Before this week, we knew a thing or two about fire. We’ve lived in the west for more than twenty years. We’d felt the hot breath of the Santa Ana winds, predictably whipping through our section of California in autumn, the devil winds that added a sixth season to the calendar: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fiesta, and Fire. Some years the dry downslope wind was just a sand blasting hurricane, tearing leaves from trees and trees from their roots. A mess and scary. In the Sierras, a Santa Anna roared through Mammoth at more than 175 miles per hour. As the region experienced year after year of drought or near-drought and the temperatures rose to hellish extremes, the winds were almost certain to fan flames, as they did in the terrible Camp Fire in northern California, just below our new home in southern Oregon.
And, I’d long been transfixed by reporter Timothy Egan’s account of the Big Burn, also known as the Devil’s Broom and the Big Blow Up, a conflagration that torched more than a million acres in Montana, Idaho, Washington,and British Columbia. That fire in 1910 played a significant part in the development of the US Forest Service and the National Park System. I even used the book in a class offered through our local university, inviting regional experts on wildfire to add perspective to our conversations.
All of this was very interesting and of absolutely no use when a hot dry wind swept through our valley overnight, leaving debris widely scattered, and carrying a wall of fire lashed by the winds, gorging on dust-dry vegetation, creating its own microclimate and pushing wind speed to even greater extremes up the Greenway, an overgrown trail running through Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, and Medford, .
We irrigate our pasture and dog agility field on Tuesdays, dragging pods to every corner the hoses can reach, hoping to keep the fields alive. I’d been messing with hoses, picking up tree limbs scattered during the night, and trying to get ahead of the plums and pears falling untended from the few fruit bearing trees on our property when the air around us changed. We’d been working in the heat every day for weeks, but had never felt everything but heat drop away. The sky in three directions was deeper than blue, a cerulean blanket so thick that it seemed artificial. On the eastern side, grey and black plumes of smoke stood still for moments then bowed and sprang like the ubiquitous inflatable man, growing fatter, and taller. The air grew heavier still, and we heard the thrum of fire in full flight, followed by a hollow boom that came as flame found the 76 Gas Station about two miles from our home.
It was in the next ten minutes that everything I thought I knew about living with fire proved to be wishful thinking, a pleasant but absurd fantasy. We shoved the dogs in the car, grabbed leashes and kibble, whatever clothing was immediately at hand, razor, deodorant, toothbrushes, and with perhaps two minutes to spare, grabbed the computers, the case of important documents, a few photos from the wall, one photo album, and my Martin New Yorker parlor guitar.
I stood in the middle of the living room surrounded by things I treasured, many of which were connected to people I love. No time to say goodbye or thanks. No time for regret.
I don’t know why I thought fire would announce itself, give fair warning, and take its time moving through a valley. It doesn’t and it didn’t. I don’t know why I thought we were ahead of schedule in leaving before evacuation warnings had been delivered. Within minutes of leaving our driveway, we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic facing bumper-to-bumper traffic heading the other way. Had we waited even five minutes longer, many of the roads away from the fire would have been closed or blocked.
The Egan book is terrific, and the account of the fire of 1910 is told with immediacy and power. In teaching an adult-ed class, using the book as the primary text, we talked about fire as an essential and natural part of the environment in the west. We townspeople argued that it had been folly to encourage incursion and extensive buiding into the wilderness in which fire was bound to occur. Million acre fires happen in forests.
As I write this piece, more than a million acres in Oregon have burned, and fire still rages across the state. Our home is safe, so far, and we were able to evacuate without injury. We are among the 500,000 people who have been evacuated in the last week, many of whom were barely getting by and now have lost what little they had.
In the three minutes since I began the last paragraph, we have been advised that the fire has changed course. We thought we were moving on to clean-up and restoration.
We thought we knew something about fire.