August 13, Day 1:
Although the morning had been hot and clear, thunder began rumbling in the distance around 3 PM. A huge, ominous, dark cloud crept up from the mountains to the south, moving towards the Ferry like a stain of black paint oozing across a grey-orange sky. This had become a pattern in the last week. Each afternoon thunder announced the arrival of strong winds carrying electrical storms through the canyon. Four days ago microburst-strength winds had literally ripped one of our old pear trees in half and blew open the freezer door of our refrigerator on the porch, scattering packages of frozen vegetables and meat. A frozen piecrust had sailed out onto the lawn, a pastry Frisbee.
Now the forceful winds began again, pushing the thunderous clouds overhead and thrashing the trees. Anything not nailed down was thrown into the air. Lightning flared across the sky. Heart-stopping thunder was simultaneous. I had never been so close to lightning before, watching it rip through the sky right above my head. Throughout the attack I stood on the porch of the historic Cook cabin and watched as a curtain of rain roared its way up canyon. When the rain hit, it was being shot instead of falling. Ferocious winds drove the rain horizontally. I had to abandon the porch or be thoroughly soaked.
Once the leading edge of the storm moved up river I reclaimed the porch, watching the rain, now falling towards the earth as it should, and listening to the diminishing sounds of thunder. Thirty minutes later the sky had cleared and Doug came to the cabin from the construction site at the Crowe cabin up the hill. Finding what he had been looking for he walked back out towards the tractor but suddenly froze. He called my name. When I reached his side I followed his gaze to the top of the mountain rising from our property. I could see what caused him to stop…the crest of the ridge was on fire. Lightning strike!
A fire had burned through that very spot in 2006 but somehow the lightning had found some of the few remaining trees left standing. Doug immediately got on his computer and emailed the Forest Service fire management team. While waiting for a reply he set up sprinklers around the buildings, beginning to soak the perimeter.
We could see that the fire was not igniting the trees as it did in 2006 but burning in the understory. If it remained there it would be a beneficial fire, removing brush and downed trees, but, of course, fire and weather are notoriously unpredictable.
Within the hour a spotter plane was circling overhead. Then Doug received word that a fire fighting crew would be arriving…four this evening via helicopter and six tomorrow via jet boat.
The helicopter bearing the cavalry arrived about 6:45 PM, landing towards the bottom of the airstrip. The fire was creeping slowly but relentlessly down the mountainside toward us. Two of the crew hiked up to assess the situation. The helicopter returned with two more firefighters and a Mark III Pump to pump water from the river up to the Ferry. Doug had designed our water system with a fitting at the end closest to the river that could connect to a pump from the river to supplement our own system supplied by a ditch, pond and tanks at the top of the property. After connecting the pump, there was nothing much to be done tonight, except wait.
After the last few days there are lightning-caused fires all over the area and fire support is scarce. There is a very serious fire burning in Kamiah. Homes have been lost and many people are being evacuated. The Forest Service fire center cannot spare smoke jumpers or heli-tankers to drop water or retardant here in the backcountry. We were lucky to get the crew we have. Campbell’s Ferry is somewhat of a priority, not just because it is inhabited but also because in 2007 we had it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After dinner Doug and I sat on chairs near the walnut tree, mesmerized. The fire had burned the crest and was now encircling the breadth of the mountain. In the darkness it was a necklace of fireflies slowly lengthening as it worked its way down. Our construction crew was working in the Crowe cabin after dark with all the lights on. We could see the lights glowing inside the building in front of flames that were coming toward it.
In the morning the promised reinforcements arrived. Throughout the night the fire had crept down the mountain, flames staying in the understory. This morning, in places, it was now just yards away from our property line. Doug and I rode the tractor up to the top of the airstrip. Last night the firefighters dug a firebreak around the pond and the holding tanks for our water system at the upper ditch. Throughout the woods smoke was oozing up from small spots of fire, the result of a partial back burn set to shape and steer the fire. We could see the flames approaching, maybe 100 yards away. How ironic it would be if we had spent these last 13 years working for this remodel of the one room cabin, expended money, time, effort and disruption, just to have it burn down just as it was nearing completion. Ugh! Don’t want to think that way.
