The agony of loss: Out-of-control wildfires

Near Darke

By Hank Nuwer

In May of 1972 in Northern New Mexico, I earned my fire-fighter card from the Forest Service.

The training at Hermit’s Peak mountain was unpaid. The fire fighters worked us trainees hard.

I was in good condition, easily completing all tests. I recall the raking exercises and creating fire breaks— gaps in vegetation that slow a fire’s progress.

By June 30, not a single big fire occurred. A fellow trainee named Carlos and I joked that God would punish us if we prayed for a wildfire to earn us money.

I grabbed a security guard job to pay graduate school costs.

In the mid-to-late 1970s to 1982, I worked as a freelance writer and lived in some nice cabins.

The first rented cabin was in Topanga Canyon. While in nearby L.A. on business, a terrible fire hit. I saw the flames and black smoke from the Malibu Highway. State police made all cars turn back.

Two days later, permitted to return. I passed ruined structures and spared homes, including the spared home of Will Geer — the grandfather in The Waltons TV series.

My landlady was outside when I arrived. Her big cabin and my little cabin were untouched.

However, her property was scorched. Fire breaks saved the cabins, All surrounding land, including a garden, was charred.

I moved back to New Mexico for a year in 1978. I rented an El Porvenir, N.M. cabin on a horse-and-cattle operation owned by a wizened Mexican-American man. He always had a white straw cowboy hat glued to his head.

I spotted wild turkeys on my walks and climbed majestic Hermits Peak for breathtaking views from its flat top.

If you have been following the news, you know the Hermits Peak fire has raged for more than one month. All that’s left of the ranch and my sweet cabin with fireplace is what I hold dear in my memory.

In the summer of 1981, to finish writing a book, I rented a short-term cabin in Idylwild in California’s San Jacinto Mountains.

One day, I hope to come back to its sweet-smelling pines to see if that little home survived the 2018 disastrous Cranston fire. Some demented arsonist sprayed W2 everywhere and lit it.

A friend of a friend offered me a good deal in September of ’81. His mother’s beautiful ranch house in Berry Creek, Ca., was vacant. I stayed in an adjacent A-frame cabin for free to keep intruders from stealing timber. I wrote another book at the cabin and rode a sweet filly named Surprise under the shadow of Bald Mountain.

I left Berry Creek in 1982 and took a job teaching journalism at Clemson University.

By now you likely surmised that Berry Creek, too, went up in flames. A lightning strike started the conflagration.

I don’t intend to go back. Nothing left to see. The North Complex fire of 2020 destroyed all of Berry Creek save three homes. Some 150,000 acres burnt. I6 people died. One boy likely tried to save some possessions and was trapped on the single road leading away from the mountain. A pack of firefighters were trapped by flames but escaped due to their training.

This month, my wife Gosia and I visited friends at their dog-mushing ranch in Two Rivers, AK. Their neighbor across the road was one of many homes allegedly torched by accused firebug Jamison Gallion, 18. His trial now continues in Fairbanks.

From Two Rivers we drove along the highway lined with ptarmigan to inspect some of our land in Alaska.

One mile from our place is the tiny town of Tanacross. The trees lining the road into town are mere black stumps. Two years ago, firefighters halted a tempest on that very road just shy of the first home.

My wife and I often discuss putting up a cabin on the land. We only have three neighbors on the narrow dirt road leading to our place. Folks here claim it was the heaviest snow in 40 years. We could only navigate 5 of 15 acres.

If we do put up the cabin in this time of soaring lumber and labor costs, you can bet it will have some fire-fighting features. No vegetation for 30 feet around cabin and outhouse. Metal-mesh vents atop the loft to combat embers in event of a fire. A gapped fire block in walls. A fireproof metal roof.

But, truth to tell, nothing can keep a house intact during a disastrous wildfire like those in Berry Creek and El Porvenir.

I never earned a paycheck as a wildlife firefighter.

My heart goes out to the brave men and women who risk their lives to combat wildfires.

And, in this age of climate change, to the many thousands of good people whose rural homes went up in smoke.

Hank Nuwer is an author, columnist and playwright. He and wife Gosia live on the Indiana side of the Union City state line. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.