I’m a flatlander who grew up in the Windy City and I also resided in Dallas, and Phoenix Metro; Fresno, too. Since 1982, I’ve lived in 15 places, including rural Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, the Inland Empire; Gettysburg, too. However, I’m still a city boy to the max, and my idea of going out in nature is to take the bug screens out of the windows or as someone once said to me to sit in the bar during happy hour with the door open.
Nevertheless, when I had the opportunity to leave California’s Central Valley, I took it. I drove north and instead of turning west to find a place to live in Chico, I headed east via Highway 70, the Feather River Canyon Scenic Highway. This road was not on the floor of the river valley; instead, it was a two-lane road perched on the side of a cliff, 70 miles long. This was OK because I learned to mountain-drive in northern Arizona, in particular, along the wondrous Arizona highway 89A.
I arrived in Quincy, this American Valley village of about 5,500 people; a town surrounded by the forested Sierra Nevada and a destination for those into hiking, backpacking, wilderness camping, fishing, lake and river recreation and all these fun and wholesome activities that I did not do very often, back in the Midwest except for grade-school Summer camp and some 20-something camping; river canoeing too on the Vermillion.Nevertheless, I arrived in Quincy on Aug. 20, 2016, in my 29-year-old Conestoga Honda Civic. Since it was the maw of the California drought, my first sense was claustrophobia, and how do I get out of here if there’s a forest fire? Turns out, there’s three two-laned highways to exit.
I wound up working and living at the Forest Service’s Mt. Hough Ranger Station (a complex of offices, fire companies, a motor pool; barracks too) for eight months as a temporary winter seasonal front-desk clerk. There, I received packages, issued camping permits and sold permits for woodcutting (for heating) and Christmas trees; mushroom and pine cones too.
While working there, I lived in the barracks complex about “two city blocks” from the office — a near-perfect commute, as we’d say in the city.
My new “neighborhood” seemed to have grown within the forest. The scenery outside the doors and through the windows, I imagined would have been quite attractive to an outdoorsmen or nature-lover; tree-huggers too, no doubt. Imagine having a visitor come in the office from Frederick, Maryland, where the Appalachians are nearby and so is the Catoktin Forest and the most beautiful and stunning Harper’s Ferry. I asked him how here compared with the scenery back there. He replied that the Sierra Nevada was “stunning!”
Not being an outdoorsman, I didn’t see much difference between eastern and western terrain, except for the difference in trees — evergreen versus deciduous. However, I do appreciate nature for its beauty, its science and its dangers: forest fires, tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis; the perfect storm too. Nevertheless, communing with nature is what other people do. I prefer, concrete, skyscrapers, city streets, and neon lights, etc. Thus, not once during that fall and winter, did I go out for a walk in the woods.
Now, admittedly, I did have my moments. One morning I walked out of the barracks’ front door and there in the morning silence the snow fell slowly and softly, (not wind-driven like in the Midwest) in almost perfect parallel lines. I thought: “There it is, a Sierra Nevada Winter and Hallmark cards too.”
Behind the barracks was a dry ravine. With all the drought-relieving rain and snow melt, a small foot-wide, inches deep creek formed and flowed out back. It lasted for days then dried up.
On another occasion, just as my tour-of-duty ended, I was in the barracks’ front room watching the network news. Suddenly, there was movement, outside the window. Out there in the graveled parking lot was what I thought was the biggest and mangiest alley cat I’ve ever saw. Nope: short tail and big paws—-bobcat!
A few weeks later, I moved into town, and then my nightmare — nearby forest fire.
Note, my original plan (in my lesson-planned life) was to go back to the flatlands — to Chico — when my tour-of-duty ended. As the job wound down, a couple of Plumas Club barflys suggested: “You can go back to the city anytime, so why don’t you stay here in the mountains for the summer. It will be cooler here, than down in Chico.”
Since I didn’t like what I had been seeing regarding Chico housing, the locals’ comments were just what I wanted to hear. So I stayed and became a temporary townie and Main Street denizen hobnobbing about and becoming a local at the Quincy Public Library and video arcade, the Plumas Club, the Drunk Brush Wine Bar (where they sell the most scrumptious Fireman’s Brew, from Ukiah, California) and the Main Street Sports Bar, that is, from time to time. Note, despite being a small town, Quincy is a destination-site (formerly known as a tourist trap) with farmers’ markets, some shops, a variety of restaurants and a quite lively and talented local music scene. Thus, there is usually something interesting to do in town, regularly, besides the great outdoors.
