Light & Shadow #9

Soot and Exhaustion — Near Moscow, ID Circa 1978

I can think of very few times in my life that I feared for my safety to the point that if the situation deteriorated much further, it could be deadly.

I did on this day.

By late August the Palouse country is dry — particularly in drought years as this one was. The rolling hills are covered with wheat and barley ready for harvest. Very often hilltops are covered in timber. All of it is ripe for a fire, and just needs the slightest coaxing. A hot exhaust pipe or a tiny spark is plenty.

A farmer’s worst nightmare is losing a crop for any reason, let alone right at the very end when he’s about to see a payday. On this hot afternoon, a bearing on a combine failed and the ensuing friction threw sparks into the straw. From there it was off to the races.

Firefighters and trucks from surrounding communities answered the call. Bright yellow ag airplanes loaded with water joined the fight to keep the fire from spreading to neighboring ranches.

The fire had been brought more or less under control and I was talking to a fireman next to his vehicle. As we looked down off the hilltop across the Palouse a train passed by. Each time the engineer used his brakes to slow… sparks!

Fires dotted the rail line.

Get in! the fireman hollered. I did. The rest is a little blurry. Whether from fear or the passage of time, I’m not sure. But by the time we got to those railroad tracks the flames were raging. One thing I’ll never forget is being in that firetruck, feeling the heat, and watching fire boil alongside and over the top of us. As I think about it now, I find it odd that it’s the last thing I can remember from that day.

The picture of this man — exhausted and covered in soot — is more reflective of the calm after the storm than the storm itself. It strikes me that bare skin and a shovel is no way to fight a fire and reminds me of an experience of my own some 10 years later.

A weekend visit with my in-laws at their mountain residence could have cost the patriarch of the family millions. We went to some property he owned that had undergone selective logging. A number of large slash piles were left behind. In a decision that lives in infamy, he thought it a good time to burn them.


It was a drought year then too, and forests all over Idaho were ablaze. In moments it was obvious we had a major problem. We had nothing but a couple of shovels and our own sweat to keep the fire from spreading into the rest of the forest. The fact we managed to contain the fire or that a spark didn’t fly off and light a new one was a miracle.

When it was all over, in his matter-of-fact and scientific manner Don said, ‘I think I underestimated the fuel value.’

Good times.

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