We got word that there would be an airdrop of supplies so we went to the Crowe cabin to watch. The plane made 5 practice runs over the orchard. We heard Brent Sawyer (IC – Incident Commander, the man in charge) call out that the next one was “live”. The plane circled back around and ejected three parachute drops from its belly. Brent called out that there would be another. In all, the plane made 5 “live” runs over the Ferry releasing about a dozen items attached to orange or white parachutes. Each time the firefighters ran out to grab the items and secure the chutes. Some of the items were heavy and landed perilously close to our peach trees. Any one of them could have seriously damaged the trees, but we were lucky and the pilot was skilled.
The morning had been quiet but a cold front was forecast to move through this afternoon. At 2 PM a stiff breeze began to blow, by 3 PM it was very strong and very steady. With its encouragement the fire began to rise. It burned faster now, heading down into Zaunmiller Creek to the south and toward the Trout Creek drainage to the north. It was now moving quickly toward us. I kept praying to the wind gods to stop the blowing but they were not moved. The wind became a relentless, persistent Demon.
As night fell the Demon wind shifted direction 180 degrees but kept its intensity. The slope on the south side of Zaunmiller Creek that had been obliterated in 2006 was now, shockingly, a wall of fire. Looking at it during the day you would scarcely think there would be anything to burn. Doug had walked over there last year, reporting that there were young trees everywhere, some as high as his head…not anymore, there aren’t. We were sitting under the walnut tree again, watching the conflagration when Monica (In command of the Hell’s Canyon Wild Land Fire Use Module) came up to say that the fire hadn’t crossed the ditch…which was difficult to believe (it turned out she was right). Minutes later, as if the Demon had curled his lip and snarled, “Oh Yeah?” the wind velocity nearly doubled and the fire intensity increased again.
There was more smoke this morning. During the night the fire spread rapidly to the north and south along the river corridor. The firefighters spent the day preparing to do a back burn through the woods on either side of our airstrip after wetting everything down around the perimeter of the property.
Eight additional firefighters were sent in to secure the Jim Moore Place across the river. They are also camping at the Ferry bringing our number up to 21. The new group will also be helping with our back burn.
In the late afternoon, about the time the firefighters started the back burn, a pack string crossed through the Ferry, riding up toward the Crowe cabin instead of staying on the trail, which would have brought them in front of where we were sitting watching the fire. Doug hollered to them but they did not respond and got back on the trail above the barn just minutes before the fire overtook it.
Fire always looks so much more dramatic at night, terrifyingly beautiful. Tonight there were hundreds of places where flames were burning on three sides of us. They flickered through the trees at various heights. In my mind the flames became the torches of a legion of druids and gnomes approaching the Ferry through the woods. I loved the image and sat with it for a long time, imagining from time to time that I glimpsed an exotic face lit by the glow of a torch.
The hill to the south that had burned so hotly last night was now dotted with thousands of small spots of fire. It reminded me of the year I lived in Hong Kong, coming home late after a concert and looking up at all the lights from the apartments and homes, Mid Levels to Victoria Peak. You could have sworn that Campbell’s Ferry had high-rise neighbors all across that hill.
The back burn went perfectly, burning on through the night with firefighters keeping watch. We could see it glowing through the forest from the bedroom window at the Cook cabin.
The new firefighter group spent the day at Jim Moore, laying out hoses, setting up pumps, digging firebreaks and wrapping the buildings in a protective foil layer in case the fire jumps the river.
Today was the day we were scheduled to move back into the Crowe cabin after six and a half weeks of living in the historic Cook cabin. I started packing up things for the move but proceeded slowly, being unsure if the remodel would be finished today after all. Doug had gone up to check and came back to say that we would be sleeping in the Crowe cabin tonight. I began to pack more seriously.
