The alarm sounded at 5 AM on Labor Day. I grabbed the phone and quickly scrolled social media, as I typically do before getting out of bed. A red flag warning had been issued for this particular day and already numerous fires were filling my newsfeed but one in particular got my heart racing. The now named "Cold Springs/Pearl Hill" fire had been raging to our north and east and had already driven its way many miles south and jumped the Columbia. I quickly dawned a robe and ran out of the house and out onto the fire break on the north side of the house. The dust from the sandy soils of the ancient Columbia River bar I live on swirled inthe 40 mph winds burning my eyes. From horizon to horizon north to south and east of the house was filled with a massive wall of smoke.
I ran back inside and woke my wife. "Start packing. There's a fire!" I quickly checked Okanogan and Douglas County law enforcement media outlets for evac notices. There were none. We packed bugout bags with a few changes of clothes, cameras, hard drives, battery banks, toiletries, and passports. You keep going over in your mind what should you take? What should you leave? I loaded one of my kayaks, because why not? I had space on the roof. Next went firearms, bows, computer towers, and chicken feed for our flock that was coming with us. It was 9 AM.
I burned an hour trying to get a better grasp of where the fire was. Community Facebook groups were proving far more informative that official government outlets which at this point had still not issued any specific notices to the area I live. Spent another hour walking around the house filming everything for insurance purposes and I double checked my renters insurance was still paid and up to date. The sky had transformed into an ominous ember color and the sun was barely visible. The first flames of a massive active fire front stretching for miles became visible to our east.
11:30 AM....Level 2 evacuations notices are issued for the town of Bridgeport just a few miles away. The vehicles are loaded. We position sprinklers in key vulnerable areas around the house and move anything combustible away from the house. The wind is ripping out of the NE 30 to 40 mph and gusting well above that. The sky is black. Crickets are calling and our hens are all on the roosting bars.
2:04 PM...emergency tones hit all our phone simultaneously. Level 3 evac leave now. Power is glitching in and out. I'd laid down a tarp in the back of the SUV. We tossed all 16 chickens in the back. I couldn't leave animals behind to burn alive, I just can't. We double check every lock in the house for fear of looting. One more walk through while the lights flicker. This is it.
2:30 PM...Evacuate. We merge onto 173 towards Brewster away from the fire joining hundreds of other vehicles, RVs, boats filled with furniture and family belongings. A couple of the hens spill out of the the back onto the front seat eager to get a better view of the outside world. I just look at them and laugh and cry. This is f...ing crazy.
20 minutes later we arrive at a friends house in Pateros. They lost their house to a wildfire 6 years earlier. We dump the chickens in the backyard much to the delight of their kids. I drink a couple beers and try to unwind while touching base with family and checking fire reports. We are safe.
As the sun fades we start receiving terrifying videos of the fire around Bridgeport only a few miles from where we live. My wife and I prepare ourselves mentally for what seems inevitable. Suddenly fire appears opposite of Pateros. Our hosts decide its best we prep to evac. The chickens go back in the car. I help him load his camping trailer and boat. They start packing their bugout bags. Their little boy is crying because he is scared. We all put on a strong face but I feel like melted butter inside. Then suddenly the wind dies. The fire opposite the river sputters out.
I sleep like 3 hours. We get a call around 5:30 AM. The house is still standing. There is still active fire within 1/2 mile of the house but the fire is behaving more moderately. We pass a police checkpoint. They remind us the area is still on evac 3 notice. We get home relieved to see it still standing. I can see pines torching just a 1/2 mile south. We decided to drive down and take a look. There are no firefighters around just a 1/2 mile wide fire front chewing through the sagebrush and pine landscape. We return back to the house. Power is out. Without power there are no pumps so we have no water. We opt to dump the chickens back into the coop everything else remains packed.
For the next two days I basically sit on the lawn watching the fire chew away a 1/2 to 3/4 miles south and west of us. More firefighting resources have arrived and are defending structures and meeting the fire where they can to suppress it spreading out onto the flatlands where my house lies. We secure a generator for the fridge and chest freezer. I set my alarm for every two hours for the next three nights. It's exhausting but for the most part the fire behaves predictably.
Without anyway to cook anything elaborate we enjoy fresh albacore poke using loins from recent trip out of Westport.
Everything seems to be going well. The fire is burning a 1/4 mile a day when on Friday evening the wind suddenly surges out of the southwest. The fire spots out on the flatlands where we live. My wife is the assistant wildlife manager for the area so we rush to open gates to give firefighters access to fight the fire. The worst case scenario seems to be coming true. The fire takes on its own life and it sounds like a jet engine roaring. Massive flames ride upward into the sky. From the town of Brewster people report a massive wall of fire across the river.
Then as suddenly as the winds come on they subside. Hundreds of firefighters pour into the area. I hardly sleep a wink all night but the fire fails to spread out onto the flats.
On Saturday things calm down a bit and heavy smoke from the south in OR/CA settles in and helps to smother the fire advance. Power, water, and internet are restored. On Sunday a successful backburn marks a major victory in stopping the fire. Yet many hotspots remain glowing on the horizon.
On Monday we finally transition from evac 3 to evac 2 and that night it rains gently off and on for several hours. We finally unpacked the cars and I lay down for a full nights sleep.
The week of the Cold Springs/Pearl Hill fire was one of the most stressful and tiring weeks of my life. The fire burned in virtually every direction around us. The map below shows the extent of the burn in pink, red, and orange. The black spot marks our home. In total the fire burned 400,000+ acres in less than a week. We always just seemed to get lucky that the winds laid down or turned in the right direction at the right time. Many others in the communities around us were not so fortunate.
What did I learn from this experience.
1. That I have way more friends and people who love me than I ever imagined.
2. That firefighters and lineman are badass.
3. That the Facebook community is far faster at providing real time information than government outlets.
4. That you should be prepared to leave before someone officially tells you that you should be prepared to leave
5. Most of my personal belonging really don't matter that much to me.
I'd like to think that this experience is something that most of us will never have to experience first hand. Both Sidra and I are physically and mentally frayed after living and breathing under a literal dark cloud of wildfire threat for a week now. Of course we know the shadow cast by the immense plumes has impacted more than our lives as the communities in our area are forever scarred by loss of homes, life, and massive ecological damage. Strong holds for Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit (see photo), Sage Grouse, and Sharp-tailed Grouse are gone pushing these species one step closer to extirpation.
Our hearts are heavy with sorrow and lungs heavy with smoke as this cycle of fire and smoke becomes more routine with each passing year in the Anthropocene. The absolutely insane number of fire starts, both insidious and accidental, coupled with changing climate are altering the western landscape in less than a generation. I'd like to paint a rosy picture of hope about humanity changing it's ways and reversing this course but I'm educated and old enough to know it will not. This is the new landscape we leave for the next generation to inherit and it will be one filled with stress, sorrow, and absent the endless forms most beautiful that evolution has crafted.