A number of years ago, my friend and riding partner, Ian Mcleod, lent me John Maclean's book, Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire. In 1994, a wildfire ripped thought the mountains above Glenwood Springs, CO. Though it was originally mis-reported as burning in South Canyon, it actually burned on what is known as Storm King Mountain.
The fire was started by a lightning strike originally, and was quite small to begin with. They actually allowed it to smolder for a couple of days because it was so small. Sadly, winds shifted and ignited what was thought to be a small and unremarkable fire, turning it into a raging fire. The fire spread quickly, and crews were brought in from different wildland firefighting companies across the western U.S.
The book is well worth a read. It is head-shaking and heart breaking. By the time the fire was finally extinguished, 14 members of a hotshot, smoke-jumper, and helitack crew had been killed. It was the largest loss of life in a wildfire since Mann Gulch. Nine of those hotshots were members of a crew out of Prineville, OR.
My trip from which I've just returned found me putting gas in my bike in Prineville, a small community right in the middle of Oregon. I decided to go inside the store and ask the cashier if there was a memorial to the firefighters, and she gave me directions. A few minutes later, I pulled up to a beautiful park. A large bronze statue honoring wildland firefighters was hard to miss, but smaller and far more powerful was a path through a garden, with individual stones dedicated to each crew member from that fire.
I knew I would want to share this story and the few pictures I took with people. But this morning, as I watched the news and read stories online of fires burning all over the western U.S. and Canada, I knew I needed to get it done now.
Though many wildland fires are started naturally--particularly this time of year--by lightning strikes, at the moment there are more than 100 fires burning in Canada which were started by people. We have all heard the stories over the years--sometimes there is some asshole who starts fires. But, more often, a human-started fire is the end product of someone carelessly leaving a campfire smoldering. A camper may not notice the slightly smoldering or quietly burning embers under what looks to be an extinguished fire. They put it out, or let it burn out, the night before. It appears extinguished the next morning as they break camp, so they leave it. Then, winds shift and blow smoldering embers into dry brush, igniting we fires.
Experienced, responsible people put their fires dead out, or choose to not have a fire during the height of the hot, dry, fire season. I choose the latter--I do not carry enough water on my motorcycle to put fires dead out when I am in a dispersed spot, so I don't start one. I have friends who are wildland firefighters, risking their lives to extinguish these fires. I do not need to risk adding to their already heavy burdens.
If you camp, and you insist on having a campfire, PUT IT OUT--DEAD OUT! Fully drown your fire with water. Stir it, adding dirt to the ashes, and fully douse it again with water. You should be able to put your hand in those coals and feel no heat. Give it a few more minutes, and add more water just to be certain. You can find very detailed instructions on how to have a responsible campfire, when they are allowed,on the U.S. Forestry Service website.
Wandering along the path, reading the stones, like the one pictured above, dedicated to each member of that crew was very moving. It made that book and its story feel more personal. I hope to never have to see a memorial like this dedicated any of my friends, or any other firefighter for that matter. I will continue to strive to be responsible. I hope you will also.