Where There’s Smoke

Island Life


I could say that it was forty years ago today, but I won’t, because it most likely wasn’t. I am fairly certain though that around this time in 1980 I was somewhere between L.A. and Seattle. I might have been in Los Angeles, hitchhiking or visiting friends. I recall one ride was with some guy in a VW van who worked for a film effects studio- I think it was called Apogee. I believe he said his take on anyone hitching along the L.A. Freeway at the time was either from out of town and clueless, or they were the Freeway Strangler. I assume he was fairly certain that I was one of the former. With that warning in mind, I headed on to visit friends further south, but soon headed north. It’s possible that around now forty years ago I might have been heading into Portland, after standing for hours with my thumb in the air on the smaller roads that took me that way. I think it was actually later in the month, heading out of Portland on the way to Seattle, when I got picked up by a guy who, it turns out, grew up about ten miles from me just north of New York City. He was going all the way to Seattle, but wanted to stop and see Mt. St. Helens along the way. I pointed out that the St. Helens he had selected on the road map was the town, not the mountain, so we corrected course and headed up a different small road.

As it had been just a little more than four months since St. Helens, the mountain, had blown its top, the red zone was still in force, and we could not get anywhere near the mountain, so I opted for scooping up some of the ash that was piled along the road when we stopped to honor the road block and turn around. From there on we compared notes about that area of northern Westchester where we had spent time in common, and once we got to Seattle he dropped me off at the Elephant Car Wash in the regrade and I never saw him again. On the way into town on I-5, I remember staring out the window at Mt. Rainier as we passed by. It was there, for the first time, that I understood why someone would want to accept the challenge of climbing a large mountain, although to this day I still have not had an attempt on the summit there as one of my must do achievements. Another thing I noted on the way past that big mountain was the fact that it was shrouded in somewhat of an orange haze. What I learned in the coming years was that this was part of the fall, slash-burning ritual around the Northwest. It came and went as the winds and the rain shifted and fell. In some ways it was like the aroma of Tacoma- it was dependent on the direction the winds chose to blow in when the piles were burning. The difference was that the slash burns were mostly an event in the Fall- the Tacoma Aroma showed up on your Island doorstep whenever the breezes blew from the southeast. We could talk about the southerlies that brought in the fragrance of toasting coffee beans, but not this time around.

Even though you could see the plumes rise up in the Olympics from the ferry observation decks on one’s way to or from the Island, and the sunsets often were oh so much more colorful as the slash smoke produced its evening, western curtain, for the most part these columns and plumes were not signifiers of a fire panic events. Sometimes the piles were burned when and how they shouldn’t have been, and a fire would escape into something bigger than they had anticipated, but for the most part these were more a means for disposal than a destructive happening. Having turned the tree trunks into logs and lumber and exports, the remaining limbs and branches did become potential fuel for future fires that could set back and ruin what had been replanted of the forest. In some ways one could say that it was getting rid of the mess, although some people might say, myself included, that the true mess- the man made disaster if you will- was the clearcut that had come before and leveled most every living thing for miles and miles.

Six years before my arriving in Seattle, my family had visited friends of my parents in Portland and while I was there, the friends had loaned me one of their cars to go see the coast. It was an amazing day trip through vast woodlands on small winding roads. Part way there I noticed light appearing through the forest in spots that did not make any sense if the densely packed forest were continuing on as it should have, given the slope of the terrain. I finally stopped and got out to walk into the woods. When I walked out of the forest buffer that had been left intact, the full scope of the stumpage that spread out before me in all directions, except where I had just come from, was truly astounding. As I understood it later, it had been a state mandate to leave visual buffers so that passersby like myself might be spared the sight of this carnage. I had seen painted renderings of logging operations on the Weyerhauser calendars that my uncle had given out from his lumberyard. They did show stumps, but interspersed with families of deer and pheasant and new seedling trees, all scenes that looked nothing like neither this wasteland, nor the ones we saw 15 or so years later out on the edge of the Olympics and the Hoh, when we took a wrong turn and wound up on a barren mountainside that had been stripped of all that raw timber that had been lost to accelerated logging of the Reagan Bush era. There were no fires though. At least not then.

