Burning Man or Burning House… When Forest Fire Threatens

 

Heavy smoke from local forest fires fills southern Oregon’s Upper Applegate Valley where we live.

 

I left our home on the way to Burning Man with the heavy smoke of the surrounding forest fires filling the air in Applegate Valley like an evil fog. Once again we had an inversion; there was nowhere for the smoke to go so it was hanging around and hassling our lungs.

The forest service folks said there wasn’t much to worry about. We might have bad smoke, but the fires were good. They were the type that make their way along the ground, clean out the dead wood, and leave the forest feeling healthy. Naturally, there was an if attached. The wind could change; the heat could skyrocket; the fire could cease its peaceful ramble through the woods and become a raging inferno. Conditions were extreme.

Trusting a fire to behave is something like trusting a tropical depression in the Gulf to behave. Sometimes the depression simply goes away; but occasionally, it morphs into a horrendous hurricane with devastating floods. Hello Harvey. Our thoughts are with our friends and all the other people in southeast Texas who are suffering from the torrential downpour.

The forest service people in our area also told us that they didn’t have enough personnel to seriously tackle the fires creeping through our woods, even if they wanted to. The Chetco Fire over near the coast, some 50 miles away, had been declared the worst fire in the nation, at least for now. Even the local firefighters had headed for the coast. The town of Brookings was being threatened, and firefighters go where the threats are the greatest.

I was happy to escape. I drove down through the Rogue Valley. Smoky. I drove up and across the Cascade Mountains. Smoky. I drove down into the Klamath Basin, past Klamath Lake, past Klamath Falls. Smoky. Finally, down around Tule Lake across the border in northern California, down where Japanese-American citizens were once corralled behind barbed wire fences like cattle, the smoke begin to clear. I breathed a sigh of relief. I breathed fresh air.

A sign outside of Tule Lake told me there were no services for the next 70 miles. Not many of California’s 39 million people live in the remote northeastern part of the state. I checked my gas gauge. Not a problem; I made it to Alturas with a quarter tank left. Gas prices had shot up, however— partly because of the towns remote location, partly to make money off of the increased traffic to Burning Man, and partly because of Harvey’s romp through the Gulf and along the Gulf Coast. I am sure that you have noticed that gas prices shoot up within hours when the oil industry has a problem. It takes months for them to creep back down.  Or is this just my imagination?

I bought gas. I also bought apples, oranges and salad mix at the Holiday Market. (California won’t let you bring fresh fruit and vegetables into the state.) My destination for the day was Cedarville, a mere 26 miles away up and over the Warner Mountains from Alturas. I like the small town. It perches on the very edge of California. Off to the east are the vast open spaces of the Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where lonely ranches, windmills, sagebrush, jack rabbits and rattlesnakes rule.  Cedarville likes Burning Man. The majority of the Northwest’s large population of Burners pass through the town. A couple of years ago, a local gas station owner told me he pumps as much gas during the week of Burning Man as he does the whole rest of the year.

My normal routine is to spend the night in the town and then drive the 90 plus miles to Burning Man early the next morning. I checked out the fairgrounds where I was going to camp and then headed for the Country Hearth Restaurant. It’s a small-town kind of eatery that moves at its own slow pace but serves excellent food. I had my traditional last meal before heading into the desert and then went out to the van for a final call to Peggy. Phone service is non-existent to highly unlikely in Black Rock City. A large brindle dog offered me a wag or two, sat on the sidewalk, and watched me make the call.

Peggy greeted me with her usual chirpy welcome and then told me that the sheriff had just been by our house. “We are under a Level 1 fire alert!” Our endless days of smoke were threatening to turn into something much more serious. Level 1 is a warning. Be aware, the fire is threatening to come your way. Level 2 is you should be packed up. Leaving is highly recommended. Level 3 is get out now. You may be too late.

“I’m coming home,” was my immediate response.

“No, Curt,” Peggy replied. “I have everything under control. You need to head on into Burning Man.” She knows how much I look forward to the event. And I had no doubt that Peggy had things under control. She’s cool under pressure and highly organized. Plus, we have great neighbors. But that wasn’t the issue. Having to abandon our home and possibly lose it to fire wasn’t something she should face alone. She was insistent, however.

“Let me think about it,” I concluded. I went back to the fairgrounds and broke out a beer. It didn’t take much thinking. I was not going to leave Peggy home by herself. I called her back.

“No, no, no, Curt,” she made one final plea. But I reaffirmed I wasn’t going to leave her alone. I also said I wanted to say goodbye to our home if it was in danger of burning down. And finally, I told her I would head back to Burning Man if the situation improved. I think it was the latter that convinced her.

