Red Glow in the Western Sky

I WORKED hard in the garden that July afternoon, pulling weeds and moving hoses on the parched vegetables. Occasionally I'd straighten my aching back and look west, toward the sullen clouds hanging over the Black Hills, hoping for rain, but not expecting any. After a hurried lunch with my husband and son, I drove the pickup down toward the garden, glancing west out of habit, then swung in a tight, dusty arc and roared back, honking. The column of smoke wasn't thick; it rose straight up and mingled with the clouds, but we hadn't had rain for months, and I knew the woods were flammable as gasoline.

The fire looked close. I called a foothills neighbor to ask if he'd heard anything on his police scanner radio. He was casual, just finishing lunch; no, he hadn't, and where did it look like it was? I told him to look behind his house, and hung up.

``Watch this,'' I said, leading my family to the porch, where we could see our neighbor's house. Aloud, I counted to five, and suddenly the red pickup by his back door roared backward, spun around and raced down the ranch road, then south on a trail to his summer pasture, and close to the fire.

The column of smoke was exploding, building like a thunderhead, bubbling like a pot of water. It's always difficult to tell precisely where a fire is, but it was too close. The top of the column began to flow toward us as a west wind caught it.

A fire in trees is a dangerous place for inexperienced firefighters, and our ranch was surrounded by acres of parched, crisp grass that could be ignited by a spark. We spent the afternoon filling the 300-gallon water tank on the back of one truck, moving sprinklers in great circles around the house, and calling neighbors for news.

Breathing smoke as hot darkness came, we sat on the deck and joked about watching a live drama, better than TV. Ash floated down, gentle as snowflakes. Often, summer nights are still, but when the wind began, it switched direction every few minutes, as if a thunderstorm was close. I knew I couldn't sleep, so I sent my family to bed, and stayed on the deck.

About 10:30 p.m., I saw car lights on the driveway to my closest neighbors' house; they'd been gone all day, entertaining visi-tors from Germany. The car's brake lights flashed briefly as they topped the hill and saw the boiling red cloud.

Country neighbors never call each other after 10 p.m.; too many of us get up early. I waited five minutes by the phone, and picked it up on the first ring.

``Where is the fire?'' said Margaret. I told her all I knew, and that I was staying up all night; she promised to call me when she got up at 5 a.m.

All night I worked at my computer in the cool basement, and made trips every 15 minutes to the deck. Sometimes the red glow seemed to cover the whole western sky; at other times it flickered and dimmed. I listened with growing disbelief to the strange world of call-in talk shows, where people discussed with great solemnity whether or not Elvis lived.

About midnight, a brief news flash reported Mount Rushmore threatened by a forest fire. I could tell flames weren't close to the Shrine of Democracy, but for a New York reporter, I suppose 10 miles was close enough. Later, a talk-show caller said, ``I hope the forest fire blackens Lincoln's face on Mount Rushmore because he'd be so shocked at what's happening in South Africa today.'' Trying to figure out that logic kept me alert for an hour.

Several highways had been closed by firefighters, and some residents were desperate for news amid rumors that ranch buildings had burned. I answered calls, but could tell them little. Margaret sleepily called at 5, and I went to bed.

By late afternoon, gray ash was falling on the deck, and we took our water truck up to Margaret's yard. Her husband and brother were still on the fireline, and the two women were discussing moving their cattle and buffalo out of the pastures closest to the fire. But the job would be dangerous in the smoke, and the animals might get out on the highway.

All day slurry bombers lumbered overhead; we could tell when they dropped slurry - the engine sound changed.

The wind died during the night, the smoke moved east, and we woke to a landscape that looked foggy. The sun was only a red glow, and we couldn't see fences 50 feet away. It was impossible to tell if our own pastures were burning, and the steady drone of the slurry bombers overhead was gone. No one could be sure what the fire was doing; all flights were grounded.

On the fourth day, with the fire surrounded but not contained, I went into the hills to teach a writers' conference. At mid-morning, a sudden rain squall struck so hard we had to hold down the conference tents, and were laughingly drenched. The squall paused directly over the fire, dropping so much rain firefighters' trucks were mired, and sliding into trees. My neighbors, exhausted, having spent four days away from their families and their work, came home.

The joke among firefighters was that God looked down and said, ``You fellas aren't managing your fires very well; you've got too much of a fuel buildup down there,'' and sent a lightning storm to start a fire. Five days later he looked down and said, ``You guys don't fight fire very well, either,'' and sent a rainstorm.

They fought the fire, but they never controlled it; firefighters say no equipment exists to stop a fire of that intensity once it has begun. The conditions that brought this one small fire in the West's summer of flame still exist. Even if we get snow and rain in thewinter, they will continue to exist. Our forests contain too much unused fuel; if we aren't to lose it through wildfire, we must learn to manage it more safely.

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