Friday, June 27, 2008

And the Mountains were Ablaze

Watching the news recently about the many fires in California brought me back to my own personal experience that I had in 1994. My buddy and I had driven to Pismo Beach for a weekend of fun and relaxation. On our way back, we had to go thru the coastal mountains back toward Fresno, a usually peaceful drive with majestic trees and scenery. It was mid-afternoon and the more we drove the closer you could see that the sky ahead was black, rolling and angry looking. At first we thought it was a storm, it didn't take long to realize it was a wildfire. We drove ahead, because everybody else was, and it was the only way to highway 5. Since the road twisted and turned the smoke seemed to change direction, at one point we though we had gotten around it, but 5 miles later we were surrounded by it. The California Highway Patrol waved us on, so we thought we would be safe, but we could see the fire was getting closer and closer. By this time the sky was smoky and you could feel it in your throat, the fire was now visible on all sides of the road, just at the edge of the mountain tops on both sides of the road. Up ahead, the CHP pulled a group of us over and with their loudspeakers informed us that the road was blocked now in both directions and that we needed to pull over and wait till it was safe to drive. There were about 25 cars pulled over, everybody was outside watching the scene.

It was surreal...that's all I can say. The fire was about 1/2 mile away on both sides, but you could feel the heat on your face, even through the car windows. The fire, was liquid like, racing up and down the mountains like lava. When the fire hit the trees they exploded from the heat into balls of flame and crackle. It was exciting and scary all at the same time. Between us and the fire was a small lake, and the helicopter was dipping its bucket into the lake filling up and running back up to the fire and dropping it on the flames. All the time an airplane was dropping fire retardant and flying over us at about 100 feet. As far as you could see to the left and to the right the mountains were ablaze with fire. The trees continued to explode and the fire had whipped up a wind that blew down from the tops of the mountains. The flames were hypnotic. I stared at them and saw that they were as if they were alive and angry. We were all there, in the heat and flames, for 2 hours before the road was cleared for us to pass. It was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had, and no doubt one that everybody else shared as well.

The fire was started by lightning just as most wildfires are. This one, burned 250,000 acres before it was eventually put out 5 days later. Luckily, because it was all contained in grazing land, very few buildings were destroyed, altho a large herd of sheep didn't survive there was no loss of human life. What a place to be without a camera! I never go anywhere without one now just in case.