Smoke gets in our eyes

The Pole Creek fire SW of Sisters, Oregon. Taken at 4:50 p.m. Friday.
 The fire, which started Sep. 9 was 5,000 acres this morning and has a crew of 716.

The sun coming in our dining room window casts a bright orange light on the floor, and when I look up the sun is round and clear through the smoke that hangs heavy over Sisters. It's eerie, and I think about the men and women fighting the Pole Creek fire and wonder how much sunlight they see through the billowing smoke that surrounds them.

Walking and cycling have been out of the question for days because the smoke makes our eyes burn and our throats ache. The firefighters we see around town, or heading up the pass in green "Hotshot" busses, are heroes in my burning eyes. They always have been.

I grew up taking forest fires for granted; for years they were central to our lives. My dad worked for the Forest Service and in the West summers meant fires: late night phone calls, quick packing, and days—sometimes weeks—without hearing from him. Most of the time he drove a Cat and built fire lines, and by all reports he was the best. Knowing him I believe it; he loved heavy equipment and handled it as delicately as he had earlier worked a team of mules on his father's farm. As a kid I took his absences and safety for granted, but that was ignorance and the confidence of youth. I know better now.

One of my earliest memories is fire related. It is as hazy as the smoke outside our windows but there are a few facts I know. It was 1944 or '45 and we were spending the summer at a ranger station complex near Clear Lake, California. I was three or four. I don't know how the fire broke out, or exactly where it was, but I know that because of the war there was a shortage of firefighters and older Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts filled the gap. Dad was put in charge of about a dozen scouts. Loaded with shovels and picks and packs and God knows what else, they were put into trucks and carried off to the fire. They were gone for days.

The where and why of the fire are unknown but I can guess that it was vicious, with changing winds in steep canyons and tinder-dry undergrowth and crowning flames. I sensed the concern expressed by everyone; there were problems, worry, confusion. I remember whispering and strange looks turned in my direction, and the wives of other men huddling with my mother as the days went on. And then one day my daddy and his group of scouts walked out of the fire and came home, and I was surprised to see the welcome they received. Wasn't this expected?

My father never talked about this experience and what I know I learned from others: that somehow they got trapped—by changing winds or impossible terrain or some unknown event, and that their last-known location was a dangerous one. Everyone believed them dead. I kick myself now for not pursuing this story when I could. One memory says they dug pits and buried themselves while the fire burned above them; another says they dug a kind of cave in a canyon wall. I don't know what the truth is but I know Dad saved those boys and was thought a hero by many, though he would have said, "just doing my job."

As I write, "our" fire has grown again and smoke lies heavy over the neighborhood. There is no wind at this hour, which is good for fighting fires but not so good for air quality. Still, I would rather have it made easy for those on the mountain who are risking their lives in awful conditions, while "just doing their jobs." (Government jobs, I feel compelled to add.) God bless.