CannonTour - The Armies of Summer (Wildland Firefighting) Pt 1/3

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by Cannonshot, Jul 21, 2019.

  1. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    “They come to fight a war, some as ground troops, some as paratroopers, and some as combat pilots. The enemy in their war is . . . fire.” Michael Thoele in “Fire Line”

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    Over the years I’ve read a number of books about wildland firefighting and some tragedies that have evolved as things went wrong. As a retired Colonel, I noted how similar wildland firefighting is to military operations. Training, fitness, units, task organization, combined arms operations, weaponry, joint operations, logistics, operations analysis, risk management, safety, communications, standard message formats, and many more shared concepts are involved (just to name a few to illustrate the point). :lol3

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    As I read some of the books, I thought it might be an interesting adventure motorcycle trip to visit some of the places I read about – particularly in the backcountry. I decided to put together an adventure ride with a theme that deals with wildland firefighting. I went to work over the winter doing research that also involved reading reports from burnovers, aviation accidents, lessons learned from some fires, and staff ride material that is used to train fire managers by visiting sites and discussing what happened while actually on the ground where the events took place. I put together three rides in different regions and this is the first ride and report of the series.

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    As usual, I’ll fill in the gaps between fire related visits with some great riding, interesting history, and other points of interest. I also made it a point to enjoy a number of scenic, backcountry, and forest byways on this ride which I’ll share some information about as well.

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    The plan is to share what is going on in the world of wildland firefighting and not try to be any kind of authoritative source about all things wildfire. That said, I will share some interesting technical information as we take a look at the people and equipment involved.

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    There is much more to all of this than what is visible to most people. Sometimes I was astonished when I wondered what it all must cost. Then I realized that the costs would be much greater if we didn’t invest heavily in managing wildfire.

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    I want to take a moment to thank the professional, dedicated, and enthusiastic people from the wildfire world that I interviewed along the way. It was very uplifting to spend time with these folks. In many ways they reminded me of many of the professionals of all ranks that I served with in the military.

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    So, we’ll wade into this slowly with riding and firefighting stops along the way. Since I am doing it chronologically, some information will come out over time instead of having complete coverage of a concept at a single stop.

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    I spent about three weeks on this ride and I had a blast! I hope you enjoy some of what I report here as much as I did. Thanks for riding along!

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    And I hope some will gain a new understanding and appreciation of these firefighters. :D
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    #1
  2. Bultaco206

    Bultaco206 Back-to-back motos suck Supporter

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    Here we go. Can’t beat a Cannonshot Ride Report... :lurk
    #2
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  3. siyeh

    siyeh unproductive Supporter

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    So glad you hoofed it to the Pulaski tunnel
    standing by good sir for pics and prose
    #3
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  4. chudzikb

    chudzikb Long timer Supporter

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    I could not agree more with your sentiment on this issue! Prepare to learn things!
    #4
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  5. Kruzof

    Kruzof independently poor

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    I got out of that line of work 32 years ago.
    Will be interesting to see your take on it.
    #5
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  6. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Let me take a moment to make an "administrative announcement". The trip was 22 days and covered almost 10,000 miles. I made the trip solo. I had a window of opportunity open up on short notice so it was a matter of grabbing the planned trip and going while I had the chance. I rode a GS Adventure which worked well for most portions of the trip. I got a new set of Heidenau K60 Scouts just before I left. I wanted the Scouts (which is what I usually use on big bikes) because of the backcountry components of the ride.
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    This is how they look after almost 10,000 miles.

    The rear is pretty much worn out. I am very satisfied with the wear for a rear on a loaded GS. I knew I had enough tire to last the entire trip.
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    The front is still OK but I'll replace both tires at once.
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    #6
  7. jobysw

    jobysw Adventurer

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    Wow. Only 454 miles a day. Taking it easy these days huh :lol3. Looking forward to this one!
    #7
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  8. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Day 1 My points of interest for this ride began in the Black Hills where there was an aviation accident that I'll cover in a bit. But, I had to get there from Wisconsin. Pretty easy to make that trip of about 860 miles in a single day.
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    Of course, to get out west I had to cross a couple of big rivers like . . .

    the Mississippi . . .
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    and the Missouri.
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    As long as I was going through some of the Black Hills, I took a couple of scenic routes that I enjoyed in the past just to ride them again. I'm not going to cover a lot of detail about the time I spent in the Black Hills and Badlands on this ride since I covered that pretty comprehensively in a previous ride report Big Bike Solo in the Black Hills. If you want more detail about that area, feel free to explore the other report. I'll point out a couple of highlights from things I visited this time.

