Friday, March 23, 2007

Out Of The Biscuit, And Into The Frying Pan...

We’ve been involved with two major fires since moving to Southern Oregon. That whole mountain range you see burnt and being logged in the first picture was the second one.

The famous one, The Biscuit Fire, happened the second summer Mum and her husband were here. Imagine, two old and retired smokers, with Mum a huge gardener, living and breathing near an enormous fire that burned for months and attracted fire fighters from as far away as Australia…

I was living in Grants Pass at that time and I wrote about the Biscuit Fire already HERE.

Wikipedia had this to say--

"The Biscuit Fire was a wildfire that took place in 2002 that burned nearly 500,000 acres (2000 km²) in the Siskiyou National Forest in the states of Oregon and California. It was named for Biscuit Creek in southern Oregon.
The fire season in 2002 was an especially active one that started early with major fires in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, pulling resources from the Pacific Northwest. Between July 12 and July 15, a series of lightning storms occurred in California and Oregon starting hundreds of small wildfires. During this period, five such fires were started within a 20-mile radius of each other near the state border. Due to the fires already burning in other areas, insufficient numbers of fire crews and smokejumpers were available to combat these fires and they began to burn out of control. The large Florence Fire, which had started approximately 30 miles north of the border, eventually joined what was known as the Sour Biscuit Fire which was burning very close to the border. Once the massive Biscuit Fire was created, it could not be fully contained until December 31, 2002. "

Let’s just say that this fire was a huge event, like a war across a border just over the hill. Smoke and ash kept people indoors. Mum and her husband were on thirty minute evacuation notice for over a week. A big shift in wind and the fire would have crossed the highway and run right through here, right past the fire crew camp which would have been emptied of fleeing firefighters.

Mum started having her respiratory problems soon after this fire, increasing in severity through the next winter and up until today, where she still needs oxygen at night from a machine when she sleeps, and she likes to blame the fire for the reason why she got sick.

“You don’t think smoking for 30 years had anything to do with it?” (I just supposed).

“I wasn’t sick before the fire.”

(Smokers have a funny sense of what’s an acceptable amount of rationalizing, I’ve noticed over the years.)

“You didn’t stop smoking to see if you’d get better, either.”

(Mum hates my no bullshitting around the bush approach to some things. She’d much rather I was “tactful” when it comes to dealing with basic and simple truths. “You know you could be right, Mum!” That sort of thing.)

And two years passed with Mum going in to see the doctor often and going on antibiotics often, for lung infections that just kept hanging out feeding off of the cigarettes they shared with her as if breathing and smoking and coughing and spitting were all normal parts of being human in her version of earthly experiences. (It isn’t fun watching someone you love addicted to something that they KNOW is making them lie to family and be sick unto themselves. I mean, here, a nurse of 42 years was trying to tell me that cigarettes didn’t make her lungs susceptible to lung ailments knowing full well that they did.)

But I have fallen off my story. Crap! Where was I?

Oh yeah. Mum eventually developed an infection that they liked to call “triple pneumonia” at the hospital, almost died, was stuck in a nursing home etc… (STORY HERE)

By the end of June in 2005, I had sold my house in Grants Pass and had been nursing Mum as best as I could. The summer was spent with Mum not being able to walk at all, having to be helped into a wheelchair to do basic bodily functions. My brother came and stayed ten days so I could get a break (I went to my old home town and helped my sister open her business, doing all the handy stuff for her).

And then came the second fire. The one they called the Deer Creek Fire. The one that started about a thousand feet from where Mum lay in a hospital bed in her living room, inhaling steroidal medicinals through a nebulizer, watching daytime TV.

August around here was (and is) hot and dry. The grasses had all grown as tall as they were going to, and then were bleached by the heat and the lack of any moisture since maybe May or June. We called this fire season, and even thinking about running a small engine or lighting a firecracker was a life threatening offense. A spark from a lawn mower blade could take out whole mountain ranges of vegetation.

It was the time of year we all held our breaths, and hoped we made it through till the rains arrived.

