I left our home on the way to Burning Man with the heavy smoke of the surrounding forest fires filling the air in Applegate Valley like an evil fog. Once again we had an inversion; there was nowhere for the smoke to go so it was hanging around and hassling our lungs.
The forest service folks said there wasn’t much to worry about. We might have bad smoke, but the fires were good. They were the type that make their way along the ground, clean out the dead wood, and leave the forest feeling healthy. Naturally, there was an if attached. The wind could change; the heat could skyrocket; the fire could cease its peaceful ramble through the woods and become a raging inferno. Conditions were extreme.
Trusting a fire to behave is something like trusting a tropical depression in the Gulf to behave. Sometimes the depression simply goes away; but occasionally, it morphs into a horrendous hurricane with devastating floods. Hello Harvey. Our thoughts are with our friends and all the other people in southeast Texas who are suffering from the torrential downpour.
The forest service people in our area also told us that they didn’t have enough personnel to seriously tackle the fires creeping through our woods, even if they wanted to. The Chetco Fire over near the coast, some 50 miles away, had been declared the worst fire in the nation, at least for now. Even the local firefighters had headed for the coast. The town of Brookings was being threatened, and firefighters go where the threats are the greatest.
I was happy to escape. I drove down through the Rogue Valley. Smoky. I drove up and across the Cascade Mountains. Smoky. I drove down into the Klamath Basin, past Klamath Lake, past Klamath Falls. Smoky. Finally, down around Tule Lake across the border in northern California, down where Japanese-American citizens were once corralled behind barbed wire fences like cattle, the smoke begin to clear. I breathed a sigh of relief. I breathed fresh air.
A sign outside of Tule Lake told me there were no services for the next 70 miles. Not many of California’s 39 million people live in the remote northeastern part of the state. I checked my gas gauge. Not a problem; I made it to Alturas with a quarter tank left. Gas prices had shot up, however— partly because of the towns remote location, partly to make money off of the increased traffic to Burning Man, and partly because of Harvey’s romp through the Gulf and along the Gulf Coast. I am sure that you have noticed that gas prices shoot up within hours when the oil industry has a problem. It takes months for them to creep back down. Or is this just my imagination?
I bought gas. I also bought apples, oranges and salad mix at the Holiday Market. (California won’t let you bring fresh fruit and vegetables into the state.) My destination for the day was Cedarville, a mere 26 miles away up and over the Warner Mountains from Alturas. I like the small town. It perches on the very edge of California. Off to the east are the vast open spaces of the Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where lonely ranches, windmills, sagebrush, jack rabbits and rattlesnakes rule. Cedarville likes Burning Man. The majority of the Northwest’s large population of Burners pass through the town. A couple of years ago, a local gas station owner told me he pumps as much gas during the week of Burning Man as he does the whole rest of the year.
My normal routine is to spend the night in the town and then drive the 90 plus miles to Burning Man early the next morning. I checked out the fairgrounds where I was going to camp and then headed for the Country Hearth Restaurant. It’s a small-town kind of eatery that moves at its own slow pace but serves excellent food. I had my traditional last meal before heading into the desert and then went out to the van for a final call to Peggy. Phone service is non-existent to highly unlikely in Black Rock City. A large brindle dog offered me a wag or two, sat on the sidewalk, and watched me make the call.
Peggy greeted me with her usual chirpy welcome and then told me that the sheriff had just been by our house. “We are under a Level 1 fire alert!” Our endless days of smoke were threatening to turn into something much more serious. Level 1 is a warning. Be aware, the fire is threatening to come your way. Level 2 is you should be packed up. Leaving is highly recommended. Level 3 is get out now. You may be too late.
“I’m coming home,” was my immediate response.
“No, Curt,” Peggy replied. “I have everything under control. You need to head on into Burning Man.” She knows how much I look forward to the event. And I had no doubt that Peggy had things under control. She’s cool under pressure and highly organized. Plus, we have great neighbors. But that wasn’t the issue. Having to abandon our home and possibly lose it to fire wasn’t something she should face alone. She was insistent, however.
“Let me think about it,” I concluded. I went back to the fairgrounds and broke out a beer. It didn’t take much thinking. I was not going to leave Peggy home by herself. I called her back.
“No, no, no, Curt,” she made one final plea. But I reaffirmed I wasn’t going to leave her alone. I also said I wanted to say goodbye to our home if it was in danger of burning down. And finally, I told her I would head back to Burning Man if the situation improved. I think it was the latter that convinced her.
It’s a strange feeling to walk through your home and figure out what to take and what to leave behind when a forest fire threatens. In ways, it’s a walk down memory lane. There’s so much history. Some things are easy: medical and financial records. Others are more complicated. I love our books, for example, but there is no way we are going to pack up a couple of thousand. Maybe I’ll pull a dozen. A few family albums from our childhood, some art work with meaning, original materials from Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, my genealogical files, Peggy’s quilts, some clothes— whatever we take has to fit in our pickup.The digital age helps. Much is on-line.
Peggy and I spent time outside yesterday, prepping the house. Most was already done. We live in an area prone to forest fires, so we have ‘defensible space.’ Plants, except for lavender, which is fire resistant, are away from our walls. Lower limbs have been cut away from trees. I’ve weed whacked most of the weeds near our house, but now wish I had done more. Too late. Plus, the fire people have a ban on all gas-powered tools. I did some hoe work and Peggy raked, The heat and the smoke made things much worse. Three hours was our max. We drank lots of water. A cold shower afterwards felt good.
We’ve decided on an action plan. There is really nothing else we can do here. Hanging out and manning a garden hose during a Level 3 situation is not an option for us. We will pack the truck today. There is a community meeting hosted by the forest service that we will attend tonight. Tomorrow Peggy will head for Sacramento to escape the smoke and I will resume my trip to Burning Man. We are pretty sure our property is safe. If not…
Peggy smiles. “Maybe it’s time to buy another small RV and hit the open road again.”