    One thing worth a visit is the minuteman facilities. This area has ICBMs and the park service has some former USAF facilities you can tour. This is the new visitor center. When I took the tour they had a temporary trailer.
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    If you want a look at some of what is on the tour, you can check out my post from a previous ride.
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    I also swung through Wall which has a few points of interest. Most notable is the mega tourist trap Wall Drug which has a few interesting things and a great bookstore. More about Wall is in the Black Hills report.
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    The usual bison hanging around. I had a close encounter with one later on in the trip.
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    #8
  9. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Day 1 Continued

    I looped through the Badlands since it is a nice ride. There is a designated scenic byway in the park.
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    Seems like there is often an isolated storm on the horizon when I am riding in this area. No exception this evening. I was heading right into one.
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    I zipped up my Klim riding suit, put on some Aerostich overmitts, put a gaiter on to seal my neck and kept going right into the storm. I stayed dry. Even my boots.
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    For some reason these guys weren't flying and they had their light helicopter stashed indoors. :dunno
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    There was a lot of lightning and thunder. In fact, one clap was so loud it sort of hurt one of my ears even with an earplug and a helmet . . . maybe because of the helmet. :dunno And yet I saw people standing up on exposed ridgelines taking pictures of the storm - even with lightning arcing about.

    What amazed me was seeing all the water gushing about in this otherwise dry place.
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    Fragile areas erode at about 1" per year so if you're going out there you'd better hurry! :evil The harder sandstone erodes at about 1" per 500 years which accounts for some of the formations. The park gets about 15.5 inches of rain per year.
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    The thing about scenic byways is that they pass along a lot of interesting stuff. To get the full benefit you have to step off into some of the places along the way.
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    A lot of bars on the windows around here . . . just sayin'.
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    No action at this prairie dog town. They were probably holed up for the storm like I should have been.
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    Scenic is a scenic ghost town along the way. A bunch of old rickety buildings to look at. I think the skulls dress the place up a bit.
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    In 2011 the whole town went up for sale for $799K. This included an old saloon, train depot, dance hall, bunkhouse, museum, and two stores. Some church bought the whole place, moved a minister there, and now holds services for 10-15 people in the area.

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    With the worst of the storm behind me, back on the road to Rapid City.
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    Air tanker base at the Rapid City airport. This will be relevant to an event I'll cover in a bit. No aircraft on the ramp. The aircraft are often sent to augment forces at fires elsewhere. This is a pretty basic station that can mix and pump retardant. We'll cover more about that later on.
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    Check out this picture of the Rapid City tanker base from a fire in 2001. Many of those aircraft are no longer allowed to fly fires. Pretty cool lineup nonetheless.
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    South Dakota Wildland Fire Division Photo

    Things were pretty nice as I rolled closer to Rapid City with the Black Hills in the background. A pleasant day of riding . . . despite the long miles and the nasty storm. It felt good to be "out here" and ready to get into my track for the rest of the ride.
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    #9
  10. Ajacks

    Ajacks "Not in the face"

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    Awesome stuff buddy, safe travels
    #10
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  11. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Day 2

    About 521 miles overall. Another big storm today.
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    Starting out.
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    I decided to ride the Pete Norbeck Scenic Byway . . . just because it is a great ride and has some cool features. It was a nice cool morning and for the first half I had the road all to myself (going in my direction).
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    Well . . . all to myself except for those pesky deer.
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    Nice that they lined up the tunnel with Rushmore.
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    Just a great ride.
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    Pigtail bridges.
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    TJ. I think he winked at me.
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    I wonder how many wildfires have been started by steam locomotives over the years.
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    Tourist railroad.
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    This former CCC camp is now some kind of theater.
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    I think he keeps this parked in a shed at night.
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    Again, I didn't share many details here about the Hills. If you want to know more see my report Big Bike Solo in the Black Hills.
    #11
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  12. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Day 2 Continued

    Hotshots and helitack.

    The hotshots were out working a fire in New Mexico. I was able to meet with a helitack firefighter that was stationed here.
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    I guess I'd better explain what a hotshot crew is. An interagency hotshot crew is an elite crew of highly trained wildland firefighters. They deploy to battle the most serious fires nationwide. They have tough work and must be well conditioned. They also must be highly trained as a team that also has specialists within the team. The teams, which number more than 100, are an interagency resource even though the teams may "belong" to a specific agency. "Hotshot" is derived from the crews being assigned to the hottest parts of the fire back in SOCAL in the 1940s. There is also the common meaning about being particularly talented. When not fighting fires they are often involved in forestry projects like building trails, doing prescribed burns, and thinning forests. Some hotshots even went to NYC to work on trees that were damaged by a rare tornado.

