As snow falls, fire crews can take a breather. ON THE FIRE LINE

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In fire country, a reporter from back East quickly learns, hot-shots are not egomaniacs, dozers don't take naps, and sawyers come in pairs. Hot-shots are ``kind of like the SEALS [commandos] in the Navy,'' says John Corbett, a fire information officer for the Clover-Mist blaze, which, at this writing, covered 328,000 acres in Yellowstone National Park and the national forest land here east of the park. ``You can put 'em in anywhere - and not worry too much about when you pull 'em out,'' he says with a devilish smile.

Dozers, he says, are the heavy equipment people - the bulldozer operators, if one insists on formality.

And finally, there are two kinds of sawyers, Mr. Corbett summarizes, ``a faller and a swamper.'' The faller does the tree cutting, the swamper does cleanup after the tree is down.

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But here at the command post on the southern flank of the Clover-Mist fire, there are no hot-shots, no dozers, no sawyers. Given the light snow that is falling outside, and the frigid temperatures on the ridge where the fire is burning two miles away, fire crews of all stripes have the day off.

Every hundred feet of elevation, the temperature goes down a couple of degrees, says operations chief Joe Wood.

This day, it hardly seems like an emergency at the Pahaska Lodge, where, after a leisurely planning meeting, fire officials chat on the porch of the efficiency cabin that houses the command post.

The only really pressing question is whether to open the road between Sweetwater and Pahaska. The district ranger, Jake Carlson, says many residents of summer homes along the 20-mile stretch of road left their doors open during an evacuation several days ago.

Mr. Carlson is concerned about looting. After securing patrol cars for the area, he decides to open the road.

The fire itself is cloaked in a mass of fog hovering over the ridge above the lodge. On adjacent mountaintops, the fog is not so low, and one can see the dividing line between pine trees frosted with snow and those at lower elevations that are still green, washed with rain.

Down the road several miles is the Sweetwater fire camp, where the hot-shots, dozers, sawyers, and other fire crews live in army-style tents strung between trees. Perhaps three dozen tanker trucks, fire engines, and pickups are scattered in a field of scrub brush next to the camp.

In a scrub field across the road, an Army Black Hawk helicopter sits idle, clumps of snow gathering on its landing gear. It and a larger Army Chinook have been grounded frequently with mechanical problems - leaving officials with only a small civilian copter to use for water drops. Despite the mechanical problems, the incident commander expresses concern that he might lose the military air support, if Army troops currently assigned to this sector are redeployed to other fires.

While the command is quiet today, officials say this snow and rain will not bring the end of the fire. It will take days of wet conditions they say, to thoroughly soak the dead trees and pine needles that fuel the blaze. If dry weather and winds return soon, they could whip up the blaze to new fury.

For the moment, though, the cold, wet weather has brought rest - and some optimism for continued favorable weather. ``Take anything you like,'' says Corbett, ``we got three forecasts.''

``One says everything will dry out and we'll have bad winds again Tuesday,'' he says. ``Another says we'll have a season-ending storm on Thursday; and one is kinda in between.''

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