In the middle of August, a fire started not far from my campground. I heard different reports: fifteen miles–twenty-five miles away. Whatever the actual distance, it was too close for comfort.
The last I heard, the cause was “under investigation,” but my boss said the Forest Service thinks the fire began as an illegal campfire in a dispersed camping area. The folks who started the fire lost control of it, and the fire went wild.
The fire started on a Tuesday afternoon. On Thursday, my boss came to my campground in the morning and told me what was happening. When I got to the parking lot, my coworker said he was leaving work early to pack up his important belongings so he’d be ready if he had to evacuate. The sky was hazy with smoke.
That evening, I climbed in my hammock and zipped up the mosquito netting to avoid the the tiny, annoying flies. Around 7pm, I looked at the sky and saw one part of it was dark. At first I thought a big storm was on its way, but then I realized it was the smoke from the wildfire darkening the sky.
On Friday morning, my boss was back in my campground, this time to tell me my coworkers had evacuated and wouldn’t be at work for the foreseeable future. He also told me that a group with reservations at a campground closed due to the wildfire would be staying at my campground. Those campers pulled in early, before I left for the parking lot.
The trail and the parking lot was much slower than usual for a Friday in August. Word of the fire must have already spread. People were staying away.
Although parts of the sky were dark, other parts were blue and weirdly bright. Sometimes the sky looked hazy; other times it looked as if a storm were moving in. The sunlight was a strange orange color, unlike anything I’d seen before. It was beautiful and scary too, because I knew it was the result of the too-close fire.
All day ash fell. It fell on the parking lot and continued to fall in the evening when I returned to my campground. When I touched the ash, it was cool, but it was creepy to see it drifting down, knowing it was another sign of the fire’s proximity. I thought about the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the story of how the Grateful Dead played “Fire on the Mountain” in Portland, OR as ash fell on the city.
Perhaps the most incredible Weather Control story involves the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. The Dead was reportedly playing at Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon. A short way into the second set, the Dead played the song “Fire on the Mountain”. Legend has it that while the band was playing a particularly “hot” version of that song, the volcano erupted. When the show was over, Deadheads emerged to find volcanic ash falling everywhere. Though it was never explicitly said that the Dead “caused” the mountain to erupt, everyone agreed that the intensity of the song and the eruption were somehow connected. In fact, the Dead did not actually play in Portland until June 12, 1980, almost a month after the major May 18 eruption of Mount St. Helens, but they did play “Fire on the Mountain” at that show, probably as a tribute to the volcano…
Revell Carr, ‘Deadhead tales of the supernatural: a folkloristic analysis’, in Robert G. Weiner (ed.), Perspectives on the Grateful Dead (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), pp. 209-10…
“Fire on the Mountain” is a fine song, but it took on a whole new significance when there was actually fire on a mountain I love. I don’t want nothing to do with a fire on my mountain!
Around noon, a Forest Service fire patrol truck pulled into the parking lot and the driver asked me if anyone had come to talk to me. I said I hadn’t heard anything about it since morning.
The Forest Service guy told me I might have to evacuate my campground. He said if an evacuation were ordered, I’d probably have about four hours to get ready to leave. Suddenly the fire seemed even closer than before.
I finished my shift at the parking lot, then headed back to my campground. The first thing I did was talk to the campers who’d arrived that morning. I asked them if anyone had come by to tell them about the possible evacuation. They seemed surprised and said no. I explained we’d be given about four hours to pack up and get out. They didn’t act panicked, but within an hour, they drove over to my campsite to tell me they’d broken camp and were leaving. The older woman in the group said she was praying everything would be ok, but it’s better to be safe than sorry, she told me.
After I ate my dinner, I began to prepare to evacuate. I had my privacy tent and a small backpacking tent I’d been using for storage to take down. I had to take down my brand new hammock too. I didn’t think it would take me long to break camp, but what if I got less than four hours notice? What if notice came in the middle of the night? I didn’t want to leave anything behind, and I didn’t want to pack in the dark, so I decided to prepare to leave at a moment’s notice.
Taking down the hammock was easy. It’s intended for backpackers and other travelers, so it goes up and come down easily.
Taking down the storage tent wasn’t bad either. Most things I had inside (folding chair, cooking box) went right into the van. A few things that I knew I could live without (foil, citronella candle, cardboard box) went into the campground’s storage room. The biggest problem with the tent was that it was covered with sap from the trees overhead. It was sticky when I rolled it up, and I don’t know what will happen when I try to pitch it again. The sap may have made the whole thing a ball of sticky mess.
When I researched privacy tents, I read a lot of reviews that said the tents that pop up easily are really difficult to take down. How hard can it be? I thought. I’ll deal with it when the time comes, I thought.
Now the time had come, and folding the tent was as difficult as the reviews had said. I read the instructions repeatedly, but nothing worked. I couldn’t twist the top into much of a circle. If I used my knee to hold down the top, I could get my little Tyrannosaurus arms to reach the middle of the tent where I was supposed to twist the lower half into another circle. I chased that tent all through the dirt of my campground, but in the end, while the tent and I were both filthy, it was not at all folded. It fit (barely) into my storage room, so I decided to leave it there. Maybe the concrete walls would protect it if the fire came. Maybe not. But no way could I live with the dirty thing in the van with me.
My boss showed up in my campground again that evening. I told him the folks on site #3 had left. I told him I had folks with reservations scheduled to come in that day, but I suspected they weren’t going to show. My boss told me if I didn’t want to stay alone in the campground, I could stay at the campground down the road where the other camp hosts would be babysitting their campers. He said it there were an evacuation, the Forest Service might forget to come down my road to tell me about it. This information (which I now think is untrue), made up my mind for me.
By nearly 7pm, the campers with the reservations hadn’t shown up, so I left them a note and drove down the road to pass a very peaceful night.
By Sunday, all but one road on and off the mountain were blocked by California Highway Patrol officers. There was almost no one in the parking lot or on the trail. After my shift in the parking lot ended and I scrubbed the toilets in my campground, I went back to the other campground and took a bath in the plastic livestock trough doing bathtub duty in the back of the other hosts’ bus. From there, I took the only road out to a campground on the other side of the mountain where my boss said I could stay during my time off.
On Tuesday, while in Babylon, I found out where my mail had been evacuated and decided to drive out there to get it after I’d gotten the van’s oil changed and before the employee appreciation pizza party. As my van was going up on the rack, I was returning my boss’s call to learn another fire had started the night before due to lightning strikes. The one road that had been open was closed for part of the day, maybe was still closed. The pizza party was postponed and my boss suggested maybe I wanted to spend another night in town. He said there was no one at the campgrounds, no one at the trail or parking lot. I thought he was telling me to take another day off, so I did, not returning to the mountain until late Wednesday evening when the second fire was out and the road was surely open.
I thought I knew quiet, until I returned to the nearly deserted mountain. Although the quiet was absolutely natural, it felt entirely unnatural and eerie. I spent the night parked near the other camp hosts in their otherwise empty campground.
About that time, people stopped talking about evacuation and instead discussed the ever increasing percentage of containment. By the end of the month, the fire had all but burnt itself out and the firefighters were going home. We had our pizza party and my coworker was able to return to his intact home. No lives were lost, and I put my privacy tent back on my campsite.
I took all of the photos in this post.