If there are roads into hell, we were on one.
We didn’t descend, as Dante envisioned, we climbed. There below us smoke hid flames and destruction. Smoke also hid the spectacular scenery on Claremont’s side untouched by the Minerva Fire.
That was my sense of things as the miles slowly went by. The Forest Service-green four-wheel drive nosed higher and higher into that wild country atop Claremont.
One doesn’t usually just arrive at a large, active fire. There are steps to take, permission to gain, and an escort or driver with which to connect.
Connecting with the Minerva Fire’s public information group, we established a date. The next step was a visit with Plumas National Forest Public Information Officer Lee Anne Schramel where I could trade in my old Nomex for new.
From the time I suited up last Thursday morning in my deep green Nomex pants, I was excited. I was going to the fire and to where some of the real action was taking place. Aside from aerial displays of helicopters carrying water to the fire or planes flying over to drop fire retardant, I hadn’t seen real action on the Minerva Fire.
As a photographer I wanted close-ups of fire, firefighters working, smoke, debris, engines and big equipment — in short the real part of the story that I wouldn’t get from anywhere, but near the fire.
To fully comprehend what I was feeling someone has to have been bitten by the adrenaline bug that fire and its intense fascination brings. Now don’t confuse this for a second with what arsonists or firebugs seek. I don’t start fires. I abhor the kind of damage it does to the countryside and the loss of plants and wildlife.
The journey begins
It seemed that the higher we climbed the narrower and dustier it became. When we turned off La Porte Road onto a well-known and respectable logging road, we initially covered territory I hadn’t visited since my early 20s. Then, somewhere, it changed to Claremont Road.
My driver and guide, Leslie Edlund, a woman who began her career fighting fires, skillfully maneuvered her truck over barely concealed boulders, around large loose rocks, over roots. At times, long manzanita branches or other vegetation reached out with skeletal limbs to rub against either or both doors and the sides of the bed.
Ahead was Ray Torres, a local, and our safety officer for the drive. I watched as his newer, white rig crept along what Edlund described as a Jeep trail. At times I thought calling the stretch of roadway before us a Jeep trail was being kind. Oddly enough, this bouncy, twisting, turning bit of track became a part of the story. I realize now I would have lost something of the sense of adventure if we’d just driven down a road and got out at a spot where they were doing test sites for a backfire.
Our trucks, and occasionally another, stirred up thick, light, brown dust that covered the roadway. When we passed the occasional small crew walking along the road, they not only stepped aside for us to pass, but often turned their backs to avoid the full impact of that fine powder we stirred.
From time to time, Torres would stop and talk to whomever about what was going on, possibly what to expect ahead. At one stop, I took in the long narrow climb straight ahead —reminding me of a ridge with sharp slopes going off into smoke.
“Are we going up that,” I remember asking Edlund. I think I said something too about going on a carnival ride before the fair opened. She laughed and repeated my comment later to Torres. He agreed.
When Torres went back to his own truck, another larger white truck took the lead. That driver took it very slowly and I imagined the wheels in four-wheel-drive digging into the dust and the earth as it climbed.
Torres waited. Then leaving a healthy distance between his truck and the first, he, too, began his ascent. Edlund waited, waited and then followed.
Somehow the climb was over before I’d come to appreciate it. Edlund managed the driving and I appreciated the scenery that can only be found at those higher elevations.
Before we’d left fire camp at the fairgrounds, one of the information officers showed me a wall map of where we were going. He also indicated two black shapes on the map that marks locations where backburns would occur.
Backburns or backfires are a long standard practice of using fire to fight fire, that is, of starting fires in a designated area to rid the vegetation in the wildfire’s path. The objective is to starve it and control its destructive force.
More firefighting equipment was found down a hill and away from the site where we’d eventually pull over. As evidenced by decals on the sides of those vehicles, this was far from a Plumas National Forest firefight, or even a Forest Service blaze. Bureau of Land Management, CalFire, Office of Emergency Services and local community agencies were involved.
At the lower part of the backburn area, Torres pulled over and indicated with his hand where Edlund should park. Without need for words, she took his meaning that she was to back into a rough patch of ground.
“This is why I don’t want a new truck,” Edlund said as she cranked the wheel then pulled slowly forward against a clump of felled trees. It was a topic she’d touched on as she talked fire on our journey to reach this point.
Hefting two cameras, one that turned out not to be my own but Edlund’s, I felt unstable when my feet hit the ground. It was dusty and rough and I’m sure I looked as unsteady as I felt trying to watch my footing and taking in the activities around me.
A firefighter clad in well-worn Nomex was walking purposely across the section, drip torch in hand, pausing just long enough to touch the flame to the ground and then move along.
Then the setting changed from just a handful of firefighters to many as others arrived from somewhere up the narrow roadway.
Torres, besides explaining the plan, was pointing out the different crews — there was the black-helmeted crew from Inyo’s Mammoth Lake representing the Mammoth Wildfire Use Module; the Salt Creek 4 and 5 crews from near Corning representing California Department of Corrections and identified by their dark orange fire protective clothing; and some white-helmeted smoke jumpers who had arrived on scene by ground not air. Torres also mentioned the Zulu Team and a Gulf strike team.
I’d already learned that firefighters were at a premium. Because of the number of fires in California, the Southwest and the West, there were no Type I teams, and air resources were in high demand. As an aside, Edlund earlier remarked that she’s seeing fewer women firefighters. Why, I wonder? I’ve always had a sense of pride in seeing or meeting women who take on this demanding, challenging and exciting career.
Our time at this location was short. As we approached the noon hour the inversion layer below us was lifting allowing the fire to come to life. The air was getting thicker as I took photos as quickly as I could. Up the road and to the left, small fires were dotting the landscape as drip torches touched off the backburn.
Before I knew it we were inside the truck and retracing some of the route we’d followed to find the backburn location.
At some point Edlund mentioned that we’d be coming out Dean’s Valley Road. This is an area I’m somewhat more familiar with, but with the smoke and the number of vehicles we passed I was disoriented and didn’t recognize familiar locations. In fact I remember saying something wise like, “Oh, I know where we are,” as we stopped where the turnoff meets with Bucks Lake Road.
As fire experiences go, this was one of the tamer locations — no embers sailing past or trees exploding into flames overhead. The faces of firefighters were still relatively clean, no 19-hours of grime and exhaustion.
Was I disappointed? Absolutely not, this was a new adventure, an experience to tuck away and of course to share.