As we stood on a hillside in Idaho’s Boulder-White Cloud mountains watching a fire bear down on us, I told my friend Dave that this was the closest I'd been to a wildfire without getting paid for it.
We'd just finished speed-hiking down from a high lake basin, after the Forest Service told us to get out. The Valley Road Fire, we’d been told, was growing too fast to guarantee the safety of backpackers.
I'm tempted to hum the tune to Gilligan's Island just now. Our three-day trip into my favorite mountain range was going to be relaxed: We had dogs, we had wine, we had good friends and great weather.
The other temptation is to say that I sensed this fire was coming. Late on the first night in the mountains I stepped out of my tent to look at the stars and noticed that the air was completely still and warm. Almost too warm, I thought. Then I crawled back into my sleeping bag.
If I had any weather-predicting skills, I’d call that "foreshadowing."
Instead, we marched to another lake the next day. When we had unpacked our gear and got to the hard work of lying around on the lake's shore, we noticed a plume of smoke building over the ridge, right toward the valley where our cars were parked.
"Cool," I believe, was the most commonly used word at first. "Whoa," became the next exclamation, as the column built and we realized a major fire was under way. It had been 10 years since I’d fought fires for the government in Idaho, but a big fire always looks like a big fire. This one now had wind, sun and lots and lots of dry lodgepole forest, much of it beetle-killed.
Right around cocktail hour we got our first visit from Jocelyn, a backcountry ranger for the Forest Service and a credit to her agency. With politeness, good cheer and patience, she informed us the fire was growing fast — it would eventually spread over 40,000 acres — and that we were likely to be kicked out of the woods the next day.
We knew she was serious when she returned to get descriptions of our cars and to ask if we had left keys hidden on them. Those people who left keys would see their cars again, and luckily, that included us. Those who didn't, well, maybe not.
The next day saw us tramping down to our new destination, heading for a rendezvous with Forest Service folks who would shuttle us out of the wilderness. We stopped every now and then to get another look at the boiling plume, massive and dark and moving closer.
My anxiety level was growing by the minute. Then, the fire poured over a massive ridge and began moving rapidly toward the valley we were trying to leave. With still a mile to go, we were in danger. I spurred the fast hikers on toward the trailhead, found the slower ones, and told them they had two options: Haul butt to the safety of the road, or watch the fire boil over them from the not-so-safe but wet shores of a nearby creek.
That inspired my hiking buddies to run for their lives. Later, bending over and gasping for air at the trailhead, they said they'd never hiked so fast with a backpack on.
The next thing we knew, we were bumping down a forest road in a pickle-green Suburban, headed for our shuttled cars, high-fiving each other over our good fortune and pitying those folks whose cars were now little more than high-altitude boat anchors.
I miss firefighting sometimes. I miss the thrill of it, of flying fast in a helicopter toward a big column of smoke. This one, I heard later, reached up almost 30,000 feet, where it was visible 100 miles away. I still love the smell of a wildfire. For three summers of my life, fighting fire meant money, work and fun.
But either I'm aging into moderation or I don't like getting taken by surprise, because the level of anxiety I felt watching this fire come my way was new. Those moments were frightening, waiting for my friends to round the bend to safety.
I hear the cost of fighting the Valley Road Fire will probably rise to $6 million. It’s still smoldering, by the way. Only snow will put it out for good.