The anatomy of fire


I came like an investigator to a crime scene, notebook open, walking slowly, alert to changes in the perpetrator's footprints, to oddities in the smoke-smell air. Anything could be evidence revealing the mind of fire: a blade of grass still alive in a forest of black skeletons; an unburned swing set that had parted an advancing wall of flame.

Shown across a television screen or reported in headlines, it is difficult to tell what fire is made of, if it is barbarism or elegance. I went to see for myself. During those early drought days of June, I walked through galleries of blackened trees, through flames rising around me, and through crowds of people, trying to decipher this force that occupies the minds of everyone in the West. Is fire a thing of intentions, mindfully incinerating some houses and not others? Or is it nothing but the dispassionate laws of physics brought to a roiling head?

A rancher battling 150-foot-high flames above Grand Junction, Colo., said that the fire was "an animal all its own." This was the beast I stalked.

By the first week of June, Colorado had a handful of large wildfires, with the biggest a lightning-triggered, 22,000-acre fire near the town of Trinidad. My first encounter came at a blaze called the Iron Mountain fire in southern Colorado. There, the coals from an overturned backyard grill quickly lit a bed of ponderosa pine needles, building into the most destructive fire in Colorado history.

My wife's grandmother was working as the fire dispatcher for the community of Glen Vista. The phone lines burned down while she fed calls into the radio. Out her front window, she watched the fire crest the ridge and spread to its foot - in five minutes. She grabbed her cat and fled.

Firefighters, who often focus on directing fires around houses, like deflecting a punch, found themselves blocked here, houses burning uncontrollably by the time they arrived. Eighty-eight homes were destroyed around the ignition point. The 4,400-acre fire was quixotic, reaching through the forest to consume only every other house.

By the time I walked into it, the conflagration had been contained, which meant that the world was black and silent rather than sunset orange and roaring with smoke. I took notes on everything: a cache of lost pocket change revealed in the emaciated remains of a car; cow dung turned into snowy circles of ash; newspaper pages still holding their print through the incredible violence of gust-driven flames, but dissolving the moment I touch them.

A little nervous, I toured through a house freshly burned to the foundation. This had been a family's life only a couple days ago. All that was left were the hard parts: a sink, copper plumbing, steel food cans boiled to bursting. The windshield of a truck out front had melted and poured into the cab, dripping like candle wax.

Yet the fire did not touch everything. Next to the truck I found a quarter-acre corral of grass, dry as newsprint. The fire had boiled around it, right up to its feeble wire fence, melting the outside of the chain lock. But it did not go in. Unburned seed heads of grass still bowed obediently toward the ground.

A tepee stood surrounded by burned pinon trees, its canvas as lightly scorched as an underroasted marshmallow. Flames had threaded through a ponderosa grove, touched a house, turned it to ashes, and stopped there.

A couple of pine tree stumps still fumed and hissed and billowed smoke. They stood like volcanoes, their insides hollowed smooth and white as ivory. I walked to one, and a flame curled out of it, quick as a serpent. I crouched there, watching it rise and fall. So this is what they mean when they say the fire is contained. It is not dead. It hides in the cradles of black trees.

I stood and looked to the north, where pyrocumulus clouds billowed in the sky like a Mount Saint Helens blast, as if the earth had exploded into churning anvils 20,000 feet high. The Hayman Fire. It had just started, but I could see from the turbulence in the air that it was already extremely dangerous. Within a few days, it would become four times larger than any fire in Colorado history. I was on my way.

The early pages of my notes on the Hayman Fire are filled with the acts of people, as if I could interpret the fire's meaning through the emotionally charged magnifying lens of ourselves. I inspected people's words near the fire, the rally that the flames spearheaded, the politicians it brought forward as if the blaze was a bullhorn to shout through. I hunted for alliances and guidelines and scapegoats - the language of humans around a disaster.

The details are still being questioned by investigators who are threatening a woman with 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, but for the moment, this is how the story goes for the Hayman Fire: A U.S. Forest Service worker came to a cold fire ring. Incredible gusts of wind, relative humidity at 6 percent. She brought out a letter from her estranged husband and lit it on fire. The burning paper left her hand and tumbled through dry grass. In front of her it turned into a voracious wall of flame rising 200 feet over the heads of engulfed trees. As the fire careened at 500 acres an hour, the forest worker escaped and called for help.

