Monday, May 19, 2014

Volunteering for the Forest Service

As we were finishing up our winter wanderings in Southern Arizona we got a call from the maintenance supervisor at the Forest Service ranger station where we had made arrangements to volunteer this summer.  He wanted to know if we could come up early because he had a lot of work that needed to be done in preparation for the opening of fire season.  That's how we ended up at the Blue Ridge Ranger Station, halfway between Payson and Winslow, Arizona a week earlier than our anticipated April 1 start date.

The facility serves many purposes and is open year round, however there is only a small staff during the winter months.  The majority of the facility is housing and equipment buildings for fire crews.  There are two engine companies that always stay in the local area, and two hot shot crews that can be deployed anywhere in the Western US.  Because there was so little snow this winter, the fire crews start dates were moved up, and housing needed to be de-winterized and prepared for them.  That's why we were asked to arrive early if possible.  Although I was recruited for a grounds keeper position, the experience I listed on my application convinced the maintenance supervisor that I could help with the other projects until the grass started growing.  As it has turned out, I may never see a lawnmower.

Dianna is volunteering as well.  She spends a couple mornings a week in the office, helping out whereever she can.  It gives her a chance to be with people and get the social contact she needs.  I, on the other hand, work three days a week.  I work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 8 to 4.  There are some days that we get off early and a few times that I have had to work much later.  Those are usually days that I am far away in the forest and it takes that long to get back to the ranger station.

Once my supervisor discovered that I am a jack of all trades and master of none, he immediately put me to work on all kinds of projects.  For the first month or so, mostly we worked as a team with him, another volunteer and I working together.  Getting to know where everything is and how things are done is an ongoing process.  The Mogollon Rim District of the Coconino National Forest is a large area with hundreds of miles of forest roads, several campgrounds, three fire lookouts, and a sub-station where two additional engine crews are located.  Lately my supervisor has been sending me off on my own to take care of issues, now that I know my way around and have learned what needs to be done.

I am absolutely amazed at the variety of things that the maintenance crew is responsible for.  It would take a book to cover all of it, so I'm just going to list a few of the things I have worked on thus far.
  • Repaired several permanent housing units and mobile homes used as firefighter quarters.
  • Done carpentry, plumbing and some minor electrical work
  • Installed washers and dryers
  • De-winterized and turned on water systems in campgrounds.  
  • Filled water tanks and sanitized the systems.  
  • Tested water for chlorine and took water samples to the lab in Flagstaff.
  • Installed a new vehicle washing station at the Happy Jack sub-station.
  • Made several trips to Flagstaff to transport equipment for repair and pick up supplies.
  • Installed a sliding glass door in a housing unit.
  • Removed downed trees that were blocking several forest roads using a Bobcat and chainsaw (My supervisor operated them).
  • Hauled water trailers to fire lookouts.
  • Installed a solar system at a fire lookout.
  • Took down and put up signs.
That represents a simplified overview of some of the things I have worked on.  It is far from comprehensive.  To give a sense of what a typical day looks like, here is what I did one day last week when the other volunteer took a broken washing machine to Flagstaff and my supervisor worked on several minor projects and paperwork at the ranger station.

  • Loaded the pickup with a replacement battery, the water test kit, chlorine, and the new control board for the automatic chlorinator.
  • Installed the large pintle hitch on the pickup.
  • Drove about an hour and a half to Knoll Lake Campground (25 miles away over very rough forest service roads)
  • Opened the gate and drove up to the water tank on the hill above the campground.
  • Opened the gate around the tank and the guard on the ladder.
  • Climbed the 14 foot tank, opened the cover and dipped a water sample.
  • Tested the water for chlorine, radioed the results to my supervisor, added the amount of chlorine he calculated was needed, then locked everything up.
  • Drove to the dam, opened the gate and drove across the dam to the well site on the other side.
  • Installed the replacement battery in the generator (The generator had been broken into and the battery stolen)
  • Opened the cover on the structure over the well head and climbed in.
  • Installed the new control board in the automatic chlorinator, started the generator and turned on the pump to test the chlorinator.
  • Turned everything off, locked the well house.
  • Hooked the generator to the pickup (It weighs 8,000 pounds and can run the entire ranger station during a power failure)
  • Returned to the ranger station via a different route than I had taken going out in order to avoid some very steep grades.  The trip took about 2 hours, most of it right along the Mogollon Rim.
  • Filled the generator with diesel and parked it 
  • Filled out my logs for the day and locked everything up.  It was 4 PM.
I had called Dale when I found out where I was going that morning.  He was camping about 20 miles away and met me at the lake.  He worked as my helper, getting me tools etc. when I was in the well head so I didn't have to climb in and out.  We also had lunch together in the campground.

I don't want to give the impression that I am over worked.  There are some days the tasks can be somewhat strenuous, but we usually work together on those and take plenty of breaks.  Other days are mostly driving or working on simple things.  Just going out to remove a sign and lock can take an hour given the distances involved, and a trip to Flagstaff takes most of the day.

So far I am having fun.  I enjoy the variety of work and my supervisor is very accepting and appreciative of my suggestions and expertise.  For example, he has little experience with solar systems so I did the install at the fire lookout by myself.  I was also able to provide him with some information that changed how he planned to approach the system.

I know this is getting long so I will be brief about the rest of our doings.  Dianna made a trip to Texas to help Dayna with her new business.  She was gone a month.  Dale came to visit for a couple weeks during that time before going out into the forest to camp.  We had a good time visiting, hiking and helping the camp host at a nearby campground with the electrical system on his new RV.  Dale will be back in a couple days to spend a few more days with us.

Enough.  Just as a way to end this, here's a photo taken when were were working to clear one of the downed trees.


  1. Now it is working! Yesterday it wouldn't let me comment. I really like the way Blogger formats for my phone. Glad to hear from you. Keep us updated.

  2. Excellent story! Blogger does do a great job on a phone. That tree looks like the one in the first episode on Once Upon a Time. Watch out for thieves.

  3. As I was reading, I was thinking, "No wonder he hasn't blogged in a long time, he's so busy!". But then I realized that you only work 3 days a week, so no excuses.

    All of this is volunteer? Then I assume you at least get a place to stay for free. Does it include electricity and water hookup? Where do you dump?

    What elevation are you at? Is it still cool up there? Is there a place for visitors to stay, if you had any?

  4. Has nothing interesting happened since May? You know, like you were in the hospital or your went to Phoenix for your mother's 90th birthday or someone you worked with was involved in a public case?

    Or has your life been nothing interesting since May? ;)