Essay: Running from flames
Flames from the Pine Creek Fire outside of Bozeman, Mont., devour a hillside earlier this month. Photo by Todd Mott/U.S. Forest Service
Sept. 17, 2012
A Montana hiker, caught by a forest fire and racing for his life against the flames, serves as a proxy for fates we face.
By Alan Kesselheim
For the Daily Climate
BOZEMAN, Mont. – Late in the afternoon earlier this month Charles Worth was hiking with his dog, Brownie, down Deep Creek Trail in Montana, toward the Yellowstone River, when he noticed a churning column of smoke in front of him. Only a mile from the trailhead and his truck, he stopped to weigh his chances.
The fire was heading toward him up the drainage. A thick stand of dry timber stood between him and the smoke. He retreated to a boulder field and watched. The fire moved fast. Suddenly it was burning in the close timber. Worth had to make a move. He decided to run for it, back up the trail, hoping to gain the high divide before the fire did.
Driven towards panic by adrenalin, he knew he had to pace himself, conserving his strength. He had already spent eight hours bushwhacking through the backcountry. Now, to make the divide he had to climb another 2,000 feet in three miles. He could hear what came to be known as the Pine Creek Fire behind him, a roar whooshing through lodgepole forest, relentlessly climbing, driven by winds, fed by drought-parched fuels. Worth switchbacked steeply uphill, gaining altitude and perspective on the flames below. The mile head start he began with steadily evaporated. The divide loomed above him, agonizingly far. His legs burned with fatigue. Terror numbed his mind.
"It was not looking like a good outcome," he told me. "It became very simple. I was just another animal running for safety. Whether I'd make it was very much in question."
When Worth topped the divide, as evening came on, he was only a few hundred yards ahead of the blaze. "It was right on my heels," he remembers. Walls of flame hundreds of feet high licked at his back. The heat was volcanic. He spotted a large boulder field, free of vegetation, across the top, and ran for it, clambering into its center. There he watched as the fire crested behind him, towered high above the mountain saddle, and stalled there, without sufficient winds or fuel to drive it over the top.
In the gathering darkness, he heard animals scurrying for safety, herds of elk and deer, great flocks of birds, all reduced to the same gamble he had been. He thought of all the life that didn't escape, how close he had been to sharing their fate, how he might still succumb.
"I heard quite a lot of elk and deer chatter all around me in the darkness," he said. "Spooky stuff."
Once he reassured himself that the fire had paused at the divide, Worth began a night hike, fleeing down the other side of the mountain crest away from danger. He hiked for hours through the eerie darkness. Wind-borne embers the size of suitcases blew past him. Spot fires lit here and there. The moon rose red in the smoky sky. He could hear the conflagration bellowing in the distance, felt wafts of hot wind like furnace blasts.
"Normally I would have been pretty concerned about grizzly in there," Worth said, "but all the animals were really spooked."
Somewhere around 4 a.m., utterly exhausted, he reached the trailhead along the West Boulder River and, from there, made his way to the safety of a friend's cabin.
"I didn't feel secure until I got to that trailhead," Worth said. "And I'm not going hiking again until the snow flies."
I thought about Worth's story for days after I heard it. His tale is more than a metaphor for that dance we play with nature. It stands as the real and concrete truth. Yes, Worth's adventure was dramatic, an extraordinary event, but isn't it what we are all doing, wherever we live: Running from the consequences of decades of environmental abuse?
For generations our actions have been pushing the warming climate, melting Greenland and the polar ice caps, shifting ocean currents and wind patterns, creating underground instability by pumping pressurized water and chemicals into rock layers. The consequences aren't always clear or straightforward. But the alarming crescendo of environmental outbursts is. Fires, floods, tornados, and record-breaking weather fill daily papers around the globe; catastrophes have become ordinary.
I thought of people huddled in basements and closets, cowering before swarms of tornadoes in Oklahoma. I thought of the residents of Alaska and eastern Europe, last winter, buried under unprecedented snowdrifts, roofs collapsing and avalanches pouring downhill. I thought of the effort to fortify New Orleans against storm surge, of cornfields withering, aquifers shrinking, the Mississippi flooding one year and so low the next that barges can't navigate, of tundra draining, islands disappearing.
I thought of the future, the world my children are inheriting. There, the extraordinary caprices of weather and natural calamity may be a feature of everyday life. When the next generation chooses places to live or work, in addition to the amenities and lifestyle formulas, they will have to factor in the oceans creeping towards them, or fires swooping across the valley, or the likely path of tornadoes, or the insidious effects of thawing permafrost.
Weeks later, with the Pine Creek blaze smouldering and buzzards gathering in huge flocks, I remain haunted by the image of Charles Worth racing uphill with his dog, heat scorching his back, smoke filling his lungs; and the company of other creatures, each as desperate as he, each reduced to that essential, unequivocal drive.
That, and the uneasy sense that each of us shares the same fate, even as we live our quotidian existence within the mirage of safety.
© Alan Kesselheim, 2012. All rights reserved
Photos (from top): Smoke from two nearby wildfires blots out the mountains around Bozeman, Mont. in September, 2012, courtesy Damien/flickr. The Pine Creek Fire burned five houses and several outbuildings its first day (Warren Bielenberg/U.S. Forest Service) and as of Sept. 17, 2012 remained 51 percent contained (Karen Tuscano/U.S. Forest Service).
Alan Kesselheim is a frequent contributor to DailyClimate.org. He lives in Bozeman, Mont. DailyClimate.org is a nonprofit news-service that covers climate change. Views expressed in opinions and essays are the author's and not those of DailyClimate.org.
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