"Like the day after the end of the world" | Bleader

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Like the day after the end of the world"

Posted By on 09.08.09 at 09:15 AM

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stevefire.jpg

We know California's burning, but other people are having fire trouble too. A friend who lives just outside Zion National Park in the southwestern Utah town of New Harmony writes:

"You and I both find ourselves in the news about once a year, you when something happens at the Reader, this being the third time in the past two years, I think, and me when the town burns down, this being the third time in the past few years. Anyway, I was away and returned home last week to a war zone, hundreds of vehicles parked at strategic spots throughout the area, and improvised fire camps in all the open fields.

"The fire started July 25 with a lightning strike way up about 5,000 feet above New Harmony, in the Pine Valley Wilderness area. Nobody perceived it as a threat, since we have forest fires every year, and the weather conditions weren't too bad. But the monsoon rains that we expect in July and August failed to materialize, and the locals began to worry, eventually prevailing upon the Forest Service to come to a town meeting (Wednesday, August 26) to tell them what was going on.

"They explained their "let burn" policy, which makes perfect sense when no property is involved but is very risky near towns in a dry August. The Forest Service and Park Service's track record with "controlled burns" is so spectacularly studded with failures that most people around here refer to them as "uncontrolled burns." They try, but no one is endowed with as much power as nature, no matter what they may think.

"Anyway, the Forest Service guy at the meeting said how impossible it would be for this fire to burn 5,000 feet downhill to the town and how the residents had nothing to worry about. Within three days the fire had, in fact, burned 5,000 feet downhill to the town. It was fed by high winds from all over the compass, and by last Saturday afternoon the flames were visible from the house and moving fast. The cops came around ordering people out, and Jane ran around wetting everything down and moving wooden stuff away from the house. She packed up the three cats and our legal documents, some photos, and an antique clock, and got ready to abandon ship.

"She snuck back in again on Monday and then again on Tuesday, and friends, including our heroic 80-year-old neighbors, arrived to help. After Jane cut a hole in the fence to let them through, they disced a firebreak around us with their farm tractors. Firefighters were out there too, using water trucks to wet down a stripe of grass.The idea was to burn up the available fuel beyond it before the fire got to it. It's a workable strategy, but in this case, the fires raced toward each other and merged into a wall of flame 200 feet high, about twice as high as the flames in this picture. At that point Jane and our friends said an atheistic prayer and fled.

"After the back burn the flames never got any closer. Our house is stucco, with a tin roof, so we're more fireproof than many people; it's the people in the wood ones who really are living on the edge.

"When I got back on Wednesday, low-flying choppers were criss-crossing the sky, and various trucks and machines navigated around empty vehicles abandoned both in the road and off. The authorities had tied yellow crime scene tape to the front doors or railings of every house, many of which were empty, to indicate that they were under evacuation orders, and there was a roadblock at the highway to prevent people from entering the town.

"According to the Utah fire info site, the fire has burned over 12,000 acres. There were something like 700 people, three (at least) helicopters, and some tanker planes on it by week's end. (There were 20 people and no aircraft when they were "managing" it.)

"One of the sadder aspects of this is that Jane and another woman and a bunch of Americorps volunteers had just finished cutting trails through and improving 40 acres of land deeded to the town by the Bureau of Land Management up by the trailhead, with equestrian facilities and fencing and picnic tables so that people could camp up there and go on into the wilderness area. The picnic tables are concrete and survived, but they're no longer in the shade. Everything they did got burnt to a crisp, as did the house of the woman Jane was working with.

"It rained for about 15 minutes Thursday night, a good thing, except that 15 minutes later we could hear the water roaring off the mountain, a sound we usually only hear at the height of spring snowmelt. Floods are always the immediate result of fires.

"Now that the smoke has lifted it looks like the day after the end of the world. The heat gave much of the remaining vegetation fall colors, which is a bad sign. We won't know until spring how many of the trees along the creek at the far edge of the field survived; the conifers are history. Once their needles are burnt off, they're dead, and a lot of the mountain behind our house was covered in them, but no more.

"Up there everything is black except for two narrow stripes of green. There's a house in one of them. I walked by it yesterday and saw a tractor that was completely melted, sitting on tireless rims. Twenty feet away was the wooden house. It survived without any damage."

Steve Feldman
New Harmony, Utah

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