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Fire on the Mountain
Well, that was a hell of a thing...
I’m relieved to be here in my little chair typing away on my keyboard to you. I almost didn’t have a keyboard or a chair or anything, really. A lot can happen in a few days.
July 29th started earlier than usual when Pike came to visit. At 5AM, we were startled awake to the sound dogs only make when their turf is being threatened. We looked out the window to see both of our dogs head to head with what we thought was a wolf.
Turns out we were wrong.
Pike, our new neighbor’s very tall, very skinny Alaskan sled dog, looks a lot like a wolf - especially at 5AM. We woke to Henry rushing back and forth along the fence line barking while Brisket, who meant business, was trying to push his whole head through the wire fence. Pike, meanwhile, who has clearly seen worse in his 12 long dog years, calmly stood his ground on the other side of the fence. He may have even yawned.
After wrestling our dogs back in the house and realizing that the threat was not a wolf after all, we made coffee and walked down to see our neighbor, Dwayne.
I think one of your dogs has come over for a visit, we informed him.
I won’t go into the whole new neighbor saga, only to say we learned that Dwayne’s truck’s brakes were busted and he was planning to drive down the hill to take his truck to a repair shop in town that day. Mind you, this guy just drove in from Alaska a few weeks ago. He doesn’t know anyone or where anything is and we’ve learned that he tends to get lost a lot. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he can’t find his ass with both hands. He admits this openly, so I don’t feel bad saying it. Fortunately, Dwayne is easy to like and John and I didn’t feel right about him driving a vehicle with questionable brakes down our hill. Bad things could happen.
We have three ways down the mountain and none are for the faint of heart. One way is a steep, gravel switchback so rutted out that your vehicle bounces around precariously like a pinball between the mountainside and the ledge. That way is exciting with good brakes.
The second way is also gravel but less steep - until you get to the paved switchback on which is erected a memorial sign to a fellow who took the turns too fast and with too much confidence - unfounded confidence, it would seem.
The third way? He’d be lost, for sure.
So, after some back and forth, John and Dwayne began disassembling the front wheels. With no time to lose, they took our Jeep to town to get parts before the auto parts store closed at 1PM.
I worked in my garden a bit while they were gone, then I went to check on the lambs in the aspen grove.
The lambs arrived! Just a couple days before our adventure began, Meryl Sheep gave birth to twins, and another of the very pregnant ladies also had a lamb - all rams. It’s amazing how quickly they’re up walking and exploring after birth!
Walking back to the house from the aspens, I noticed that the clouds to the South of us didn’t seem quite right. They were billowing and tall with a twinge of brownish-orange. They looked dirty. I climbed the hill to have a better look and I didn’t like what I saw.
Inside the house, a message was flashing on the answering machine (yes, we have an old school answering machine - are you surprised?). It was John calling from Dwayne’s phone. Of course, he was standing in 28mph winds so all I heard was:
Hey honey, crackle it’s me. static static crackle crackle blah blah crackle massive fire crackle crackle wind wind crackle. Click.
Well, that’s alarmingly vague…
Immediately, I drove our other truck toward the smoke only to learn from someone along the way that the fire was just a few miles from us. Little did I know at the time that John and Dwayne were out taking pictures of it… pictures of the smoke, pictures of the planes… leisurely pictures while, back here at home, all I had to go on were John’s last words to me: crackle crackle massive fire crackle crackle wind…
When they finally returned, rather anticlimactically, they went right back to working on the damn truck…
While that might seem foolish in hindsight, when something sudden and uncertain like this occurs, you really don’t know what to do. You wonder Will it spread? Is it coming this way? Should I stay or should I go? You’re kind of lost in limbo, so you keep busy doing what you were doing before you knew anything was amiss. You keep your mind wrapped around the things you can control.
Finally, though, once ash started to fall on our heads, I insisted that we might have more pressing matters than Dwyane’s truck. With a bit of urgency, we started packing a few things into our vehicles and scouring the internet for info, which was sparse. After much frustration, I finally broke down and opened a Facebook account.
Yes, I opened a Facebook account.
Now’s not the time to go off on a tangent about how taxpayers are forced to go through private corporations like Facebook and Twitter to obtain public information… potentially lifesaving public information… maybe later. It’s true, though.
But I digress.
Anyway, because we have an abundance of annual wildfires around here, we also have some pretty great community resources that provide fast and reliable info on social media, and we were glad to have it.
The fire was quickly named the Eagle Bluff Fire. Within minutes, it swept the hillside and jumped a lake. Spurred on by 30mph winds, it devoured sage brush and dried summer grasses in seconds as it headed north. Within hours, the flames were raging behind our tiny Post Office and licking the edges of the apple orchards that surround our town.
The number of firefighters grew almost as quickly as the flames. From as far away as Minnesota, they came until soon there were over 600 firefighters in planes, helicopters, trucks, bulldozers - even a 747!
By the third day, the fire had grown to over 16,000 acres. Firefighters were able to steer the fire away from town but that meant driving the flames northwest, toward Canada - and toward our house.
Two miles from our house, in fact.
Although the fire had begun south of us, it was encircling our mountain until the greatest threat was northwest of us, where the terrain is steep and difficult to manage.
And there it burned.
Crews were stationed at drop points all over the mountain to look for hot spots using thermal imaging. We watched bulldozers cut fire lines going straight up 4000ft hills as planes continued to fly over us for days.
