26 June 2007

Fire time

In May I wrote about a brief encounter:

“...when I asked a middle-aged local firefighter with a shaved head about the fire-danger situation in my county while we were both in line at the office supply store, he fixed me with a solemn gaze and said, ‘It’s bad. The fuels are as bone-dry right now as they normally get in July. It’s the worst it’s ever been.’ “

I knew that we were facing a potentially terrible summer fire season, but I hadn’t heard yet just how bad it was. In years past, I’ve always known well ahead of time, because as the editor of a paper in a small community surrounded by parched live oak forests, chaparral and vast, tinder-dry grassy hills, I was in frequent contact with the local fire chief. I’ve covered a lot of wildfires over the years. I’ve watched them burn on the hills a quarter-mile from the newspaper’s parking lot. I’ve melted the soles of my soles walking across the blackened, smoky earth in the aftermath of a hot grass fire, and I’ve seen rabbits darting ahead of the flames in air filled with choking soot, smoke and insects.

The Sierra snowpack was only 29 percent of normal when they measured it for the last time of the season on May 1. My two weeks of snowy glee in February were lovely, but not nearly enough rain or snow fell during the fall and winter months. Without the snowpack and the spring and early summer snowmelt, which soaks the earth and fills the streams, rivers and reservoirs, the Sierras dry up like a slice of white bread left out overnight.

Early yesterday morning I noticed that the light coming in the windows was oddly dim. I wondered if there were storm clouds gathering. I hadn’t heard about any rainy weather in the forecast (it very, very rarely rains in summertime here) but I was ready to be pleased about such a nice surprise, as long as the storm passed through without lightning which could start fires.

Anticipating a sky full of clouds and cool air, I went outside. But there were no clouds. It was already warm and the sky was milky blue, filled with was that strange, muted light.

Then I smelled smoke. Fire. It was smoke from a fire smothering the sun. I wondered where it was burning. I selfishly hoped it was far away.

A few hours later I finally got around to watching Al Gore’s stunning documentary on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” with Mr. Wren. If you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest that you take the time. I was already a believer, but the film convinced me that we absolutely must stop sending greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere – now -- if we hope for our children and their children to live in anything close to the beautiful world we enjoy today.

A few minutes after watching “An Incovenient Truth” I learned that there was, indeed, a fire burning in the region. It wasn’t too close, but it also wasn’t too far away. The Angora Fire, as it’s been dubbed, started Sunday afternoon just a few miles from South Lake Tahoe. Many neighborhoods in the little town of Meyers, just 46 miles up the highway from here, are now literally smoldering ruins. As I write this, approximately 253 structures, many of them homes, have been damaged or destroyed. Around 1,000 people have been evacuated. Ash floats like black sludge along the pristine shores of Lake Tahoe and the air is hazed thick with smoke.

No one has been injured or killed in the fire so far, and with luck, no one will be. But according to the spokesperson for the county sheriff’s department, fire personnel and sheriff’s deputies haven’t been able to get in to all the areas burned yet to check on people, so that good news could change.

The wildfire started on a ridge above Fallen Leaf Lake. The area is popular with hikers and runners, located at the edge of the magnificent, rugged Desolation Wilderness and only a few miles from Lake Tahoe itself. Fire investigators are fairly certain the blaze was human-started, though they don’t know if it was accidental or not. It flared up at first on Sunday at around 2:30 p.m. as a small brush fire, but was quickly out of control, whipped into a terrifying firestorm by winds gusting up to 35 mph and very low humidity.

I’ve hiked the area burned in the fire. I’ve eaten lunch from my backpack while sitting on a gray granite boulder next to the small, lovely Fallen Leaf Lake. I listened to the birds sing while the breeze rustled in the trees and trout broke the clear surface of the water, hunting midges. It’s a peaceful, beautiful and serene place.

Fire officials called the Angora fire a “crown fire” on Sunday, meaning that it was spreading across the crowns of trees, blown fast by the wind. Hot embers also flung the fire out along the ground, catching dry snags, deadfalls and vegetation. The roaring flames moved which such speed and the smoke became so dense that firefighting aircraft couldn’t attack the fire with any real success. And because the terrain is so steep, remote and harsh, firefighting personnel on foot and with heavy apparatus and ground breaking equipment could do little except try to control the perimeters of the wildfire and attempt to warn those living in its path and save what property they could.

On Monday, firefighting personnel and aircraft were able to battle the blaze with more success because the winds died down. By last night, they’d fought the fire to 40 percent containment, which is miraculous given the terrain and dry fuels. According to InciWeb, they hope to have the fire completely contained by Sunday, July 1.

The weather is supposed to remain calm and a little cooler today, which gives the nearly 2,000 firefighters who’ve come from all over the West to fight this one fire just one more day to put it out. Tomorrow the hot, blustery, powder-dry winds are expected to return.

I’m not worried that the spectacular, frightening Angora Fire will be a threat here at the Wren’s Nest. It’s too far away. As disastrously tragic as it’s been already in terms of property loss and human consequences – many people have lost everything – the wildfire has consumed less than 5 square miles of mountainous forest land.

So far.

What really concerns me is that my little town – and in fact, all of California -- is just as tinder-dry as South Lake Tahoe. After the driest winter since 1988, the whole state is already a matchbox, there are months of scorching hot summer days still ahead, and fire season doesn’t end until the autumn rains begin in late October.

If they do.

Our leaders here in the U.S. act as if global warming isn’t very serious. Well, it’s high time they wake up and smell the smoky air.

Note: The photo is of Fallen Leaf Lake, courtesy of George Wharton James, author of the Project Gutenberg e-book “Lake of the Sky”, which was first published in 1915. You can read it here.


Dragon Laugh said...

Worrisome stuff. Wish I lived underwater.

Madison Guy said...

Different kind of fire: “I respect the jury’s verdict,” George Bush said, speaking oxymoronically as he announced his soon-to-be-notorious Monday Night Massacre of justice. This is no misdemeanor, it's a high crime. It's time to move impeachment to the front burner and turn up the heat.