Winter Breezes and Red Rockets

by kfrego

Dillon, Montana is located about 60 miles south of Butte on Interstate 15. The elevation is 5100 feet which isn’t high by Montana standards. The Continental Divide is about 40 miles west of Dillon. Normally you think of watershed flows when the Continental Divide is mentioned. If you make a living working outside east of the continental divide you associate it with lots of wind. The east slopes of most western mountain ranges are notorious for the winds racing down them heading east. On a beautiful day the breeze is thirty to thirty five miles an hour. From there it only gets worse when the winds intensify.

We had a drill hole about fifteen miles east of Dillon in the early winter. We drilled around the clock to get the hole completed and vacated before snow captured the rig for the winter. I was on nights with a helper named Tommy from White Sulpher Springs. We had a water truck driver named Jerry from Dillon. Twice in the first week the winds came up at eight at night and blew our crew shack completely down and scattered it through the sage brush. The four by eight foot plywood panels sailed like kites. The third time we built the shack we had so much weight on the roof I was worried it would cave in on us if we got a heavy snow. So far every time it snowed the snow was going by horizontally and never touched the ground.

Tommy would keep the rig, pumps, heaters, and fuel cans filled while I was drilling. We had old smudge pot type heaters which burned diesel fuel. Some of the small pumps burned gas. I was facing the door of the shack while drilling. Tommy had four 5 gallon fuel cans and was topping everything off. He flipped the fuel lid open on a heater, put his funnel in the hole, and started pouring fuel. The open flames were only inches away. The fuel can in Tommy’s hands lit up and took off like a rocket, carried him about ten feet before he could let go, and went dark about 100 feet out in the brush. The can was still in flight when I got to Tommy. I thought he was seriously burned. All he lost was his beard, half of his hair, and a few fingers on his gloves. He had a cherry glow to his face, but no serious burns. Afterwards, I always recalled when that fuel can took off Tommy’s huge eyes were reflecting the flames. The diesel can had been used for gas on the shift before us.

A few weeks later I saw the water truck coming way down the hill. It was windy and clear. Every light on the truck would go out for 30 seconds and on for thirty seconds. Was their an emergency? The truck kept coming so Jerry was driving it. Tommy and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. When Jerry made the drill 30 minutes later the lights were still blinking and flames flickered under the hood. A bad relay shorted the electrical system and melted the battery. The fire stopped when I cut the battery cable.

Jerry got to the drill with the water truck……and didn’t block our only road back to town.