Burning hills

California fires
California fires

I hate fires.

I mean, of course, inappropriate, accidental, out-of-control fires. Cozy crackling fireplaces or outdoor cookfires or campfires have a special ambiance we all love. But uncontrolled fire raging in a forest or grassland or home is a fearsome, terrible beast.

The current fires in California brought all this to mind. Thousands have evacuated, hundreds have lost their homes, more than 148,000 acres of mountainside have been blackened, and two firefighters have died. And the most shocking part of this particular fire story: it was arson. Some really sick individual intentionally started the fire.

There’s no punishment good enough — or bad enough — for an arsonist. If that sounds harsh, well, I’ve seen the results of a lot of fires, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone.

Lucky …

Back in the ’60s, my mother-in-law’s house burned. Fortunately we were all out for the evening when it happened, but that didn’t change the fact that a beautiful, expensive home was gutted, personal possessions destroyed, and several pets lost. It’s difficult to explain the trauma to someone who hasn’t experienced it, to describe the stench that hangs in the air over the blackened remains of — everything. It was small comfort to learn the fire started in a lightning-damaged conduit on the outside of the house.

Ten or fifteen years later, there was a big fire in my brother-in-law’s home. He and his wife woke up just in time to crawl through the smoke and escape out the bedroom window, along with several cats who had sense enough to follow them. That fire burned only the bedroom wing of the house. It started when a cat knocked a blanket off a shelf and down onto an electric space heater. Even though it was contained to one part of the house, the smoke got to everything. We spent days washing away greasy black soot. Even the glassware in the kitchen cabinets was blackened. The carpets were soaked and grimy. Fans ran in the house for days to dry everything out. An incredible mess.

That was more experience with fire than I ever wanted, but it wasn’t the end of it. Only the venues changed.

There are a lot of grassfires in Oklahoma, usually visible off the road somewhere. You’ll see patches of smoke and an occasional firetruck in the middle of a pasture. Or at night, a glow in the distance. If smoke drifts across a road and obscures visibility, the road gets closed for a while. I was driving the Interstate one day when smoke slowed the traffic ahead. Cars were creeping ahead through the smoke, hanging in the lane away from a fire which was burning right beside the road. I learned that day just what those “little” grassfires look like up close. Scary! The unmowed weeds along the road were four or five feet high, but the roaring flames were fifteen feet or more. Me in my little car felt very small and very, very vulnerable.

The next big fire was a forest fire in one of my favorite little valleys in Rocky Mountain National Park — Wild Basin. It’s just over a ridge from the village of Allenspark, where my parents took us every summer for vacation and where other Oklahoma City families also vacationed and later lived.

The fire was started by lightning, a natural occurrence, and it’s the policy of the Forest Service to let such fires burn. Intellectually I understand the reasoning, but emotionally it’s devastating to know fire is destroying an area you’ve known and loved all your life. Yes, the forest will recover, but not in my lifetime.

... and not so lucky
… and not so lucky

The area is known for some pretty wicked winds (the village newspaper is the Allenspark Wind), and when the wind picked up, the fire began moving toward Allenspark. Finally, belatedly, the Forest Service moved in to stop it. In the meantime, family friends were hiking in the area and were hard pressed to escape the flames. And my brother and two of his friends were already there fighting the fire. The wind carried burning embers toward the village and the fire began hopscotching forward, breaking out in patches beyond the firefighters and their firelines.

Eventually the wind dropped and the fire was controlled, just before topping the ridge and reaching the village’s outlying homes. No lives or personal property were lost, but a favorite mountainside was laid bare. Again, the emotional me raged against the charring of a large swath of beautiful, verdant valley. That was in the ’70s, as I recall, and the burn scar is still visible from the highway if you know where to look.

I didn’t see the burn until the following summer, when my brother took me up the trail. We were hiking through some dense undergrowth, broken only by the well-maintained trail, and I was struck by how intensely, insanely, luminescently green everything was. Then we rounded a bend and stepped into — blackness. Black everywhere. Stark black earth, black stumps, black barren snags against the sky. The unexpected contrast was stunning. And heartbreaking. I burst into tears. I couldn’t help it. My forest was gone.

And then there was the Boulder Canyon fire in the ’80s. My brother’s house is built near the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, which rises above the canyon. Down in the canyon, a trash fire got out of control and spread up the very steep mountainside — so steep one can barely stand, much less fight a fire there. So it spread, eating its way up the mountain and out of the canyon, creeping toward the homes that dotted the upper part of the mountain and the forest that surrounded them.

As it turned out, my brother’s home was in a clearing beside the main road and near the top of a ridge. The firefighters decided that’s where they would make their stand. They could get their trucks in, and there was room for helicopters to land. They dumped slurry all over the house, twice, and hours later, that’s where the fire was ultimately stopped, just a hundred yards short of my brother’s property.

Afterward, you couldn’t actually see any of the burned area from my brother’s house, a blessing in an area where people now pay millions for a great, unspoiled view. The burned-off side of the mountain overlooks Boulder and the former little cabins tucked in the woods have been replaced by millionaires’ homes with incredible nighttime views. Maybe my brother would have liked becoming a millionaire that way, by cashing in on the sale of his property, but I suspect he’s much happier still having his house.

So … yes, I hate fires. Can you blame me?

My thoughts today are with the people of Southern California and with the brave firefighters doing everything humanly possible to stop those terrible fires.

Jae C Hong AP cal fire
Only firefighters run toward a fire

2 thoughts on “Burning hills

  1. I used to be against the death penalty, but now my view has changed. The sick individual who intentionally started the fire, if he ever gets caught, should be given the death penalty.
    I’ve always thought some crimes warranted the death penalty, and this would be one of them.

... and that's my two cents