Fire on the Range

Eighteen Years on the Line

By John Beckwith

An eerie voice came out of the night, over the radio from “The Butte,” or Squaw Butte north of Emmett, now officially named Sehewoki’l Newenee’an Katete. “This is Friday. I believe I see fire just south of Kuna. I’ll check with Danskin Lookout and see if they can locate it.”

It often was said that Orville “Friday” Blessinger could spot a fire before it started. He and his wife Helen spent many summers at this lookout, among a total of thirty-eight years with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on the Boise National Forest. They knew the geography of southwestern Idaho, and the sincerity with which they did their work made you feel their kinship with the land.

Friday’s prediction of weather patterns and speculation on conditions often was better than that of the weather experts. For example, more than once he told us over the air to expect lightning because “we have flying red ants.” I was told that these ants take wing when the humidity reaches a certain level.

From my senior year of high school in 1957 through 1975, I worked for the BLM, mostly part-time, fighting fires throughout southwestern Idaho. Usually it was weekend work, although the summer of 1970 was full-time. My parents and I were avid rock hounds, which gave me a knowledge of much of Owyhee County and its surrounds.

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The author's BLM fire crew, circa 1968.
Boise's Eighth Street Fire. BLM.
Emmett as seen from Freezeout Hill. Ken Lund.
John is third from left, back row, in this shot of the fire attack squad.
Idaho range fire. Michael Pellant, BLM.
John (left) with former firefighting companions.


This was especially helpful in those years before GPS and cell phones, when our crew headed out in the middle of the night to try to find, say, McBride Creek. When the rest of the crew was at other fires, I’d get the call to take a small group to locate a new fire.

We rode like cattle in the back of an open truck, eating dust and bouncing over every bump. If we were lucky, a farmer would show up with his Cat to build fire lines. Spotter planes, slurry planes, pump trucks, and helicopters were limited. We dug fire lines, and when the fire settled down, we felt for hot spots with our hands.

One night, we bedded down in the sagebrush in the middle of a contained fire south of Glenns Ferry. Each of us had a disposable paper sleeping bag. Sometime during the night, a Cat cut a fire line around us. During this process, everyone stood up except me.

The crew was sure I was dead, because there was just too much noise for sleeping. When I awoke sometime later, I had no idea what had happened.

We made $1.50 an hour, which was among the best entry-level wages in the area. But there was a great deal of down-time, and when we counted our pay by the minute, it came to about two-and-a-half cents.

The crew members were a fraternity of full-time and part-time workers, most of them teachers or college students. Many close ties were developed and were maintained for years. The full-time BLM employees were greatly respected, highly responsible, and proud of their work.

One Fourth of July evening in the early 1970s, Boiseans witnessed a fireworks display that was probably among the greatest they had ever seen. The weather had turned hot in June that year, which ripened and dried out the grasses and brush, turning them into excellent fuel for a potential fire. On the Fourth, clouds arrived as darkness set in, and soon lightning could be seen to the west and north.

The wind picked up suddenly, which blew the holiday’s fireworks into the ready fuel. A grass fire exploded, and moved down the south side of Table Rock toward subdivisions in the foothills. Lightning began to strike the Boise front, which ignited several small fires.

Excitement swelled in me as I hurried to the BLM office near the Boise VA Medical Center. Radio traffic filled the airways from throughout the Southwest Idaho BLM District, and Friday Blessinger repeatedly broke in with updates and new sightings. Crews formed and headed out in all directions. I joined a crew that was sent to a fire reported by Friday just west of Freezeout Hill near Emmett.

It was a twenty-five-mile trip and the fire had a good head start, but upon arrival, we saw it had been contained, mainly by the many dirt paths in the area that had been formed by motorbikes and other vehicles. We spent another long night dozing on the hood of the truck, one eye on the dying flames, ready to attack if conditions changed.

Throughout the area, these tremendous fireworks caused by man and nature ended almost as quickly as they had started. The winds let up and a light rain fell. Later the sky cleared up, and it became a beautiful, starlit night.

A half-century after such experiences, I still meet monthly with my close friends Tom Campbell, Craig Marcus, and Pat Shanafelt for lunch and to renew the memories of our BLM work. Years after we started fighting fires, my younger brother Tom spent a summer on the fire line, and he joins us for the lunches.

To this day, the smell of smoke or a fire breaking out on the Boise front still gives me a rush—a feeling that signals it’s time to chase another fire and get it under control. Some evenings, I wonder if the ghost of Friday’s voice will come out of the night again to announce a sighting.

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John Beckwith

About John Beckwith

John Beckwith was born in Moscow and has spent his life in Idaho. He was the first state director of the Special Olympics and has written two books to help teach students with special needs. Amid hundreds of miles hiking, John has visited more than fifty mountain lakes. He is retired from education and gardens with his wife Edie in Garden City.

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