One Tough Hombre

Gene Downs takes some novice firefighters into the action to fight a blaze on the Ranch. An exciting tale told by a grateful participant. This article was "reprinted" on the original SFTR website to honor Gene on the news of his passing.


Mike and I fought our first fire last night with our good friend Gene Downs and would like to do something to honor him and all of his hard work and contributions to/for the SFTR.  He fought 2 fires yesterday on this ranch and we were lucky enough to help him on the second.  If you could please post my attached story in the appropriate venue, I would be grateful.  I think all the people that read the website should know what a tough hombre we have here.

Respectfully submitted,
Mary Jo and Mike Shelton
June 21, 2001

Gene Downs Deflowers
the Fire Virgins

"Do you want to get some exercise?"  I knew by the caller ID that it was Eddie Gieske, our communications officer.  "There is a fire in Cottonwood Canyon and they could use some help, especially if you could bring your ATV's."  Well, Mike was gone, and the ATV's weren't on the trailer, and I didn't know the fuel status so I balked.  "I'll call you back when he gets home."  Several minutes later Carolynn Johnson calls and she sighted another fire.  I can do this.  So not knowing exactly where Mike is between here and Wally World, I head for the gate with his gear and mine.  We meet at the mailboxes and tense conversation puts both of us in our Explorer and Mike partially dressed.

Up Cottonwood Drive we see two of our Fisher's Peak Fire District Brush trucks and Gene Downs.  He is worried about this new fire and we agree to follow him to the site, somewhere west of Owen Baldwin Parkway (now Mountain View).  Boy, can Gene haul donkey when he smells smoke!!  We get to the end of the Timber Ridge Lane and see Rick and Carolynn's truck.  Bob Philbin drives up with the Forest Service truck.  "Get the bladder packs, Pulaski's, shovels, McLeod's, and be sure you have all your gear… fire shelters, helmet, head lamps, gloves and drinking water," Gene says quietly.  Damn, I don't have a headlamp. "You are just going to have to learn to be better prepared." Grrrrrrrrr (under my breath.)  I am a physical therapist not a professional fire fighter!

We walk into the brush and meet the Johnson's.  The exact whereabouts of the fire is unclear, but where there is smoke there is fire.  Six in the hole… and we go down… through some of the nastiest underbrush, mountain mahogany, and slippery rocks I have reconnoitered.  It rains and there is lightning.  Did I mention that Gene Downs, Rick Johnson, and my husband were carrying bladder packs?  Five gallons, 35 pounds… downhill in the rain to a fire that no one knew the size of or what to expect.  Slick rocks and no trail.  Oak brush… and I trip over a snag and land sharp points down.  Thank you, God.  Bear scat - and lots of it.

Gene claps his hands and continues down into the smoky bog.  Slip slidin' away to a fire that no one has seen… yet.  Then out of the fog… flames.  Gene and Rick scout the fire, check escape routes, and determine that it is about the size of half a football field and moving slowly.  It involved mostly duff and forest debris but was nonetheless a forest fire with serious potential.  Tree trunks are scorched and smoking.  It is time to lay line. "Layin' line."

Gene starts with the Pulaski (while still wearing a 35 pound water bladder) and tells me to get the duff from around a burning tree trunk.  He shows me how to move burning branches and remarks that we need to get this contained ASAP so we can mop up with the water that we do have.  It is hot and it is smoky.  I use my bandana to cut the smoke so I can breathe, but then the sweat drips into my face making it difficult to see.  Soon it will be dark and we are hurrying to make this fire unhappy.

Gene goes after a hot spot and works it until he is satisfied that it is controlled.  He is all over this fire and it is hard to keep up. He comments calmly.  "I don't feel good about this.  It's going to flare when we leave.  Pull the line back farther."  So we pull.  Then we go into the black and pull embers from the trunks of unburned trees, and Gene shows me the best way.  Now we are out of water.  Five gallons goes farther than you think but not enough for Gene to get happy.  He thinks that if we can put out the 2 hot spots that seem to be the most active, we could safely leave.  Then a squad could come back tomorrow, check on it, and finish mopping up.

Line moving… UP. Hell, we just cut line, swung Polaski's, McLeod's, cut branches and otherwise worked ourselves up into a terrific lather and now we are going to walk out of here???  I mean up.  Two hours in the black, and now we have to traverse up a 45 degree slope in the twilight with gear and sharp instruments not to mention lions and tigers (ok, so there are no tigers) and bears, OH MY!!  The only person not complaining was Gene.  Forty-five minutes turned into one foot after (and above) the other and a constant quest for more O's.  I am sweaty and now I am cold.  Where's the road?

Finally we see a group of ranch owners and other fire fighters waiting for us.  What a nice welcome home!  That sure made me feel important.  But that warm fuzzy feeling can never match this.  Gene Downs comes over and gives me a big hug and kiss and says, "I knew you could do it."  Of course I can do it, Gene… I have a great leader.  I have a leader who is 22 years older and smarter than I am and a true inspiration.  Gene turned 70 recently and is one tough hombre.  He was the person that got Mike and I interested in the volunteer fire department when we moved here from Iowa in November.  It was truly appropriate that Mike and I were able to fight our first fire with Gene (I mean really getting sooty, smelly and black faced) and that he was there for the deflowering of the fire virgins.  I'll fight a fire with you anytime, Gene.  Climb on!!!