The other day I was driving one of the secondary forest roads south of Flagstaff looking for a place to camp for a few days when I thought I got a whiff of pine smoke. The road I was following was getting pretty rough so I parked the truck and walked up the draw a ways to see if I could find the source. Nope. Just more rough, rocky road. The smoke seemed stronger and thicker ahead but because of the wind and the terrain there was no telling where it was coming from.
I walked back to the truck and returned to the main road which was in much better condition. I drove a couple more miles on it and then tried the other end of the first road, coming at it from the opposite direction. After maybe a quarter mile the draw started to close in and the road became rough again. This time I pushed through, the truck’s tires riding up and over the rocks, the cab swaying wildly side to side. My persistence paid off, though, as the smoke became denser and finally I could see the source: An easygoing wildfire burning on the hillside above me.
I stopped the truck and climbed up through the ponderosa to the fire to make sure it wasn’t a Forest Service prescribed burn. Nope again. It was definitely a wildfire – no fire line and no personnel present. I figured I should probably call it in in case it was human-caused so I went back to the truck and rung up the Coconino National Forest dispatcher on my cellphone (the dispatch office’s number is printed on the Forest MVUM map if you ever need it.) The voice on the other end of the line said it was a lightning sparked fire and was in monitor status. Ahh, okay, good to know, better safe than sorry.
So there I was out in the woods by myself with a wildfire the Forest Service didn’t seem to care about and three days to kill. What to do? Well, camp and take a ton of photos of course!
I drove around the area for a while before settling on a nice campsite about a half mile upwind of the wildfire. Someone had constructed a large campfire ring and even left some firewood piled neatly nearby for me. How nice of them, right? I pitched my little tent and table and chair and got some coffee started. By then it was getting late in the afternoon so I figured I should check on the wildfire before I needed to start getting dinner ready. I walked down the draw to the fire, hoping the sun would be low enough in the sky to provide some good backlighting effects for photos. Unfortunately the sky had turned grey with high thin clouds so no-go on that.
I went up and examined the active flame front, the live part of the fire that was consuming unburned fuel.
The lightning strike had presumably sparked the fire near the top of the hill and the fire had been creeping down the hillside for a day or two, cleaning up pine needles and turning old stumps and decomposing logs into white ash. The flame front was moving at perhaps three or four inches a minute, slowly moving downward and against the breeze.
Watching the fuel combustion was fascinating, almost hypnotic even. Usually it would move steadily, like a cloth soaking up water. But sometimes the flame would jump ahead an inch or two into unburned fuel, the pine needles igniting suddenly from beneath as if the fire was invisibly leapfrogging itself through the substrate. I would imagine that at night the burning gases would be more visible and the flames appear more contiguous.
There was a passage in Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard in which he described the reincarnation of the Buddhist Dalai Lamas as a sort of passing of a flame from one candle to the next, not an actual physical reincarnation. I didn’t mark the page so can’t recall the exact text. But this concept always struck me as beautiful. It is exactly what the slowly moving wildfire was doing on the hillside, passing the flame from one patch of pine needle and woody debris to the next in a kind of recursive reinvention of itself.
If you could spin the arrow of time backwards and run the process in reverse you could watch the flame stepping backwards up the hillside to a snag hidden somewhere in the forest and then a hesitation and then a sudden leap in a flash-bang of lightning up into the heavens. The sky had literally come to Earth and you could squat down next to it and pass your fingers through it in the same way as you might do with a candle flame on your desk. I hesitantly did so and for a moment I felt the sensation of purring within the flames as with a cat dozing in the sun.
There is magic here.
I rose and stepped away from the tendril of flame, shaking my head to clear the spell. Such thoughts are dangerous for those rambling alone. There’s no one to pull you back and you can start to blur a little around the edges. You can slip away.
Higher up I noticed this little pine sapling had come through the fire almost unscathed:
The little guy was barely even scorched. He’ll probably be okay. A hundred years from now someone will cut this tree, now grown to full maturity, and note that it survived a low intensity fire when it was ten years old. The evidence of its brush with wildfire will be recorded in the rings as a dark circle.
