News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

In the Pines: Are you guys OK?

Once again, I smell smoke. The shadows landing on the sidewalk carry an amber tint.

My friend points out feathery smoke high above us, floating in from what she describes as a 30,000 acre prescribed burn up on the Metolius.

We're walking in ClearPine. A plume of smoke arises; it smells like smoldering pine needles. Then it turns dark black, letting off a nasty stink.

That was this week. When we left off in the story, here in the column, it was 2017. Click here to see previous column. Enjoying the eclipse festival in the Ochocos, away from cell phone service, my family had seen smoke coming in from the west. I'd joked that it might be our new house burning, the house we'd bought in the woods west of Sisters.

You know how funny fire jokes are. Ha, ha, ha.

We were supposed to move into the new house the following week. After some ten months living on the road in our groovy little RPod travel trailer interspersed with nine months of random furnished rentals, we were ready to have our own home.

After the mind-bogglingly awesome solar eclipse, we headed west. In Prineville, I turned on my phone. A cascade of messages poured down my screen. ARE YOU GUYS OKAY?

Friends from Portland, family from Lane County, colleagues from Wisconsin and California and Texas. Everyone wanted to know if we were safe from that dreadful fire near Sisters, Oregon.

Our newly adopted town, where we had lived one and a half years, had made the news. Preparing for a major solar eclipse and the tourist money it would bring in, Sisters was facing down a major wildfire instead.

We arrived to find the town enshrouded in smoke. The Milli fire was roaring through 20,000 acres of Deschutes National Forest close by. As for moving into our new house?

Not gonna happen. Our area had already been evacuated.

We popped on some N95 masks and took care of some essentials: check the PO box, pick up the prescriptions at Bi-Mart (yes, they used to have a pharmacy), have dinner at Three Creeks with friends. Then we headed toward the Valley.

We spent one night at an RV place along Highway 126 called Holiday Farm. That name may ring a bell, a fire-bell from another fire season. A subject for another column.

But in this reminiscence, we're in 2017, before the New Normal set in. Back in the day, in Oregon, we'd expect a few fires here and there, and occasionally some bad smoke. It was the exception, not the rule.

I knew a little something about wildfire in this area because I had been an artist-in-residence at Caldera Arts on Blue Lake back in ye olde 2004. It was springtime. The snow was melting.

What was under that snow? Great tangles of burned pines, charred pines, fallen pines. The remains of the 2003 B&B fires, which ate up 90,000 acres. (Learn more at the info-stop-thingy on the road up to Suttle Lake, which by the way could really use an outhouse-hint hint, if the forest service is reading this-or on Wikipedia.) Today we still see the standing remains of the B&B whenever we drive by Suttle, Hoodoo, Jack, through the Pass.

I call the silvered standing tree trunks "ghost pines." I write poems and songs about their solemn beauty. It's even my official camp name for Caldera events and Wildheart circles. Yeah, that's me: Ghost Pine.

In 2017, the idea that Milli might create millions of impressive-looking ghost pines for me to write about was not terribly soothing. I just wanted our friends, our town, and our new house to be safe.

We stayed with family in the Valley for about a week, then braved the trip up the McKenzie. Our new house had been un-evacuated, apparently. We could move in!

It was the day before school started. Our son would start first grade on time, along with the other kids. The elementary school announced that special air filters had been installed and everything was fine (a claim deserving of yet another column).

Traffic slowed as we approached the Santiam Pass ODOT station. We parked our trailer and tow vehicle alongside the highway. I walked up and found people milling around.

"The highway is closed," we were told. "You have to turn around."

Just what I always want to hear when towing a trailer... Only this time it was serious. Apparently there were two fires ahead, not part of Milli, right along the highway.

A friend lived up at ODOT. I wondered if I might ask her: could we just pull the RPod up to her family's house for the night? Then I looked at the hill above the ODOT station.

It was on fire. Right there in front of us. Burning.

To be continued...


Reader Comments(0)