Where There’s Smoke…

The 1910 forest fire in Idaho was so devastating it’s still known as the Big Blowup. Ten thousand forest rangers, miners, and farmers became firefighters. Many died and were buried where they fell. Some towns were evacuated by trains racing ahead of flames.

This history figures in the plot of book three, which is in process, and because of it I’ve been thinking a lot about fire. What it would have been like to face it, how it comforts and terrifies, warms and burns, provides safety, and destroys. And memories of my own firefighter days. But on a lighter note I thought I’d share a story that is nothing like the 1910 fire.

Once, we camped our way across Montana and found a beautiful, secluded campground on the Black Foot River. We had the place completely to ourselves and set up camp under huge old pine trees right alongside the river. My husband stood out there in the sunset fly fishing while I followed our young son, tossing rocks. Peaceful and perfect.

Until the wind started up, and kept coming, roaring over the mountain, bringing with it the smell of smoke and hot ash that burned holes in our tent. We had a camper on our truck so we retreated as thunder and lightning joined the wind. Pitching a tent with metal poles right under very tall trees suddenly seemed vulnerable.

In order to keep our son from being too scared, we resorted to happy voices. “Wow! Isn’t that cool how the wind tosses the tent?” and “Look at those tent poles break! Isn’t that funny! Let’s play Monopoly!” and “Bet you didn’t think tree branches could make such a loud crash when they hit the camper!”

The storm was violent enough that it blew the thought of ash, and what might be causing it, from our brains. Just like our tent blew away, along with the heavy-duty stakes.

After a long night in which our son slept soundly and we didn’t, we got up with the beautiful dawn illuminating the Black Foot. we packed up and pulled out. Rounding a corner not even a quarter-mile from the campground, we came across hundreds of identical tents in many, many rows. Firefighters.

There was a huge forest fire nearby. Everyone except those fighting the flames had been evacuated. Someone, on the way out, forgot to put a ‘closed’ sign at the campground. The high winds the night before had whipped the fire into a frenzy, but somehow the mountain had kept it from raging our way.

A good friend, Paul, was at the time a forest ranger who fought fires. As we drove by all those identical tents, a happy voice from the back seat piped up. “Let’s find Paul!”

Someday I want to return to that campground because it really was beautiful. Doubt we’ll have it to ourselves though.

Wonder if there’s still pieces of tent hanging from the trees.

One of my favorite camping pictures of Arthur.

One of my favorite camping pictures of Arthur.

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