Fire and the Heatwave: What the Hell Are We Doing?
*This is a little content warning that this story contains descriptions of death and suicide.*
Today, an 30,000 acre wildfire is burning across the section of the PCT that runs from Etna to Ashland. Hikers have been ordered to evacuate from that section to the nearest town.
I wrote this post over a week ago, when I was deciding to skip around part of the burn south of there. At the time it was 100F (37C) and hiking through a deforested section felt deeply unappealing and also kind of crazy.
SKIPPING (PART OF) THE BURN
35 years of social conditioning in Australia to stay inside between 1pm and 3pm, and to never hike in the bush in high summer have left me feeling uncomfortable about NorCal. I don’t want to skip the burn because it’s ugly or boring, I want to skip it because it feels insane to me to hike in 100F (37C) heat through a completely exposed area breathing in soot and ash.
GROWING UP WITH FIRE
When NorCal residents hear my accent and ask if I’m Australian, they often want to talk about the fires. We talk about what it’s like to live in a fire-prone area, and how much worse it’s getting every year.
When I was growing up on our farm, every summer was tense.
Fire was a real and present danger every minute of every day. The radio is always on. The car stays packed for evacuation. The photo albums are buried deep in the back yard. Intricate systems of 40 gallon drums of water and hoses snake across our property and everybody always knows exactly where the boltcutters are. If a fire is too close to evacuate livestock, your best bet is to cut the fences and let them run.
Like the Dixie fire, the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Australia were started by improperly maintained powerlines. In both cases power companies were found at fault for the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres, of homes and forest and animals, and of many lives.
While there have been larger fires in Australia since, the Black Saturday fires remain the largest loss of life due to bushfire in Australian history.
Igniting as the temperature in Melbourne reached 115F (45C), it quickly became a firestorm – the classification given to a fire that burns hot and fast enough to create it’s own storm-force winds. Things explode rather than burn. When firestorms occur in cities they are the result of targeted bombings, like Hiroshima.
On Black Saturday I was camping in rural Tasmania.
This was before smart phones were ubiquitous, and after returning from the bush I had gone to bed in a friend’s house without charging my dead flip phone. The next morning I was the first person to get up. I plugged in my phone in the laundry and wandered into the lounge room, turning on the TV and muting the volume to watch the news.
Given it was February it wasn’t surprising that the TV screen flickered on to show footage of bushfires. But it was on every channel. I read the text scrolling across the bottom of the screen. I began to realize that it was my home town they were showing – ablaze for miles in every direction.
As I moved towards the laundry to check my phone I became aware it had been buzzing continuously for minutes, rattling loudly on the metal washing machine lid.
I opened it, still buzzing, to dozens of missed calls and messages. They said things like:
“Is your family alive?”
“Do you know if Scott’s family got out?”
“Have you heard from my Mum?”
I glanced at the TV. It was telling me residents of my region were unable to evacuate and that the fatality count was unknown.
I scrolled through my phone and found texts from my mother and sister, saying they had been in the city yesterday and that they couldn’t go home. The whole region was still on fire. It would be weeks before my mother could go home. Months before I returned to see the black acres of razed land that used to be our farm.
After a normal fire, the bones of buildings usually still stand; there are fragments of a life lived within those bones hidden in the ash. There was nothing left of our house. The temperatures in the fire were more than 900C (1650F). Our iron fireplace had exploded and there was no sign of it left.
When I spoke to them that morning, my mother and sister didn’t know if the rest of our family or our friends and neighbours had gotten out. Our little county is called the triangle: its three towns nestled in dense forest with only one road out in and out.
Communication networks had been destroyed and it was days before we began to get news. I heard from old friends I hadn’t spoken to since I moved to the city. Our immediate family had been evacuated to a nearby town in time. My cousin’s other grandmother, who had also been my first grade teacher, had left her husband behind when he refused to leave with her. He died in his home.
Hundreds of residents gathered on the sports oval at the centre of town, some wading into the lake while the fire raged around them. Afterwards, some of them wandered through the blackened and smoking streets.
A friend I rode the bus to school with told me she only recognised one charred body – because it was pregnant.
My town didn’t recover from the fire for over a decade.
It had been a tourist town: beautiful rainforest hiking in the summer, cross country skiing in the winter. It was full of small resorts and bed and breakfasts, the main street lined with enormous shady trees. Almost every building in the town was gone and those trees, though replanted, were hundreds of years away from their former glory.
So many people died.
Most of the surviving residents moved away. The businesses that tried to start up again struggled even though the government ran campaigns encouraging people to the affected towns.
HIKING THROUGH FIRE
I’ve thought a lot about what it would have been like if a trail like the PCT ran through my home town. How it would have helped to have that source of tourism- hikers so eager to come back.
So I spend a lot of money in the burn towns. I have long conversations with every resident who wants to talk to me.
When I worry aloud about the conditions, some hikers say things to me like
“I’m from Texas/Arizona/Utah.”
Mate, I’m from the centre of the sun. I’ve lived with heat like this my whole life and I can tolerate it, but why are we hiking in it?
I feel uncomfortable. It’s not just the heat and dust. I guess I’m afraid. But it’s a fear that’s so familiar I barely recognize it. This feeling of being suffocated by hot air, the shimmer and smell of it. The taste of high summer comes with an undercurrent of disquiet. I want to know where the boltcutters are.
FUCK THIS HEAT
After I wrote this post, I hiked from Old Station to Etna in temperatures around 100-105F (37-40C). The trail was sometimes sheltered, sometimes not. It was rough. It was hard to sleep and hard to eat. I found it hard to replace my fluids fast enough. The day before I hiked into Etna I drank 7L of water and only peed once. I was dizzy and clumsy when I arrived at camp, which are early signs of heat stroke.
The forecast for the next five days was 110F (43C) or hotter with lightening storms.
Fuck that. It’s not safe or sensible to hike in those temperatures, especially in such a high risk fire area.
I finally made a decision to stop wondering why other hikers seemed so unconcerned about the risks of hiking in these conditions.. I listened to myself. So I skipped ahead to Ashland to wait until temperatures dropped below 105F (40C) in a few days. I also had pitted keratolysis in my feet (don’t google that) and I needed to get to a clinic for a prescription.
THE MCKINNEY FIRE
Now I’m sitting in Ashland with a fire watch app popping up with notifications every few minutes. THe McKinney fire started the same day I got off the trail and now it’s raging across North California. I’m waiting to hear from friends in the stretch being evacuated. I should be used to this by now. I do it every summer in Australia, but somehow I’m not. I’m trying to figure out what to do next.
Hikers around me are scrambling to get back on trail north of Ashland before the evacuation orders reach them. They’re worried about their continuous foothpath.
More than one of them tells me they’ll just hike fast to stay ahead of the fire, which presently, is 0% contained. I guess they think fires don’t move faster than 2-4 miles an hour. They’re also talking about how trail angels will rescue them if they do need to be evacuated from the trail. Trail angels will be busy evacuating their own homes and shouldn’t have to worry about hikers who expect to rescued from a wildfire they walked into on purpose.
I don’t know how to end this. I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I won’t be hiking into a wildfire.
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