The fire today enters its third week with no signs of slowing down. Yesterday’s Red Flag Warning weather delivered a dreaded punch when winds pushed the fire north of the Poudre River, not just more small spots, but an established fire line. This spread up the hills and into housing areas, causing what I believe are the first home losses since the first couple of days of fire. 191 homes have been confirmed lost, but until this latest run, authorizes believed those homes were all lost in the first 48 hours of burn.
Today the weather warnings continue. We have 100 degrees in town. In the fire zone, they have predicted 90s, wind gusts to 35 mph, and humidity in the single digits—a bad recipe for fire. We are now up to 75,000 acres burned, nearly 2,000 personnel on site and more expected today, and gearhead’s dream collection of American heavy metal: three kinds of helicopters, heavy air tanker fixed wing craft, water tenders, dozers, and feller bunchers.
Hundreds of families have been evacuated now for two weeks. Some have been let back in only to be re-evacuated. Smoke comes and goes over town; the wind will shift and the blanket of ash revisits us. People are tired and stressed. A woman I know confessed today that she has diagnosed herself as grieving. Her house is safe, but the beautiful wild lands that we value so much are charred. I can’t believe it will be long before the anger kicks in. We can’t help it. It is part of the process of grieving.
I wrote a small essay about my previous fire. Although the original went off on many tangents that, at least in my mind, were connected, I would like to share the elements actually related to the fire. It is instructional to me. I feel so experienced now. Maybe there is a small way that I can be of service. I haven’t figured out how yet. Throwing money, yes. But I also know that this is a long process. We are not even out of danger yet. And oh how deeply grateful we are to our valued professionals. (first a few pix using my Hipstamatic iphone app)
The Owens Valley of California doesn’t feel like the deepest valley in the United States, though it is; but its geography does exert certain rules on our lives. Highway 395 runs north/south between the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo/White range with few opportunities to divert another direction without ending up on a rough dirt road or dead-ending at a trailhead. Villages are spread out and built around year-round Sierra Nevada streams. Lone Pine is on Lone Pine Creek; Independence is on Independence Creek. Just as water determines the occupied landscape, mountains dominate our frame of reference. Named peaks, canyons, and the lone rock of Winnedumah on the crest of the Inyo Mountains to the east mark our place on this dusty earth. That feels like enough—to say that I live in a little red house on Oak Creek, just down from the Baxter Pass trailhead, south of Division Creek where the lupines bloom riotously in the spring of a wet year. No one thinks to add that her home lies on the side of a slope that can catch the afternoon wind just right to carry the heat of a lightning strike to her neighbor’s doorstep. But that, too, is a feature of my personal landscape.
Fire of the destructive kind comes to everyone, in some way. One late-winter night I woke to the smell of smoke and had time to slip shoes on, walk out the back door and register Tamara’s house on fire, and come back in and calm the dogs before the knock on the door. We went out in the night and hosed the guest house between the burning house and mine. We neighbors kept its roof and sides watered as the local fire department attacked the house on fire, falling to a failure of wiring. Unlike the previous spring, though, when a man north of town lost his house and surrounding houses to a barrel fire on a windy day, the cold, still night kept the fire contained, and never did I think to pack the car.
Reports told us that the rainfall for the Owens Valley was down for the twelve months before the fire by seventy percent, only 1.52 inches recorded instead of the thirty-year average of 5.02 inches. We residents knew these figures as a winter of meager snowpack, a spring with few flowers, and an increase in political friction as valley water flowed south to Los Angeles. Fire professionals knew it as a contributing factor to the low live fuel moisture in the native vegetation, or in other words, “extreme drought.”
The South and North forks of Oak Creek supported a riparian wonderland of willow, water birch, and cottonwood trees. Live oaks provided cover for our houses, and up the creek deciduous oaks gave the creek its name. Away from the creek, the alluvial plain sustained black brush, rabbit brush, Great Basin sage, Mormon tea, and a variety of buckwheat. From my desk window, I watched scrub jays, oak titmice, a regular parade of California quail, and an occasional Cooper’s hawk.
On the afternoon of Friday, July 6, a storm gathered force over the Sierra Nevada. Multiple lightning strikes along the steep eastern slopes of the Sierra were urged on by strong gusty winds. A feature of the mountains there were the steep drainages that help funnel the afternoon winds from the crest down to the valley. One official reading gave a high temperature of 103 that afternoon and the relative humidity hovered in the single digits.
At work we got a call that a lightning strike had caused smoke to billow above Oak Creek. Ours was a little settlement of twenty houses tucked into the trees along a small creek north of Independence. At the end of our row of houses stood the historic Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery, a local landmark and tourist destination. I left work early to pick up one of my dogs at the vet forty miles north in Bishop. When I arrived home to change my clothes I could see smoke coming from the north fork. My first phone call was to tell the vet to keep my dog another day. The second call was to my two coworkers who also lived on the creek to tell them to come home immediately. Then I packed.
