Fighting a Fire for Old Friends

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Absarokee, Mont., seems like a long way away from Oregon, and without a specific reason to go there I don't think anyone would happen upon this little town. In the summer/fall of 2006 I was working as a pilot for Erickson Aircrane, a large firefighting helicopter operator. We flew all over the U.S. last year, from Texas to Massachusetts to Oregon. Toward the end of the summer I was based in Plains, Mont., as an initial attack helicopter. This means that we are the first responder of observed smoke and as such fly all over the state putting out fires.

So when I was dispatched to Big Timber, Mont., I didn't really look where the fire was, I just flew to it to begin work. The fire was already large when we arrived, much too big for a single helicopter to contain. And later that first day the fire blew up and became a monster. It swept down toward a town called … Absarokee. So there I was working near a town that I did not expect to ever see again.

This is where it got interesting and personal for me. When we bought the Case steam engine and wrote down George Miller's story, he had clear memories of where the engine worked cutting timber its whole life. It was parked on the Picket Pin Mountain, cutting timbers for the nearby chromium mine. He also related where the engine was moved and sat (the Limestone Ranch) after it was removed from Picket Pin.

The Big Timber fire covered more than 150,000 acres. When I looked at the map during a morning briefing, I noticed many familiar names and finally realized where I had heard them before - at breakfest with George, many years before. I was flying over the places that had been only memories before, yet I was getting to see where the engine had been. It was fascinating connecting the past with the present.

The fire turned out to be very bad for Dorothy Miller and her family, with much of their grazing land burned. I certainly didn't realize when we were fighting the fire, especially on those first couple of days, that there was this connection, and I found it amazing. I was glad to be able to do my part to reduce the toll on her family.

- Joseph Berto