Thursday, July 23, 2009

Smoke from the Mountains

Column of smoke rising from a brush fire

The smoke is spreading

A rose that the deer missed!

Lemon bars for our shop lunch

We quilt shop girls agreed to have lunch together this noon, salads and cold drinks to be delivered. I decided to make lemon bars as a dessert treat. Busy with baking I didn't get outside to peg sheets and towels on the clothesline until after 10. I was immediately struck with the scent of burning sagebrush and discovered the plume of smoke rising in the foothills.

The heat of summer has been tardy this year, but it has arrived this week bringing with it a searing dryness. Most evenings lightning zips across the sky and thunder growls in the distance, but little rain falls. What little moisture comes quickly evaporates in shimmering heat. Western forest fires are a yearly disaster, whether caused by lightning strikes in dead timber or by human carelessness.

During the summer of 2000 my husband and son were building a large log home at a billionaire's hobby ranch near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I was hired to overhaul and tend the flower gardens around the main lodge. Once a week I loaded groceries and two dogs into whatever truck was available and drove over South Pass or Togwottee Pass to spend several days gardening and tidying up messes of neglected housekeeping the men had created. It was a summer of intense heat and many fires. Fires in Wyoming, in Idaho, in California. A dirty yellowish smudge hung over the mountains by day; every evening the sun set in a smear of soiled clouds. The fire's breath blew in when we opened windows for the cooling night breezes; towels and clothing hung outside collected the charred odor; working outdoors our eyes stung, throats rasped. "That's from the big one in Idaho," we said.
Fire moved into the folds of the mountains behind the ranch, the orange glow visible on the night horizon. One day the men began to seriously consider the possibility of the fire cresting the ridges a few miles away and sweeping down the valley where the ranch spread its hundreds of acres. They worked on through a sultry afternoon, alert to the direction of the wind and the shifting smoke. Feathery ash and bits of charred pine floated into the work site. Down the hill half a mile away, I continued clipping carragana and trimming back potentilla that had gone sprawling into the paths during several years of neglect.

I became gradually aware of a strangely heavy silence. No birds were calling, the "chislers" were in their burrows, their cheeky chatter stilled. I stood, clippers dangling from my hand, inhaling wood smoke, turned to see a doe a few yards away, caught like a statue in the uneasy hush of an unnatural dusk.

The wind shifted, the fire raced through miles of high mountain forest before it was contained, burnt out. Wild animals perished in its rush and roar, firefighters worked until overcome by smoke and exhaustion.

I know of two fires, maybe three, in our area today. The one I spotted this morning may be the one at Willow Creek. [My sense of direction, never great, hasn't found its bearings here.] Another was up in the Sinks Canyon.

We invited an older lady we all love to have lunch with us at the shop. She came in a bit late, shaken and distraught. She and her husband, both retired, have a home in Sinks Canyon. The fire there, she told us, was considered the work of an arsonist. She could see the leaping flames from their home, as fire equipment was rushed in. "What would we take?" she asked. "If we have to leave, what could I quickly pack to take with us?" As we finished our lunch the fire sirens blared again. My co-workers, living here so many years, can distinguish the city fire and rescue vehicles from those of the rural fire department. The local radio station interrupts programing to give the location of each fire and ask that motorists avoid that area. We all cringe as the trucks charge along the main street, horns and sirens shatteringly imperative, blowing traffic aside. Later in the afternoon the bulletin came over the air: the fire in Sinks Canyon was under control but not out. If the wind doesn't come up.........!

We hugged our friend as she left, assured her that if she needed help we would do what we could. I have interrupted this writing several times to stand on my front porch in the dark, scanning the wavering line where the foothills blend into the night sky. We are so close to the mountains, so enfolded by the foothills that the mountain peaks are not visible. Already, in the intensity of summer heat, twilight falls earlier, the air cools. I don't smell the pungent aura of burning sage. The air seems clean. Perhaps a shower dropped soothing moisture somewhere above us.

We dare not be lulled. It is the season of burning, when grimy smoke rolls down from the mountains and the restless winds turn the flames where they will.


  1. It must be frightening to be in the range of a wild fire, it's a threat that many parts of America and Australia seem to have to live with and I'm grateful that in UK we don't have this problem. There are moorland fires when the heather burns in our rare hot summers but the there is rarely a threat to property or people. Though being on peat they can often smoulder on for weeks. I hope your friends home remains untouched.

  2. Good Morning, Rowan! I'm here alone tonight and I see the day has turned while I'm correcting my endless spelling mistakes.
    I forget the date of the most devastating fires in Yellowstone--it was a few years before we moved to WY. There is still dead standing timber, although the new growth takes over amazingly fast. I grieve so for the animals caught in the fires.
    There seems to be no wind tonight. We can only hope the fire won't be whipped back to life. To think that anyone would start such a thing deliberately is beyond reason.

  3. oh goodness, what a different world from New England. I am reading Young Men and Fire right now--an old book about a big fire in Montana many years ago. Keep us posted.

  4. Powerful writing MM. We grew up with the "wild" bit of our garden leading on to a good sized area of gorse and broom and kids were always tempted to drop a match and see what happened. One year the fire really DID take off and came up to the edge of the garden. We had to shift and push the little 3 wheeler car belonging to a neighbour, who parked it on our lawn beside the garage. The fire came within 10 feet of our house, and was pretty scary at the time, but the fire station rescued us and dowsed it in time.

    I hope that the fire in your area didn't get whipped up again.