Incident Command Posts were set to the north and south like beacons in the smoke. I drove with a photographer from the remains of the Iron Mountain Fire to Hayman's northern Incident Command Post in the town of Castle Rock. The place was a carnival, with newspaper and radio reporters and television crews kept in a parking corral overlooking herds of firefighter tents and supply caches. We walked to the main entrance. A police officer 30 feet away, standing in the middle of the street, lifted his hand.

"Media cannot pass this point without an agency escort," he said. "You will have to go back."

We explained that we had made calls, that we had arrangements to meet officials. We offered their names.

"Media cannot pass this point without an agency escort. You will have to go back."

We both gestured at his radio, asking if he could call certain people who would let us in.

"Media cannot pass without..."

We turned back and, once out of his sight, crossed a field with a casually official gait, entering the melee of the inner command post. Thousands of firefighters bustled around us. We fell into a conversation with a crew from Oregon, an entire legion of Hispanic men overtaking a supply stand of drinking water. We mentioned the Nomex firewear - the Golden Fleece for journalists needing permission to get close to the blaze - and they looked around, baffled. Just got here yesterday. The place is a zoo. One pointed some direction, and we followed until we reached a canvas tent attached to a truck trailer, where we picked up our needed gear: a yellow shirt, heavy green pants, goggles, yellow hardhat, gloves, and two emergency fire shelters.

Dressed for the occasion, we now slid unnoticed through waves of firefighters and officials. We were looking for a person tantalizingly titled a Fire Behavior Analyst. We found Jim Hutton in a computer-laden ballroom, headquarters for the Incident Command Post.

"If you go back through history," he told us, "right now we've got higher stocking in the forest, there are more ladder fuels that lead to crown fires, denser stands of trees than pre-settlement times when there were a lot of low-intensity fires that moved through the arid West. They would have had pockets of intensity, but generally they were surface fires that would clean up the litter and duff, the down and dead logs. The big trees would survive. They would die of old age."

He described these ancient forests, pockets of different kinds of trees, open stands and open areas that would have made natural breaks for the fires. "Now, through land changes, through grazing and harvesting, you've got a lot of stands called even-aged where you get closed canopies," he explained. "Then you get a drought year like this; the trees are in stress right now. The Douglas fir are so dry that only one- or two-foot flames will carry up and burn into the crown. The top of a torching tree throws embers. It's called spotting. Now, you throw wind in there, you have a burning pinecone that lands a quarter mile, maybe a mile away. Most of these fires really occur by a series of spottings. The flame in front changes with the spots." This, he told us, is what we see as decision and indecision in the fire's path. Constellations of unburned greenery or untouched homes are left within the black char.

I asked him about his work here on the computer. How well can he truly anticipate the moves of this fire with all of his data points on wind, fuel moisture, humidity?

"Modeling fires is real broad-brush," he said. "You really have to get out there, look at it, use local knowledge. The folks that are out fighting, they know fire."

We soon met a field-tested, fire-hardened veteran in the person of Danny Kellogg, a Forest Service Fire Management Officer who was called in to both the Iron Mountain and Hayman fires. Kellogg had been working on wildfires nonstop for the past 36 days when we met, beginning with a flame-up in the Abajo Mountains near his home in southeastern Utah.

"We had 38 percent of our normal snowfall," he said. "The mountains on my ranger district are 13,000 feet, and they usually have snow through the end of July. By May 15 there was no snow. If you've walked in the forest any, it's like walking on shredded wheat."

Kellogg said that each fire has its own behavior. It obeys humidity, topography, wind direction and moisture levels in fuels such as pine needles, tree bark, grass and downed wood.

"Well, the Hayman fire is in the mixed conifers, Englemann spruce, blue spruce, higher elevations. They burn hotter than the Iron Mountain ponderosa forests," he said. "Ponderosa pine fire is a little easier to construct line in and get a handle on because it's not as dense a canopy. The litter layer on the forest floor tends to be mostly pine needles and grass. You get into the higher spruce-fir type of forest, it's usually a denser canopy, more trees per acre, and there is usually more fuel on the ground, logs, blow-down trees. Burns hotter."

