During the safety briefing, I realized that my fire shelter had been breached. I had never been so scared. It was the summer of 1986, the year before I graduated from college, and I was one of a group of many Gifford Pinchot National Forest employees highly encouraged to volunteer to help fight forest fires in Eastern Oregon, specifically, in the Umatilla National Forest. Fortunately, someone tracked down a better shelter and switched it out with mine. Before (and after) my short (about two weeks) stint as an amateur volunteer firefighter, I worked in the geotech department in Packwood, Washington, where I helped measure gravel depths on Forest Service Roads and performed gradation tests on soil samples four days a week and hiked nearby trails during three day weekends.
Once geared up with fire-retardant yellow Nomex shirts, helmets, hiking boots, fire shelters and a shovel or pickax, we headed out to our destination in the bed of dusenhalf (two and a half ton) trucks. As USFS workers, we received something like 150% of our base pay (I was earning $5.50 per hour) plus additional Hazardous Duty pay for working the night shift. My group was tasked with digging fire line, which meant creating a long narrow trench in the dirt at a specified location outside the boundary of the fire to reduce the chances of it spreading. What I remember most was being unable even to cat nap when allowed because of the fear of snags which were dead trees that could fall unexpectedly and kill you. We would occasionally hear them fall off in the distance, which was frightening. That summer, we learned that other firefighters had been forced to deploy their shelters, a super scary situation considering the flimsiness of the shelter and the skepticism that this thin metal shield could protect a person from high fire temperatures.
Driving in my car earlier this week, I heard the news that three USFS firefighters fighting a fire near Twisp died when their vehicle crashed and flames overtook them before they could escape. I cried. I’m not sure that I or any of the other Forest Service workers were in any huge danger years ago when we were out there, but I remembered seeing flames a few times and I remember how scared I was all the time that a snag would fall and kill me or we’d be forced to deploy our fire shelters.
Last weekend, I headed towards the heat when I traveled from Oak Harbor to East Wenatchee to visit my sister JoDee, who took up running earlier this year and has since become obsessed with it. She had several runs planned for us during my stay. When I arrived on Thursday, the skies were clear above Wenatchee but smoked filled the skies towards the north as I crossed the Frances Farmer Memorial Bridge along Highway 2 over the Columbia. On Friday, visibility was still excellent and the skies smoke-free as we made our way to Sage Hills, a 32 acre property protected since 2001 by the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, part of the Wenatchee Foothills.
Minutes after we arrived, JoDee announced that she’d locked her keys in her car. No matter. A woman who’d just entered the parking area offered us a ride home, insisting we go through with our running plans. She gave directions to her nearby house and promised to keep an eye out for us when she finished her hike. I’m used to running on trails surrounded by trees and tons of vegetation, like those at Fort Ebey, Deception Pass State Park, and the Anacortes Forest Lands. Sage Hills Trails are almost entirely barren, especially after having been burned weeks ago during the Sleepy Hollow Fire. Instead of enjoying the surprise of what you might find around the next corner, we could see acres of land and miles of scorched trails as well as the greenery and scenery towards Wenatchee. JoDee locked her water in her car along with the keys, so we decided to shorten our course to about five miles instead of our planned distance. Conspicuous signs scattered at several locations marked trails closed because of the fire and other trail-protecting reasons. But there were plenty of places to run, mostly along sloping hillsides that could lead to serious injury in the event of a fall. I tripped once and felt the beginning of my life pass before my eyes.
A fall off the trail might not kill you, but would likely lead to broken bones or, at a minimum, require the removal of a bunch of pokey stuff from your skin. The ground was noticeably black in places, as was much of the vegetation, but new shoots of green were already growing. We encountered two pairs of hikers and one runner returning from his point to point destination. It gets warm early in Wenatchee in August and we all had the same idea of enjoying our time on the trails before it got too hot. As we neared the turnaround, an experienced hiker couple carrying binoculars suggested an alternate lollipop-like return route rather than our planned out and back course. Normally, we’d have taken the more adventurous path, but we didn’t want to risk getting lost, taking too long to get back and possibly miss our ride. We returned safely to the parking lot and made our way to our ride’s house and our lucky ride home.
We decided the damaging smoke-inhalation effects outweighed the benefits of running and stayed inside. A light dusting of ash covered streets and vehicles and didn’t let up, so I cut my trip short and returned Sunday morning, driving under smoke filled skies along Highway 2 from Wenatchee through to Everett, then north on Interstate 5 to Highway 20 West. We couldn’t tell that the skies somewhere above the smoke were actually clear until Anacortes, with limited though better visibility than elsewhere. From Dugualla Bay, Mount Baker was noticeably obscured, though we could see scattered clouds in the distance.
Arriving home, I felt grateful for the time I’d been able to spend with my sister, daughter and mom and thankful for the many men and women out there risking their lives to keep people and property safe from fire. My own brief fire-fighting days were mostly fear-filled and un-fun, save for the camaraderie and sessions of hacky-sack, a universal activity for Forest Service workers. While the Foothills Trails were a welcome change, I am happy to be back where what you might encounter during trail running is more of a surprise, but I hope to return to where the wildflowers are along the Foothills Trails in Wenatchee next spring.