Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fire Moves From Book To Here And Now

I took a couple of hours this evening after dinner to read The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America.

I'd gone through the preparations - the creation of the National Forests and the role of Gifford Pinchot and the recruitment of rangers - and now the fire was on.  Here's a typical passage.  Pulaski is one of the older rangers whose wife and daughter live in town and he's up on the hill trying to set back fires to prevent the fire from advancing.  But this fire has now morphed into a super fire and he and his men are looking for shelter.
"He stumbled around the steep, smoking ravine, looking for his mine.  The ground burned nearly as much as the trees overhead.  The forest was smothering them, its gases, its heat, its searing convection winds fanning the flames upward.  Next to the desiccated creaked, Pulaski ran his hands over the timbers of an open hole - the mine he was looking for.  He draped a wet gunnysack over his head and went inside, sniffing at the air, probing the ceiling, trying to determine if it was large enough to hold them all. . . 
Other options were foreclosed by the fire.  The path where the men had trod a minute earlier was now covered by flames.  With this last nudge of fire, men shoved and leaned to gt to the mine.  Inside the tunnel, voices clashed, men pushed and struggled, tears poured forth.  Two horses made it inside with them.  Stockton had dismounted and found a little pocket of darkness near the horse that had carried him, Pulaski's mount.  The air had been cold, but it quickly warmed, and the just as quickly went stale and hot.  The outside heat was sucking all the cold air from the tunnel.  How long till the oxygen was gone?"

I went through about 80 pages of men trying to fight the fires in Idaho in August 1910.  Then things change when it became one huge inferno hopping from ridge top to ridge top, incinerating every tree and shrub.  Now the men fighting the fire are trying to find creek beds, caves, and mine shafts where they might be able to survive the walls of fire.

After I came in from reading on the deck,  I found this tweet and this fire I'd been living in the book became a real life fire not many miles away:

The people in the book knew about the fires in the mountains around them.  They were waiting for August to end and the rains to come.  Like them,  I knew about the McHugh Creek fire.  It was on the news two days ago.  A small brush fire they were attacking with retardant and the Seward Highway was blocked.  I didn't think much about it.  They'd have it out shortly.  I was thinking how this was minor compared to the book.  We wondered what damage the retardant might do to area.  There was a picture in the newspaper the next day.  I was surprised it was still burning today - I heard the highway was down to one lane and backed up for hours.

And then the tweet.  Someone I know - the author of Raven's Gift who joined us at our bookclub June 20 - now facing the sort of evacuations I was reading about in Taft and Avery and Wallace over 100 years ago.  And I'm reading this book for next Monday's book club meeting which is scheduled to be on . . . the hillside.  If the fire doesn't jump the ridge.

Don's the one man facing us on the right.  McHugh Creek and Bear Valley are off in the distance behind the green ridge on the right half.

I'm hoping this fire ends soon.  That Don gets to stay home and that my reaction is coming from reading the book.  But life is constantly changing and the unexpected - even if it should be expected - can happen any time.

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