Iron Mountain had been a wind-driven fire, its shape a general ellipse along the axis of the wind - southwest to northeast. Flames had been ruled entirely by weather, reaching out front like fingers swimming toward the lead. The Hayman fire was in forests that had not seen a major thinning fire for at least 50 years. This kind of fuel-driven fire dives back into itself, shoving cyclones and anti-cyclones into the upper atmosphere where the wind bends them toward the ground. These turning cells of super-heated air wrap into the cold sky, dragging down freezing air, inventing a chaotic, thriving weather system within the fire itself. Places like this become blast-holes on the map, huge black footprints where nearly everything is gutted.

Other kinds of fire are shaped more visibly by topography. Saturday, June 6, the same day the Hayman Fire started, a coal seam fire west of Glenwood Springs, Colo., which had been burning underground since probably 1910, touched the surface. It was The Day of Fires, as if the flames took any trigger they could, jumping up from the earth, if need be. In parched wind, an ember escaped and ignited a briar of scrub oak. In less than an hour the fire skidded down the steep canyon in 60-mile-per-hour winds, 40-foot flames engulfed cottonwoods and pines around a small creek, rising hundreds of feet to the ridge tops. Air tankers were called.

What makes all these fires possible is tinder-dry fuels, Kellogg said. In the case of the Coal Seam Fire, the fuel was extensive copses of scrub oak. While conifers ignite easily, letting the flames take them and move on, the oaks slowly simmer and pop - that is, until they reach a critical temperature. Then they mushroom like incendiary bombs into white-hot flames. An historic lightning-borne fire in 1994 started near the same coal seam and got into the oaks. Fourteen firefighters died in this fire, many from the unexpected oak blazes.

Five hours after the Coal Seam Fire started, it jumped in one blinding arc a set of railroad tracks, the Colorado River and the divided, multilaned Interstate 70, landing in a Glenwood Springs mobile home park. Local firefighters took their stand there, propane tanks and cars exploding as flame lifted over the fire engines, landing behind them.

For four hours, they pinned the fire to the outskirts of Glenwood Springs, forcing it into nearby Mitchell Canyon, where the flames expanded and lifted, devouring the foot of the mountains.

I needed to get closer to the flames. The command post at Castle Rock was drenched with smoke, but it was still a long way from the fire itself. The southern command post at Lake George, however, was about to be evacuated. The fire had been moving north without pause until today. The wind had suddenly turned out of the firestorm, now heading south, cresting over the mountains toward a small town and the tent-strewn retreat of firefighters. When I arrived at the post, it was swarming with people in flame-retardant clothing.

A helicopter landed, unloading a bustle of politicians, including U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth and Colorado Congressman Scott McInnis wearing a streamlined, military-style, flame-retardant flightsuit. Cameras and reporters crowded into a quickly constructed outdoor press conference. Bosworth stepped to the microphone, called the fire a "gobbler" and stepped back for McInnis, who spilled out a rapid slew of: "I've chaired a committee. ... This isn't the Forest Service sitting on their duff. ... Every time you say you're gonna go up and clean a forest, they think you're lumber barons, or they think you're out there to destroy the environment. ... I can tell you in Washington the perception back there because of the national media. ... The great majority of the State of Colorado is open for tourists and I think we really ought to give a fair assessment."

Blah, blah, blah. I turned from the conference a little sickened, watching a bomber drone toward the heaviest smoke, cutting sharply down to unload clouds of red slurry, a small lead plane showing the way into the fire like a bee out front. Smoke cast a deep bluish-gray veil across the landscape, black columns rising into the air from nearby flame-ups. Meanwhile, we were standing around babbling at ourselves, scratching at the fire's very edges. No one could get near to it. We were helpless, as trucks poured in and out, preparing for evacuation.

While the speeches droned on, my eyes turned toward those insistent bombers overhead. Maybe air crews racing headlong toward the incendiary core of the blaze would better explain fire to me.

We walked across the smoke-scored grass plain of an ad hoc heliport, looking for a pilot. We found Don Willey, a 20-year fire veteran out of Joplin, Missouri. He stood in front of his Euro-copter Puma, a helicopter which burns 180 gallons of fuel an hour, dragging 1,500-gallon buckets of water. I asked him what he had seen, how it was all going.

