Story & images by Jim Friend
The Little Queens fire starts three miles northwest of Atlanta, Idaho,
at approximately 2:30pm, origin unknown.
2,000 acres burned
Fire is 0% contained
7,000 acres burned
When we got the call for the Little Queens fire, I looked
up the national "Sit Report" straightaway. It stated that
a fire of unknown origin had started two days earlier near Atlanta,
Idaho and immediately flared up to 2,000 acres, threatening nearby homes
and property. I then looked at a map to see where this "Atlanta"
was located and was pleasantly surprised. A tiny, remote town next to
the Sawtooth Wilderness area, in the middle of nowhere. Awesome.
Back to the yard with my meticulously packed bags. Some
last minute preparations and then into the trucks for a six hour drive
to Eastern Oregon where we spent the night.
8,000 acres burned
At dawn, we headed out toward Idaho City, northeast
of Boise. Beyond this small town, a skinny, winding highway led us up
and over a mountain pass to a primitive Forest Service road. Another
two full hours of dusty driving brought us to our final destination,
an alpine grass and dirt emergency airstrip. After being assigned a
spot to set up our equipment, a mobile shower unit, we got to work.
I couldn't understand why I was so thirsty, until I realized that the
airstrip was nearly 5,000 feet above sea level. An awesome mushroom
cloud of smoke from the fire billowed up from behind the ridge to the
north. The cadence of helicopter blades, rumbling into and out of the
compound, echoed off the neighboring canyon walls.
A pyrocumulus (or fire cloud) forms above the Little
Queens fire, as seen when we arrived at the airstrip, 14 miles outside
Throughout the day, more vehicles and personnel arrived.
As is typical for a fire, and to my continuing amazement, another functioning
city was set up by nightfall, complete with a large kitchen, dining
tent, showers, mobile hand washing stations, bathrooms (port-a-potties,
yum), and numerous yurts constructed for operations staff. This transient
city would quickly come to accommodate an average of about 300 people.
The emerald waters and burned landscape
Towards the end of the afternoon, the facilities lead
asked if I would be able to temporarily supply the camp with fresh water.
The National Preparedness Level had just been raised to 5 (the highest)*,
indicating that fire base resources throughout the country were tapped
out. As a result, the potable water truck that was supposed to be at
our camp had been delayed at another fire. I was to acquire water from
a fire hydrant 14 miles up the road in Atlanta to supply both the camp
and our shower unit. I liked this idea a lot, as it got me closer to
the fire, which I wanted to put my eyeballs to. Mandatory evacuations
being in effect in the town itself, which made the situation even more
The entire length of the gravel road to Atlanta runs
along the Middle Fork Boise River, and the drive turned out to be terrifically
beautiful. The super clear emerald waters of the river carve out the
occasional deep pool, evincing even deeper bluish-green hues from the
depths, with adjacent gray rock walls shooting vertically upward in
a number of areas. The effect is striking. On the hills above lay massive
evidences of previous fire activity, the flames of which completely
decimating much of the entirety of the forest as far as the eye could
see. Thousands upon thousands of blackened toothpicks line the hillsides,
with barely a leaf or twig left on any, starkly contrasting the blue
sky and clouds above.
Dredge mining set-up on the Middle Fork River
I had heard that there was a lot of gold in Idaho, and
found out how true this was by the numerous claim signs pegged with
almost perfect regularity along the way. Every 100 yards or so of the
river has been claimed by gold miners. The occasional floating dredge
could be seen tied up to a tree along the river, with evidence of semi-permanent
encampments along the riverbank.
Arriving in Atlanta close to dusk, I found the hydrant
just outside the quaint fire department, complete with an ancient fire
engine parked out front. Parts of the town looked as if little had been
changed since the early part of last century, with all the idiosyncratic
architectural signatures characteristic of gold rush towns. Charming.
The fire was advancing toward the small town on the ridge to the north,
with large columns of smoke rising from just behind the ridge line into
the darkening sky. With that foreboding skyline looming horizon, Atlanta
definitely didn't feel like a place you'd want to be owning a home at
the moment. Water acquired, I made my way back to fire camp, working
until about one in the morning, the 19 hour work day behind me.
The hydrant I drew water from, and the old fire
truck in front of the fire station. Much smoke fills the air
One of the many typically charming Atlanta
9,500 acres burned
The next day arrived with normal fire camp routines
establishing themselves quickly. Breakfast and coffee, attending to
the shower unit, supplying the camp with potable water, and the like.