In 2005, in August, two days before I was to take my girlfriend down to Santa Rosa to attend my younger step-brothers wedding, a spark ignited a small brush fire on the side of the road.

Behind our house was a large seasonal creek. On the other side of that was a large organic vineyard. About a thousand feet (maybe a little bit more) past the creek across the vineyard rows was Deer Creek Road. After Deer Creek Road, more vineyards ran up the hill opposite until they ended in a stand of conifers which was the beginning of a large tract of forest which ran all over the hills around here. Most of this has been logged at one time or another this century, making it ripe for conflagrations of the horrible sort.

Another Biscuit Fire just waiting to happen.

I was actually sitting on the back deck in a pair of shorts and flip flops and a tank top, sipping a cold Sierra Nevada that my sister had bought for me and hid in my truck while I was down helping her. I was outside, enjoying the heat, being really mellow.

A small puff of smoke caught my eye. “Even the vineyard people had no business burning this time of year,” I thought. “What the hell could they be thinking?”

When the oaks were leafed out (as they were in summer) it was hard for us to see past them. I sort of shifted around the yard trying to see who could be burning what and why, and the small puff grew into tell-tale grass fire smoke. Grey rimmed in black. I went to the back right corner of our lot and hopped the fence and tramped down into the creek and skedaddled up the dry creek bed until I could get up the other side and into the vineyards. There was definitely a grass fire-- a small one, occurring across the vineyard. All I could do was march on toward it, beer still in hand, flip flops flipping up sprays of ploughed vineyard soil, my eyes focused on what was happening, my ears starting to pick up the sounds of fire engines pulling out of the newly built station just a mile or so away out on the highway.

Good. Someone smarter than me thought to call the fire department.

I kept heading toward the fire.

Flippity floppity flippity floppity…

Across the vineyards I traveled…

I stopped and took a sip to quench my thirst.

Flippity floppity flippity floppity…

Fire trucks were pulling in and men were jerking out their gear and the small grass fire was sandwiched between two ploughed vineyards with a light covering of short and dry and sparse grass sort of growing between the rows…

I mention that because the first thing I wanted to know was whether I should be worried if the wind shifted. No. There was not enough fuel to have a fire run across the vineyard toward me. Maybe a row or two into the vineyard. That’s all.

I also mention it because the fire crews that arrived seemed hell bent on keeping the fire out of the vineyards. They lined up on both sides of the road inside of these vineyards and fought the fire as it traveled down the road.

As it traveled down the road…

That’s what I was thinking. Hey, uh… guys? You might want to get IN FRONT of that fire a bit, and stop its forward progress? Ya think? I mean, I know grapes and wine are cool and all, but the wind is pushing that fire down the sides of the road, and you guys are fighting two flanks where the fire can’t even GO. Hello? Fellas?

It was like watching a bad cartoon from a distance, in slow motion, as if it were all designed to simply test how incredulous I could get while staring at a fiasco unfolding right in front of me. The wind blew left to right. The fire crews that had arrived had lined up front and back, flanking the fire from the safety of the vineyards. The fire simply blew away from them down the road and started to widen as the vineyard on my side ended and more grass and brush began. Now the fire was a fire. Now we had a problem. I stood there dumbfounded as I watched the crews finally understand what just happened. They let the evil genie out of the bottle they had it in had they just corked it early. Now the fire was running and growing left to right, traveling and widening. It got past the vineyards on the far side of the road and started burning the big grassy field below the ranch house. Trucks all hurried up to the ranch house and “saved” it while the fire simply went around them and got into the lower stand of conifers.

“That was that“, I thought. Or no. I thought “HOLY FUCK! IT’S ALL OVER.”

The fire lit the young firs and lit them up big time. Now we had a wildland fire and there was nothing that would stop this as long as the wind was up- which it was.

At this point, I turned and headed home. This fire was going to get big and nasty and I had Mum and her husband to deal with.

