Sunday, August 27, 2017

Atomic City Wildfires - Part 2

By the time it was all said and done the wild fire six miles in back of Big Butte (that had been dubbed Wildhorse Fire) had burned 26,000 acres.
A few days after the Wildhorse had ignited as a result of lightening, I read in the local newspaper that it was almost contained.
The same day that I read it was all but contained I walked with Kory around town late in the evening.
By that time the sky was completely filled with smoke, the buttes were covered in a haze, and the mountains to the north had completely disappeared.
 Kory and I walked late in the evening. 
Late enough that the extreme heat of the day had finally given way to cooler temperatures, and we took our time wandering up and down each gravel road in town.
As we finally began to wander our way back to the house I glanced south west, towards the tall rock hills that sat clustered together out in the desert two miles from town.
A place that LC and I had christened 8 Points the first time we found them, and a place we had visited often over these past four years.
I glanced towards the 8 Points and I saw smoke...................
Again we made a call, and again INL and BLM fire fighters were already on the scene of a growing wildfire - this time only a few miles outside of Atomic City..................
By the next day the normally quiet town of Atomic City (and the BLM Fire Station on the outskirts of town more specifically) was akin to a military command post.
By Day 2 of the Lave Flow Wildfire helicopters stationed on the far side of town were flying overhead and making regular water drops.
Scores of large and small trucks were parked at the fire station and in open fields on both ends of town.
A hundred fire fighters swarmed the town, sleeping in the station, in campers and in set up single man tents in one more open field.
An entire unit of support services (providing everything from potable water to catering to laundry services) were set up.
Immediately after putting out one fire, a second had developed.................
A couple of days into this second fire I ventured out onto BLM land with Kory.
The place felt almost surreal.
It was still daylight and I knew that scores of fire fighters were somewhere "out there" fighting the new fire.
Overhead the sky was the cloudless blue that it had been for seemingly forever, but the mountains were hidden behind the smoke and the world felt faded, washed out and eerily quiet.
Some pictures taken on our trip.................
The fire fighters were gone all day every day for five days.
Leaving early in the morning and returning late into the evening.
Exhausted.  Dirty.  Hungry.
The photographer in me wanted to capture pictures of them as they slowly wandered to the mess hall after getting cleaned up late into the evening.
The decent human being in me simply let them be and wished them continued safety.
Some pictures I COULD grab without being intrusive...................
By the time the Wildhorse and Lava Field wild fires had both been extinguished, more than 50,000 acres of grass land had been scorched.
Both were started by dry lightening and both were fed by the ample vegetation we had in the desert (due to high amounts of snow through the winter and a wet spring).
On the last night we talked to a couple of fire fighters who were walking close to the fire station just before dark and they tiredly (but thankfully) told us that both fires were out.
Early the next morning the entire command post had already bugged out, leaving only the normal contingent of BLM fire fighters remaining in Atomic City.
The rest were headed to the outskirts of Pocatello 50 miles to our south west.
That fire was rapidly growing....................... 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Atomic City Wildfires - Part 1

Most of the year it feels as though we simply live in a very small community 30 miles from the nearest town.
But during the month of July there was no doubt.
We live in the desert.
The last few weeks of June and throughout the month of July it was endlessly hot and dry.
No rain at all.  
No changes in the weather at all.
Just a seemingly endless series of days that included cloudless skies, fierce sunshine and stifling dry heat.
My least favorite time of the year.
The lush green of May and June was now long gone, only to be replaced with dried desert grasses.
With every day being the same as before, and with temperatures in the mid to upper 90s the world had quickly turned brown.............

