Feeling the burn: Chasing forest fires across the American West
It would drive most insane. During the late 1930s Albert Curnow spent three years working as a fire lookout on the edge of Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains.
One summer he didn’t see another person.
Curnow’s lonely existence, on the fringes of civilization, is the stuff that dreams – or nightmares – are made of. It was an existence born from the terrible flames of summer – a vain attempt by man to stop the flames that sweep through the West every year, denuding mountainsides and turning the sunsets red as blood.
Last summer, with the air hazy from the smoke of the driest summer in years, we decided that we wanted to taste a bit of the heat. We thought we’d like to see the flames from afar, like Curnow, and maybe a bit closer as well.
Not when things were really hot, mind you. But after they had turned the trees into black sticks and the air was still metallic with smoke.
We headed west, because the West was on fire.
During the first years of America’s western migration, fire remained unchecked. Early fires ravaged the landscape. One, in Oregon, burned 8,000 acres, an area larger than Rhode Island. But, as civilization spread, the impetus to control fire grew.
In 1886, the U.S. Army was assigned to control fires in Yellowstone National Park. The responsibility for wildfires was passed on to the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. Five years later, the West would burn all through a long hot summer.
The USFS, stretched thin, could only watch as flames consumed everything in its path. When winter finally killed the last embers, 78 firefighters were dead and more than 1,700 acres had been reduced to ash.
In the smoldering aftermath, the USFS gained funding and attention. One way the money was spent was to build a network of lookouts that were staffed by folks like Curnow, who could handle the isolation and endless monotony of days with nothing to do but look for the wisp of smoke that signaled wildfire. In the 1930s thousands of lookouts were built.
Today less than a thousand remain.
We ended up at one of them, Drake Peak, Ore., near where Curnow basked in solitude. Drake Peak is a lonely, wind-swept place hidden outside of a small town called Lakeview. Drake looks out upon mountains that dissolve into the desert of eastern Oregon. To the south, you can see deep into California.
This morning, high on Drake Peak, the sun comes early. Stiff from mountain biking on a remote trail called No. 161 near the California border, we stretch our legs as the lookout warms in the early light.
Trail No. 161 has crushed us. Winding across the plateau below Drake Peak it’s rugged and hard to follow, a remote gem that is perfect for mountain bikers and adventurous hikers. It has left us dirty and sore. As we pack our gear for another day of riding, the hint of woodsmoke drifts on the morning breeze. Oregon is burning.
Two weeks later, we’ve left the high peaks and deserts of southeast Oregon and are eating New Mexican dust.
The trail kills us. A slick combination of roots, dust, rocks and polished rock, it plunges higher up a ridge darkened with the burned sticks of pines. We sweat and suck at our water bottles as we look at the ravished landscape.
It’s a wasteland whose beauty only becomes apparent once we reach the top.
There, as a cool breeze washes across the landscape and the setting sun casts long shadows through blackened stumps, the ridge glows, haunting and strange in the evening light and causing us to catch our breath in amazement.
Three years ago, forest fires raged across the landscape surrounding the small, mountain town of Los Alamos, N. M. Started by an ill-conceived preventive burn courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service, the fire swept out of control through the Jemez Mountains, making national headlines as the flames threatened the birthplace of the atom bomb, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the residents of the town scrambled for safety.
The fire’s logic was random and harsh. Houses burned, but others next them remained standing. The local ski area, Pajarito, was untouched while surrounding ridges succumbed to the inferno. The scars are still visible, although the memories of those hectic days – when residents packed what they could and ran for their lives unsure if they would ever return – have started to fade.
It will take longer, though, for the scars to fade in Colorado’s South Platte Basin. One of the most notorious fires in the scorched history of the West, the Hayman fire tore through 137,000 acres southwest of Denver.
The largest fire in Colorado history, the Hayman cost more than $1 billion to fight and destroyed more than 130 homes. The devastation might have been easier to swallow had the conflagration been an act of God.
But it was a forest service employee, Terry Barton, who made national headlines by starting the blaze.
From the vantage of the Colorado Trail, which traverses parts of Jefferson and Douglas Counties, the areas hardest hit by the Hayman, the devastation is obvious and saddening. The Hayman destroyed lives, including Barton’s, who is doing currently doing jail time for her role in starting the blaze.
It’s fall. The flames have been quenched by the turn of the season. I hike through young aspens, their falling leaves painting the trail with flecks of gold. As an adolescent in summer camp, I backpacked twice through here. The first time, in 1979, was a year after the Ouzle Burn scorched the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park. The memories of those two trips are still vivid in my mind.
The first summer, the earth was ashen, but from the ashes sprang hundreds of thousands of mushrooms and fungi. A year later. the mushrooms had been replaced by a kaleidoscope of wildflowers. Today, the burn area has five times as many species of plants as the surrounding areas which escaped the blaze.
As darkness comes and I set up a bivouac on Tanima Peak high above Wild Basin and the Ouzel Burn, the last of the sun kisses the harsh granite of the Rockies and the coming winter chills the air.
I know then that summer will come again and so, too, will the flames.
Just The Facts:
Drake Peak Lookout and Trail No. 161: Lakeview Ranger District, Lakeview, Oregon, 541-947-3334
Los Alamos: Land Of Oz Bicycles, (505) 661-6544, and the guidebook “Los Alamos Trails” by Craig Martin (All Seasons Publishing, 1999)
Hayman Fire(The Colorado Trail): Mountain Bike America: Colorado by Stephen Hlawaty; Ouzel Burn (Ouzel Falls/Wild Basin) http://www.rocky.mountain.national-park.com
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