A Grateful Nod to Those Who Sling the Slime

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman June 15, 2015 09:14

use for Chris' essayThe stuff was red, sticky, almost impossible to get off – and it was all over my ’67 Mustang convertible.

I was in the backseat with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge, scrubbing goo off the upholstery. I’d been at it for a couple of hours, and once I got the seats clean, it was on to the exterior.

The guy who slimed my ragtop back in 1976 had vanished in an instant. I saw the whole thing, but I didn’t get the culprit’s license plate, and I didn’t call the cops. In fact, I rather enjoyed cleaning up the mess.

That’s because the drive-by splatterer was flying a CDF air tanker. And because most of his 1,200-gallon load of crimson retardant – we called it borate back then – had snuffed out a fire just 10 yards from my home.

Flames were 25 feet up a stand of ponderosa pines and lashing fiercely toward the house when that roaring S2 delivered its knockout punch. Moments earlier, it was just another quiet day in our low-rent paradise. I had no idea danger loomed.

I grew up in the Chicago area, went to high school in Minnesota and attended college in the Bay Area.  Blizzards, earthquakes, smog, traffic jams and anti-Nixon demonstrations were our resident hazards – none of which were issues at my new home in the hills outside Columbia.

Back then I was a rookie reporter for The Union Democrat, Sonora’s daily paper. My roommate and I had rented a nouveau-Appalachian house beyond the pavement’s end, living on that fine line between back-to-the-land and rural blight.

Fires? I wrote about them for the paper, but they were like traffic accidents – they happened to other people.

It didn’t cross my mind that wildfire could undo our idyllic existence until an idiot in a huge Chevy pickup rumbled up our driveway late on a Friday afternoon. After finally admitting he was lost, this guy – despite our repeated warnings – tried to turn around by backing his rig onto a patch of tall grass.

In seconds the truck’s hot tailpipe ignited the grass. In minutes flames climbed into nearby pines. And all the while our uninvited guest was blaming our dry grass for the blaze – which is like blaming trees for the Rim Fire.

Amid the chaos, my roommate called 911. As our demeanor ratcheted from mere desperation to uncontrolled panic, that S2 swooped in and the fire was out.

Alas, the tanker pilot was too late to save the Chevy, which ultimately cost its driver his job. Seems he had borrowed the pickup from his boss without permission. As a rule I take no pleasure in the misfortune of others. But there is an exception to every rule, and this one was particularly satisfying.

Although not so pretty in pink, our house and my top-down Mustang were saved from the flames. I cleaned the convertible in a day, but it took more than a decade of rain to wash the stains from our home’s tin roof.

I was sorry to see them fade: After my abrupt education on the realities of fire in the Mother Lode, I came to see borate as beautiful. I’ve also learned that when it comes to great neighbors, it’s tough to top the Columbia Air Attack Base.

The base’s skilled aerial cavalry came to our rescue again in 1994, when the Creek Fire shot out of the Stanislaus River canyon and made a run at our new home built three years earlier. We were away on vacation when our young house sitter called in a panic. The flames were advancing, Jennifer said breathlessly, and she was fleeing with our photo albums and dogs.

My wife and I raced home, preparing for the worst – smoking rubble where our home once stood. Arriving three hours later, we saw what seemed like a miracle: the shadow of our still-standing home looming through shrouds of smoke.

The Creek Fire, which would top out at 1,500 acres and threaten the Columbia hills and the community of Cedar Ridge to the east, still boiled in the dark canyons below.

“The tankers came in at the last minute,” said my neighbor and brother-in-law, Mark.  “That and a change in the wind saved your place.”

George Caldwell, a Tuolumne Road rancher, saved our two llamas, ushering them from corral to stock trailer as the flames advanced.  “When I left,” George told us, “I didn’t think your house would make it.”

A video Mark shot from our front yard showed how the house defied the odds. It was the stuff of high drama: S2s roaring treetop-high through the dusk, trailing pink plumes that stopped the flames just inside our property line.

It happened again in 2010 when the Italian Fire rose from the same Stanislaus canyon. We were evacuated at 8 a.m. and waited for hours as Columbia’s dauntless pilots and ground crews from throughout the region beat back the blaze.

Our property survived to see another day – and almost certainly another fire.

Although we’re farther off the pavement than some, many of us in the Mother Lode live in what fire managers call the Wildland-Urban Interface. We’re up close and personal with steep slopes, thick brush and forests that are at once beautiful and primed to burn.

The Rim Fire, a quarter-million-acre inferno that in 2013 threatened to push beyond the Interface and sweep through towns and subdivisions, should have left few doubters.

But in these days of tight budgets and high costs, a few may still question the need for a statewide fleet of tankers, a corps of expert pilots and a network of fully staffed bases spanning California’s wildlands.

Even here in the hills, tankers don’t swoop down and stop walls of flame just yards from residents’ front doors every day. But consider this: Columbia’s pilots fly more than 150 missions a year, most stopping small fires before they get big.

What if the tankers hadn’t been there to nip those small fires in the bud? How many of those blazes would have ripped unchecked through acres of oak, pine and brush before claiming who knows how many houses or even lives?

Just as they saved our home, Air Attack Base pilots and ground crews may have saved yours as well. You just don’t know it. And one more reason to appreciate the Columbia base: You never know when some idiot with a bad attitude and a hot tailpipe might rumble up your driveway.

Chris Bateman, 69, is a 40-year journalist still thinking about retiring. Contact him at chris@seniorfan.com.

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman June 15, 2015 09:14
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