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MailTribune.com
  • This fire season seems like a special kind of hell

  • Smoke shrouded the tops of the tall trees as we crept along Lower Wolf Creek Road west of Wolf Creek early last week.
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  • Smoke shrouded the tops of the tall trees as we crept along Lower Wolf Creek Road west of Wolf Creek early last week.
    It was eerie, like being caught in a horror movie in which a fearsome monster lurks in the deep woods, waiting to pounce on hapless passers-by.
    The fiend in this case was on both sides of the road. You couldn't see it for the smoke, but you knew it was out there somewhere.
    Waiting.
    On the north side was the restless Douglas Complex fire; to the south the aptly named Brimstone fire.
    Either would suffice, as poet Robert Frost would have succinctly put it.
    Riding shotgun was MT photographer Jamie Lusch. We were reporting on the fire and smoke that has been an intrusive visitor to our little corner of the world since the July 26 dry-lightning storm.
    Not wanting to get in the way of firefighters doing their jobs while we do ours, we checked with local officials before moving out.
    Fire engines were poised along the way with their structure fire crews, ready to defend homes if the fiery monster roared nearby.
    No homeowners were to be seen. Most of them likely already had been evacuated, aware of the fires' deadly potential. Aside from the firefighters, there wasn't a soul around.
    The acrid smell of smoke from a nearby fire coupled with the grim faces of the firefighters brought back memories of fire scenes I've witnessed over the past 30 year while covering wildfires from Alaska to California.
    That included big wildfires in the Alaskan bush. The fire would retreat into the thick caribou moss when it rained only to pop up again when the sun returned.
    Then there was 100,000-plus acre 1987 Silver Complex fires here in southwest Oregon, which featured crown fires torching whole stands.
    The deadliest was the 1991 Oakland Hills fire in California, which raced up the hills, a virtual blowtorch razing homes and trees alike, killing 25 people.
    The largest was the 2002 Biscuit fire, which scorched some half-million acres, including a portion of the Silver fire burn. The Biscuit seemed to burn forever.
    But the scariest for me — the one that got personal — was the 3,000-acre Squires Peak fire in the upper Applegate Fire in mid-July 2002. That ill-mannered blaze forced us to evacuate our humble home in the Sterling Creek drainage south of Jacksonville.
    Ash began raining down, followed by blackened yet unburned madrone leaves drifting upon the wind. The leaves appeared to have been stripped from trees, testifying to the power of the approaching fire's updraft.
    A structure firefighter arrived to advise us to leave in short order. He told us to wet down what we could with the garden hose, then leave our ladder against the roof so firefighters could use it.
    There are few things that make you feel as helpless as a wildfire approaching your home. What to take, what to leave. The first thing, of course, are the pets, followed by important papers, photographs and a few clothes. The rest of your accumulated material quickly becomes immaterial.
    Overhead, the airborne cavalry came in the form of air tankers dropping retardant and helicopters carrying huge buckets of water the size of small swimming pools.
    On the ground were the ground-pounders in hand-to-hand combat with the fire, while structure firefighters stood guard on the home front. Our neighbors pitched in by firing up their bulldozer to build a fire line. Each played a vital role in the Wagnerian drama.
    When the smoke had cleared, the fire had burned some 20 acres of our neighbor's property, stopping just short of our 45-acre parcel.
    Since then, we have made second careers out of creating a defensible space around our home. We have thinned trees, cleared brush and cut the tall grass.
    Still, I know that a crown fire fanned by a strong afternoon wind would make short work of our home, consuming it in minutes.
    As I drove through the thick smoke last week it seemed to me this fire season feels the most threatening of any yet experienced.
    Perhaps that's because of the time we've been immersed in smoke. This summer's weather is starting to feel like that of a nuclear winter.
    My lungs burn as though I've smoked a carton of Camels. Non-filter.
    Indeed, all those years have having never smoked have gone up in smoke, pun intended.
    And it feels different because veteran firefighters I respect — folks such as Brian Ballou, Don Ferguson, Howard Hunter and Jim Whittington — warn it will take some help from Mother Nature in the form of rain put out all the fires now burning.
    This native webfoot can't wait to splash in the autumn rains.
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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