There is a strange, painful beauty in watching the forests burn. This must be why so many others have pulled over to the side of the highway, entire families leaning against their dusty cars, staring up at the mountains in silence as smoke spills over and fills the valley, enveloping the sleepy Idaho town below in a thick, grey cloud.
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The Sawtooth National Forest has been declared a state disaster area. On the news, we’ve seen videos of specialized firefighters in helicopters, pouring buckets of retardant onto the flames, which doesn’t seem to do much to subdue them. The fire has a mind of it’s own. It’s funny, I think, how we assume we are powerful, but against the force of nature we have few weapons. A single cigarette, an ember left after a camping trip, a piece of trash on a hiking trail can burn entire forests to the ground. The Beaver Creek Fire started with a lightning strike in the Sawtooth National Forest, and, fueled by pine trees and the dry, Idaho air, it burned 114,900 acres of the parched forest before firefighters could quench the flames.
Hailey, Idaho, my father’s childhood home, was where I spent my childhood Junes and Julys, wading in the cold shallow rivers, buying ice cream cones from the gas station, and sleeping on hay bales under thousands of clear stars. At such a stark contrast from the frantic pace and traffic jams of the city I call home, the open fields and sprawling mountains, the vast, unexplored wilderness, and the authentic small-town Americanness of it all never ceased to amaze me. The quiet, gentle hands of nature.
But this trip is different. I am amazed at how the mountains, usually peaceful and quiet, have turned against us. The whole town is covered in soot, the stores are closed, and as we sit listening to the car radio, waiting for the inevitable call to evacuate, watching the wind blow ashes around the windshield, it occurs to me that this is how I imagine the apocalypse might begin. Nature’s revenge. When the call does come, we pack our things, and drive out to my aunt’s property, a few miles out of range of the smoke. From the backseat as we drive away, I call my mother, three thousand miles away, to let her know that I am safe. I can still see the tips of the mountains, swollen with fire, exhaling smoke. It is an amazing, terrible sight.
In the passenger’s seat, I reflect on the past few days. I am amazed by nature’s potential to turn angry and dangerous, but I am also surprised by people’s willingness to help out – the free smoke masks, the concerned calls from family members, the kindness of strangers – and the perseverance and sense of community in the small town. The fires brought the town together, and I was proud to be a part of it.
That night, my grandmother and I camp out on my aunt’s property. She lives in a tiny house with no neighbors to be seen, just mountains and a river that stretches out past the horizon. There are lots of people there, friends and family who I’ve never met, waiting out the fire, so we sleep outside in a tent. We make sandwiches for dinner and watch the news, and that night we camp out under the stars. With my grandma’s Jack Russell snuggled up between us, oblivious to the nearby flames, I am peaceful. The threat of the wildfire has reminded me how much I have to be grateful for.
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