In 1985 I was junior at University of Arizona majoring in General Studies – the major for students who have no idea what they want to do. I went to U of A to swim on their synchronized swimming team. We won the 1984 Collegiate National Championship, and then the team was cut due to lack of funding. Harsh reality of college sports, but a good thing for me. I had spent over half of my life in a swimming pool, but the only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to coach swimming.
Over Christmas Break my brother gave me an application for summer work with the National Park Service. John helped me fill out the application and choose the two parks that I would apply to – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park. This application made me face the reality that I was a junior in college with no direction for my life.
In April of 1986 I was offered a job on the Mesa Verde Helitack Crew. I had no idea what I was being offered. A quick discussion with John confirmed that helicopters were involved, as was fighting forest fires. Very cool and very unexpected!
I bought a good pair of leather boots and headed for the park. Dormitory housing – men at one end and women at the other, community kitchen. Two squads of firefighters with four people on each squad. We came from all over – Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Texas, New Mexico, Alaska, Colorado and Virginia. I breezed through the physical standards test, and moved on to the introductory firefighter classes.
And then the helicopter arrived. It was an ordinary white Hughes 500D, but to me it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. We spent one week training with the helicopter – learning important things such as how to get people safely on and off the helicopter (because we all vividly remember the scene in Indiana Jones where the bad guy is pushed in to the airplane propeller…), and how to attach buckets and long lines to the belly of a helicopter hovering directly over you.
Our first fire call was to a fast-moving grass fire on the adjacent Indian Reservation – Ute Mountain Ute. We used the helicopter to drop water on the edges of the fire, and shuttle firefighters to and from the fireline. We talked to folks from the Reservation who came out to watch the show. It was hot, dirty, exhausting work. I loved it!
We had several more local calls – back to the Reservation, to the adjacent National Forest, out into Utah along the Colorado River, several small fires on the park. Each day better than the day before.
On the days without fires we used the helicopter to move crews and equipment into cliff dwellings that had not been entered by humans since the Anasazi Indians left the Mesa Verde area. The crews would stabilize the ruins so that they could be mapped and researched. Our evenings included some of the best star-gazing I have ever experienced. Gorgeous, clear and very dark skies. For me, the best place for star-gazing was Cedar Tree Tower.
In late summer I was offered a new opportunity – head to Grand Junction, Colorado with a 20-person handcrew. There had been a lighting bust and many fires had popped up. This would be different – no helicopter, just digging fireline with pulaskis, shovels and chainsaws. Hard, grueling work. Longer hours, dirtier conditions. I learned to love quick naps using a hard hat as a pillow!
My first reality check occurred during this trip. My crew was coming in from a very long shift on the fireline – we had been up for over 24 hours – when we heard about the accident. A helitack crew, one that we worked closely with, had crashed while flying to initial attack a fire near Montrose, Colorado (about 1 hour south of Grand Junction). The pilot and firefighters had died. For as bad as this was, my brother lived in Montrose and worked for the Bureau of Land Management. The crew that died was a BLM crew that took off from the helitack base near his office. My brother knew that I was working in the area and that there was a possibility that I was on that helicopter – and now he had to face the possibility that the job that he helped me apply for had killed me. It was several hours before he knew my fate because the crew information could not be released until the rescue and recovery operation was complete. My crew was released later that day to go home. The drive took us through Montrose where my crew leader kindly agreed to stop at John’s office so that I could let him know that I was okay. Heartbroken, feeling helpless and devastated, but okay. To this day I am haunted by the fact that I got to let my brother know that I was okay, but four families did not receive a phone call letting them know that everything was okay.
The rest of the summer was busy. We spent three weeks on a large fire in eastern Oregon – on a helibase with seven helicopters from all over the western US. The days were long, the smoke was thick, the food was wonderful – fresh local fruits and vegetables, with fresh meats (which beat the standard camp food of white bread with bologna or MRE’s). I learned to play cribbage in the evenings.
My first season ended as abruptly as it started – first rain and then snow. The helicopter contract ended, and the helicopter headed on to its next job. I helped winterize the fire cache, said goodbye to my crew, and started the trip home with a new view of my future.
Still fighting life’s fires,
My name is Elizabeth Anderson. I am the proud mother of two incredible sons, Tom and Sam, and we have a lovely Labradoodle named Regan. We live in Brentwood, and have some of the most amazing friends. I love reading, hiking, and being in wide-open spaces and wilderness areas.
I did go on to a career in wildland fire management. I earned two degrees in natural resources management and fire ecology. I spent 15 years fighting fires and lighting prescribed burns for the US Forest Service and National Park Service. I am currently the Chief Operating Officer of Wildland Fire Associates, a company I helped found in 2001.
And because I am always afraid that these four brave firefighters will be forgotten ~
In Memory of: Lee Steingoetter, Phillip “Todd” Hamilton, Harold Siewers, and Jim Daugherty (Pilot)
“On August 5, 1986. Helicopter 203 was dispatched from Montrose, Colorado to check out a reported smoke northeast of Montrose. While flying in the Black Canyon approximately 300 above ground level, they struck an unmarked high-tension line and severed the main-rotor mast. The aircraft went out of control and fell 300 feet to the bottom of the canyon, where it caught fire. All four on board were killed instantly on impact with the ground.” ~ Always Remember (http://wlfalwaysremember.org)
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