On our most recent trip to the Klamath Basin we sorta expected to stay three nights. We pulled out of our Lava Beds National Monument campsite on Thursday morning and headed toward Tulelake NWF, planning to spend the morning there and then home via Crater Lake. But the morning was good to us; temperatures were pleasantly cool after unseasonable warmth. We just weren’t ready to head home. We decided to spend one more night in the Basin.
During the afternoon I noticed a dark plume of smoke rising to the south. We didn’t think much of it. Some of the fields around here are burned after harvesting. We dismissed it as one of those. I was dense! Two odd planes flew over with red painted on their tails. I thought the nearby military base was practicing with some old planes. Dense!
But as we head back to camp we begin to worry. The fire looks close, too close. It appears to be on Lava Beds National Monument land. They wouldn’t be doing any prescribed burns under these extremely dry conditions. We pause at two pullouts and watch the fire. It is nearly 8 PM when we pull in to the Visitor Center. The building is dark. That’s a good sign.
Off to the east one usually sees twenty miles darkness and finally a strip of far off ranch lights twinkling in the distance. This fire burns much closer than that. I can see individual trees silhouetted against the flames and flames jumping far higher than the trees into the sky. Headlights too.
We head down the hill to the campground with a heavy heart. How close is that fire? What will it do during the night? A few years ago we got side-tracked by a wildfire about 100 miles north of here. We had planned the spend the night in Bend, Oregon, with friends. By the time we neared their house, a wildfire had broken out on their side of town. Their road had been cordoned off and only residents could enter. We parked on a hill for a couple of hours hoping the fire would die down and we be allowed to go through. No such luck.
|The Bend fire, painted from memory and from an old sketch in my journal.|
We watched one lodgepole after another ‘candle,’ i.e. burst into a column of flame. Half the sky sparkled clear and the other half was smothered in smoke. By the time we gave up getting to our friend’s house every motel in Bend, Redmond, Prineville and Sisters had been taken. We decided to sleep in our car in the Sisters city park. During the night one convoy after another of firefighters rolled in for one last rest stop before reaching the fire. By morning the fire had traveled six miles during the night and burned a handful of homes. Usually fires grow fastest during the day, but they can gallop at night too.
As a U. S. Forest Service employee Dale has had first hand experience with forest fires -- all the experience he wants. We look at the ugly glow off in the distance and decide to head home and not take any chances. First I want to eat before the four hour drive. We hang two candle lanterns in the van and start eating our cold supper.
While we eat a truck parks near us. A park law enforcement official walks over .... a cute young woman. She assures us two people will be up in Lava Beds fire tower all night monitoring the fire. It is unlikely the wind will turn against us, but if it does the park will be able to give us at least an hour of notice to evacuate. The fire is five miles away right along the park’s eastern boundary.
The fire was started by a hunter’s all -terrain-vehicle just outside the park around midday. Six smoke jumpers are already on the fire and some fire fighting equipment. Smoke retardant is planned in the morning.
By morning there is hardly any sign of the fire. Just wisps of smoke drifting up. We stay in the Basin until noon. No smoke visible. I didn’t see any air planes so I don’t think they needed the fire retardant.
In the grand order of things, this was just a little fire. Western United States has had some huge ones this summer. Hundreds of homes and many thousands of acres burned. Some of the fires will burn until the winter rains come. The next night, when we arrive home, sprinkles of rain greet us. First rain since about July 1. Most welcome!