Time changes when the Fire Vortex sweeps you up. The hours can pass in a blur of driving, hiking, engagement with details and processes. Or hours drag while waiting in fire camp. Not much time to pay attention to the larger world or take photos. The photo for this post was snapped in haste yesterday as I prepared a fire size-up report for a new start in Township 22 North, Range 13 East, Section 35. I keep a mental sketchbook of full-color images gathered these past few days.
The roly-poly bear cub who scampered across the road to the lookout. A small black bear, coat tipped with gold. It stopped on the slope and turned to look at back. I saw its nostrils moving, and the gleam of its dark eyes. Where was mama?
A tawny coyote caught in my headlights as I crossed the freeway overpass in the early morning darkness. It saw me as it turned and slithered under the guard rail, bushy tail the last thing to disappear.
All the animals are disrupted by fires, unsettled by smoke and human activity. Winter range for deer and elk is black, the shrubs they depend on for winter browse are burned to the ground. It may be a season of starvation.
But green grass appears in some of the blackened areas where the Taylor Bridge fire swept through a few weeks ago. This seems miraculous.
Driving home in the dark as a firestorm whirls through the lodgepole pine and subalpine fir forest on Table Mountain. The smoke column is purple-gray, illuminated by neon orange flashes. Trees flare into torches and the fire spreads.
The novelty of the first few days have passed. People are putting in long days and nights. The extent of the fires is becoming clear. Places that many of us have loved for years will not be the same in our lifetimes. I felt a little teary last night when I realized that I will never hike down through the meadows and tree stands of First Creek as they exist in my memory. Same for Owl Creek and Drop Creek and Naneum Meadows. It’s all changed, and still changing. Fire is a dynamic process, and right now the best we can do is get out of the way. Wind and low humidities allow the fires to grow and grow. When conditions allow, people can work to slow them and stop them.
But we are in it for the long haul, day by day. I see the red-rimmed eyes and tired faces of my friends and colleagues. And the smiles when we see each other in fire camp, passing on the way to our different missions. We chose this work and no one complains too loudly.
I get to come home at night. Before bed, I step out and look for Orion the Hunter in the southern sky. Maybe he hears the bugling of elk in the high country and smells the smoke. All the stars shine cool and silvery in the dark bowl of the sky, steadfast in spite of what happens down here on earth.