Flippity floppity flippity floppity…

Flip flip flip… I started running…

I got back and told them what was going on. I grabbed my camera and went back out and took some of these photos. Helicopters soon arrived and started dipping water out of the lake, flying directly over our house and sprinkling us with drippings as they headed to the mountainside opposite us, where the fire raged out of control.

All afternoon I was in and out of the house, trying to keep Mum and her husband calm while keeping an eye on the fire. The wind blew steady, but thankfully, (for us) it was always away from us and up the massive hill.

I got on the computer and sent some emails off while all this was transpiring. I was supposed to be at a wedding and in my hometown over the weekend, and it was looking like I was going to be busy. Fire trucks roared by our house and the dogs were going nuts so I brought them in. Mum, at one point, was sitting on the toilet yelling instructions to me about what to pack. All Mum wanted was her computer and her guitars.

“What about your wheelchair?”

“Oh yeah. And my wheelchair!”

“OK Momma!”

The wind blew until it got dark. Then the fire settled down for the night and we watched it glow across the vineyards from our back yard. Since the wind was blowing away from us, I put Mum in her wheelchair and wheeled her to the corner of our yard, so she could see around the leafed-out oak trees. I brought myself a chair and the two of us fire watched for an hour as the hill glowed red.

The next day the weather changed and an inversion layer settled in and we had cooler temperatures and no wind. Eleven helicopters spent the entire day running back and forth from the lakes around here to the fire. It was a spectacle, and Mum wanted to be in the yard in her chair watching it, as long as the smoke stayed away from us.

With no wind, pretty soon Mum had to go inside and shut all the windows. I was in and out all day watching the fire, calming down the old folks, taking a few pictures and trying to find out who knew what about containment.

The miraculous weather comtinued- no wind and cooler temps- and allowed the fire to be stopped at the ridges way above us. On the third day, it was basically under control.

The next day, there was a man walking in the vineyards wearing fire inspection clothes. He turned out to be the arson and fire inspector. He was making out a report and as an eye witness, I gave him the details of how and why the fire got away. He simply shook his head in disbelief as he listened, but then spoke out of kindness towards those who volunteered to fight the fire.

“Sometimes you get so close to a thing, you can’t see what it is.”



Jeannie said...

Fascinating and somewhat terrifying to consider what could have happened.
We've had some dry summers and there are some no burning laws in effect at times up north a bit but we don't get that kind of excitement around here. Not sure I want to.

It is strange how we justify our vices. But perhaps the smoke from the fire put your Mom over the top for what she could handle - moved the inevitable up a few years. Still - if she wouldn't quit...
On the other hand my Mom quit years and years ago, had her lungs checked 5 years later and they were clear. A few years ago she moved to the city and started getting asthma (which is really bad around this area). She had asthma as a kid. The doc insists it's because of her smoking. I think it's more likely pollution and age.

ammogirl said...

I love reading your stories. Even as destructive as this one was and could have been, this reminds me of home.

btw - You were drinking a Sierra Nevada? Scott, you just went up about 30 more levels in my eyes :)

kario said...

Just letting you know you actually didn't get off track with the stuff about your Mom - (sometimes you get so close to a thing you can't see what it is).

lizza said...

That sure was scary, Scott. Fires can get really out of control; glad you and your people were safe. Masterful storytelling, as always.

On another note... there was a frog in my shower last night. 36 years I've lived and never has such a thing happened before.

Je te deteste.

Cheesy said...

Fire is my nemesis...It scares the bejesus out of me here.

Anonymous said...

This was the like the longest post EVAH!! You know I like pictures much more than words. But then again you're not blogging for ME, are you? lol

I read the book Smokejumper by Nicholas Evans. Great book. Really opened my eyes to what they go through to put it out. Plus there was some mushy romantic stuff too between the firefighters--girls & guys.

it's the little things... said...

I also read Smokejumper - and have to say that out of all the strange illnesses people manifest, people who get off on fires are the most confusing to me.
They're so dirty. And hot.

Jean said...

Reminds me of the fires we had in Florida during the summer of 1998... devastating. Came much too close for comfort, but I ended up very lucky.

Hope your mom is doing well.