I love me a good forest fire. Now, before you go all Adderall on me, let me explain.
First of all, forest fires are a perfectly natural and, as if happens, necessary part of the forest ecosystem. They control the fuel supply by keeping brush down and using up dead wood. If you don’t let a forest clean itself like that, a particularly dry season can mean catastrophe. (See: California, any summer) Plus, certain trees and plants need high temperatures to release their seeds and sow new life. It’s only recently in Earth’s history that human stupidity has overwhelmed natural causes as the primary incendiary. Okay, enough NPR.Second of all, forest fires smell awesome. Their scent is singular. It’s hard to describe but once you’ve experienced it on a regular basis, you’ll never forget it. I can detect the scent of a forest fire in minute particulate amounts with alarming accuracy. Brush fires don’t smell like them, campfires don’t smell like them, garbage dumps, fireplaces, and hippies fresh from Burning Man don’t smell like them. They have a unique chemical profile all their own.
I love that smell. When Denver, Colorado, was so thick with smoke in 2002 that the local news was warning asthmatics to cower in their basements and jam moist towels under their doors, I was throwing open my windows in my third floor walk-up so my furniture could marinate in the flavor. Yeah, I’m that person. When I come back from camping, I don’t wash that jacket for a week. If they ever invent a men’s cologne that mimics Douglas fir woodsmoke….Ahem.
The smell of a forest fire came to signify for me the opening season of 14er hiking in Colorado, my reason for living in the 90s. The routes to those summits finally melted clear of slippery snow about the same time things were getting charred down in the valleys, so weekend jaunts to the top of the world had their own smokey aromatherapy. And the heightened fear factor of having to constantly cover my ass with multiple escape routes off the mountain pumped extra quarts of adrenaline into my hiking legs. It was a win-win.
Third, I’m an adrenaline junkie and a pyro. Can’t be helped.
The fire I saw today in central Oregon started two days ago by lightning. They named it the GW Fire and multiple crews stopped it days later within a quarter mile (about seven blocks) of the hoighty-toighty private resort community of Black Butte Ranch. They probably could have extinguished the fire completely with the sheer liquid output of all those terrified resort golfers wetting themselves.I was about twenty miles away from the action while it was happening, parked at the dead end of Three Creek Road 16, a seventeen-mile-long gravel artery out of Sisters that often becomes a gridlock of terrified weekend warriors at the slightest sign of trouble. So, that took care of the escape route/adrenaline thing.And the sun was burning like a microwave, so that took care of the challenge thing, because otherwise, the short stroll to Tam MacArthur Rim is easy. Trail #4078 is really meant for a Broken Top Mountain summit approach but I didn’t have the time. I spent all morning just driving out there and I still had to make it back by nightfall. No way in hell was I going to bivouac in a sterile pay campsite next to Oregon’s most annoying drunken rednecks defending their title. With guns.
There’s the rim.
The hike began at 6600′, so there was very little undergrowth. I was pretty much starting in subalpine forest and heading into tundra. My biggest enemy was the sharp little pumice chunks constantly finding their way into my boots. The elevation also meant a late start in the hiking season because though a snowbound trail can be overcome with snowshoes, Three Creek Road is gated shut until it melts. I ain’t snowshoeing no 17 miles to a trailhead.
The march upwards wound through zen fields of stone polished smooth by the elements. The trees left no guesswork about how harsh the wind could get up there: Krumholtz city. Notice the grey smoke layer being pulled across the horizon by said wind.
The rim, itself, was a geological layer cake of delicious igneous rock, including some tasty mahogany obsidian. When that wind picked up, I had to take everything in through slitted eyes lest all that beauty become lodged in my corneas. Lotta dust.
Lotta brave chipmunks, too. Or just tourist-trained. Organic almonds rule.
Find the ‘munk:Heart-shaped Three Creek Lake turned out to be a great place to take off the boots at the end of the day and dangle the aching tootsies in some cool water. I wanted to dip my whole sweaty carcass in there.
I wasn’t the only one. Ribbit!
Five years later, the Pole Creek Fire turned much of the verdant forest you see above into charcoal. My timing is always excellent like that: One year after I enjoyed a trek to Mt. Hood’s Dollar Lake, a lightning strike cooked the entire slope. That very summer, I had earmarked Elk Cove one ridge over as my next hike but my instincts said to wait. Sure enough, I watched what would have been my access trail being closed to the public by fire fighters and flames. Intuition, it’s the original GPS.
September 2, 2007