Summer Reflections — Western Wildfires

Wildfires are unpredictable and dangerous. I feel for all the people who have endured wildfires both this summer and previously. They are worrisome.

On our honeymoon, we decided to backpack in the High Uinta Mountains of Utah over the crowded 4th of July. When we came back down to what was an overflow campground three days earlier, there was only one RV way down near the van…and our lone car sitting where the youth CCC was who were supposed to be watching it. The RV folk said the Park Rangers chased everyone out. “Why?” we asked. The man merely pointed to across the dam. About a mile away was billowing white smoke. A forest fire. We dashed to our car, tossed in our backpacks, and raced down the mountain. We weren’t the only ones racing. Deer with saucer sized eyes ran side-by-side with us until our road turned towards the fire. We had no choice. We saw the flames. Luckily the road turned again and we were able to flee the flames.

We lived in the Black Hills of Western South Dakota for about ten years. Every single summer there were fires and fire threats. Some fires could be started from an arson or someone carelessly tossing a cigarette from the highway onto dried prairie grass. Once when we were there, hundreds of acres were burned from a spark from a bulldozer hitting a rock. There were signs at this one bit of acreage for sale NOT to drive in the fields for a hot muffler could cause a fire.

On one wilderness hike in “The Hills,” we noticed on an opposite hill what looked like several large targets: A large brown circle with a darker red-brown circle within it, with a black bull’s-eye in the center. It didn’t take us long to figure out those were lightning strikes. Trouble was, it was raining; we wore our rain coats; the low sky was dark and thick with clouds. We decided to hike back out. Lightning obviously doesn’t strike twice on the same Black Hill, but it strikes pretty close!

When it was hot (in the 80’s) and cinder smoke-filled the town from a nearby burning fire, we had to keep the house windows closed. It took us eight summers of going through steaming-hot summer-house time before we purchased one window air conditioner. Even so, during fires, the house smelled of constant smoke.

During a wildfire, the white ash littered the sky, but when it landed on your clothes or sidewalk, it turned black. We put special mats at our house entrances where we’d wipe the black ash off our shoes before stepping onto the beige living room carpet.

When I tried to describe the smell of burning pine, a friend wrote how she loved the smell of campfires. Agreed; when they are confined to a fire pit, but not when they’ve burned acres of land and threaten your house and all your possessions. When the fires came within ten miles of our house, there were always the thoughts of: “Which of our material possessions are so precious that we can toss them into to the van in a moment’s notice and flee?” Of course, our very lives is the utmost importance in any disaster. If there’s time, IDs and cash came next. Anything else was just material possessions. We could even live without the IDs and cash.

Here in soggy ole lower peninsula Michigan, there are not many wildfires. Tornadoes, yes. Flooding, yes. But not so much fires. But I haven’t forgotten. Whenever I hear of wildfires, my hearts go out to the people and animals it nears.

In fact, to get a personal grasp on both wildfires in western South Dakota and the Lakota culture, I wrote a fiction book about it: WILDFIRE by Sandy Carlson, available in both Kindle and paper (http://www.amazon.com/dp/1491236272).

Stay safe and be wise if you ever encounter a wildfire

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