"That wall of fire starts advancing, it really doesn't matter what we do," he said. "The only thing we can do is cool it off. We're not stopping it."

He described this morning, three helicopters working in and out of each other. At the fire's lead, flames were 200 feet high. Entering the smoke, he could not see more than 20 feet. The wind shifted, rolling over him as he had his bucket dropped into the South Platte River. The air was like a waterfall plummeting out of the sky, exploding on the ground, feeding oxygen to the fronts of the fire. This airfall shoved his helicopter toward the ground. He could not lift the bucket's weight, so he dumped it there. But still, the helicopter did not have the strength to overcome the downward pressure of this firestorm. He sped along the river, maintaining altitude until he found a clearing and launched like a gasp for air into the sky, empty of water.

The photographer asked him, "How do you feel about fire?"

"How do I feel?"

"Yeah, what do you think about it?"

He took on a concerned public face, modestly reprimanding her. "You stop and think about it. What if it was everything you ever owned?"

"Not necessarily structure damage," she said, "but the whole phenomenon of fire."

He looked at the ground, at both of us. "If the fire's going right, the winds are in our favor? It's about as much fun as you can have."

We all turned at that moment. A bomber came in to drop its load a quarter mile from us. The smaller plane out front glanced off the smoke-top, jerking against the heat. Trees below torched into their crowns, solitary columns of flame leaping upward as wobbling, knee-high flames worked down the slope toward us.

The angle of approach seemed harrowing, the plane massive, shuddering over the fire. This same kind of plane, a C-130 transport, would in a few days crash after bombing its retardant into a California fire, both wings snapping off as it pulled up from the drop, all three aboard killed.

As the plane came in I watched Willey's face. He was transfixed, plotting the C-130's every move, its wings teetering against the updrafts. "Now," he quietly commanded. "Now, now, now."

A red wave burst from beneath the tanker, 3,000 gallons of retardant spreading into the air. The material landed unseen inside the smoke. The plane swept up and banked around the edge of the plumes toward a reloading base 40 minutes away.

What was missing from my notes, of course, was the fire itself. I had been toying with it, stalking its charred footprints, viewing through other people's eyes as if scoping it through binoculars. I needed to see its face.

Riding in a green Forest Service Jeep, we caravanned through heavy conifer forests into the Hayman Fire. Residences and summer homes were eerily abandoned. Smoke tumbled through the valleys. Darts of flame touched the road. We stopped to check with a firecrew working in a forested neighborhood as they dug trenches around houses, beating at the fire with tools and hoses.

I walked into the fire as bombers droned overhead. Ghost images of firefighters drifted through the smoke, their shadows slanted and long. Waist-high flames quivered around me, spot fires licking the trees. Humidity was up to 16 percent, the winds momentarily slow, so the fire seemed almost docile, not whipped bright by gusts or towering up the trees. Is docile the right word? Everything it touched it engulfed, reproducing and spreading across downed branches, drawing itself tight to hop clumps of grass across places with no wood. It flickered and turned, low, ankle-biting flames creeping across the ground.

I stopped at a stump feathered in flame. I crouched and watched this lucid toil, the fire wrapping the wood, snarling out of sputtering sap holes. Sweat ran down my face. This fire belonged to no one, I thought. It relished everything that it touched, spreading hands around it, owning it, then moving on.

A firefighter came by shrouded in equipment, digging a trench to hold the fire back from the hummingbird feeders and deck chairs of a nearby house. His name is David Russell, sent from Castle Rock.

I watched Russell work around the low, easy flames. "You like these fires a little faster?" I asked.

He leaned on his McLeod, a rake-hoe of a tool, and smiled. "Hell, yes. Firefighters always like them faster. At least we're in the big one now. A hundred thousand yet?"

"Ninety-nine-nine last I heard," I answered. "It's probably 100,000 by now. How far does this trench go?"

"As far as the Boss Man wants it."

I looked around, the flames busily eating whatever was at their feet, not quickly going anywhere. "This is a calm animal right now," I said.

"Yeah, this is a snake asleep. He's curled up. You mess with him and he gets mad."

He raked up a pile of burning needles and dumped them on unburned ground between us. "Good and dry," he said, grinning.

