The world is on fire as we watch the news.
Over the last two weeks I’ve been in and out of Canyonville’s milepost 97 fire. Like so many issues facing rural communities, fire encapsulates so much of what occurs in these regions of the world. City people seldom get to be a part of that. There’s the official, stated cause, for how the fire started. And then there’s the chatter, the finger pointing and the speculation.
My own journey into the fire began at lunch with a tribal councilman.
“The fire’s burning our land.” he told me. “I went down and watched the firefighters for a bit. I haven’t heard how it’s going today.” He was visibly unsettled. He picked up his cell phone, made one call, then another. When someone answered he asked. “How is it? Yeah. yeah. How much contained? Okay, keep me posted.”
Here was a man who fought for over three decades to reclaim land that was taken from his people. Just months ago, his tribe, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, had acquired 17,519 acres of timber land as part of the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act. That land was now on fire. “
“It’s steep into the canyon” he said wistfully. “There’s old growth there. There’s timber. We will be managing the forest of our ancestors.”
I committed to sending him a picture the following day as I traveled south to California to get my car fixed.
In Canyonville, dark brown smoke plumes filled the horizon. Helicopters came and went, dropping water on a white-smoking hillside just off the freeway. I took a picture and sent it to the councilman. He texted me back. “It burned over 2000 acres of our land but the same land was burned several years ago. We will make the best of it and replant probably in the late fall with fir.”
Thirty miles south, I pulled off the highway across from a church to take a picture. A young couple in a black pickup pulled in behind me. The man got out, and spat tobacco. We nodded to each other. Then he said, “We came down to see if her parents land is okay. It was never like this in the past. It’s just heart breaking”.
“Do you know how it started?” I asked.
“I heard it was a transient’s campfire by the side of the freeway,” the guy said.
Heat baked, charred leaves fluttered to the ground as if it were fall. He picked one up. “This is how it jumps the freeway.” We stood in silence, cloaked in the weighty smoke gazing at the sky.
At some point, we each quietly got back into our cars.
I followed smoke and ash for 200 miles. When I arrived in the Sierra Nevadas I breathed deep, filling my lungs with smoke-free air as my van wizard fixed my van.
My reprieve was all too short. Within hours I was on the road again, heading back into the fiery cauldron. I stopped in Ashland, to stretch and get some water. People walked by in masks. A woman on the sidewalk was bent over coughing.
“You want a ride?” a man called to me. “It’s too smoky to be walking.” I plopped into the passenger seat and commented on the two masks in his car. “Every year there are more fires and more conspiracy theories. Some people say the fire department started it, others say loggers. Some say the Indians set it to claim insurance on the undervalued land they were given.” I thanked him for the ride, bought cold mineral water, and headed on.
Later, at the exact exit I’d stopped at two days earlier, a low flying helicopter flew directly over my car toward the creek behind me.
I parked in my spot by the church, walked across the embankment and watched helicopter after helicopter plunged their 300-gallon-buckets into the creek, then pulled them back into the murky sky over my head. When water from the bucket would drip onto my forehead, I felt as if I’d been anointed with holy water. I said a prayer. I beseeched the gods of the heavenly skies to protect these men with their thimbles of hope as they flew into the blackness.
Farmers came and went.
I commented to one woman, Everyone seems so calm.” She pointed to her car. Boxes of taxes and farming receipts were in the back seat. Her dog leaned out the window. “We’ve been given a level two evacuation warning. It’s funny what you decide to bring with you.”
One man stashed his safe on the floor of his car.
A couple and I talked about farming, the threat to their land and how Antifa had uncovered a white supremacist medical marijuana distributer living in the valley. “We put them out of business, quick,” The women asserted. “It was tough though, they ran a good business and paid well. But they are not welcome here.”
The news crew came and left.
A farmer took me to their farm. “See that ridge there?” he pointed. “The fire is just beyond that, about a mile from here.”
The man headed up to the fire line. I went back to church.
Larger copters now hovered over the creek, sucking 3000 gallons of water into their bellies through long suction hoses. Then, like some engorged sci-fi creature they’d lumber upwards.
A crowd of volunteer firefighters talked about their day on the line.
“People joke about Trump and his raking the forest comment after the California fires, but it’s true. What no one’s talking about” he went on, “ is the pending class action suit against the state, and how because the governor is stalling, undergrowth hasn’t been cleared for years. The state’s trying to claim it’s climate change. But it’s the lack of timber management making the fires rage out of control. Maybe this will get their attention.”
As I drove north through the canyon trees were aflame fifteen feet above my head.
For days I couldn’t quite shake all the stories I heard.
Before I left Roseburg, I went back to to see how the fire crew was progressing. Billows still rose but the yellow-brown smoke was gone.
As the sun set, I drove down the road where the fire had started its surge through the canyon.
I stopped at the concrete pilings with large “No Trespassing” signs. The gate that once secured the property of trespassers lay crumpled at the side of the road.
I was alone with the blackened hillside. I wondered if anyone was watching.
How did the fire really start?
Was it a campfire? An insurance scam? The result of climate change? The result of years of stalled timber law suits? In truth, no one really knows. But everyone agrees: the forests are ready to explode.
The night I left Canyonville, I saw this sign. After two weeks of fiery days, it made me smile.