    Professional hotshot teams are quite the contrast to the old days when a local forest ranger would recruit temporary firefighters out of local taverns on an as needed basis.

    I was impressed with the quality of the quarters at this base. At some bases in remote areas there were no living quarters and local housing may be scarce or difficult to afford. Some firefighters choose to live out of a van or camper during their terms as seasonal firefighters.
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    Dayroom.
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    Kitchen. These guys feed themselves unless they are deployed.
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    Helitack firefighter that showed me around. Helitack is not part of the hotshot crew (although a hotshot crew will have someone designated as a helicopter specialist to handle sling loads and the like).
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    Training and meeting room.
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    Military folks will be familiar with sand tables for training.
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    Dorm style two person rooms. It is a bit ironic that these guys stay out for two weeks at a time and get a couple of days off between deployments.
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    Physical conditioning is a big part of their jobs. The work they do requires it.
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    A format for the team might be like this one:
    • One GS-9 superintendent;
    • Two GS-8 foremen, (also known as captains or assistant superintendents)
    • Two GS-6/7 squad leaders;
    • Two to four GS-5 senior firefighters; and
    • Approximately twelve GS-4 and/or GS-3 temporary firefighters.


    I read a news story where one former member of this crew was killed while fighting wildfire in Washington.

    "Authorities say the three fire fighters were killed after their vehicle crashed on Wednesday and flames rolled over them before they could escape. Four other firefighters nearby were injured, one critically."
    #12
  13. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    I visited the nearby helitack base. Helitack involves using a helicopter to transport helitack firefighters to remote fires for an initial attack. The idea is to get there and get to work on the fire before it grows. A spot fire like one caused by a lightning strike would be a common scenario. Helitack helicopters can also drop water from a container slung beneath the aircraft.
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    This Eurocopter A Star can carry a pilot, an observer, and two firefighters and their gear. Once they drop the firefighters, they can rig the water bucket and dip and drop water to support the firefighters.
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    Helitack crews also have support vehicles that can chase the helicopter to bring more assets closer to the fire.
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    Helitack crews can have additional capabilities and I'll cover more about that later on. Usually the aircraft are contracted for a certain number of hours during the fire season. The pilot and mechanic belong to the contractor and the firefighters belong to the government. Some have fuel trailers or trucks that chase the helicopter to better support operations.
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    Normally this aircraft is on alert on the ramp but the weather forecast led them to move it into the hangar.
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    Mechanic doing maintenance. We talked about the various maintenance requirements as I am familiar with some of that from my military days. A daily takes 45-50 minutes on this aircraft. After 25 hours it requires a more detailed inspection. At 100 hours it requires more significant maintenance. Maintenance has to be planned to keep the aircraft in operation. You can do a 25 hour at 20 hours, but you can't be late. Different aircraft may have slightly different hour requirements.
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    Sometimes the pilot will get a warning that essentially means "land now!" For example, this chip detector on the tail rotor gearbox might indicate that the gearbox is about to fail which would be a real problem since the tail rotor keeps the body from spinning opposite the direction of the rotor. A chip of metal would short the contacts.
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    No "Jesus Nut" holding things together on this model. I was surprised about the use of composites on some key components.
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    Like many aircraft, components have a total hour limitation or require inspections so they can be replaced before they fail.
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    Someone is going to say something about the oil level being below the line. If you fill it to the line it just blows oil into the exhaust until it gets back down to the working level. This leaves an oil stain on the tail boom.
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    Great group of folks here. Since I am a fixed wing pilot it was great talking aviation with these guys.
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    Just a little bit south is a bicycle sculpture. This pile of bikes, near a recreation trail, has grown significantly over the years. For a while I thought maybe it was because of a tough trail, but maybe not . . .
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    I noticed that you can walk around inside this pile of bikes, er . . . sculpture now.
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    #13
  14. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Day 2 Continued