About 40 low-risk prisoners from a local jail made their
rounds, helping out in the kitchen and wherever else they could, including
at our shower unit. Throughout the day, along with the firefighters
and other staff, they would also take trips down to our unit to either
empty our trash cans, or for a wash. It was interesting to hear their
stories. Wanting to allow a good measure of deference in consideration
of the new lives they had ahead of them (almost all were close to parole),
I hesitated to ask whatever it was that had brought them to their current
dispensations, but inevitably the answer would either be offered, or
I would just plainly ask them if the moment felt right. To my amazement,
several stated that they were in jail for DUI's, and at least one had
garnered a hefty sentence for his first offense.
When I arrived in Atlanta in the early evening, the
fire was obviously advancing very quickly over the ridge. The previous
day I had seen only plumes of smoke, but tonight, I could actually see
the fire. Oddly, two Apache helicopters were flying low around the town.
To my surprise, one of the Apaches dipped toward the tree line and eventually
landed in a field just beyond my view, sending up a dust cloud. I wasn't
sure what to make of these military helicopters, but was sure by the
time I left was that the fire was indeed marching toward Atlanta at
a marked pace.
10,352 acres burned
Back at the hydrant toward dusk, the fire seemed to
be a bit closer, but not by much. A two-prop airplane buzzed around
the ridge line, moving very quickly. Waiting for my tank to fill, I
could also see what appeared to be a C-130 approaching the fire. Eventually,
the two-prop airplane and the C-130 converged, with the smaller plane
in the lead. The C-130 followed closely, and at certain points along
the ridge, a trail of smoke would proceed from the two-prop airplane.
Wherever the smoke was produced, the C-130 bombed out a trail of water.
I found a great
time lapse sequence of the Little Queens fire taken on this day
near the ICP at the fire base, by Kyle Ford. It's totally worth a gander.
Wildland firefighters preparing Atlanta for the
12,787 acres burned
News arrived the next afternoon that a back burn had
been started near Atlanta,** and with an unusually busy work day in
the books, I had to head out near dark. Being so far out in the wilderness,
radio signals were spotty, but I managed to pick up a radio station
that was broadcasting Idaho folk music. When I arrived in Atlanta, I
couldn't believe my eyes. What had the day before only been a fire on
a ridge line more than a mile away, as the crow flies, had turned into
a veritable firestorm. The entire ridge was ablaze, with fire as close
as a few hundred yards in front of where I was standing at the hydrant.
Alone on the dirt road, I felt like I was in a video game, about to
charge off into the forest to tackle a thousand awaiting hellion ghouls,
with many glowing upwells of fire and smoke and sparks setting the scene.
The sight was truly amazing. As I waited for my tank to fill, a man
in his thirties drove up, hopped out of his truck, and asked if I was
waiting to use the pay phone (yes, pay phone) next to the fire station.
I said, "No," and he made his way over to the phone to start
his call. I had left the door to my truck open, still listening to the
folk music I had been entertaining myself with earlier. Just as I was
adjourning my water gathering business, the fellow on the phone ended
his call and headed my way. Pointing to the open door of my truck he
asked, "Hey, is that Bill Coffey?" I replied that I had no
idea, and that I had just found this awesome radio station with weird
folk music on the way up. He explained to me that the song playing was
by Bill Coffey and Ned Evett, who were well known folk musicians in
the Idaho area, and that being a big fan, he had seen them play live
on several occasions in the Boise area, his home town. Proceeding from
this mutual introduction, with the smell of smoke and a nearby threatening
fire, began a surreal Twilight Zone-caliber conversation about the Idaho
folk music scene. Eventually, we got back to the reality of what was
going on around us, and he explained to me that he worked for the Forest
Service, having just debarked as the advisor from the heli-torch copter
that had dispensed flaming golfball-sized fire pellets throughout the
area to the north of us in an attempt to save the town. Since the winds
were favorable that afternoon, the decision was made to make an aerial
back burn as close to the town as possible, in an attempt to make the
fire burn back into itself, thereby eliminating the threat of it advancing
out of control toward Atlanta. So far the plan was working just about
how they wanted it to.
16,212 acres burned
The previous day's back burn north of Atlanta had been
effective, but only to a certain measure. The worry was that the fire
would skip over the river, and threaten the southern end of the town,
so it was decided that more back-burning was required. Starting from
Atlanta and moving toward the fire camp at the landing strip, fire crews
would start fires along the northwest side of the road, to the distance
of about five miles. With the same intent as the heli-torch the day
before, the hope was that the subsequent fire would then again burn
northward, into the original fire advancing towards Atlanta, meet somewhere
in the middle, and be rendered ineffective.