As I put my red and white trunk in the car, along with the computer, dog food, the healthy dog, and a few clothes, a Sheriff’s deputy drove in and warned me of an impending evacuation. I gave him my phone number and as much information on neighbors as I had. Then I drove to town.
Independence was busy with people monitoring and fighting the fire, an emergency shelter for evacuees at the school, and simply the excitement of something new and different. Because there was nothing to be done, we walked over to the west side after dark and watched the hillsides burn, spectacular and terrifying. Pictures taken that night of the foothills and eastern slopes of the Sierra showed red mountains covered with illuminating sparkles. But what the photographs didn’t convey was the immensity or the closeness of the burning mountains. By the time we bewildered souls made up a bed for the night and fed our dogs and children, the winds had stopped the advance of fire, and it smoldered, relatively harmlessly, yet in such a bigness.
What did it mean that the world was on fire? Curiously, I was not worried about losing my house, although this was a possibility. I was more impressed that I was gaining a certain knowledge and experience. My first summer with the National Park Service at Bryce Canyon, my housemate was on the fire crew. Her dedication to her job inspired me to learn important dates: the 1910 fires of Edward Pulaski, Mann Gulch in 1949, Storm King Mountain in 1994—fires that claimed the lives of firefighters and had been recorded in books. In Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean wrote about 1910 when the transformation of the landscape occurred, “when thousands of people thought the world was coming to an end, and for eighty-seven people it did.” I believed that our fire would not come to this. But I was beginning to be aware that in a way, a world does come to an end—a world of thinking it can’t happen to you.
On Saturday, the fire seemed in retreat, and I was able to go home. I stopped and got coffee at the gas station and met an engine crew headed north. Then I went to Bishop to fetch the sick dog. We returned home by noon to find that the fire was not going away as we had thought earlier in the morning. The breeze was unnaturally hot and carried the omen of smoke. From the edge of the trees I watched fire personnel and equipment maneuver in the heated haze. I took a shower and ate lunch, then repacked the car with the dogs. I got the call to evacuate again, and we went to friend Misty’s house in town.
Memory of that long afternoon burns up and billows away in the downdrafts of a summer Sierra afternoon, like so much overheated black brush. I remember driving up Market Street on the west side of Independence. From there we watched the activity on Oak Creek. I remember watching multiple fixed wing aircraft and rotorcraft working the fire, dropping red retardant over the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery. I remember the bobcats who lived in the sagebrush. I remember being on the phone with my friend Holly who sat at a hectic dispatch console in the middle of the nerve center. I remember when she told me that nine firefighters had just deployed their protective shelters. Later a local Forest Service friend relayed to me their radio transmission, the one that led people listening to believe the nine had no hope. I remember asking the Universe to take my house in their stead.
The afternoon of July 7 was hot again, a hundred degrees by lunchtime. The day before, the Seven fire started near the Onion Valley road on Independence Creek; the Oak fire was burning up Oak Creek. Together now as the Seven Oak, the fire was burning down the South Fork of Oak Creek, through the Bright family ranch, destroying many buildings, and toward the hatchery. Firefighters on scene prioritized protecting the landmark granite hatchery building, just below the confluence of the South and North forks of Oak Creek and a third of a mile up the creek from my house.
As the day grew hotter and the afternoon winds started down from the Sierra crest, conditions existed for extreme fire behavior with rapid spread rates, long flame lengths, spotting potential, and blow-up conditions. From the west side of Independence, three aerial miles from the hatchery, we lined up in our cars and on bicycles to watch the fire burn. Leading trails of smoke made it hard to determine how far down the fire had come. In addition to the main fire, firefighters built a backfire on the south side of Oak Creek Road. Norman Maclean warned against the possibility of the wind changing and a backfire blowing against you. Indeed, the winds came up and pushed the backfire across the road toward the firefighters. Later reports said the main fire would have crossed the road anyway and produced a similar or worse result.
Fire spread quickly into the riparian area with flames in excess of fifty feet. Gusty and erratic winds caused the flames to make multiple runs around the property just upcreek from the hatchery where the nine firefighters and two engines were trapped. In the midst of the conflagration, stores of flammable gasses and liquids around the property exploded and contributed to the overwhelming heat and choking smoke. The firefighters sought relief in a nearby pond, under their thin foil shelters.
The official report of the Seven Oak burn-over called the final run affecting the accident site as an intense fire whirl. Norman Maclean wrote that, “A big crown fire can make its own weather. The hot, lighter air rises, the cold, heavier air rushes down to replace it in what is called a ‘convection effect,’ and soon a great ‘fire whirl’ is started and fills the air with burning cones and branches which drop in advance of the main fire like the Fourth of July.” In Fire on the Mountain about Storm King in 1994, John Maclean wrote that a blowup “can sweep away in moments everything before it, the works of nature and of humankind, and sometimes humankind itself.” In those moments above the hatchery, the fire was the only work of nature that mattered. Humankind was on its own, and all I could do was watch.