    In July of 2012, a USAF C-130 that was battling a wildfire near the Black Hills went down while operating as an air tanker.
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    There is an interpretive sign along the highway as a memorial to the crash. I spoke with a local wildland firefighter about getting back to the actual crash scene and he said it would be difficult to get to.
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    This is a bit of the burned over terrain near the crash site.
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    With a shortage of air tankers, congress went to work to get the military involved with the forest service.
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    Some USAF photos of the crash scene, some drops, and the MAFFS device. Two of the crew survived but suffered serious injuries. The two survivors were riding the MAFFS device in the cargo bay. You'll see some crew seats in a moment when I show the device. The ELT didn't transmit after the crash so one of the injured survivors called emergency services on his cell phone . . . but he didn't know where he was. Because of the storm, nearby helicopters couldn't fly for a while.
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    MAFFS is a Modular Airborne Firefighting System. The USFS owns the MAFFS devices. The USAF, often via reserve components, provides the aircraft, crews, and the like. The device loads into the cargo bay of a C-130.
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    Nozzles dispense water or retardant through the side troop door (that I used to jump from as a paratrooper).
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    The original version had to be pressurized on the ground before use. The current version, which dispenses around 3,000 gallons, has two compressors that can pressurize the load in the air.
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    As is the normal practice, the C-130 was following a lead plane on the drop route. The lead plane was about a half mile ahead of the cargo plane. The lead plane got caught in a downburst that pushed them to about 10 feet above the ground and nearly crashed them. The pilot of the lead plane over-temped (smoked) his engines trying to get the power to pull up and keep from crashing. The official report says that the lead plane didn't clearly warn off the C-130. "The crews of those planes failed to alert the trailing C-130 to go around the storm, the investigation found. Instead, the lead plane crew advised the C-130 to drop its load of retardant to lighten the craft to help it climb." The lead plane with the smoked engines dashed back to the Rapid City air tanker base.
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    A third plane was working the fire. "Before the crash, the air attack aircraft encountered sudden updrafts and downdrafts with airspeed fluctuations between 20 to 40 knots, which forced the aircraft into bank angles of approximately 90 degrees."
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    USFS images below.
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    Cutting fireline to try to stop the advancement of the fire. These folks have to chainsaw open a lane and then cut a line down to mineral soil.
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    There is more to deal with than just putting out the fire.
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    #14
  15. djroszina

    djroszina Long timer Supporter

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    Being a municipal structure firefighter for over 20 years, I’ve always admired the wild land firefighters. I consider them the Olympians of firefighting.
    #15
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  16. toypro1

    toypro1 Adventurer

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    I'm in - I am looking forward to reading this
    #16
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  17. bomose

    bomose Long timer

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    All praise to these guys. A very tough job. I am a forestry graduate and only fought one very small fire in Alabama. It was still tough with all the smoke and heat. If you haven't read "The Big Burn" by Timothy Egan, you should.

    Attached Files:

    #17
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  18. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Day 2 Continued Edgemont and Igloo

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    Edgemont is a crew change point for the BNSF. There is a parade of coal trains going through here.
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    There is some kind of rule that my reports are required to have an artillery picture in them somewhere. For now, let's include this French 155mm that could lob a projectile 10-12 miles. The design was used by 10 different countries (including the US) in two world wars. This thing was previously stashed at the Igloo Ordnance Depot outside town. When they closed the depot they must have had a dump sale on odds and ends (like broken pallets of nerve agent projectiles stored there). :evil
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    President Teddy Roosevelt stopped here to give a "Ted talk" as part of his western states tour. Ted made a speech from the bandstand. The society matrons of the town planned a banquet for the President. Then a group of cowboys showed up nearby with their chuck wagon so Teddy ate beans and bacon off a tin plate with them. The cowboys loaned Teddy a horse that he rode up and down the street while the cowboys shot their pistols in the air. Soon the presidential train whistle signaled it was time to move on and Teddy hit the road. Town dignitaries were somewhat disappointed.
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    There really isn't much left in some of these old towns, but I imagine that at one time they were pretty substantial.
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    Back on the road.
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    Some remnants of the Black Hills Ordnance Depot (Igloo) outside town. This was a munitions storage facility that was built in 1942 and lasted until 1967. Since it was in the boonies, workers lived in federally provided housing on the property. After the place closed, most of that was moved to the Pine Ridge Reservation. The housing community was known as Igloo. Tom Brokaw lived there for a few years as a boy. During WWII, the place held some Italian PWs. Chemical weapons were stored here including sarin and mustard gas,
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    There are 575 concrete and steel bunkers (Igloos) here. Some guy wanted to transform the place into "the largest private shelter community on earth". He thought as many as 5,000 people could survive any major catastrophic event and its aftermath here. He thought he could outfit each 80 X 26' bunker with enough food, water, fuel, and hygienic supplies to last 24 people for a year or more. A 99 year lease on a bunker went for $1,000 per year with a $25K deposit being paid up front.
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    I think the place is pretty much just a ranch now.
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    It looks like it was pretty substantial with rail service and a supporting community of 1,800 on site.
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    Headin' south.
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    I went looking for a battlefield marker in the area. When I filtered down onto some overgrown two-tracks I decided I was close enough. So, after Custer got his ass kicked at the Little Big Horn, some of the tribes became emboldened and started to make some moves. The government starting sending more troops to get a handle on things. The Battle of Warbonnet Creek (July 1876) was nearby. Bill "Hollywood" Cody was guiding for some troops. The Army set up an ambush to try to take down some renegade Indians . They set out a wagon train as bait, hid close to 350 troops in the covered wagons, and positioned some snipers in support. Sure enough, some Indians showed up and saw the lightly defended convoy. They sent six warriors in to make an obvious attack as a distraction while 250 others approached from a different direction. Needless to say things didn't go so well for the six warriors. When the other warriors tried to bail them out, they discovered that they were outgunned and quickly fled the area. Bill Cody shot and scalped a Cheyenne Chief in the engagement. Not a single trooper was injured. That fall Bill Cody was up on stage with the scalp he collected.
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    #18
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  19. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Day 2 Continued