The construction crew’s normal easy-going nature had changed to a worried, tense state. A terrible fire is raging through Kamiah, a small community close to their homes in Kooskia. As of today 36 homes and 67 structures have burned. Hundreds of people have been evacuated. Some friends have moved in with the families of our construction crew. You can see the news is taking an emotional toll.
A jet boat arrived bringing even more firefighters. Doug asked Heinz, the jet boat driver, if he would stay and visit for an hour while our construction crew finished up, then give them a ride up river to their vehicle so they would not have to walk four miles of trail carrying their gear. Heinz agreed. Because of the rush the crew did not really have time to clean the construction site thoroughly. It was a bit disappointing to have the place left in a mess but they were concerned about getting home and Heinz was now waiting. We said a quick goodbye and they were gone.
Back down at the Cook cabin I opened the cupboards and set things that should be moved out onto the counters and the top of the woodstove. The very heavy cast iron grilling skillet was sitting on the woodstove when I set a box of dishes on top of it because there was no more open space. Sometime later I went to move the box out to the tractor. The edge of the box caught on the skillet and as I moved the box the skillet slid off the stove and landed on my right foot. The pain was excruciating. Setting the box down I limped into the other room to sit on the bed and take off my boot. A hematoma the size of Chicago was growing on top of my foot. We had already moved the refrigerator up to the Crowe cabin so there was no ice. Doug helped me to the little ditch where I sat with my foot in the cool water for about 15 minutes; then he helped me to the tractor and took me up to the Crowe cabin. Firefighters were assisting in moving the appliances and the bed. Once the bed was in place I lay down on it with ice on my foot. It wasn’t looking any better.
Brent Sawyer, the fire boss, asked Doug if he should send up one of his EMTs and I agreed. A very sweet young man named Andrew came and looked at my foot. I was thinking, hoping really, that it was just badly bruised. The pain now seemed to be mostly from the swelling, which was considerable…an egg-sized lump. He made note of the area that was swollen and then wrapped it for me. The pain was not so bad now as long as I did not try to move it, stand on it, or walk on it. I said I thought it was just badly bruised. He said he would check on it in the morning.
Things were in chaos. We were up at the Crowe cabin. Practically everything we needed was in boxes strewn around the floor or down at the Cook cabin. I lay on the bed with my foot elevated and iced. Doug brought me two Ibuprofen and a vodka but he was mostly engaged in writing fire updates for the partners, the F/S fire personal, and Facebook. Around 9:30 he started cooking dinner. I was just grateful that I did not have to cook it myself.
After dinner I took my first bath in my new bathtub. This was not as celebratory as I had spent weeks imagining it to be. The Vitabath that Doug had bought me so sweetly was still on the dresser at the Cook cabin and everything was in disarray. We had managed to make the bed with clean sheets and I fell into it gratefully. Through the windows of our new bedroom I could see the fire burning through the forest on the hill behind the barn.
By morning the swelling on my foot was not as high but had spread all across the top. The pain was worse. We decided that we should fly out to have it x-rayed, debating whether we should wait for two days and fly out on the mail plane. In the end we contacted Arnold Aviation to see if they had a flight coming into the canyon today. Unfortunately we had just missed connecting with Walt, who had flown into Alison Ranch earlier. We chartered a flight anyway. Whatever was wrong with my foot was now going to cost us an additional $880 for a round-trip charter – talk about adding insult to injury!
While waiting for the flight, Doug busied himself cleaning up around the construction site, hauling things to the barn and to the burn pile. At 2 PM when no flight had come in, I contacted Carol who replied that Walt had left to come in and that the last contact she had with him was at 12:40 at Yellow Pine Bar. We deduced that Walt had found it too smoky to attempt a landing. Fortunately, a down canyon wind started to blow and the air cleared up. About 30 minutes later we heard Walt overhead.
