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Rants from the Hill: Guests in the house of fire

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Michael Branch | Sep 15, 2010 07:00 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada’s western Great Basin desert.

For once, fire has remained absent from our home landscape this summer. Winter was so long and wet as to have repressed fire season, and it seems strange that our home mountain, valley, and foothills have remained unscorched even into September. After six years of calling in plumes, scrutinizing weather, spending July and August with a beer in one hand and binoculars in the other, there’s something almost disconcerting about this lack of fire. This fireless summer has made me feel like the urban dweller who flees to the rurals to escape the constant noise and then can’t sleep because it is too quiet. After all, this land was sculpted by burning, the natural fire cycle here having been as short as fifteen years. Wildfires are common, and their fuel is as much the intense aridity and desiccating winds as it is the sage, rabbitbrush, and bitterbrush, the juniper, gooseberry, and desert peach. While a fire in town seems tragic and unexpected, out here fire isn’t accident, it is weather.

Last July a simultaneous trio of wind-driven wildfires burned more than 12,000 acres of our home mountain and valley, prompting evacuations along the wildlands interface where we live. The first two nights of the fire, which my wife and daughters spent in town, were relatively uneventful. I was fortunate to have a crew of wildlands firefighters occupying my two main firebreaks, and I spent those nights bringing them coffee and listening to their incredible stories about the unpredictable power of fire. Even as the glowing smoke clouds in the western sky reflected the flames marching up the valley on the other side of the foothills, I remained fairly confident that my defensible space and fuels reduction efforts would make it possible for these guys to save our house even if the fire ultimately burned over our home hill.

By afternoon on the third day, however, things were a good deal worse. The fire had come closer and was burning hotter, and the winds had intensified. Then, about two hours before dark, an arm of the blaze to our North jumped a firebreak on the BLM and threatened homes, resulting in the immediate redeployment of the crews protecting our place. I’ll never forget my feelings of exhaustion and anxiety as I watched those trucks roll away. Left alone at the house, I had no choice but to watch and wait.

Just at dusk, as the smoky darkness began to settle and the sky faintly resumed its fiery glow, the wind suddenly shifted. I knew immediately that I was in trouble—-that there were no longer any crews between me and the fire, and that the scalding winds would try to push the flames through the canyon gaps and toward our home. I climbed onto the roof, faced directly into the wind, and raised my binoculars to scan the horizon. In the foreground of my field of vision was my neighbor’s house and barn; in the distance was open sagebrush and juniper steppe spread out beneath a ridgeline that appeared chiseled against the darkening sky. As I was watching that ridge, a half-mile long curtain of flames suddenly broke over it like a wave, cresting the horizon and pushing forward in a wind-driven phalanx that seemed to suck the air out of my chest. In almost the same moment I spun around to see an immense, red-bellied firefighting airtanker coming at me out of the smoke. Flying over the roof it seemed impossibly large and dangerously low, and as it roared above me I turned again and saw it drop yet lower, over my neighbor’s house, releasing as it did several thousand gallons of water and fire retardant, colored fuchsia by the ferric oxide it contained. It was a surreal moment: the darkness falling and the smoke swirling, the sky glowing and the fire blazing in an approaching wall, and then the immense, bright pink cloud of retardant spreading out across the juniper-dotted desert. And that was the last image I registered before scrambling off the roof, jumping in my truck, and speeding to town by a circuitous desert route that reduced the chances of the fire cutting me off. One glimpse of that curtain of flames had convinced me that no guy with a garden hose would have anything to say about what this fire ultimately did.

From town we scoured the TV news for clues about what might be happening near home, but information was frustratingly slow and imprecise. We knew the roads were closed now, and things were bad. Beyond that, there was no way to tell what was actually going on. Early the next morning my Dad and I drove out to the house, not knowing if we would find it standing. The product of my family’s many years of saving, planning, and work might still exist-—or it might not.

Arriving in our rural neighborhood, we soon learned that fire crews had been redeployed just in time, and although several of my neighbors’ fences burned, none of us lost our home. It is true, of course, that we came to this place to be exposed to the power of forces beyond our control, including wind, snow, aridity, and fire. Today, more than a year later, that fuchsia stain on the desert is still visible, a humbling reminder that we remain guests in the house of fire. But even now I sometimes see our home the way I saw it that morning, with a kind of inspired surprise that keeps my appreciation for this place fresh. 

Michael P Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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