If you live on a peak in fire-prone country, as I do every summer in the Black Range of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, the big one will eventually come for you. This knowledge does not cushion the fact that if you’re a lookout evacuated by helicopter you can’t help but feel a failure. The point of the job is early detection: the sooner a smoke is spotted, the more options you give firefighters to contain it. When you’re airlifted by the whirlybird, the options have dwindled to none but run.
I realize self-quotation is a dishonorable habit, but it sounds a little smug to say I saw it coming and leave it at that. The fact is, a lot of people saw it coming. All you had to do was read the story written plainly on the faces of the mountains.
In Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout, published two years ago, I wrote the following:
The one area of the Black Range still starved of fire is the country running from my lookout south to the forest boundary … In my time on the mountain I’ve seen crews suppress at least a half dozen fires that could have grown huge to my south if left to burn. The consensus now, from the district ranger on down through the firefighters and even to us lowly lookouts, it that this corner of the forest is going to burn, has to burn, one of these years. It’s only a matter of how and when. Maybe we’ll get lucky with a late-season smoke that hangs on through cool weather and even light rains, burning calmly for weeks, chewing up the deadfall and duff on the ground, torching through occasional dog-hair thickets of pine and fir, and leaving the mature forest partially intact. On the other hand, when the big one comes in this part of the world, the stage is more likely to be set by high winds, hot summer weather, and low humidity—followed by ignition from dry lightning or the careless human hand. A fire that can’t be caught by anything but rain, no matter the manpower thrown at it.”
The book was based on the fire season of 2009. It took four years, but the big one finally came in the form of the Silver Fire, named for Silver Creek. It began the first Friday of June with a dry lightning strike five miles southwest of me. I saw the flash, a livid silver filament that left an imprint on my eyelids, and I noted the blue puff of smoke from the superheated sap of the tree. Within a minute a feather of white rose, and a minute later I called dispatch with my smoke report.
I knew right away that this one was trouble. The country immediately surrounding the fire was heavily forested with pine and beetle-killed fir. The trees were painfully dry, fuel moistures having been sapped by drought and above-average temperatures. The forecast called for continued hot, windy weather in the days ahead. All the smokejumpers—the best option for putting firefighters in hard-to-reach places—had already been dispatched to two fires that day, so none were available. Instead two engine crews drove as far as they could on a rough dirt road, then hiked to the top of a ridge to begin digging line. By the time they got there the fire had grown to an acre, about the size of a football field. They worked for six hours to scrape a line around the fire, containing it at an acre and a half, but the slope was so steep that big old conifers kept toppling and rolling and lighting new spot fires below them, putting them in serious danger. I listened in on their communications until after midnight. In the end they had no choice but to flee for their lives.
The next day two hot-shot crews scouted the fire but found no reliable escape routes or safety zones; all the attributes of a tragedy fire were present, of the kind that would take the lives of nineteen hot shots in Arizona before the month was out, the worst death toll for wildland firefighters on a single blaze in eighty years.
With no safe means of combatting the fire on the ground, the show moved to the air. Four slurry tankers made drops all afternoon of the second day, 50,000 gallons of retardant, another 30,000 gallons of water. The goal was to box in the fire and tame it enough to let ground crews engage. It didn’t work. That night I stood in the meadow on top of my peak and watched as the flames slowly chewed their way through the retardant lines, rising into the dark like lava boiling uphill. The fire was still only seventy acres, but the only question now was whether the entire mountain range would burn, or whether some portion of it would be spared.
Late on the morning of day three a running crown fire took off in the canopy as the wind pushed the flames upslope. A couple hundred acres burned in the span of an hour; trees torched like Roman candles in flame lengths of two hundred feet, and black smoke billowed as if from a fissure in the roof of hell. The order to evacuate came just after lunch. I was told I had half an hour to grab the possessions dearest to me, turn off the propane line to the cabin, lock the lookout tower, and board a chopper for the ride to the trailhead, where my truck was parked directly in the path of the fire. I left with a backpack full of clothes, the manuscript of a book in progress, a cooler full of perishable food, and a small box of books. The rest I could live without, if it came to that.
Over the course of more than a decade of summers I’d sat in my fifty-foot tower and whiled away a thousand days and nights, but to see the country from a bird’s perspective astonished me anew, even as I felt helpless to protect it. As the chopper rumbled toward the pass, I lookout out the window upon a forbidding and beautiful landscape, scored by canyons dropping sharply from the the crest of the range, marked by shark-fin ridges and brutal bluffs, a forest of Douglas fir and white pine on the highest peaks, ponderosa on the south-facing slopes, aspen on the north, a scattering of oak. Some of the Doug fir were older than the republic, and certain aspens were marked by initials carved almost a century ago in their chalky white bark. Scattered here and there were survivor trees corkscrewed by lightning; others showed the scars of ancient ground fires on their bark. They’d weathered howling winds and hail storms, searing heat and bitter cold, but they were soon to be consumed by a force they could not withstand. It sounds hokey, I know, but some of them had become like friends to me. I tried to fix them in my imagination, even as I bid them good-bye.
When we landed I removed my flight helmet and watched the smoke rise and spin like a cyclone, a pulsing vortex of unimaginable heat. Ash fell like snow on the hood of my truck, and after the chopper lifted off the guttural growl of the fire could be heard a mile away.
Over the next month it moved across more than two hundred square miles, my peak smack in the middle of its eventual outline. Crews lit back fires to save the town of Kingston on the forest boundary, and before the flames reached my mountain the cabin was wrapped in fireproof foil. On one particularly apocalyptic day near the end of June, the fire consumed more than 10,000 acres in a matter of hours, producing a smoke plume that rose 39,000 feet in the air. It was capped by a pyrocumulous cloud from which could be heard the rumble of thunder, the fire having created its own weather cell. Charred oak leaves fluttered to the ground as far away as twenty miles.
A few days after my airlift out, days I spent photocopying maps and delivering meals to hungry firefighters, I came home to an e-mail from a friend: “Driven from your perch, eh?” it said. “You are famous around town.” It goes without saying that there are better ways to become locally famous than to be plucked from a landscape you love while it goes up in smoke. Most of the places sacred to me on earth have been radically transformed since then, and they won’t be the same in what remains of my life: aspen-spangled ridges where I followed in the footsteps of bears, high-mountain coulees where wild irises grew like delicate secrets, spring-fed streams alive with the movements of trout. In the weeks that followed my evacuation, as I watched the smoke from a different lookout thirty miles north, I reminded myself that the mountain had always known fire, was in fact born in fire, at the center of a great volcanic explosion thirty-five million years ago, an event more spectacular than even the most spectacular wildfire.
In early July the rains finally came, tentatively at first, but enough to calm the fire to a few scattered pockets of heat, most of them interior. The focus of fire crews shifted to postburn rehabilitation, and aerial drops of mulch and grass seed were planned, to mitigate the inevitable flooding now that multiple watersheds are devoid of ground cover. Soon oak and aspen will sprout from the black, wildflowers will bloom. With luck I’ll have the privilege of watching the mountain heal in the years to come, new life rising from the ashes of the old. The big one, formerly a haunting premonition, is now a scar on the land, a piece of history. The old forest lives only in memory, and some of the memories are mine.
Philip Connors lives in southern New Mexico.