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    So in 1876 they were battling 250 warriors just up the road a bit and in 1884 they started Harrison as a railroad town. Harrison died off over the years as things changed with agriculture and ranching.
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    It was difficult to manage things on the frontier back in the day. In some less developed areas and in some ways maybe it still is.
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    There is a national fossil monument along the way here.
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    If you like dinosaur stuff this valley has produced remains of the modern horse, a pony sized rhino, a bear dog, a big pig like ungulate, a gazelle like camelid, some beaver that dug corkscrew burrows, and some relatives of rhinos and horses.
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    This old fossil didn't need to be diggin' up bones so I gave it a quick look and moved on.
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    Some towns around here, like Scottsbluff, have a sweet deal producing sugar. Ever wonder how the sugar beet thing works?
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    I covered the Scottsbluff area in my Pony Express report so I'll breeze through the area here.

    I was tempted to stop and tell these folks that they might be runnin' just a little bit late on the western migration thing.
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    I swung past the airport but didn't find a remarkable photo to take. It got going as an Army Airfield in 1942. At first they trained B-17 and B-24 people. Later they trained C-47 and glider personnel.
    #19
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  20. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Day 2 (To the end of day)

    There is a big UP engine repair facility here.
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    Here we go with another big storm over in the direction I have to travel. No biggie. I geared up and rode it out without getting soaked.
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    Going back to 1851, there was supposed to be a treaty signing at Fort Laramie. However, there wasn't enough grass to sustain the native ponies for people coming in. The treaty involved 50K for 50 years to allow safe passage on the Oregon Trail and to allow forts and other facilities to be built. They moved the treaty signing site to Horse Creek as it could better handle the mob. How many? 8,000 to 12,000 natives showed up. The logistics for that must have been difficult to manage. I would guess they had to truck in a lot of porta-johns and arrange for food stands. I heard they had a whole wagon train come in containing only bottled water. Clean up after the ceremony was probably a big project as well.
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    Irrigation canals are a big deal in this area. Water comes off the Platte.
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    It was often pretty hot on this trip. I had to be very conscious of staying hydrated.
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    Warren AFB is in Cheyenne (WY). It is one of three strategic missile bases we have. The base was first established back in 1867 although intercontinental ballistic missiles were not very capable at that time. :evil
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    Cheyenne is a big railroad town. Here is a roundhouse.
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    Very nice depot from days gone by.
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    They have a steam locomotive shop in the yard. They restored a Big Boy (monster sized) steam engine there. The engine is now on tour in the midwest and will come through my area tomorrow. The engine is something like this static display.
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    Though it is a railroad town, some say Cheyenne is still quite refined.
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    This large control tower overlooks the UP yard in town. It sprouts up between two overpasses that cross the yard.
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    Don't be fooled by the double rainbow. I had been in and out of rain for a bit but it was about to get much worse. Water standing on the interstate, warning signs, hail washed into a pile along the road . . . my picture taking got put aside for a while.
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    I saw a lot of wind generators in place and components being trucked around when I was on this trip. I swung by a factory where they manufacture blades.
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    I couldn't get a good enough picture of all the blades stored in the yard outside the plant so here is an aerial.
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    When Kodak was big, they had a large campus in this town. Kind of empty now.
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    Although I did find one small plant still going.
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    The county took over an old missile silo site and turned it into a park and campground. I had planned to camp there but with the waves of storms coming through I skipped it.

    Another nice day of riding and exploring.
    #20
    wilfred, Bigger Al, dtysdalx2 and 9 others like this.