Back at camp I made dinner and scribbled notes in my journal, referring to the photographs on my camera’s memory card. It was windy and cold so I sat in the truck’s cab watching an old movie on my Android tablet and listening to the wind gusting hollowly through the treetops. Some of the gusts were quite strong and I thought the wildfire would probably make a run to the northeast with the winds, down into the hollow and across to the adjacent hill. Perhaps it would grow large and attract the unwanted attention of the landlords back in Flagstaff and then the guys with drip torches and pulaskis would show up. I hoped not. I hoped that the fire would stay small and be allowed to live free for a little while longer.
The next day was a hike day. My planned loop through the surrounding countryside took me by the wildfire site before casting me out to the four points of the compass and back to camp. I walked the wildfire perimeter and contrary to my expectations the fire had actually lain down and backed in upon itself, the flames all but out. A few stumps and logs still smouldered, the bright early morning air filled with light residual smoke from the night’s burning. If there’d been anyone around to ask me what I thought the prognosis for the wildfire was I would’ve said it would probably be out by the afternoon.
Thinking that there wasn’t much to see there on the hillside I checked my GPS and then set off for eight glorious miles through the pines and the gambel oak. I climbed two summits and looked out across the ponderosa pine expanse towards the San Francisco Peaks and to the south towards the Mogollon Rim.
Later in the afternoon I found myself looking down into a familiar scene:
Back in 2003-04 a friend and I went looking for a geocache in that big oak hollow on the far ridge, which we came to know as Coulter Ridge but actually doesn’t have a name on the topo maps. We ended up going back there several times with our GPS units and signing the cache logbook; I think my buddy became the de facto owner of the cache after the original owner went MIA. A year later I returned with my dad and we camped along a nearby forest road for a few days. One morning we walked all around that ridge and down through the oaks, tracing out game trails and admiring the extensive hardwood forest. There was a ramshackle fence around a bunch of sickly looking aspen growing in the hollow bottom and when I asked him what the fence was for he said it was an exclosure meant to protect the aspen from browsing elk. It was an interesting factoid but didn’t really stick.
Five years later I joined a local Flagstaff volunteer group that amongst other things helped maintain those same fences for the Forest Service. When it came time to divide responsibilities for the 30+ exclosures on the Flagstaff District I volunteered to steward the exclosure on Coulter Ridge because I was already somewhat familiar with it. For about three years I visited that fence alone, with my geocaching buddy, and with large work parties from the volunteer group to work on the fence. We put a whole lot of blood, sweat, tears, and $$$ into that fence for the sake of those aspen. When I eventually left the group in 2012 the fence was up and in pretty good shape. As for the aspen, well, they never quite got the memo that they were saved and were now supposed to grow stronger. They just sort of sat in there looking kind of glum and sickly.
I went back there again this past summer after a four year absence and almost all the aspen inside the fence were long dead, killed by poplar borers and swarms of tiny sap sucking insects. The gambel oak – who were the true owners of that ridge and the hollow beneath it – were doing fucking great, though. They were kicking ass and taking names, which is what we’d overlooked in our zeal to save those aspen trees. Looking through the wire at the sad remains of the aspen clone it looked to me like our hard work had amounted to pretty much nothing.
Undoubtedly there is a lesson in how the natural world works buried in all of this.
Back at my camp later that afternoon I looked across the park toward the wildfire and there was just a little smoke rising above the trees. Obviously the fire had gone out during the day, leaving a few smoking stumps. I went about my business, reading and jotting notes from the day’s long hike and listening to podcasts on my tablet.
One of the podcasts I listened to was from Outside Magazine, called National Parks Don’t Need Your Stinkin’ Reverence. In it a grouchy editor tried to make the point that wilderness shouldn’t be referred to as “shrines” or “magnificent outdoor cathedrals” because the reverence we think we feel when viewing such places is a clichéd concept that isn’t real, it’s a learned, passed down idea from earlier times after we’d beaten all the real wilderness into submission and no longer needed to fear it. The cathedral idea is especially bad because it removes humans from these places and allows us to selfishly place ourselves (meaning white people living in the global north) at the center of natural vistas minus everyone else.
I sort of agree with the editor that reflexively describing beautiful places as “magnificent outdoor cathedrals” kinda makes you a sap, but most of his arguments to back up his claims were borrowed (consciously or unconsciously) from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and the neo-green Anthropocene boosters who will see the last bits of wilderness marginalized, degraded, commodified, and managed away into oblivion. I have a problem with that and found myself resisting the urge to throw the tablet into the woods. It’s too complex a subject to get into in this post so see George Wuerthner and crew’s book Keeping the Wild if you want to learn more about the “neo-green” platform and why it’s so insidious and bad.