One afternoon a few weeks ago we had a storm.
There was no rain attached to it, but rather thunder and lightening that was created in the mountains and resulting from extreme heat.
For a few hours the sky crashed with noisy violence and then it was over.
But during that storm lightening struck the parched ground of the desert and a wildfire was born...................
LC first saw it that same evening while he was out with Kory.
Smoke was off in the far distance but after calling the fire department we learned that they already knew about it and were already on scene..............
Mid-morning the next day I loaded Kory into the back of the Suburban and together we headed out into the desert.
It was mid-July and (as it had been for seemingly endless weeks) the sky was completely blue and clear and by mid morning it was already very hot.
Heading out of town we slowly drove the washboard gravel road until we hit Big Butte Rd, and drove slowly along THAT road trying (unsuccessfully) to miss the teeth-chattering wash boards and deep ruts.
The road was in terrible shape.
A symptom of uncaring truck, and dirt bike, and four wheel drivers traveling too fast on roads meant to be taken slowly and easily.
After passing Cedar Butte without seeing smoke I felt hot, bored and uninspired, and quickly decided that I would find a place to park - someplace open so that my hot tailpipe would not catch parched grass on fire - and let puppy roam for a while.
She had been content to wander back and forth between the back windows of the Suburban for the past 20 minutes, but was ready to run and I scanned the horizon in search of a safe place to stop.
As Kory happily romped in the high grass I looked around me.
God, I hated this time of year.
Too many snakes.  Too much heat.  Everything brown and dry.  The weather never wavering...........
And then I saw it.
Smoke curling up from the brown horizon, and immediately I decided that we would try and track it down...............
I know a lot of this desert.
Know where the caves are, the interesting rock formations, where the natural paths through the lava rock are located, where beautiful cedar trees have somehow managed to survive while reaching for the sun in between the rocks, where the wildflowers bloom in spring, where the cows graze, where the lone male antelope roams, where the gravel pits we use for target practice hide, where the trails are, where the remains of the dead sheep lies, where the fun trails are and so much more.
 But on this day - while in search of a plume of smoke in an undetermined location  - I was reminded of how deceptive the desert can be.
Time and again I thought we were close.
And then the road would curve and suddenly we were moving away from the smoke.
Time and again I thought the smoke might be over one more rise.
And then we would top the one more rise and we were no closer.
By the time Kory and I had reached Big Butte I gave LC a call to let him know where I was and what I was up to.
We were now 18 BLM miles from Atomic City and I had no idea how much longer I would have cell phone reception.
But for the first time in a while, I could tell that we were getting closer................ 
A couple of miles beyond Big Butte the terrain was less familiar to me.
We only came out this way a couple of times each year and I was thankful that the road (now dirt) was in better shape than the gravel roads I had left behind a few miles back.
Continuing on, the smoke became more prominent and so did the cows, and these friendly and lumbering creatures studied us in that poker-face low-IQ way that cows have.
Slowing the Suburban down to a crawl I eased by lone cows and cows traveling in pairs, hoping that Kory would stay put.
She did.....................
Looking back at Big Butte....................
By this time Kory and I had traveled about 23 miles in search of a wild fire.
The smoke was now steadily up ahead of us and I felt like we were finally close.
But i had felt that way a couple of times already during the trip, only to turn one more bend in the road or climb one more rise and realize that that was not the case.
As we slowly continued along the dirt road I made the inevitable decision to give it 10 more minutes.
Enough was enough, and I had not intention of driving ANOTHER 23 miles in search of an elusive fire.
10 more minutes...................
We climbed one more rise and I stopped the Suburban in the middle of the parched dirt road and climbed out of the vehicle.
Kory excitedly danced from one foot to another expecting me to immediately spring her from the bondage of the truck.
No Baby - Stay There. 
We were parked at the top of a shallow hill and I stood beside the Suburban looking out over the terrain in front of me.
About 3/4 mile ahead of me I could see a number of vehicles parked on the right side of the road.
Vehicles belonging to BLM fire fighters who were on the scene.
About 3/4 mile ahead of me on the left I could see the fire.
Could see the flames and the black smoke.
Reaching into the left pocket of my shorts I tried to call LC but quickly realized that I had no reception.
Reaching into the right pocket of my shorts I pulled out my camera.
I couldn't tell how big of a fire it really was, but the flames and the smoke traveled in a long line across the parched ground.
With all the snow we had during the winter and the wet spring we had, the grass was tall and the vegetation thirsty and abundant.
Plenty of growth to feed a hungry fire.
I wanted to go closer.
But I didn't.
The battle to contain the fire was just beginning and it was time for Kory and I to go.
We had another 25 miles to go before getting home..................
These are not great pictures.
The fire was too far away from us and I was zoomed in too far, but it was all that I could get................
Heading back the way we had come................
A mile or two before reaching the back side of Big Butte I stopped to snap this picture.
We had crossed the cattle guard on the way to the fire of course and (although I had been driving slowly) had hit the cattle guard hard.
So hard that it forced a hard landing for the Suburban, threw water bottles from seat to floorboard in the front and threw Kory from the left side of the vehicle to the right in the back.
As I stood looking at this sign I wondered if I had missed a similar sign coming in.
Carefully crossing the cattle guard for the second time that day I watched for a similar sign.
There wasn't one. would have been helpful if they (whoever "they" were) had put a sign up in each direction, rather that leaving folks to their own vehicle-jarring, teeth-jarring devices.................
10 miles from the fire I pulled off the road in a large open-dirt area, climbed out of the vehicle, opened the back door and moved out of the way so that my eager and excited dog could roam while I snapped some quick pictures.
The ever-cliched bullet-ridden sign...................
Boots On A Fence...................
After a long, slow and hot drive out into the desert we finally made it home.
We had no idea how much wildfires would dominate Atomic City (and the land surrounding it) for the next two weeks.....................