Lake of Fire: Flash Fiction by cam
Lake of Fire
Through a window of the Sherpa C23, Craig viewed a panorama of rugged peaks, a twelve-mile canyon, an alpine lake, and a burning forest. Down there, the Ponderosa pines ruled. But the two thousand acre wildfire, centered at the man-made reservoir, threatened that coniferous royalty.
“Get ready.” The jump coordinator stood next to the door and slapped the firefighter on the back. The jumper disappeared, and Craig stepped up to take his place. The same bump of fist to shoulder blade communicated both the urgency of the mission and the camaraderie he felt with this band of smokejumpers.
Craig’s chute deployed and, he trained his eyes on the landing point except for a glance at the lake. This was his favorite hike in the Bitterroots, but on this day, the area around the reservoir was being surrendered to the blaze. For a few seconds, the smoke cleared and he could see the rock peninsula jutting into the lake where countless times he had pitched his tent. He pulled binoculars out and looked, then put them away.
The ground approached fast. He hit, rolled and came up unclipped from the chute. “Josiah.” He waved to the team leader and the other eight men joined them in the center of the clearing.
“Whatcha got, Craig?” Josiah switched on his two-way radio.
“Two hikers over at the lake on the end of the rock.”
“That area's been closed for days,” said Josiah.
“A little fire never stopped you and me when we were younger, did it?” said Craig.
“They probably got there late yesterday and woke up this morning with the lake surrounded by fire,” said Josiah. “I can’t spare two jumpers, but we don’t have a choice.”
“Let me go alone. I won’t be fighting the fire, so technically it’s not a violation of the policy to work in pairs.”
“Let’s hope Air Tactical splits hairs same as you.” Josiah put a hand on Craig’s shoulder. “We’ll send a helicopter ASAP, but right now, it’s just too damned hot over there.
Craig headed west, guided by a compass and the mountain on the far side of the lake. The wind blew into his face, and the smell of smoke grew stronger with each step until the flames came into view.
Pillars of fire drove upward and ignited treetops. He skirted the worst and kept to the left of the lake. The wind changed, and Craig faced a wall of fire sweeping across a meadow of dry grass. He ran parallel to the charging fire-front and shot into the burning timbers just as the grass fire swept past. I shouldn’t be here. My training taught me how to deal with fire, not my own bad judgment. Josiah would never have knowingly put me in this situation.
A horizontal flaming tornado erupted across his path. The fire swirl tipped to vertical and sent flaming debris in every direction. The lake was his only hope, and it peeked at him through the flames.
Slow-motion seemed to be his only speed. One foot went in front of the other with great effort. The lake opened up before him. He burst out of the trees and launched himself, a smoking firebrand, from a thirty-foot cliff.
Alpine Lake in the Bitterroot Mountains
Cool water soothed his blistered skin. His head broke the surface, and he gulped in the heated air. The peninsula reached for him from the blazing backdrop. Two figures huddled on the edge farthest from the fire. Craig swam with one arm and held his pack up with the other.
Hands helped him onto the superheated rock.
"Your names." Craig opened his pack.
"She's Lisa, and I'm Jeff," said a male in his early twenties with a sparse beard and mustache.
“Well, Lisa and Jeff, you should be in the water."
“We can’t swim,” said Lisa. “It drops off right at the edge.”
“Grab a log and use it to keep yourself afloat,” Craig said.
“They’re all burning." Jeff pointed at the fire that came to the rocky peninsula's edge.
Craig’s eyes settled on an object that seemed out of place. “Is that a keg of beer?”
“It was,” said Missy. “We carried it here last weekend on a stretcher with our friends. We were so sick when we left the next morning that we forgot it.”
“We can’t get our deposit back until we return the keg,” said Rex. “So we came back to get it.”
Craig kicked the two-foot-tall tank into the water. It sizzled, and steam rose from beneath. After it cooled, he pulled a length of climbing rope out of his pack, wrapped it around the keg several times and tied it off. He fashioned shorter lengths into looped handles.
They slid into the reservoir with the beer keg float and kicked until they were in the center. News from Josiah was grim. Cool air from the mountain was descending and mixing with the heat from the fire. The combination created dangerous winds for helicopters.
Rex was the first to shiver. Missy and Craig followed.
“We’ve got to go back to shore,” said Craig.
“What’s happening?” said Missy.
“Hypothermia. The water lowered our body temperatures.” They swam to shore and climbed onto the rocks. The heat felt good after being in the cold water for so long, but an hour later, they were back in the lake. They repeated this pattern until they lost count.
Lethargy from cold water and exhaustion overcame them. The water churned. The smell of wet animals mixed with smoke choked them. A herd of elk parted and swam on either side of the three floating humans.
Noise from above drowned out the roar of the fire. They looked up at the underbelly of a helicopter. A metal basket dangled a few feet away just above the surface of the water.
Craig signaled for more line, and the girl climbed in. The basket ascended two hundred feet without ordeal.
"Your next." Craig held the basket for jeff.
"I can't. I'm afraid of heights."
"Which are you more afraid of, death or heights?"
Jeff crawled over the edge of the basket and squeezed his eyes closed as he began to ascend.
Craig was the last to be rescued. Inside the helicopter, he wrapped himself in a blanket and joined Lisa and Jeff. One of the crew approached with the keg.
“This was tied to the basket when we brought you up, Craig. You want to keep it?”
“Damn right. I won’t let this ordeal be for nothing. These two need to get their deposit back.”