The backburn begins
on several occasions when
driving the road I could feel the heat of the fire through the windows
of my truck
Another day, another interminable convoy
8/25 Close Encounters of
the Wolf Kind
18,000 acres burned
In the afternoon, I was informed that the back burn
had progressed to the point where there was some debate among the overhead
as to whether they would allow any travel to Atlanta. It was explained
to me that any number of hazards could befall me on my trip: Burning
trees on the road, landslides, road collapse, and burning material on
the roadway. (Hmmm, the "any number of hazards" list presented
to me did not seem to include wolves.)
Towards evening, I went to see the head of logistics
for the official word. After about ten minutes of deliberation and several
radio calls to Atlanta, he told me soberly, "You can go, but be
very, very careful." It was decided that I would make my way to
the Queens River bridge about ten miles up the road, stop, and wait
for a front loader to meet me to clear the road of burning material
along the back burn. Among the normal operations transit making their
way along that road at any given time, I was the only vehicle approved
to make the trip until dawn. Walking out of the logistics yurt, I was
elated about this upcoming drive into the unknown.
After a brief chat with John, the Forest Service agent
manning the check-point, I headed off toward Atlanta. It was dark by
this time, and eventually, the pronounced glow of fire was seen on the
horizon, and it wasn't long before I had reached the bridge. The volume
of fire immediately adjacent to the road was remarkable. I parked the
truck and hopped out with my camera, in awe of what I was seeing. The
entire hillside was ablaze, as if it had just been lit. The stream below
the bridge reflected the fire gracefully. At times, entire trees would
torch, basking the small valley I was looking up into with an almost
daylight quality of light.
About a half hour of waiting for the front loader in
the books, I decided to walk up the road to see if I could possibly
make it to Atlanta without any assistance. Chunks of wood were burning
in the roadway, having rolled down from the steep hill above. Small
landslides of dirt and rocks could also occasionally be seen or heard.
About a half mile into my walk, I found a large burning stump stationed
squarely in the middle of the road. I realized there would be no way
to move it with either my hands or my truck, so my quest for water wasn't
going to be possible without the loader.
I made my way back down to the bridge and paused to
look out at the fire and take a few more pictures. I decided that if
the front loader hadn't arrived by now, it probably wasn't going to
make it at all, and that I should probably head back to camp in about
ten or fifteen minutes. Any more than that would be a waste of time.
I looked out over the stream and fire for another five minutes, snapping
some parting shots. Having my fill of the amazing view, I turned to
go back to the truck, which was parked about 50 feet from me, headlights
still on. To my utter amazement, standing in the middle of the road
between myself and the truck, only 30 feet away, staring at me, was
a big white wolf.
Left: View from the bridge as a tree (not pictured)
torches on the hill above, illuminating the background. As I blithely
take this shot, the wolf, unbeknownst to me, is still deliberating about
putting me on its culinary agenda; Right: A view of the fire from a
bit farther down the road.
Version #1 of my reaction to seeing a wolf (much preferred)
My fingers instantly curled into claws, and I had to restrain myself
from lunging towards the animal as my mind shouted, "Kill and eat!
Kill and eat!"
Version #2 of my reaction to seeing a wolf (perhaps
a more accurate version of events)
We made eye contact for a second, and having done so, while I was still
recovering from the surprise/shock of it all, the wolf (which had a
black radio collar around its neck) lowered its head and trotted off
across the headlights into the bushes right next to the truck. I told
myself, "Ok, you have to get back in the truck now." I decided
I should walk at a normal pace, not wanting to trigger a shower of pouncing
wolves from the bushes, attracted by a fast-moving, nervous-looking
potential prey item. So I walked at a normal stride back to the truck,
with the wolf still rustling in the bushes right next to the driver's
side door, which was an entirely disturbing feeling. Climbing into the
cab and closing the door, I realized that I was so surprised by this
peculiar animalia encounter that I hadn't thought to take a picture,
with the camera right there in my hands at the time. So I waited in
the truck, praying that the wolf would come back out so I could get
a snap of him. Unfortunately, he did not produce himself, and I finally
headed out, back towards camp.
I was absolutely stoked by this encounter, but wasn't
sure this story would be believed by those back at camp. I had never
seen a wolf in the wild before, and hadn't to my knowledge met anyone
who had, especially at such close proximity. Arriving at the Forest
Service checkpoint, I got out of the truck and immediately started with
John: "You will probably never believe this, but
relaying the wolf story to him, he stated that he had also seen the
same white wolf, and in the same general area of the bridge the night
20,956 acres burned
John mentioned my wolf encounter the next morning to
some of the staff. At least one more sighting of the wolf had been reported.