The flight out was bumpy and the air was very smoky, not good visibility at all. The mountains we flew through were vague, soft, undecided – ghost mountains – looking both insubstantial and menacing at the same time. Nervously, I held on to the bottom of the seat to keep from bouncing around too much. It was not the worst flight we have had but it was up there in the top 10%.
After landing in Cascade, we drove to McCall, arriving at 4:45 PM. Fortunately (and surprisingly) the ER put me in a room immediately. Katie (nurse) came in and filled out the forms with me and took my blood pressure. It was high! “Well”, I said, “We are in the process of moving while a forest fire is burning all around our place and 21 firefighters are on the scene. I am in pain and we have just flown out of the backcountry through smoke and turbulence, then driven up here in a hurry. I think I have a right to my hypertension.” Katie agreed. The ER staff was intrigued by this story.
Before long the x-ray technician brought the machine to me and x-rayed my foot from several angles. The doctor came by to look at the foot, then left to look at the x-rays. When she came back she said, “Well, you really did a number on those toes.” The bones in the first joints (between my metatarsal joint and the second joint) were crushed in my third and fourth toes on my right foot. She had already sent the x-rays to an orthopedic specialist and consulted with him. Fortunately, I guess, there was not too much to be done. They set me up with a support shoe, thankfully not a cast, and a pair of crutches. The shoe is hideous but I’ll bet that does not stop it from being expensive… I’ll find out when I get the bill. You could probably buy a pair of Jimmy Choos for what that one ugly shoe costs. I am supposed to wear it for 5 weeks, sit with my foot elevated and iced as much as possible. Doug left to get the car but I heard him chatting in the hallway with the staff, telling them to Google Campbell’s Ferry. Evidently they did. Katie came back to tell me that her husband Tom (whom I had met the first day of the fire) was one of the fire crew working our fire! Talk about a small world! Doug took her photograph.
Doug called Walt to tell him we would be back in Cascade at 7 PM for a return flight. Fortunately the flight back in was much smoother, although heavier smoke had moved back over the Ferry. Walt did two passes, landing on the third at 8:30 PM. Without wasting any time he was back in the air again, winging his way home. I hobbled to the tractor and, with Doug’s help, managed to hoist myself up on the hood for the ride downhill. Back at the cabin, Doug brought me a vodka with ice, which I drank sitting on the bed with my foot propped up and wrapped in ice. I figured icing the inside would help just as much as icing the outside, especially as vodka was involved. Doug walked down to report on our trip and show Tom the photograph of the cute young woman he had met at the ER in McCall.
Days 6 – 14:
The firefighters were with us for another eight days. It was nice for them to have Campbell’s Ferry for a base camp while they watched the fire up and down river. Here they had a flat place to pitch their tents, close access to potable water, a quick walk down to the river to clean up, shade from the walnut tree and fruit trees in the orchard, and (Bonus!) ripe fruit on the peach, pear and apple trees. Never mind that the bears were also in the orchard after the fruit. Firefighters often find themselves assigned to some forsaken mountaintop where there is no water and no flat area to sleep. Here, they were able to come in and go out via helicopter or jet boat, no need to bushwhack through miles of brush. Anytime they were not working the fire they asked, “Is there anything we can help you with around here?” They cut back brush around the buildings, helped Doug move both outhouses (ugh!) and take down the wall tent we had set up for our construction crew. They were great to have around!
The fire that started on our mountain has now burned over 5,000 acres. Occasionally at night I will see a spot of flame glowing in the distance. The druids and gnomes have moved off through the woods, their torches mostly out of sight. What remains is the smoke. It is a little like living in Brigadoon, isolated by smoke instead of clouds. We feel the smoke in our throats and taste it in our water. Much of the time we cannot see the trees on the other side of the river. The sun and moon are the color of neon tangerines in a dull grey sky. Everything is muted. In the end the fire was beneficial. Some trees will die but there is now open space under the forest, making it much safer from future fires and more beautiful. We wait for rain.