Jumping ahead in time again,  a notable part of the ritual of going to Burning Man from 2002 to 2012 was finding the wildfire burn scars in the landscapes that we passed along the way. They were places where sage brush and grasses and small shrubs and trees had been consumed by a passing wave of fire. Most of them had most likely been started by natural means- probably the result of a lightning strikes. There was one year when we passed an active fire burning on a distant ridge. It was at night and the glow from the fire reflected off the low clouds, giving the whole thing an ominous, apocalyptic look and feel. As we drove down into the town of Warm Springs, Oregon, the fires on the slopes we passed as the road lead down to the bottom of the valley made the ride feel a bit like one might imagine a descent into hell might look like. But it was just burning- not the maniacal, wind driven firestorms one has seen over and again on teevee news of the fires now raging in Oregon and California and Washington, not to mention in Australia and elsewhere around the globe.

Of course, now we don’t have to travel anywhere to experience at least the effects and influence of these fires. A few years back as I accompanied Wendy on one of her harbor swims in Outer Quartermaster under an odd, red-orange sun, I paddled my kayak through a grayish band of floating debris that stretched along the east side of the channel past Camp Burton. What I could see as I passed through it was that it was a surprisingly large amount of fire ash that had fallen from the sky and accumulated along the tidal interphase line. As I understood it at the time, this particular set of fires, that had dulled the sky and muted the sun, were burning over two hundred miles away in Oregon. There had been ash on the roof of my car that I had noted before we had even left home that day, so it did not take a trip to anywhere really to see that something was extremely not right.

It was around two years ago that I headed south from the Island on the road to find out something about the emigrant trails that traversed this country one hundred and seventy or so years ago and brought the white wave west into indigenous lands, or rather, further west into indigenous lands. It was just south of Weed, California on I-5 that I encountered the remnants of a wild fire that had consumed a large portion of the Shasta-Trinity National forest. Driving through in daylight was no less hellish than our trip through Warm Springs had been years before because you could now see the destruction that had been wrought here and not just the eerie nighttime glow. There were still yellow clad clusters of crews tending to spots that were still smoldering and smoking, and this went on for miles. Further on, after I left San Francisco and headed east, it seemed that around almost every other corner there were new scenes of combusted devastation, from just outside Yosemite on through to an assortment of backroads whose names or numbers I do not recall. After a while, whenever stands of scorched trees and shrubs came into view, I grabbed one of my Go-Pro cameras, hitting the start button and pointing it out the car window as I drove by. I have not used that footage for anything just yet.

As of late, I have been doing a daily vertical drone flight, straight up over my house, ever since the fire smoke arrived last week. One is tempted in all of this to do a slight rewrite to that Mama’s and Papa’s song ‘California Dreaming’ by just changing one word so that it goes “all the air is brown, and the sky is gray”, but why memorialize it any more than one needs to? But as I’m up there virtually with my drone in that brown air over the Island, I spin around for a look and still mostly see just trees through the smoke, which should be a good thing. But as the smoke comes in from fires all around us, one can’t help but be concerned about a similar wildfire as a smoke source, not to mention all the destruction that comes with it,  just as easily happening here. It is still as dry and combustible as anywhere else. But we are not like other areas in more than one way, the most important being that if something like a massive fire happened here, there would be very few places to run. We on this homefront have started to think about structures and plans that might allow for something to survive a worst case scenario here on the property. It would seem that with “The Big One” and a Rainier blow out and a tsunami and all, that a community plan for a fire should also be a part of the mix. In these special times, it’s not like we need one more bad thing to think about, but as long as we’re making a danger list, fire should definitely be on it so that, first of all,  we can do all we can to prevent it, right Smokey?