Members of a hand crew had seen the wolf upstream from the bridge, and
had found a dead deer some distance up the stream valley. The deer was
its kill, of course, and the reason it had been lingering in the area.
The logistics lead saw me later in the evening and commented somewhat
sternly. "You know," he said with furrowed brow and concerned
tone, "the wolf is the only animal that kills for sport. You're
very lucky." Given that I had been standing on the bridge for about
five minutes taking pictures of the fire before I turned and actually
saw the wolf, I almost have to agree with him. Who knows how long it
had been sizing me up? Had it been in a pack, I may have been at such
a risk. However, given how skinny I am, I believe any wolf would consider
me an unsavory target, unworthy of the effort.
A helicopter departs fire camp from the heli-base.
The green tent functioned as our dining room
23,049 acres burned
In the afternoon I was able to take a bit of a break
in Atlanta to take some pictures after filling my tank. The citizens
turned out to be as quirky as the architecture. I chatted with a fellow
that looked much like a stereotypical gold miner who told me that he
was working a goldmine that his father had passed down to him from his
grandfather, all of whom had been able to make a living in it since
the early 1900's. Moving on, I passed what appeared to be a social club/antiques
store, and glanced inside. The building was dark, with not a single
light on inside, but I could distinctly hear the sound of two men chatting
casually and a parrot squawking in the background. As I made my way
up down the street I spotted a bearded man rolling a cigarette on a
storefront porch, drinking a beer, with a big fluffy dog at his feet,
which also looked like it had just drank a few beers. I engaged him
in conversation and he explained to me that the town had been pretty
wild back in the 70's before the police heard about it and decided making
appearances. He pointed at the pay phone (yes another one) on the porch
right next to us, and said that up until three months ago, you could
call anywhere in the world on this phone for free. I later learned from
someone else that Canadian gold prospectors had taken liberties with
the phone, using it to dial 1-900 numbers (apparently these still exist
too) ending the odd privilege once and for all. As we chatted, I looked
back over to the social club antiques store. A man was driving away
on a four-wheeler ATV, a parrot cage strapped to the back seat rack.
The green parrot could be seen swinging on his swing as they drove away
down the road. "Now this is my kind of town," I thought. I
thanked the man for his time and the conversation and started walking
back towards my water truck.
He yelled, "Hey! You ain't got a joint do ya?!"
"No," I replied.
"All right then, get out of here!" he bellowed.
A man and his dog... it's a beautiful thing. I'm
not sure how many beers were left in the cooler. Pay-phone-of-legend
to the right.
23,273 acres burned
The back burn, carefully monitored, advanced beyond
the road toward the main fire, with an effective degree of success.
Hot spots along the road were extinguished to prevent subsequent flare-ups
and a potentially catastrophic jump across the river.
23,324 acres burned
23,551 acres burned
The final days of the Little Queens engagement came
with a dramatic reduction in resources and personnel. The base camp
was briefly moved to the Forest Service airstrip, one mile north of
Atlanta. The two remaining hand crews monitored the road to ensure no
hot-spots would flare up and cause the fire to jump the river. The fire
at this point was only 20% contained, but since it was burning into
wilderness and not towards any other man made structures, the decision
was made to demobilize.
25,500+ acres burned
Official de-mobe orders given.
25,500+ acres burned
We pack up and leave Atlanta. We spend two days in Boise,
hoping to be picked up by one of the many other Idaho wildfires. This
didn't happen. Home sweet home on the evening of the 5th. No wolf nightmares.
Several members of the overhead team eyes one of
the several big thunderstorms that graced our fire camp
Height of resources:
Six 20-person hand crews
7 water tenders
4 camp crews, and miscellaneous overhead personnel
Total Personnel: 353
Cost of a Sikorsky helicopter, used for water drops:
$8,000.00 an hour.
Total cost of Little Queens fire: $4.6 million
One of the storms dishes out some of its best
Our set-up at dusk. Long live the dream
*The last time the National Interagency Fire Center
raised the National Preparedness Level to 5 was in July of 2008.
**Aerial Firing Operations Begin (from
Incident: Little Queens Wildfire
Aerial ignition started around 2 pm this afternoon to
reduce the fuels on the south slopes north of Atlanta. This will reduce
the chance of extreme fire behavior and limit fire movement toward the
community. The operation is expected to continue into late evening and
will be monitored throughout the night. Based on today's burnout results,
and tomorrow's weather conditions, burnout operations may continue on
Complex Fire - Riddle, Oregon; Jacksonville,
Along the Oregon Coast; Inland
Pullman & The Palouse;