One of the largest drop points was positioned at the bottom of our road, which was both a comfort and a concern.
After the initial shock passed, we spent most days driving up the mountain in the morning (around the roadblocks) to the house. We gathered things that seemed important into our vehicles, and then drove back down each evening. After dark, it’s impossible to tell which way a fire is headed since you can’t see the smoke. Aerial fire fighters can’t work at night either so there’s no chance of an emergency night-time fire retardant drop on your house to save you! In that situation, staying home seems futile because you can’t sleep anyway.
The first night, we left in a hurry but we had no where to go. Our town has one hotel and it was full. The next town was the same. And the next. Finally, nervous and exhausted, we pulled our Jeep into a parking lot and waited for sunrise when we could again see what was happening.
Packed to the roll bars with our valuables, a few clothes and some bottled water, we quickly developed a new appreciation for personal space as our dogs breathed their autopsy-breath down our necks all night.
The second day, we returned home to find the smoke heavier. Our friend came with his trailer, picked up his 30+ sheep and offered to get whatever else we wanted moved. Meanwhile, I fluttered through the house like an aimless bat picking up one thing at a time, evaluating it with new eyes, and either dropping it or chucking it in a to-go box. If I had ever thought to myself, I really appreciate this heavy can opener, for instance, it went in the box. That was my criteria.
The next day, we did it all again. This time, I grabbed my favorite whisk, a small copper melting pot, my few pieces of “good silver”, and a Limoges tureen. Our friend loaded our tractor on his flatbed while I grabbed jars of preserved meats and some cookbooks. I even packed some freeze dried cheese…
Don’t judge me. It took many hours to dry that cheese.
Surprisingly, I only grabbed a couple pieces of art.
Over the next several days, we found our groove and things started to feel better. We made a home-base of sorts at the hotel and we boarded the dogs. We rented a storage unit so we could unload our vehicles and feel less like hobos, and we started to prepare, mentally, for all eventualities.
Not knowing how things will go is perhaps the worst part. Yes, we have insurance. We lost a house to wildfires in 2020 so we definitely realize the importance of insurance. Having insurance doesn’t mean you can just throw up your hands and walk away, though, because you can lose things of value even when fire doesn’t take your house!
Like chickens and gardens…
Although we got the sheep and dogs out, we left the chickens. We opened their coop and let them out to forage or to take their chances flying away from the fire, if it should come to that. They could get back into their coop at night so we hoped for the best while we weren’t here (like no coyotes). That’s really all we could do because you can’t board a chicken.
And I had to keep watering my garden as well. If the garden went without water for over a week in 90F+ heat, all those months of hard work would be lost!
We were so thankful for the cisterns we buried in the hill last year, as well as the new well we dug last spring. We kept our sprinklers running for hours, saturating the ground around the house. Meanwhile, John re-raked the fireline using the side-by-side and harrow (since the tractor was at our friend’s house). We felt really good about having put all that pea gravel around the house, too, as a secondary fireline.
We were feeling pretty good about things, considering.
And then John’s brother called.
Unfortunately, John’s mother, who had been sick for some time, took a turn for the worst just when the fire was closest to our home. While his siblings all flew in to be with her, John kept busy making sure the ground around our house stayed wet. He kept busy with a lot of things - again, wrapping his mind around the things he could control.
Meanwhile, a couple thousand miles away and surrounded by his siblings, John’s mother passed.
Since Dwayne was stranded with no wheels or brakes on his vehicle in the midst of the wildfire, we loaned him one of our trucks so he could get around town. He had been moving his tiny-house to the property next door when this whole saga began. From the time he first climbed our hill, his life became a series of unfortunate events which, had I not been around to witness personally, I would not have believed. His girlfriend bailed on him and the rest of his dog sled team - all 27 of them - were stranded the next state over with a guy who was ready to be rid of them.
He would go get them, except his truck had broken. And then there was a wildfire. And then the truck we loaned him got a flat and overheated simultaneously. And he was all set to sign paperwork on his property, except someone had found white powder in an envelope at the court house. It was evacuated and closed for days…
Like I said, a series of unfortunate events. Bless your heart, Dwayne.
The good news is Dwayne finally got a ride to pick up the rest of his dog team and we recovered our truck from him, a bit worse for wear. He’s set to buy a different property on the other side of our mountain, and I hope it brings a change of luck for him. I suppose we’ll see him again when he comes back to get his truck, which is still in our driveway… And we’ll go pick up our tractor, eventually. And I’ll go get my Limoges tureen. And all that meat… and cheese.
Things are scattered everywhere, but that’s to be expected during a disaster - or a near miss, in our case. We’re just glad everyone’s alright.
We moved back into our house, for the most part, just a couple days ago. Having coffee on the porch, exhausted but relieved, we realized it was about time for John’s mother’s funeral. A couple thousand miles away people were gathered to celebrate her wonderful life which had been punctuated with humor.
Out of the blue, John remembered a time when he and his siblings (all 6 kids!) were riding around with his mom in their 1970’s seafoam green station wagon. They were all looking out the windows, excitedly searching the sky for the helicopter they heard getting closer and closer, louder and louder… but the helicopter never came.
It never came because it wasn’t a helicopter. It was a flat tire.
We had a good chuckle about that. Having heard so many helicopters over the past week, we’d probably have made the same mistake ourselves.
John smiled and then suddenly fell silent. Do you hear that? he asked.
I listened as the rain gently started to fall on our metal roof. It was a welcome sign of better days to come.