After a few weeks on the road, I happened upon a headline from an online news post: “A Fire the Size of Chicago Burns in the Stanislaus National Forest.”
The size of Chicago? It’s hard to comprehend. Like many folks from the pine forests and oak woodlands of Tuolumne County, I’ve never been to Chicago. In Tuolumne, we rarely measure distance by city blocks, but rather in river valleys, tree stands and cattle pastures; familiar features that are now cloaked in thick smoke from the RIM Fire’s week-long campaign of devastation.
In the late evenings the wind shifts to the west and our bustling mountain town is overrun by a dark cloud of falling ash. The smoke is thickest in the mornings and gradually dissipates into the afternoon. Around 2:00pm, when the winds shift eastward, the smoke clears and we find ourselves nearly forgetful of the impending flames just a few miles south of town.
On the afternoon of August 26thDuckwall Mountain was taken by the RIM Fire. The high flames charging northward were easily visible from the rural communities in east Sonora and Tuolumne City. The following day the clock struck 2:00pm. The afternoon came and went, but the smoke and falling ash remained.
The fire doubled in size overnight, steadily making its way from 50,000 acres to just fewer than 200,000. On a Wednesday afternoon I received word that the flames had reached Paper Cabin Ridge outside Tuolumne City. Two days later, I piled all of my belongings into my car and headed south for the Gold Country.
The greater Tuolumne Wilderness is my favorite place on Earth. It is my playground, my mentor and my home. It’s the home of my friends and my family. If it’s going to burn, then I damn-well want to be there for it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to die in this fire, and I sure as hell don’t want to get in the way of the folks trying to stop it. If they tell me to leave, then I’ll pack up my car and follow the line of traffic towards the Central Valley. But like many people, I’d prefer to stay and see it through.
When someone has anything to say about this fire, I want to listen. I want to hear the complaints about the smoke and ash at the grocery store. I want to sit with friends on the patio as helicopters and enormous DC-10s fly overhead. I want to listen to the scanners and turn up the volume for town meetings broadcast over public radio stations. I want to overhear the conspiracy theories between hillbillies at the gas station. I want to looky-loo on ridge-tops with ice chests and binoculars. More than anything, I want to watch the unimaginably long train of fire engines pack up shop and head west on Highway 108, and I want to buy my friends a round when they return home from sleepless weeks of dropping trees and cutting lines.
To say we are in this together is the understatement of a lifetime. We don’t have a choice. Nevertheless, I am proud of the sincerity and respect we have shared for this event and the wilderness it threatens. As I write this, I sit on a porch that might not be here next week, yet I’m comforted by the caliber of the people who share my concern.
I grew up in a town where every kid over the age of ten can fix a car’s timing belt with bailing wire and duct tape. I remember the local response in the winter of 2011, when a cold snap dropped thousands of trees onto houses and over roadways. I remember the hard times with friends and how those times made them tough – tough enough to fight the largest fire the Sierra Nevada has ever seen. When I think about the people who live in Tuolumne County, I think this fire picked a fight with the wrong town.
Like so many others, I’m sitting on the porch of the house I was born in. I’m watching the smoke glow orange and rise with the moon, and I know that everything is going to be OK.