The Conifor (Mexican forest service) is always interesting to work with. I enjoyed running my own show in Ensenada, but it had its price. These folks will kill you if you let them. We had two fires in three days. One was about 3500 acres and one was about 150 acres. We had the only helicopter and a total ground force of 16 firefighters and an unknown number of soldiers. We usually work with the soldiers but this particular fire had soldiers deployed separately from the Conifor personnel. That situation was new to me but like I have said before nothing is as it seems down in Mexico.
Our fire suppression efforts began with me flying two guys from protection civil and an older gentlemen who had water in several containers. One water box was supposed to be left for the older mans two sons, who’d decided to fight the fire on their own. Volunteers? We were going to perhaps air drop the water to his sons if we could not land. That did not sound good. I had two guys I didn’t know, and a Father who I am sure had never even sat in a helicopter before. After some explaining about what we would and would not do, I made it clear that the cardboard box with the water would not be floating out the door (toward the tailrotor). Since nobody had helicopter experience, one of my people would do any water drops that may be required.
Off we go. Dad apparently knew where his boys were, based on a cell phone call he got before the batteries went dead on their phone. We spotted soldiers while looking for the boys. No shovels and Pulaskis for the soldiers, only small arms and they were not waving. Not liking the developments, I started to ask a few questions. It’d been about 20 minutes flying around the fire and the boys were not in sight. Well, Dad decided to fess up. It seems his boys were out protecting their marijuana farm and since they didn’t know who we were, the old man thought it might be good to have his smiling face delivering the water so the boys did not actually shoot us. Good idea, but I have a better one.
Back on the ground we loaded firefighters and got back to work, now quite aware that I have armed combatants on the fire. We got lucky and a soaking rain lands on the fire and puts most of it out. All 3500 acres. Thanks for the break.
Its time for an evening perimeter flight, see if we have anything kicking up on the edges of the fire. We spot a small fire in a green ravine in a green island in the fire. I am suspicious. I fly over and see some irrigation lines. Oh,oh. Vamanos rapido.
“Yes, I saw what I saw” I tell my boss from Conifor and “Hell no! I will not return.” There was at least one person I spotted down in the trees. We recorded the G.P.S. coordinates and reported the suspected marijuana site to the soldiers when we land back at the main fire “base”. The next day we brought a clean up crew for some hot spots on the perimeter. As fate would have it the only major spot fire was near the marijuana garden. No bueno. I landed the crew close on a road and shut down. After a few minutes the crew was in place and I was above on the road looking down into the ravine. There was movement in the bushes down the ravine below the crew. I climbed a rock out-cropping for a better view.
“Its only soldiers” I announce to the crew. Hearing this, the crew scrambled quickly uphill towards the helicopter. Well, I wasn’t nervous, ’till I saw that. Soon I was beside the helicopter, telling the crew that I would not start the ship. I saw the soldiers when I was jogging to the ship and they would be here in seconds. They were. No guns were pointed, but I soon saw why. There were 4 soldiers on rocks nearby who had us covered. Six other soldiers checked us out. No problem. Just tell them who we are and we should be good right? “Well maybe,” the interpreter says as he looks at his shoes. “Maybe?” I repeat. “Yes, well soldiers sometimes plant marijuana to supplement meager incomes and they do have the vehicles for the back country and they definitely have the weapons.” My interpreter/manager interjects, looking more than nervous.
We show I.D., and were thanked. Good, so far. I could follow most of the conversation. Everyone spoke slowly and carefully.
“Did we see anything yesterday around the Marijuana ‘garden’,” they asked? I asked the interpreter “has anyone said anything that I should know about?” “No,Nothing!” He just about shouts. Okey dokey, then I don’t imagine I will be talking about the person in the trees near the marijuana garden I saw yesterday. I won’t be mentioning that the guy had a yellow dirty t-shirt and army fatigues. You can buy army fatigues anywhere I am sure. Probably wasn’t a soldier and I don’t really want to know.
Nothing is as it seems down here in Mexico.