After dark the temperatures dropped quickly and the wind died down so I lit the first campfire I’ve had on one of these solo outings in about two years. Normally I don’t build campfires because they’re dangerous and too much trouble to put out properly. But this night it seemed appropriate to have one. I sat at the edge of the campfire ring feeding pieces of wood into the flames, warming myself and listening to the little song dogs bark and yip and howl somewhere down the park. Finally, about 10 p.m. I let the fire burn down to coals, used my shovel to push the ashes into a heap, and doused them with a half gallon of water. Because I’d kept the fire small and manageable it was easy to put out before I crawled into the tent.
Sometime in the very early morning I woke up to the smell of very strong pine smoke.
What the hell?
For a second I thought the campfire had somehow rekindled itself and I needed to douse it with more water. I opened the tent and looked out. Nope, the campfire was still cold. But the wildfire down in the draw sure wasn’t! An inversion layer had formed in the atmosphere above and the whole forest was filled with thick smoke. It wasn’t bad enough to make me think about packing up camp but it was still pretty bad. Zipping the tent shut tight and burrowing deep down in the sleeping bag was enough, but it wasn’t particularly pleasant.
The next morning I woke up before dawn and made coffee on the Coleman stove then walked out into the park to see what was up. Everything was smoked in like a San Francisco fog bank. As sunrise approached a breeze picked up and the heavy smoke started to lift and then with the coming of first light a great wheel of ravens erupted from the stock tank down the way and whirled round and round the sky, spinning free and spinning free, their raucous cries filling the vast park with unintelligible but unmistakable conversation. They were very, very excited about something.
And then then the sun broke the eastern ridge in white hot incandescence and the world turned into the light.
And then I knew I had about ten minutes to get my ass down the draw to the wildfire site because something amazing was happening down there and if I waited any longer I’d miss it. I snatched the camera from the truck and practically ran across the park and down the road. The ravens wheeled insanely above, their wings cutting and chopping at the air.
Down in the draw the wildfire had rekindled itself and grown, puffing up great quantities of white smoke and sending out long whip-like tendrils of flame across the bottom of the hollow and up onto the adjacent hillside. It was still low intensity, still creeping along the forest floor, but something about its mood had changed.
I trotted around the lower side of the perimeter and positioned myself so that the wildfire would be between me and the sun and waited. About two minutes later the sun peeked over the crest of the eastern hill and – call me a sap – the angels sang and the doors of the hated “magnificent outdoor cathedral” flew open and sunbeams poured out.
Once the light show ended I walked around the expanded fire perimeter and it looked to me like the wildfire had doubled in size since I’d looked it over the previous morning.
Uh, oh. The landlords are going to take notice of this.
Sure enough, about an hour later while I was packing up camp I heard a vehicle on the road and a Forest Service pickup towing a UTV trailer drove past. It stopped at the head of the draw and a guy in a yellow shirt got out and set up a red Wildfire Activity Ahead sign.
I put everything into the little red SUV, said thank you and farewell to the campsite, and drove back up the road. I found the Forest Service dudes milling around in a field next to the main road. I parked and walked down to them.
“Good morning,” I said. “Does this fire have a name?”
“It’s called the ‘Spur Fire.'” he replied. “It was caused by lightning.”
“Yeah, I called the dispatcher a couple of days ago. They said it was lightning sparked.”
“Are you going to let it run? Or are you going to suppress it?” This is what I really wanted to know.
“We’re not sure. We’re thinking about managing it for resource benefit,” the guy answered. “Rain’s coming and we’re going to see what we can do with it before then.”
“I hope you can let it burn for a while. I walked around the perimeter this morning and it was beautiful. I’ve got some pictures of the smoke backlit by the sun that are pretty amazing.”
He grunted disinterestedly and shrugged on a backpack. “Have a good day, sir.”
That was my cue to move on. I’ve noticed that many of the low level people you talk to in these agencies have no real interest in what they’re doing and if you try to engage them about it they get bored. I guess it’s only to be expected.
When I got back to Flagstaff and checked my e-mail there was a notice from the Southwestern News Release service that the Spur Fire was going to be contained and suppressed. Something to do with staffing levels and heavy fuels. I’m not sure why, but I felt a little sad at the news.