………

It’s a strange feeling to walk through your home and figure out what to take and what to leave behind when a forest fire threatens. In ways, it’s a walk down memory lane. There’s so much history. Some things are easy: medical and financial records. Others are more complicated. I love our books, for example, but there is no way we are going to pack up a couple of thousand. Maybe I’ll pull a dozen. A few family albums from our childhood, some art work with meaning, original materials from Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, my genealogical files, Peggy’s quilts, some clothes— whatever we take has to fit in our pickup.The digital age helps. Much is on-line.

Peggy and I spent time outside yesterday, prepping the house. Most was already done. We live in an area prone to forest fires, so we have ‘defensible space.’ Plants, except for lavender, which is fire resistant, are away from our walls. Lower limbs have been cut away from trees. I’ve weed whacked most of the weeds near our house, but now wish I had done more. Too late. Plus, the fire people have a ban on all gas-powered tools. I did some hoe work and Peggy raked, The heat and the smoke made things much worse. Three hours was our max. We drank lots of water. A cold shower afterwards felt good.

We’ve decided on an action plan. There is really nothing else we can do here. Hanging out and manning a garden hose during a Level 3 situation is not an option for us. We will pack the truck today. There is a community meeting hosted by the forest service that we will attend tonight. Tomorrow Peggy will head for Sacramento to escape the smoke and I will resume my trip to Burning Man. We are pretty sure our property is safe. If not…

Peggy smiles. “Maybe it’s time to buy another small RV and hit the open road again.”

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53 comments on “Burning Man or Burning House… When Forest Fire Threatens

  1. Ummm, I have a wee bit of water I wish I could send your way. Unlike you, our best and, really, only recourse was to stay put in our house as Hurricane Harvey arrived here in Houston. Mass evacuation was not an option here; before the brunt of it hit, there was just no way to empty the country’s 4th biggest city in a day or two without creating bigger problems, and once it started, every route out was underwater (and still is). You will be in my thoughts, Curt and Peggy, whether you can ride this out or have to escape. I’m happy to know you are ready to go if you have to.

  2. Raised our family in the San Diego area and over the years had a couple of close calls with brush fires. We lived in that house for 18 years and when you think about evacuating and the what do I take scenario, it really puts things into perspective! My heart goes out to you guys!!

    • Thanks, Kirk. My niece lost her home in one of the San Diego fires. They were lucky to get out with the dogs. At least we have had more time. It’s a bit depressing to walk around and figure out what goes and what stays. Most is staying. –Curt

  3. If your house isn’t safe, Curt, it’s for the best that you are both out of it!! Not at all funny, but clearly ironic that you should be heading for ‘Burning’ Man! I was at work in January of ’78 when I got a call that my house was gone, so at least Peggy knew what things to remove for safe keeping.

    • A bit ironic yes, G. Peggy and I are ready to fill the pickup. So much will be left behind. But in the end, they are just things. Hopefully the fire will behave. Thanks. –Curt

  4. It’s interesting to see the parallels among fire, flood, and hurricane. Of course I wish none of us had to go through such events, but it also occurs to me that people who are used to traveling and comfortable outdoors often cope far better than many. Decision-making is a learned skill, too, and probably one of the most important in situations like yours.

    I can’t decide whether it’s a irony that you’re heading to Burning Man (if all goes well) or simply one of those appropriate coincidences that life throws our way. In any event, best to both you and Peggy, and hopes that you’ll not have to endure the loss of your home.

    It’s worth noting that the rain finally is easing here, and in West Houston, over the flooded reservoirs, the sun is shining.

    • The rain stops, fires burn out, trees and grass grow again. It’s all part of the unending cycle, Linda. Nature likes to remind us of her power. Peggy and I have done what we can. Now we will wait and see. But it easier to wait if you are busy. So it’s off to Burning Man, even though it may be a bit ironic. –Curt

  5. Curt, I was following right along as you wandered through the house with fond memories of my own…I’m shouting to the heavens that your home will be safe. But most importantly, I am glad that you and Peggy have good heads on your shoulders and have a plan. Praying that the conditions there improve. Hugs to you both. Edie

    • Thanks so much, Edie. Peggy and I went to a meeting sponsored by the fire crew this evening. The problem they are facing is a lack of resources. So far they have things under control. They will use what resources are available on a focused effort to stop the fire. In the meantime, they told to expect us to move from a Level 1 to a Level 2 and then a Level 3 situation. Since there really isn’t anything else we can do, we are going to get out of Dodge and keep our fingers crossed. –Curt

  6. Oh ugh. I know how you feel. Australians live with the constant threat of bush fires. In 2003, there were 500 homes lost in Canberra in one day. I stayed home and sent Poor John to prepare the house at the coast where fires were also raging. We opened our homes to families who were evacuated.