Not far away, two firefighters pounded at a burning stump with their tools. One hauled a hose, spraying foam on the black, misshapen object. Still, the fire leapt at them, darting from cracks. With an axe-pick tool called a Pulaski, they chewed the stump out of the ground, roots and all. They splintered it open, fresh wood flying. Even as they took turns chopping and spraying, fire relentlessly grabbed for the newly exposed wood. The men put their weight into it, dragging the stump down the hill. Finally, it was left extinguished, white detergent frothing from its seams, the fire out.

Truth be told, most of the pictures you see in newspapers of leaping flames are not from the fire itself. They are from backburns set to rob the advancing fire of fresh tinder. Few people get close to the heart of the conflagration. Even firefighters are kept away; it is suicide in there.

We came across a stunning backburn maybe an hour later. A team was setting the fire. Two workers with drip torches spilled doses of flame on the ground, and instantly fire crawled up the trees, as if leaping to the taste of blood. In the wind, the backburn had a rich, amber color, almost dark, forking and snapping into the branches. Pinecones pulsed orange, rolling down the slope, starting new fires.

This is the animal. A 10-foot-tall spruce torched, a beautiful suddenness of flames winding up the trunk, devouring the green peak. A full-grown tree nearby ignited floor to ceiling, every cell of bark giving itself instantly to the fire. The workers backed off, into the wind, away from the flames. Fire wove through the hillside ahead of us.

Then came the bellow of a bomber coming in low, barely visible through the smoke. A thread of strawberry-colored retardant dragged from its tail. I imagined its load hissing as it sank into the flames, swallowed, while the flames nearest to me charged unimpeded into the trees. We are very small creatures here.

Returning to the command post in Castle Rock, I heard that a fire near Durango was out of control at 20,000 acres. The fires near Grand Junction could not be contained either. The Coal Seam Fire at Glenwood Springs was blowing up, while Hayman towered over the southern command post.

A monstrous thunderstorm moved over Castle Rock. The first fat drops of rain struck ground. I stopped at the media corral, shielding my notebook with hunched shoulders. Thunder bolted the air like ripping sheet metal.

In this billowing, lightning-laced storm, suddenly larger than any city we have ever constructed, I recognized the pantheon to which fire belongs. The essential elements: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. These are things beyond the reach of our meddling control. We humans are on the surface of the planet jumping and pissing and breeding like É like humans, while primordial elements thunder around us, perfect from their beginnings, constant and inalienable.

At the command post, umbrellas popped open all over the press area as television reporters leaned into their microphones, braving the forces of nature. People covered crates with sheets of plastic that snapped in the wind, refusing to stay down. Everybody was running. Chunks of hail smacked the ground. As ridiculous as poodle sweaters, little form-fitted rain covers wrapped the television cameras. Finally, the news crews ducked back into their satellite-dished vans, abandoning their regularly scheduled programs.

I stood soaked, protecting my notebook in folded arms, marbles of hail striking off my hat brim. Water sheeted down my back, down my pants, filling my boots. Lightning stitched the clouds, followed by one-second cleaves of thunder. This was what the fire managers had prayed for, what they said was the only thing that could contain these fires. Now we ran from it. Even the cop blocking the entrance was back in his car, windshield wipers slapping.

What is the mind of fire? Like each of the four ancient elements, like this storm, it is the container of every pure emotion and motivation. It is both spiteful in its heat and luxuriously mannered in how it comes upon a piece of dry wood. Calmed by water, lifted by wind, channeled by the shape of the earth, it abides by a primeval set of rules. It even obeys itself: We have discovered that fire truly fights fire.

We poke our sticks at it. We stab it with reporters, politicians, scientists, and back-broken field workers bearing wooden and metal tools. Still, it does not bend. When it is gone, when we think we have controlled it, fire is still there. It lingers patiently in unburned wood, in family homes, in crisp floors of pine needles, waiting for the spark.

Craig Childs lives in Crawford, Colorado, with his wife, artist and photographer Regan E. Choi. He is the author of The Desert Cries (Arizona Highways Books, 2002) and The Secret Knowledge of Water (Little, Brown & Co., 2001).

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Prescribed burns tame the beast

- The tail of a dragon?

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Craig Childs

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