Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers catch a ride out of the woods after the Whitewater Fire closed parts of the trail.
All in a Day's Work
Amphibious scooper planes were coming to Detroit Lake to douse the flames on the Whitewater Fire. The planes need a long open stretch of water to approach, fill on the go and climb out. Our orders were to inform the many boaters on the lake that the planes were coming and to make sure they got out of the way.
Pleasure boaters packed the marina and the lake's many side channels. People dressed in shorts and flip-flops asked about the fire as I set up information boards about the planes. A young officer from Marion County Sheriff's Marine Patrol kindly agreed to let me ride along in his boat as he and his colleague cleared a lane for the scoopers. I slipped a life jacket over my Nomex and we motored out to the far end of the lake.
We reached our position and sat bobbing lightly on the swells. Two scoopers appeared over the ridge, descending gracefully toward the lake. They skimmed over the water, rose up and banked toward the fire.
Images in hand, I was ready to call it good when my cell rang. The helicopter base manager told me the pilots encountered some turbulence where they made their first run. The pilots wanted to use the main body of the lake. Could I help get the lake cleared?
I conferred with the young deputy sheriff and we hatched a plan. We had the fastest boat so we took point while the other deputies cleared boaters from the lake's many long narrow "arms." We sped across the water, lights flashing, and motored up to each boat so I could tell them the lake was closed and to move back. We swept back and forth, slowly pushing a flotilla of speed boats, house boats, sail boats and jet skis back a safe distance.
Most of the boaters were openly curious about the scooper planes that still circled overhead. They seemed to accept the trade-off we offered: The main lake was closed, but they would get front-row seats to the airshow.
The helibase manager called again and asked that I radio Air Attack when the clearing operation was complete. Air Attack is like air traffic control for wildfire aircraft. They fly high above the fire and direct the other aircraft. It's a hectic adrenaline junkie kind of job.
"Whitewater Air Attack from Information Kauffman, we'll have the lake clear in 15 minutes," I said clearly.
"Copy that. Let us know when it's good to go."
When the last arm of the lake was cleared and all the boaters were safely corralled into a small section of the lake, I radioed back to Air Attack to let them know. We bobbed on the water in the late afternoon sun with dozens of other boaters until we heard the unmistakable throaty roar of aircraft. The scoopers circled once and dropped slowly down toward the blue water, their white hulls sending shimmering clouds of spray into the air as they skimmed across the surface. Bellies full, they slowly climbed out of the lake to drop their long-awaited cargo on the fire. Behind me, applause could be heard above the din.