off the chill, eagerly anticipating the reprieve of the day's conclusion. Not long to go before we could head for home.
Sunset had been fifteen minutes earlier, but we kept cutting in the waning light. I checked my watch again. It was six o'clock at last! Mike was still down the hill a little way, picking up and...
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