I remember being frightened, but I don’t think I was ever as afraid as I should have been.
Started fighting and covering wild fires in about 1973, first on casual crews out of the Forest Service station at Jerseydale, then for whoever would pay me to go watch and report back. So, mostly then it was humungous campaign fires, the ones that totally blew out to burn down subdivisions and this and that thousand acres of timber. Fires you could see from ten miles away when bowls of fire popped out of a ridge. Not the scary part.
If you’ve been smoked by a campfire or fireplace sometime and done that hold-your-breath-and-dodge thing, that’s the scary part, only on a wild fire there’s no place to dodge. The smoke suddenly blinds you and worst case there’s no information about which way to run. And it’s always steep, so not so much run as scramble. And you can’t see. Or breathe. Kind of a dry waterboarding I’d guess. Pretty bad. I never walk past a hillside of Bear Clover, as my suffering family knows, without thinking what a freaking misery it is in a fire. Just a ten-inch-tall little plant, hardly worth looking at, that produces in fire a godawful dense oily smoke. Makes my throat catch to remember it at all.
So this survival thing is operating and you have a moment later to recall how totally useless survival instinct can be. You can drop, if you think about it, because smoke does tend to rise and there is sometimes breathable air below knee level. If not, instinct or no, you’re either gonna get lucky or get hurt. That’s about it. Real survival in fires depends on planning ahead and being careful. These are not particularly practices that get good TV pictures. In TV land you run toward the fire. That’s what you do.
Campaign fires, three or four thousand people on the fire lines, military style campgrounds to feed and rest them. A small airforce worth of planes and helicopters. On a fire on the Ventana Wilderness I met the accountant who helicoptered around daily to the four fire campgrounds to collect pay records so checks could be cut in a timely manner. He was part of what they call ‘overhead’. Management. The fire was fifty miles long and burned above the Big Sur coast
Dave Fix and I walked down a dirt road on the King City side of the Ventana fire one afternoon looking for pictures for the TV people back in San Francisco. Hot day, fire crews on trucks passing us as we headed downhill. We walked for a few more minutes. Then trucks wildly backing up the hill again, guys yelling, some running back up. The fire had blown out, very suddenly, in fifty foot tall fingers flashing as bushes and trees, preheated as the fire moved toward us, exploded. Fix and I ran, as the saying goes, for our lives, two more yellow shirts carrying gear, gasping up the dirt track ahead of a blaze that was running faster than we were.
There is also a noise. In the campfire you can hear the pops as little pockets of heated gas ignite. I am indebted to John McPhee for the chemistry of fires, how the carbon molecules in wood shift and reconnect to form different gases – including, at certain conditions and temperatures – gasoline. And there’s a breath of steam, moisture in the cambium layer of the wood being turned to steam and boiling away in the air. Nice in a campfire. Horrific in a wild fire where the pops are explosions as mature trees, heated by the fire itself in environments where the fire is also consuming oxygen, heated to hundreds of degrees until it blows up, the exploding steam tearing the truck apart, burning top to bottom in an instant. In a large fire that happens to many trees at more or less the same time making a sound that, generally, if you are close enough to hear it, you are in trouble.
There is an expression: where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire. But what I remember is that when you were running from fire, the smoke wasn’t the problem.