May 08, 2006

Wildfire Awareness Weeks in the West

States throughout the West have declared "Wildfire Awareness Weeks" this spring to remind residents and travelers that small acts like tossing lit cigarette butts or leaving smoldering campfires can ignite fiery, potentially deadly devastation.

In Texas, Wildfire Awareness Week came in April. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger picked this week, May 7-13, to put fire awareness on the front burner, as did Washington's Governor Christine Gregoire. The Web site of the Oregon State Fire Marshal offers a how-to guide and tool kit for public officials around the country interested in running their own fire awareness weeks.

Once you've seen wildifre, you never forget what its fury feels like. As the kids and I rolled through the West on our cross-country summer road trip, wildfire or wildfire threat was a constant companion. We first met it in Utah, and it stayed with us through several weeks and seven states. An excerpt from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America:

After Lee Vining, we were renewed. Even New Paint took to the road with sparked vigor.

But the heat didn’t let go for long. We’d feel it again before we hit Tahoe. Antelope Valley’s Walker River ran beside us for a while. Clear, green, and bouncing fast and white over tan rocks. It led to the town of Walker, its mountainsides burned. Three virgin wildfires were building strength in the hills above the road. At Coleville, bad went to worse, and the earth was on fire again.

Coleville High School had been turned into a firefighting command center. Two fires raged. And they got bigger, before our eyes, gaining on us most of the way to Tahoe.

A card table marked “Check In “ sat at the high school’s front door. Inside the fenced-in schoolyard, workers catching a break ate from Stewart’s Firefighter Food Catering trailer. A water tanker driver slept in his cab, boots sticking out the truck’s window.

It was a big operation. Signs at the command center thanked “Marines, Pilots, Firefighters, Law Enforcement.” Planes circled the fires, and a massive Chinook dropped loads of retardant from a huge, hanging red bucket. It was eerie to be in the thick of this. We were glued to the windows, watching the fires spread and water tankers race south toward us on 395 out of Reno, Nevada. People had started to pull off the road to sit it out and watch. Everyone’s headlights were on. The smoke cloud chased then caught up with us. It blocked out the sun and took on the look of an atomic blast- orange, yellow, sick gray and brown. I stopped to take pictures. We’d never see the likes of this again, so close. Dana shouted, “My seat is red!” The dashboard was orange, the road and cows outside the van a frightening shade of fiery crimson.

At Topaz, California, population 100, we drove above Topaz Lake, elevation 5,050 feet. The lake below us was peppered with weekend boaters and jetskiers who flitted about in noon darkness, the water and air turned gray by the gargantuan smoke clouds that would soon send everyone indoors. People were eking out a last bit of Sunday fun before the fire put an end to it. It was surreal. People buzzing about on fast boats, and water-skiing, while a hideous mountain of flame, ash and smoke bore down and ate more of the land just beyond the lake. I looked at the water the people played in and thought if it could only be lifted up and delivered to the hills, it might be enough to stop the fiery advance.

At the state line, cars traveling south from Nevada waited at the California Agricultural Inspection Station, everyone looking up at what they were driving into. The air was heavy with the smell of burning pine. Tiny pieces of ash floated around New Paint and settled wherever they could take hold. The day turned brown. We rode down into Nevada’s Carson Valley, through Gardinerville and old, brick Minden. Sierras embraced us. The fire followed us.

“Tahoe Horse Shows in the Sun,” said the sign. From the road, I’d seen a few riders fly over jumps. I pulled into the show site. “Any chance this young horse lover from Massachusetts might watch for a few minutes?” I asked the old man sitting under an umbrella by the dusty parking lot. “Go on through,” he smiled. This was serious stuff. Professional riders, wealthy owners, incredible equines. The scene was moneyed, electric, regal, privileged. And surreal.

As these impeccably-postured people and equines flew, seemingly without effort, around the arena and over the jumps, as rapt owners and spectators watched every turn and hoofbeat, two wildfires raged not more than a score of miles away. The fire we’d driven under was eating the sky to the right of the small grandstand, and a second fire, wholly in Nevada, was gaining momentum and height to the left. No one looked at, spoke of or paid any attention to the wildfire-filled sky. They rode and watched their horses. Over our heads, firefighting tanker planes came and went, landing at an airstrip next to the show site, reloading with slurry and water, and taking off again. And again, and again, and again, while people rode five-figure horses and tried to win blue ribbons.