TILLER — While many firefighters are digging hand lines, dragging hose to mop up hot spots and patrolling the more-than-46,000-acre Miles Fire, one small engine crew is working to protect the world’s tallest sugar pine.
Posted next to the official U.S. Forest Service sign that lists the tree’s height and diameter — 265 feet and 7-and-a-half feet, respectively — is a smaller cardboard sign, which reads: “Photos $1, Pinecones $5. Put money in the wishing well.”
The wishing well is the nickname firefighters have given to the square, red water storage container that holds more than 1,000 gallons of water. Resting at the bottom of the tank is a collection of coins, a poker chips and even a dollar bill.
Every day, the massive tree gets 2,000 gallons of water doused on and around it. Hoses snake through the neighboring forest, keeping the forest floor damp.
Jaime Pickering, a tall firefighter with a bushy beard and bright blue eyes, was looking through an infrared reader on Wednesday, pointing to a tree in the distance.
With the naked eye, the tree doesn’t look like much, but looking through the scope, the heat becomes visible at the tree’s top.
Pickering and his fellow firefighters are waiting for the tree to fall so they can extinguish the flames before they spread.
Every afternoon around 1 p.m., the crew tromps through the woods looking for any snags that might pose a hazard to all the work it’s been doing.
“Every time we hear a tree fall we drop down over the hill and we check,” Pickering said.
The crew —comprised of Pickering, Loretta Lynn and Rick Stell Jr. — work for a company called Franco Reforestation Inc. based out of Salem. The group started its post on Aug. 1 and plan to stay until Aug. 28. If fire protection is still necessary, a new crew will move in at that time.
When they’re not fighting fires, the crew does various contracts like tree replanting.
While the fire has been pretty quiet by the sugar pine, the trio had an adrenaline rush when working on the Snowshoe Fire in July.
Pickering pulled out his phone, displaying a picture of a wall of fire that was coming toward their engine last month.
Despite the size of the flames licking towards them, Pickering said they were able to hold the line.
But it was Lynn’s first fire and at the time, she said her first thought was “run.”
But Pickering calmed her down, telling her to drop back, not run back.
“It was exciting and scary at the same time,” Lynn said.
Standing next to the Sugar Pine, Pickering holds a combi tool — a hybrid between a pick and a shovel — with dates etched into the side. It starts with 1988, the first year he started firefighting, and goes all the way up to 2018.
“I’ve forgotten more fires than I can remember,” Pickering said.
The later years look less carved-in than they are scratched, a decision Pickering made because he’ll soon run out of room on the handle.
“I started writing my numbers smaller because I don’t want to retire,” he joked.
The quietest of the crew, Stell, is a military veteran with a stocky build and a big, salt and pepper beard.
“I was in the Marine Corps, Desert Storm, Somalia,” Stell said.
He said fighting fire is simpler than military combat because “it’s easier to do this when you can see your enemy at all times.”
Stell has been with the reforestation company since 2010. It was a return to the firefighting work he was doing before he joined the military.
Stell said he’s proud to be a wildland firefighter, protecting entire towns and cities.
In August, the crew’s work will be confined to protecting the lone tree, which survived a chainsaw after someone attempted to bring it down in 2000. The tree still bears a cut at the base.
Pickering said, “Our whole purpose here is to make sure the world’s tallest sugar pine stays standing after we leave.”