The sun rose with a reddish cast over Central Point, Ore., on Aug. 15, smoke from a rash of Northern California wildfires hanging over the mountains as the vanguard of 3,500 firefighters and their families headed for the amphitheater at Jackson County Expo Park.
They came to remember the lives of nine men who died Aug. 5 when a helicopter - shuttling fire crews to and from the "Iron Complex" blazing in California's Shasta-Trinity National Forest - got into trouble. It clipped a tree and became the funeral pyre for all but four of the 13 firefighters and crew members aboard. Among those lost, of course, was Lostine's Roark Schwanenberg, the helicopter's pilot.
By the time the speaking started at 10 a.m., it was nearly 90 degrees under a baking sun. By the time that day ended, Southern Oregon's Rogue Valley would record its second 108-degree maximum temperature, back-to-back. The smoke persisted, as it has for most of the past two months.
By the time National Weather Service fire weather forecasters completed their analysis for the weekend ahead - hoisting a "red flag" warning of critical fire conditions and chance of dry lightning over most of the Pacific Northwest - three new large fires were spreading in Washington state, a new blaze in the Cascade mountains of Oregon northeast of Roseburg had burned 200 acres and gusty ridgetop winds were making it difficult to build the lines needed to contain those Northern California fires.
Many of us can recall our own wildfire experiences in late August, September and often into October. Sometimes it's lightning strikes, like the ones on June 20 and 21 that ignited most of the major fires still defying containment in Northern California. Other times it is an equipment malfunction - a tractor battery once shook loose in a South Umpqua hayfield during critical fire conditions. The resulting sparks lit a string of fires that burned until first rains arrived more than one month later.
Statistics tell us that despite the budget-busting costs of California's 2008 fire season to date, in the West we've been lucky thus far. Fire dangers are high, but total area burned is just over 4 million acres. National wildfire statistics put the acreage burned to date for the past five years at an annual average of 5.7 million acres blackened. The 10-year annual average is 4.7 million acres.
That, of course, doesn't tell the story. From here on, just about everything east of the ocean side of the Coast Range in Washington, Oregon and California gets drier and drier as August and September temperatures rise and humidity plummets.
The dangers of any wildfire getting away skyrocket as forest and rangeland fuels dry out.
It was a 10-day-old August fire in 1933 that blew out from 40,000 to 240,000 acres in 20 hours to become Oregon's first Tillamook Burn. From an Aug. 10 ignition, Tillamook became a 355,000-acre loss before it was drowned by fall rains. Three other late summer fires, in 1939, 1945 and 1951, revisited some of the same forestland
It was a lightning "bust" on July 12 and 13, 2002, that smoldered as several small fires before oven-like August conditions fanned Coast Range mountains, joining those scattered fires into the Biscuit complex. By the time moist weather came in late September. Biscuit had scorched 503,000 acres from just south of the California border 40 miles north to the Rogue River.
Several things come to mind as we ruminate on late summer fire. One is that each of us often ignores fire danger, without considering the consequences of malfunctioning equipment. Another is that once Mother Nature creates conditions for wildfire, even if we take precautions beforehand, any fire becomes dangerous.
But most of all, beneath the pall of smoke hanging over much of the West despite this week's brief surge of cold fronts from the Pacific Ocean, there's a human cost in addition to the cost of destroyed resources and wildlife habitat.
There's a repeated need to say "thank you" to the men and women who swing the Pulaskis and grub hoes, putting their lives on the line to halt wildfires and protect the property of those of us who live and work on the land.
As the mother of Steven Renno, a 21-year-old Grayback firefighter who died in the Aug. 5 crash, noted at the memorial, thoughts need to be not on that crew's awful end of the day, but on what the young men accomplished before they came to Helipad 44 for the ill-fated extraction to fire camp.
In the face of afternoon winds, said Catherine Renno of Cave Junction, Ore., they held the line when the fire tried to run. By the thousands, wildland firefighters are holding the line today, and they'll continue through this most risky time of the year until their jobs are done.