Not long after we watched airplanes dropping retardant on the hatchery, Holly called and told me the west side of Independence was about to be evacuated. Just as on Friday when the fire looked benign until the winds came, Saturday’s crisis took place in the afternoon with the winds. Fire shouldn’t burn downhill, but it did. The fire picked up the vegetation of Independence Creek, burning down toward town and damaging the campground on the edge of town and the town water tank. As I helped Misty pack her truck, the Sheriff’s deputies came around and made it official. Cats crying, dogs dancing around, we loaded up and drove fifteen miles south to Lone Pine.
We caught our breath in a friend’s back yard now full of dogs. I felt a stillness, then, in the late afternoon—not in the weather or in the fire, but deep within myself as I believed that my house was gone and that people may be hurt or killed. And in the quiet came a voice that I knew to be my own suggesting a different path. I scratched my dogs ears, ate the food offered to me, and wondered where the next road led.
I read that firefighters risked burn injuries to the respiratory tract when tissue temperatures rose above a certain predictable degree. The elevation of internal tissue temperature was determined by a host of internal and external factors including blood perfusion, thermal conductivity, metabolic rate, air velocity, and respiration rate, as well as the air temperature of the fire ground. The upper respiratory tract suffered injury immediately after exposure, while deeper tissues suffered damage after a longer period of exposure. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that, “Clearly, facing a fire, the human upper respiratory tract will easily subject to serious burn if a quick enough getting away from the fire ground was not successful.”
The night of our fire I walked across the street to where the Red Cross was setting up a shelter. I was in a fog, plowing through, part of a carnival where nobody has rehearsed her role. We heard that the fire had jumped Highway 395, which seemed to say so much. I ran into a friend from the Eastern California Museum who had stayed behind packing precious objects as long as she could and watched the foaming of the roof.
Finally around 9 p.m. we got word that the evacuation of Independence had been called off. The fire had receded with the change of wind in the evening. The hatchery was saved. In the burn-over of the Seven Oak, the firefighters survived in the pond, under their shelters. Protected by the water and a small distance from the fire, they walked away with burns and damage to those fragile respiratory tracts, and the haunting knowledge that they were not immune from the proximity of tragedy. They were following a tradition a century old of young men and women risking their lives—not for my home, per se, but for the physical challenge, the camaraderie, and to be part of an epic struggle. There is vitality, I have been told, to the work on the fireline that comes in few other ways.
Against the penetrating stench of smoke, I spent Sunday morning laundering clothes, bedding, curtains, and anything that wasn’t tacked down. I walked across the creek out of the trees and watched. Fire burned everywhere, still, in the mountains. Fire burned up the nearby slope in the trees along the North Fork of the creek. I could see the fire crews working it in their yellow shirts. A helicopter made trip after trip with its water bucket from the aqueduct to the fire. The pilot seemed to dance with the fire, dropping with seasoned precision. Although the fire was close, it had been tamed. The fire would burn in the hills for many days. But for those of us on Oak Creek, we lost or we didn’t, and the immediacy of the danger was past. It felt like the fire had rushed in and consumed all of the oxygen and left us gasping for air, relearning to breathe.
I went back to work on Monday. Holly came for dinner after two weeks and two days of dispatching for the Inyo. She was exhausted, so she napped while I attended a public meeting at the Legion Hall. The cycle of our collective grief was stuck at anger, and I found myself angry at the angry people. The Forest Service man guarding the entrance of our road explained the commonness of anger in these situations. The wheel ground; anger seemed more active than denial or depression. If we were angry, we could blame someone.
Later that month two bodies were found up the mountain near Baxter Pass, victims of the fire. They were discovered as part of a local law enforcement raid on illegal marijuana gardens in the Sierra Nevada, damaging to the ecosystem and a threat to hikers. Flying over a known grow site, the tactical team discovered that the grow operation near Baxter Pass had been destroyed in the Seven Oak fire. The newspaper reported that it appeared the bodies were those of cultivators.
I noted the lack of coverage of the identities of these men, but this is what I knew to be true, so big and so small: two men died in our fire. They were not firefighters. They were not my neighbors. They were immigrants from Mexico who died in the high country of the southern Sierra, a rocky paradise of lakes, pine trees, and cool summer breezes. I thought of the age-old tradition of introverted Spanish speaking mountain men in the Sierra Nevada and across the west, running sheep and carving their names in aspen trees, trying to make a dollar to get back home.
After the fire I spent a day helping the Bright family sift through the debris of charred outbuildings. We all wondered quietly how this elderly couple would muster from such a loss. I separated metal from ash, for the recycler, from what had been Keith’s shop. After lunch, their daughter Mary walked me up the canyon to see new growth pointing up through the blackened ground among a graveyard of burned trees only a week after the fire.
The insistence of nature to keep going takes as well as it gives, and in the following winter two creek residents died: Jane Bright, the matriarch of the South Fork, and Ken Avey who lived down-creek and was spared the fire. Ken’s casket was carried to the cemetery by a horse-drawn cart owned by ranchers up the highway who lost a year’s supply of hay in the fire. The bleak winter ended, and like the green rushes we emerged again in the spring, to the laughter of children and the fellowship of neighbors.