Lifetimes With Fire A writer learns about living in the woods
by Gary Snyder
IN 1969, I PACKED MY BOOKS AND ROBES, and with my young family I sailed back to California from ten years in Japan. When I first moved to a piece of Sierra forest the next summer, I wouldn't let even a tractor drive over it. Except on a couple of ancient logging tracks that evolved into an access road, I wouldn't take a truck into the woods.
We built a house that summer. We felled trees for posts and beams using an old Royal Chinook two-person falling saw and then barked the logs with large drawknives. They were not skidded or trucked to the building site but carried by crews of strong young men and women using rope slings and little oak-pole yokes. The three-month job--the workers were mostly just out of college, and only a few had architecture and building skills--was done entirely with hand tools.
Our ridge had no grid power available, and we had no generator. The rocky road ran across a barren mile of ancient, rounded riverbed stone laid open by hydraulic mining in the 1870s. The building site was beyond the diggings and back in the forest, three miles from a paved road and the mailbox. The nearest town was 25 miles away across a 1,200-foot-deep river canyon.
Over the years since, we have gone from kerosene lamps to solar panels with a backup generator. I take my four-wheel pickup into the forest for firewood, and our homestead is now a hybrid of 19th- and 21st-century technologies. There's a wood-burning kitchen range and two large wood-burning heating stoves (more on those later), but we also use laptop computers, have a fax and a copying machine, and buck the big downed oak rounds with a large Husqvarna and a small Stihl chainsaw.
Every summer season, I do a bit more work clearing the underbrush (ceanothus and manzanita), and every winter I burn the brush piles. A few years back, I stood watch on mostly Bureau of Land Management forest, with the planned burn zone overlapping onto an adjacent private parcel. The fire torched a few big trees and burned a lot of underbrush down to ash.
It was scary, but the fire chief assured us everything was OK. Bulldozer operators were ready to come if needed, and so were the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection pilots at the county airport with their spotter and tanker planes. The burn went well all day. There were some complaints about the smoke--and that's one problem with prescribed burns: The air quality goes down, and newcomers don't like it. But the bigger problem is, eight years later, the site is getting brushy again. It needs a follow-up burn.
In 1952 and '53, I worked on fire lookouts in the Skagit District of the Mt. Baker Forest, in the northern Washington Cascades. Crater Mountain and then Sourdough. Those were the first jobs I held that I felt had some virtue. Finally, guarding against forest fires, I had found "right occupation." I congratulated myself, as I stood up there above the clouds memorizing various peaks and watersheds, for having a job that didn't contribute to the cold war and the wasteful modern economy. The joke's on me 50 years later, knowing how much of the fire-suppression ideology was wrongheaded and how it has contributed to our current problems.
I fought on a few fire lines back in the '50s too--as I was working alternately in logging camps and on lookouts or trail crews. I'd be carrying the little backpack pump full of water, with its trombone-slide pump, and always toting a duff hoe called a "McLeod." Nowadays I have a yellow Nomex jacket and a forest-firefighter helmet. I found them both at the Salvation Army. (Maybe a young firefighter just ran away.) I am reminded that my roots are in the Pacific Northwest when California forestry people seem to never have heard of Filson tin pants and I'm the only one wearing White's boots from Spokane.
Fire in the very high mountains is most commonly caused by lightning. A lively storm passes over and lasts all night, and hundreds of strikes are visible. Flashes light up the whole sky with their forks and prongs. Every once in a while, a strike goes to the ground, and even from a distance one sees a little spot fire blossom (usually soon to be quenched by the rains that come with storms). A dry lightning storm is what's dangerous: You might have hundreds of spot fires at the same time. A few are still going at dawn, and you take a reading on them with the Osborne Fire Finder. You radio in the bearing and describe the drainage. Fifty years ago, the crews hiked in with the help of a pack string. There were only a few smoke jumpers then.
In 1954, I was working on a logging crew at the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon. A lightplane crashed in the nearby hills and started a fire. They drafted a bunch of us, and we hiked in along with some U.S. Forest Service boys; half of our logging crew were local Wasco and Warm Springs Indians. The fire had spread to about two acres, but it was slow and the sky was overcast and finally drizzly, so it wasn't hard to put it out. The pilot had been killed. Fifty years later, I have three of the same type of backpack pumps, all in good condition, under the eaves near the toolshed door. They are filled with water and kept covered with cloth to protect them from the sun. A McLeod hangs on a bracket, and next to that in a woodshed there's a whole section full of hoes, shovels, and a few extra fire rakes. The classic wildfire-fighter's tool, a Pulaski, hangs in the shop. In the open porch space of the house is a line of wood pegs holding work clothes, but one is reserved for firefighting clothes: ragged, old Wild Ass logger jeans on a hanger, with a fire coat and yellow helmet, and a full canteen. Wild Ass is a brand name from a logger supply company. It has a fetching label. The company also makes light blue boxer underwear, which for a while became de rigueur among some West Coast girls studying at Brown University. In one coat pocket are the firefighting goggles, and in the big pocket is a pair of work gloves.
Several hundred families live in the pine-oak zone on this Sierra ridge. Higher up is national forest and heavy winter snow; lower down, the blue oak, grass, and gray-pine country, which once was hot and droughty ranch land but now is either an Air Force base or becoming an air-conditioned new development. At our elevation, most of the community seems to feel that our dedicated volunteer fire department should be prepared to step out the door anytime to help hold the fire line until the crew trucks come.
My family and I have taken care of several little fires ourselves. One time a tree only a few hundred feet from the house took a lightning strike, and the lower trunk and forest floor around were quietly burning. I saw the flickering light against the window. At 3 a.m., we went out and doused it with our backpack pumps and went back to bed. We checked it again at dawn and doubled the width of the strip of land we cleared by hand.
When there's suspicious smoke, a spotter plane takes off and cruises over, and if it's not just somebody's transgressive brush pile, tanker bombers might go out right away. If necessary, the bulldozer trailer hauler will start moving in that direction. California Department of Forestry stations are staffed with crews all summer. They have admirable fire trucks and, unless there are big fires elsewhere in California, they'll be there pronto. Still, in a place that's 25 miles or more from a fire station, you're the one to hold a fire in check and maybe even put it out.