Tag Archives: wildfire

¡Fire in the Barn!

Our barn was beautiful. It had a good shape; it was nicely weathered. It perched on the edge of the level building site and loomed over the lower third of our land, which dropped quickly toward the White Salmon River. People took their pictures in front of it when they visited. A woman my spouse knew, named Alicia, even wanted to shoot a music video there in the summer of 2009 for a band called The Builders and the Butchers.

Picturesque barn in the morning sun!

Picturesque in the morning sun!

The sticky part was that we’d already accepted an offer on our place—we were moving out in just a couple of weeks. But we liked the band, so we agreed. Mike told them, “You can do anything you want; just don’t burn down the barn.” This was no idle proviso: summer’s crispy-dry conditions and strong winds necessitated an annual burn-ban in our county. This meant no open flame of any kind.

The shoot was a serious affair—costuming, props, food services and the whole shebang! Our urban guests were considerate but did not appreciate the gravity of the fire situation. One spark from those leaky, antique kerosene lanterns would have leveled the barn, the fields and possibly the entire valley in minutes. I liked the band’s music but had never met them personally. They were all dressed up like gothic gangsters and looked pretty formidable.

On a post-shoot walkabout on Saturday, Mike and I found cigarette butts in the field. I didn’t sleep very well that night, racked with anxiety. The next morning, there was a stern all-staff meeting before shooting could resume.

In the end, nothing burned down. During the scene in the barn in which they’re starting to fight and the lantern wobbles a bit on the table, I shudder, but it all worked out. Some behind-the-scenes side notes:

  • When the fellas are entering the barn, there are ten chickens roosting just off camera.
  • I have to hand it to the Vivian Girls (in the yellow dresses) for sprinting up the hill toward the barn—it was really steep!
  • The duckweed-encrusted pond near which that troll lives is the one I talk about a few times in Get Your Pitchfork On!—the one that once held trout and that was threatening to flood during our springtime “water events.”

I’m glad we invited them out, because it gave us a chance to get to know the members of the band and of the production crew, many of whom are still friends! I hope it doesn’t ruin The Builders’ reputation as badasses to say that they are super-nice guys. Here’s the video; enjoy a peek at our old barn!

“Golden and Green” http://vimeo.com/5647546

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Wild Fire

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.”

Photo by Jeff Lemley

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.”

Photo by Emily Wanner

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 …

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