Don Rogers: The fire, then and now
The night looks alive with flame. But it’s only a front. A deep dark trails close behind. Winks of light flicker in there, constellations. Then fade. The action is ahead, farther up the mountainside. The part of the slope lit up orange, yellow, red, feeding, chewing, ripping. Hear the crackle and the roar. Such appetite.
All black come morning. Wafts of gray rise and drift. Sweet, acrid. Chilly this early, everything moving slow, muscles stiff, eyes crusty. Lace up your Whites, 10 inches high, fast as you can.
Short barks — coughs — mix with muted, hoarse laughter. Everyone accounted for, in line. Lots of coffee, eggs scrambled and going cold in steel trays. Same with the bacon. A smile for the older woman who tongs a second piece and places it on the paper plate held out.
Soon enough, the day breaks hot, no shade. White ash spots the black, seared skin of earth. Branches of skeletons sketch on yellow shirts brushing past. The crew spreads out, seeking heat to stir, to cool. Maybe with water, but probably not.
Little frets of whirlwind tear across the landscape, spin up and die away. The shift stretches out, endless.
Here lies the beginning of my love affair with the northern Sierra.
A plane landing in Chico, then a chartered bus lumbering up Highway 70, someone pointing out a turnoff: The way to Paradise.
The call came back during the wee hours in Santa Barbara. Beepers those days, which fit on a belt. When the thing blares, you have less than an hour to get to the station behind the coastal ridge and load up.
The first fire was near Hallelujah Junction, 70 all the way. Hard wind died. No need for a hotshot crew now, pure blue sky, but easy to imagine the scene then, biblical. Call everyone.
The second fire was in the Feather River Canyon past Quincy on the way back, steep and green, an acre or two skunking about, one of several. Some line, some schlepping hose, lots of the Supe by a creek cursing at a balky Mark 3 or 4, finally tugged to life and settling into a long afternoon’s drone.
All fine, but we came seeking fire, the bigger the better, what we were meant for. Mop up? Might as well build trails. Save breaks like this for after the rains, still months away.
I witnessed one of those blowtorch terrors a handful of years later, hopping from last stand along 395 to last stand at the next little settlement all down Long Valley. Then the wind switched off with sunset, and crews like my old one turned into the hills with the twilight, a long night of grinding out fireline ahead. I stopped for a beer and a burger on my way back to Quincy to write up the stories.
Won a first place nationally for a photo of a house blowing up with a large propane tank I’d been standing beside only a minute or two before leaving to change film. Cameras came with film then. My new wife knew me for an idiot, too, a few questions in — the garage inside was … blazing? the wall collapsed … all at once? you were … where? — when she saw the photo splayed huge across page one. What an image, though. Full fireball. Maybe even a Pulitzer had there been a body, flying.
That year after the rains came, after the layoffs, my last on that crew, my wife-to-be and I hit the road. We could go anywhere. We headed north.
We wound up in Quincy. A white church steeple amid a God ray between clouds settled it. We rented a house in town that day, and returned after the wedding to begin a new life, new careers, in time a son.
Here was a wondrous place where winter came all at once one afternoon — upper 70s to snowing within 20 minutes, knee deep by morning. We lived wide-eyed, in awe, in love.
Sometimes I run from my house to a point above Deer Creek where a family has the steel framing up for the house they are building to replace the one lost in 2017’s Lobo Fire. Fire scars rake the greater neighborhood — more rough than ready — where we moved six months later, officially on Easter Sunday.
Chainsaws and some kind of monster mower have been moving through. We can track them from home by the whining and groaning of the machines as they cut and grind in preparation. Drought this year is deeply ominous.
We’re packing and placing the go-bags, getting the cat and dog cages ready for quick transit into the SUVs, arguing over my conceit I could stay, save the house. Not on your life, my wife insists. She’ll win this one, I already know. It’s been, what, 36 years?
What a different life. What I once sought out I hope never arrives.
Now Quincy’s a grandson, and Paradise means something very different, too.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-477-4299
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