    • Sounds like our western scenario, Peggy. Several fires are burning simultaneously in our area. Only one is a threat, at least so far. But the smoke from all the fires is laying in here. We are expecting the ‘get out now’ warning this weekend and are getting out early. –Curt

  7. Gosh Curt what a dilemma! Lucky for us that in UK weather is generally benign. It rains a lot and some times it floods but is never really a big problem. Excessive heat and forest fires almost never. Never too hot and never too cold – perfect really!

      • I am looking forward to catching up on your adventures, Andrew. My busy summer has now ended and our community has been declared safe. I think I will head for the coast to escape the smoke, however. –Curt

      • Quite by coincidence today we were walking in Portugal and wandered I no an only recently burnt down by a forest fire, everywhere was black and covered in grey ash and there was still the lingering smell of smoke. Makes you realise the power of fire.

      • The ashes were raining down on our yard and truck! It can be devastating, Andrew. No question about it. The only good thing is nature’s ability to recover afterwards. One of the backpacking trips Peggy and I went on this summer had burned over four years ago and is now well on the road to recovery (although it may have been hit by this recent fire). –Curt

  8. Was thinking of you this morning when I saw this quote, “I do what I can, with what I have, wherever I am.” (-Theodore Roosevelt). Most important is that the two of you are safe, and your grandkids will happily give up their rooms for you if you need a place to stay!

  9. Bushfires are part and parcel of life where hot dry summers reign. It always surprises me when people live in the bush without reasonable fire- protection. The architecture of houses in the bush need to consider the flammable aspect of the material used to build a house. Of course, some fires devour everything, no matter what.

    • Materials are much better today, Gerard. Creating a defensible space is also critical. We weed whack around our house and don’t have plants growing next to it. The previous owner also cut lower limbs off of trees for several hundred feet around our place. We also have a water tank for extra water. But given all of that, we still live out in the woods and global warming has pretty well assured that fires are part of our life. But then again, we could have tornadoes, floods, earthquakes or hurricanes. 🙂 –Curt

  10. Oh Curt, I do hope you and Peggy don’t lose your home. I guess you’re at BM now – how ironic is that name. A quick google check showed me this:
    “Applegate Valley, Ore.- A level 2 “Be Set” evacuation notice is now in effect for people living in the Palmer Creek and Kinney Creek areas, as well as those on Upper Applegate Road from the Applegate Dam Spillway to the intersection of Palmer Creek Road.”
    I hope you have a great time at BM and Peggy has a lovely time in Sacramento and that your home and land are left untouched for you to return to.
    Alison

  11. These wild fires are scary. I really hope your house will be safe as well as your neighbors. I totally understand your state of mind and applaud your decision to leave for a while. I’ve packed once and didn’t have to leave but when the air is so bad and the threat real, there is no need to put ourselves and the firemen in more danger. Take care and I hope you can pursue your travel plans as soon as the situation is clear.

    • So far so good, Evelyn. Peggy and I packed up and left— she to Sacramento and me to Burning Man. We are back now and our house is still safe although the fire came within a couple of miles. The fire fighters did an incredible job of slowing down and stopping the fire. It isn’t over, but we are hopeful. It even rained a bit today! –Curt

  12. I was shocked reading this — your fires paired with the flooding in Houston makes me realize how vulnerable and helpless we all are. I admire you for abandoning Burning Man to come home to Peggy, but know you did the right thing. Here’s hoping all is well at your place. Will be thinking of you both.

    • There was no question about coming home to help Peggy, even though she insisted I didn’t. We are back home now, Rusha. Our house is still standing and the forests are still beautiful. We are still under a Level 2 alert, so it is still dangerous, but we are optimistic that the worst threat is over. And now there is Irma for those in the South. –Curt

  13. I’ve come to this late so hope the threat has passed by. A little more excitement than either of you needed. Also sorry to hear of the death at Burning Man — wonder what that was all about. Look forward to hearing more in your next post.

    • Hi AC. Peggy and I are home but still under a Level 2 threat. The fire fighters have been done an incredible job of slowing down and stopping the fire, so far. It even rained today. We are optimistic.
      I’ll write about the death at Burning Man in my next post. It was a suicide, which fortunately I missed. I had left the burn before it happened. I still haven’t heard about the reasons. –Curt

  14. Hope everything is better by now, and all the fires are under control! There were way too many fires this summer on the western coast (including BC in Canada).. and not all had natural causes.. I understand the latest ones in Oregon were caused by humans.. so sad and irresponsible..

    • Thanks, Christie. It looks like the fires are gradually being controlled, and the one that threatened our house definitely is. The biggest fire in our immediate vicinity was human caused because of carelessness. The majority, including the one that threatened our house, were lightning caused. –Curt

    • It appears so, Sylvia. We are even supposed to get a couple of days of rain this week, which goes a long ways toward reducing fire danger. As long as we choose to live out in the woods, however, there is always the possibility, like living on the gulf coast has the possibility of hurricanes. Unfortunately, global warming increases all of out dangers. –Curt

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