Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Alaska wildfire as spectator sport


A friend posted that saying from a site called "Born in the Barn" on Facebook today.  She lives in Idaho and has been anxiously watching the major wildfires burning there this past week.  The posting reminded me of an  incident several years ago on the shores of Prince William Sound in Alaska.

This will take a bit of geography to explain.  Valdez, Alaska, is an ocean port in Prince William Sound.  The town is nestled tightly against the Chugach Mountains which begin their rise right behind the high school on the northern limits of the street grid.  The climate is almost rain forest, though Valdez at the northern limits of the sound is a bit cooler than the rest of the area.  As a result of the rainfall associated with the climate the area very seldom experiences wildfire.  Also, isolated as it is, with one road in and out of town, two commercial flights a day and otherwise boat travel, there is little to be offered in the way of spectator entertainment.  The closest thing the town has to a mall is three stores in the same building. Until, that is, one summer night in the late nineties when the area had experienced an unusual dry spell.

I had picked up a woman friend on the way to another friend's birthday barbecue and had stopped at a store while she went in to buy something or other she needed.  The way I parked my truck, I was looking at the mountain behind the high school.  As I sat there I saw a flash of light behind the school.  Kids were always climbing that steep slope to paint a large bare rock above the school, usually with the year number of the current graduating class.  (Later we heard but never confirmed it was kids with spray paint lighting a match to the paint as they sprayed that started the fire.)

The flash didn't stop, instead the light started climbing the slope, rapidly.  A wildfire is about the last thing to come to mind in that climate.  A UFO would have been a more likely guess for a strange light climbing toward the sky.

But, by the time my friend came out of the store, it had reached almost to the ridge.  At a higher elevation, it contacted our usual afternoon westerly sea breeze and the wind pushed it eastward along the mountain.  By then I had realized it indeed was a wildfire.

This event was not to be wasted.  Instead of heading immediately to the party, we drove to the end of a street that stopped in a cul-de-sac at a large park.  The spot gave us an excellent view of the whole mountainside.  I backed the truck against the curb.  In the back I had lawn chairs and some drinks for the party.  We set up the chairs in the truck bed, popped a couple of cans and prepared to watch the biggest spectator event to hit the town since the drive-in movie against a snow bank the previous winter.

As we watched and sipped our beers, the fire continued to spread along the side of the mountain leaving kind of a blackened line in its wake.  By the time the leading edge had burned maybe half a mile, we heard an airplane approach.  It made one pass along the face of the mountain then flew a circle and came back from the original direction.  This time it dispensed half a dozen parachutes, smoke jumpers, and they guided themselves toward the fire. Across the park and from nearby back yards we heard a couple of cheers from other spectators.  

Once on the ground, though we couldn't make them out in the brush, they went to work.  Within a couple of hours they had the fire all but extinguished.  Obviously this wasn't a large fire compared with those in Idaho this week or many that burn in Alaska over a normal summer.  But, this one had entertainment value.  When the white smoke indicating the fire was on the way to extinguishment (is that a word?) we folded up the chairs, carefully hid our empty cans and drove off to the party, having as I said, been there to see the biggest spectator event of the summer.

1 comment:

  1. Your comment on watching the movie on the snowbank reminded me of a story I did for the Nome Nugget a few years ago (OK, 35 years ago), covering the Alaska National Guard winter training being conducted by the regular Army guys.

    On Saturday night there was an outdoor movie, where we all sat on the back of snow machines to watch. The wind that night was not cooperative, however, so my recollections of the movie, "It's Alive!" are of watching it being shown on the back of Arctic camouflage clothing as they repeatedly kept trying to tape the screen back together. I'm certain the actual movie isn't nearly as funny as the one I remember watching.

    By the way, The Army men spent the flight out to Moses Point explaining how they'd round up the members of the First Scout Battalion, capture their flag, fort, and so on, then use it as a learning experience for the Guard members. As I recall, the final tally was something like First Scout Battalion one zillion, regular Army zero.

    The flight back to Nome was very subdued.

    ReplyDelete

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