It’s amazing how much farther you can see when you get up high. But just because you can see more doesn’t mean you’ll like the view.
I was on a ridgeline 800 feet above my camp when the source of the diaphanous haze that flowed around the ridge top came into sharp focus. It was a small but heavily involved wildfire working its way up a hillside three ridges south of me. Underbrush and standing timber were all burning briskly and through the foreshortened view provided by my 10-power binoculars, the blaze seemed remarkably close.
The fire was a surprise to me. I’d searched carefully for a spot well removed from the many fires burning in the Oregon Cascades, and thought I’d actually found a place I could hunt deer without choking through smoke or worrying about a fire itself. It hadn’t shown up on fire maps the day before and I hadn’t noticed any indications when I’d driven in. But there it was and though the wind was negligible, it seemed to be feeding greedily up the hillside toward me.
I don’t want to be melodramatic here. I was more than a mile away, there was no wind and no involvement by either firefighters or Forest Service aircraft, leading me to believe the fire was not a threat to expand in any direction.
There was almost certainly no risk to me but I had a couple of small concerns: First, the road I’d driven on my way in passed considerably closer to the fire than my present location. Second, there was no other way out. A large tree had fallen across the road a few hundred yards past my camp and without a chainsaw I had no chance of driving out in that direction.
So, although I was safe where I was, my ability to actually depart the area was somewhat less certain. If the fire reached my escape route I’d have to reverse course, get my vehicle as far from the fire as possible and then think about walking out. Even this was not a major issue; the fallen tree was no impediment except to the vehicle, so I could hike on Forest Service roads for 30 miles or so to civilization. No problem.
Well, there was a minor problem, which was this: I’d never been near a forest fire before and I was just slightly uncomfortable. Not that I was afraid, you understand, just a titch north of concerned. Because I might have been wrong about the number of ridges between the fire and me. Maybe there were only two, not three, and maybe the canyon between them was very shallow. And maybe the timber between us was particularly dry. And maybe the wind would pick up.
Intellectually, I knew I was safe. But intellectual musings weren’t much help. There’s something visceral about wildfire, even through 10-power glasses and even two ridges away. Plus, I was still 800 feet above my camp. I felt some urgency to return, pack up and to be perfectly frank, get the hell out.
So I turned my sights downhill and took a direct path back, covering in less than two hours a trip that had taken me more than five hours on the way up. My camp was packed in record time and I headed down the road. The return trip was uneventful, and somewhat deflating. I never even saw the fire on my way out.
No problem. I knew there was no danger. Knew it. And yet … it might be a while before I hunt the High Cascades again while fires are burning.
Correction: In my last column, I mistakenly identified pikas as rodents. They are not. They are lagomorphs, close cousins to rabbits. I compounded the mistake by stating that mountain beavers were related to rabbits. They are not. They are rodents. Not my best work. Sorry.