Peter Shelton

The irresistible pull of fire

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on August 19, 2010

We woke up Thursday morning to the bang of thunder.

It was that kind of shock-wave crack that commands your full attention. Not a distant rumble, the lightning had obviously found ground close by.

It was a little after 6 a.m., just getting light. It wasn’t going to get much lighter though, because a bruised gray cloud lay over the hill with white shooting cracks emanating all around. It was exciting, a rare morning thunderstorm, and right on top of us.

Before the coffee finished brewing Ellen noticed smoke rising from a pinyon tree about a mile away. We called in to report the strike. The interagency fire dispatch in Montrose was grateful, but it turned out we weren’t the first; a Beaton Creek neighbor was up early and watching, too.

The next morning, after things had had time to dry out, I started up Buckhorn Road on my bike. I couldn’t see any smoke coming from the area where the tree had burned, so it seemed like a totally safe route to take. I did have in the back of my mind, though, the idea that I might ride an old logging road I knew about, and it might take me to a place not far from where I remembered the lightning strike to be.

Why does fire intrigue us so – from a candle flame, to a campfire, to the roaring walls of fire devouring homes and hillsides in some Southern California conflagration? The cover story in the current issue of High Country News is about arsonists who set wildland fires, or more dangerously, start fires in the wildland interfaces where people and property are sometimes at risk.

The author is John N. Maclean, who has written a number of books about disastrous Western wildfires and happens to be the son of Norman Maclean, author of the genre’s most iconic book, Young Men and Fire, as well as the literary classic A River Runs Through It. In HCN the younger Maclean tells the story of a man convicted of murder for a fire he set in 2006 that killed five Southern California firefighters. This man has tattoos of flames running up both arms. In an unprecedented move, the prosecution is asking for the death penalty.

Our son-in-law Mike is a wildland firefighter. He’s in Nevada this summer managing a helicopter crew. In previous summers he was part of a helitack team. He rappelled out of helicopters with his chainsaw to snuff out lightning fires before they spread. The bachelor cake his mother made for him at his wedding to Cecily had a photo transferred somehow onto the icing. It showed Mike in full protective gear, posing proudly with his long-bar chainsaw atop a huge cedar stump, having just felled the burning giant. When I got to the part in Maclean’s narrative where he describes the firefighters’ deaths as they tried to defend a home, I had to stop reading for a while.

I was not feeling particularly morbid as I rode down the rutted logging road toward the lightning strike. As I got closer, though, I couldn’t keep fire out of my head. I remembered the Glenwood Springs fire of 1994, the scars still visible along I-70, that blew up in a sudden wind shift and caught 14 firefighters in its path. I checked the wind and the movement of the few clouds overhead. I was uphill of the lightning strike and downwind, but there was still no sign of smoke.

I thought about the Cedar Fire in Southern California that burned 280,000 acres, 2,200 homes and killed 15 people in October 2003. The Shelton family had for 70 years a cabin in the mountains east of San Diego which was turned to ash by the Cedar Fire. The fire began 25 miles away, ignited by a hunter who had become lost and started a fire, he said, to signal rescuers.

Where the track comes out of the trees and into the open I dismounted and stared down the hill. I still couldn’t see anything. But the sharp smell of charred timber filled my nostrils. Had the fire put itself (or been put) out and I was sniffing the aftermath? Or was it still smoldering, laying down, as they say, possibly to jump up again with an errant blast of wind?

I could have gone farther down, but I didn’t. I decided to ride out and go home. Next day, from the kitchen window, we saw that the smoke was back. And not just at a single point but spread over a much wider area. We were not particularly surprised. We’d seen Forest Service trucks and a pink temporary sign that read “Fire Activity Ahead.” I confirmed it with a call to Randy Chappell, the Ouray and Norwood zone fire manager. He said yes, they had decided take advantage of the natural fire, and the favorable weather, to “treat the fuels” in a larger area. They would manage a controlled burn of about 100 acres, he said, to the benefit of wildlife, fuels reduction, and ultimately all of us in the neighborhood.

For the last two days I’ve barely been able to take my eyes off the hill. Most of the time it’s just big billowing clouds of white and, occasionally, blackish smoke. In the evening and early morning hours, the smoke stays close to the ground and pours, like slow water, in wispy tendrils through the forest.

But sometimes, during the day when the wind comes up, whole trees explode in orange flame. Sometimes three and four go up at once, the flames licking a good 30 feet high, and the situation, to my untrained eye, appears tenuous, Promethean, essentially beyond human control.

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