Thus, within that milieu, I was in the library on July 29, 2017, when a former forest service colleague said: “ Go look out the window, there’s a forest fire nearby.”
I looked out the window and could barely see a very pale, white chimney-like, but wide column of smoke. Within two hours the smoke darkened (the result of burning heavier fuel — downed trees instead of shrubs) and boiled up, as the fire sought more fuel to sustain itself. Indeed, it did, as the smoke thickened in the distance, and being a city boy I had no way of knowing how far away it was or where it is heading.
I went out on Main Street and asked one of the locals about it. He said it was arson and that someone set five spot fires with a flair gun. (I later learned that some of these spot fires were extinguished, but three others ran together to become a 4,310 acres eater, called the Minerva Fire, that took more than 1,200 firefighters more than 10 days to extinguish.)
My worst nightmare living in Quincy began. I stayed and looked to see what was happening. At the Main Street Sports Bar, some were watching the fires on their phone. They said they didn’t know exactly where it was going, but didn’t sound too concerned. Should I stay or should I go? A few blocks away in the Plumas Club, the congress of Saturday afternoon regulars flourished; not a barstool to be had and no one seemed concerned.
I asked old logger Al what was going on. He explained to me there were four or five ridges south of town, and the valley furthest away was burning. My flatlander eyes couldn’t discern the separate ridges until he pointed it out to me. I asked how far away and he estimated a few miles as the crow flies, but if walking from here to there, up and down those ridges the travel distance was further — perhaps 10 miles.
By then, the firefighting began as firefighters, fire engines, and aircraft converged. From that Saturday, continuing over the next several days, this Flatlander saw aircraft flying over that ridge and into the smoke; various helicopters too; fire trucks abound. Firefighting units converging from near and far.
I dreaded seeing a forest fire this close while I was a temporary townie. Indeed, later as they contained the fire, I asked Logger Al what he thought, since he’d been living and working there for a while. He replied: “I was unnerved by it.”
So was I, but I decided to take something fearful and bad, and get something good about it. Years ago, there was a solar eclipse over my hometown. I was probably 27 years old. On that day, the local newscasters were interviewing people on Michigan Avenue. Being the big city during the workweek, everyone seemed in a hurry, too busy to care about the eclipse, let alone be interviewed about it.
Then along comes this little old man, definitely a grandfather type, with his Wintertime bill-cap with ear flaps. The broadcaster asked him if he was going to view the eclipse today. He replied: “I most certainly am. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m going now to the Adler Planetarium to see it there.”
The young broadcaster seemed pleasantly surprised that she got such and enthusiastic response from a most unlikely source. She mentioned to him that so many of the others were unconcerned about the event. He replied: “Young lady, that’s what life is all about — to find out what’s going on.” So, here in Quincy, I did too. Here’s some of what I learned.
Fire-fighting aircraft were the most noticeable. That Saturday, July 29th, especially, when large passenger-sized jet planes seemingly dive-bombed the fire. They flew in low over the ridge and then descended abruptly into that far, fired valley, reminding me of landing in San Diego or Chicago’s Midway Airport. It was unexpected compared to jet planes flying low and horizontal to drop the reddish fire retardant. There were also Beechcraft spotters, and four-engine prop planes. Helicopters also participated. The typical urban traffic copters scouted and spotted. Larger choppers with bell-shaped containers delivered water from nearby lakes and streams, dropping it on and nearby the fire. Most peculiar was the sky-crane or “mosquito” helicopters. It doesn’t have a passenger compartment. Instead, it’s open space, and at first appearance, had a line extending beneath it. From a distance, I thought it was dangling a camera. Closer, it was a fire hose hanging beneath. The hose draws water up from local lakes and streams into a triangular trough-like container, which opens up to drop water as directed. I saw one at the local airport and it was as big as a tractor-trailer; humongous when flying overhead.
Thus armed from above, the initial 800 firefighters battled to keep the fire away from both Quincy and East Quincy. (A stand-by evacuation order had been issued by local officials. I didn’t know about it until later.) Fire engines patrolled the streets or were parked within the neighborhoods or in parking lots.
