The Wildfire That Wasn't

It wasn't long ago that I loved the smell of wood smoke. It smelled like camping trips with friends and family, like relaxation and refuge. That feels like a long time ago now.

I've lived in Oregon for over 20 years, and have spent a fair amount of that time out enjoying my adopted state's legendary wilderness. So it's not surprising that I've seen my share of wildfire. I've seen the glow on the horizon, wiped ash from my car's windshield, and on one particularly memorable occasion, a fire outside of Bend licked the edges of the highway as I drove nervously by. But this week was the first time I've ever seen a wildfire actually start.

Before we knew how bad Covid was going to get, my wife and I bought a little spot of land out in the Coast Range. It's five acres of blackberry brambles and hay field spotted here and there with alders and Sitka spruce. The land is practically unbuildable because of its tendency to flood in winter when the Siletz River rises, but it has been an absolute sanctuary for me in these scary times, a place to watch birds, camp under the stars, and just generally hide from the world.

I just watched it very nearly burn down.

I don't know what started the fire. I was talking with a neighbor as he worked to cut and bale the hay, a service he provides in exchange for the hay to feed his cows. Being a part-time resident and not a tractor owner, it's as good a deal for me as I hope it is for him. We both saw it at the same time, a billowing ball of dark smoke rising from the kitty-corner back neighbor's field. Soon, the smoke was headed our way, and with it, that unmistakable smell.

Lincoln County has been under a burn ban for months, and for good reason. It's been another hot, dry summer in a region where those conditions, rare when I first arrived, are quickly becoming the summer norm. Although Covid restrictions have been met with a wide variety of responses from mild annoyance to outright defiance, the fear of and respect for wildfire mostly transcends politics, and everyone I've talked to in the Siletz River valley has expressed the same understanding of the burn ban. They may not like it, but they like worrying about their house burning down even less.

Within minutes, there was orange flame visible through the smoke. The image we've all been programmed to fear, a circular fire edge eating away the dry brown landscape, was suddenly right there before our eyes. Normally, I would have already been on the phone to 9-1-1, but the very thing that makes my sanctuary so peaceful and isolated turned instantly into a liability—no cell phone reception.

I ran out to the road, hoping to flag down a passerby and ask them to call it in. That didn't take long. The first car I saw stopped even before I had time to wave at it, pulled up next to me, and said "That field's on fire." I gave them the 20-second version of what had happened so far and set them on their way to report it as soon as they could get back into range.

Meanwhile, there was very good and very bad news from the fire itself. The scent of burning was gone. The wind, initially right in our faces as we looked at the growing black scar on the landscape, had shifted. It wasn't coming at us anymore—good news for us. Now it was headed back away from the river, and up into the densely wooded hills—potentially very bad news for the whole area. The couple of neighbors that had gathered to watch and try to direct the fire responders agreed that if it made that tree line, things were about to get much worse.

And it could have been much worse than it was. Luckily, the property may be remote in terms of distance from any population center, but not far at all from the closest fire station. The reason you've never heard of this fire is a stellar response from the Siletz and Lincoln County fire departments. The trucks barrelled in and immediately started limiting the fire's growth, dowsing the blackened field and getting ahead of it on the tree-covered hill.

In the West, we know the names of the big fires. Just speaking a name like Camp, Biscuit, and now Dixie can quiet a room to a worried whisper. What we don't see are the hundreds, probably thousands of small flare-ups that never get big, because they are handled at their source. This one in particular, hitting as it did on an especially dry time, right on the edge of grassland and dense hilly forest, could have been a disaster. It had room to run, and several rural communities in its path would have faced evacuation or worse if it would have been allowed to flourish. As it was, the only mention I can find of it is this two-paragraph blurb on a Lincoln County news site.

We need to rethink our relationship to fire in the American West. We need to return to a fire regime like that managed by the Indigenous people of this region for thousands of years—small fires, carefully tended. But in August and September in this new, dry Northwest, there is no safe flame, especially in a place with scattered homes in dense second-growth wood. In places like this, in conditions like these, we don't get the luxury of being strategic. All we can do is buy time until the next rain.

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