On Wednesday night I was glued to Facebook—not because I was catching up with the latest antics of my friends’ children or weighing in about the Democratic convention, but because the hills east of my old farm were on fire.
Like many places in the western United States, the Columbia River Gorge gets bone-dry in the summer. So dry that all outdoor burning is banned until the rains return. No campfires, no bonfires, no burn piles. If you use a charcoal grill you put it in the middle of your driveway and you have a hose at the ready.
Why so stringent? Because the Gorge has the perfect combination of conditions to host massive, fast-moving fires: lots of dry grasses and timber; nearly constant wind; steep terrain. Once a fire gets going, it can take days to stop it.
When I lived in the Gorge, such a fire started near the railroad tracks, at river level, south of Underwood. It climbed the bluff that rose 1,000 feet so fast that people who lived at the top barely made it down the hill with their lives. I recall a couple of anecdotes from the local newspaper: one from a woman who threw her kids in her rig and had to negotiate the road’s curves from memory because the smoke had completely obliterated her visibility.
Another interview was with a guy who had been waiting to see if he actually needed to evacuate (there are always holdouts in these situations). He put a few things in his car as the fire came closer. I remember the quotation in the newspaper being something like, “I was going back in the house for more stuff, when the oak tree in my back yard exploded. I decided it was time to leave.”
In Get Your Pitchfork On!, I talk about how difficult it is to get breaking news in these situations. Most people these days turn to social media to communicate to each other, usually Facebook or Twitter. On Wednesday night I sat, transfixed, as different friends up and down the White Salmon River Valley posted updates and photographs.
My friend Jeff, who lives north of Husum and has become something of a one-man news outlet for valley residents, took this shot on Wednesday evening while driving in a small group of cars that were being escorted through the fire zone. On Facebook, he wrote, “This was a tree that was crowning (official fire speak for ‘going up like a roman candle’) only about 10 feet off the highway.”
The next photograph was particularly unnerving to me. Shot by my former neighbor, Emily, it showed just how close the fires were to my old farm. The building in the lower right of the photo was the old shop on our property, which we affectionately called “The Shack.”
Even though Highway 141 lies between our old property and the burning hills, and our place wasn’t in imminent danger, thinking of it burning made me cry. The beautiful cedars and firs. The gazebo friends helped Mike and me build from logs in our woodlot. The chickens in the barn. It felt like losing our land all over again.
Four days later, the fire has scorched approximately 1,600 acres but is pretty much under control. Crews have defended every home in the area. It’s not over, but so far, so good. The fire’s source has not yet been determined though it was definitely human-caused, meaning anything from someone dragging a muffler on the pavement, to bored teenagers with a lighter, to a firefighter wanting to create a little job security.
As I write this, a new fire (started the old-fashioned way, by lightning) is taking off 20 miles further north, near Trout Lake …