Despite that, Main Streeters rolled along. That evening, July 29th, I was in the Drunk Brush Wine Bar enjoying the entirely delicious Brunette Double Bock beer by Firemans’ Brew. Since Minerva was a ground fire, I hadn’t seen any flames, just smoke. Suddenly, at the top of that far-off ridge, a single tree flared up and lit up like a torch from the top down. It burned brightly in the twilight like a flaming sword and it reminded of the military patch from World War II — SHAEF. That lone tree burned and then went out, as if snuffed from above.
A night inversion must have occurred: the temperature drops and humidity rises thus diminishing the fire, because the next morning, Minerva seemed to abate. It didn’t.
Over the next few days, more firefighters converged: Federal, CalFire, nearby local companies and from afar, (Pennsylvania, Illinois, Alaska, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida) and city engine companies brought in to protect buildings. Turns out, that companies from say, Oakland, might have a combination of specialized equipment and training specifically for urban situations.
For me, it became routine to scan the ridges for smoke: color, direction and where the wind was taking it. At first, the smoke plumed up and away, but soon it wafted down through the ridges and eventually into the streets. The windows had to be closed at night. A week later, on Aug. 4, I was again in the Drunk Brush doing my Weekly Frat-Boy Frolic, when a cluster of trees suddenly flared up and I could see the firs go over the ridge and down toward the next ravine. Immediately, helicopters attacked this surging hot spot by dropping water in its front, and according to someone, right on the flare-up. That I didn’t see.
The smoke drifted and fire equipment moved through town toward the side roads that led into the fired ravines. The locals went about their routines as the firefighters directed the burn away from the two towns.
So just how do they fight this forest fire. Minerva was a ground fire where the flames consumed undergrowth and fallen trees. To learn about this informally, I asked questions when I had the opportunity.
From the air, they drop chemical fire retardants and water to keep the burn from spreading. They also drop water directly on top of it. On foot, they hose down burning areas, but mostly, they build fire lines by removing debris, thus denying the fire its fuel to sustain itself. Firefighters do this by hand on a fire line and where possible, with bulldozers. One old-timer and fellow barfly told me an ideal dozer line was five dozers wide, depending on the terrain. He called Minerva a “creeper,” because it was staying mostly on the ground. Others, suggested that the hugely wet winter had saturated the ground and trees with water an,d hence, less combustible than during a drought.
They also started backfires with drip torches. The purpose of such controlled fires is to burn up the available fuel — ground clutter — before the main fire arrives. No fuel, no fire.
Thus, tidbits, here and there, gave me a sense of what they were doing. The most interesting one was told to me by an older firefighter waiting for his wife to bring him lunch. He was an engine driver, and said they were all working 12 hours on and 12 hours off.
He told me he worked patrolling the burned area overnight. When I asked how, he explained that they drive the fire engines into the burned or burning areas. The thought never occurred to me that they could do this. I assumed that they either walked in or guarded the affected perimeter. With lights and tanker trucks nearby, the firefighters could wet down hot spots and even extinguish the burning; no punctured tires or burning fire trucks.
Formally, I relied on daily bulletins and maps posted on sandwich boards located throughout town. On some days, officials were there to answer questions. There were also postings on various websites such as plumasnews.com.
On one occasion, I went to the local, weekly community supper, to be greeted by about a dozen firefighters and law enforcement managers who gave a summary of the situation.
When I first arrived here I noticed being well received, for the most part, by the locals. It must be in them to be open and kind because soon after the firefighters arrived and got to work, thank-you signs began sprouting up on front lawns, open spaces, and postered on windows.
Support went beyond words. Local shopkeepers offered fire fighters free ice cream, drinks, muffins and coffee; the local grocery store worked overtime to fill food orders until caterers could arrive to the base camp. Locals freely fed their new temporary neighbors and on several occasions, walk-ins picked up the tab for firefighters’ food, donated money to merchants or paid in advance for their all-important guests.
Overall, the convergence of firefighters, the word on the street, daily dissemination of official info, made the event less intimidating and definitely learnable, and all done in a small mountain village accessible only by three local highways.
And learn I did. Later, when available, I hope to read the official reports. The weekly Feather River Bulletin was terrific, too, in their reporting the event and what was happening within the firelines. And, oh yes, I’m pretty sure that the next time I see a mountain ridge, wherever it may be, I’ll look up instinctively, checking for smoke. Even it its pale, now I know that I’ll be able to discern it because my eyes are now not as flatlander as they were before what Minerva taught me.
And one more thing: Thank you firefighters for being here and teaching me too.