Fire on the mountain

by Gautam Raja

After many summers in Southern California, I knew those weren’t clouds. And yet, from the window above our kitchen sink I saw the smoke rise from the mountains as if from a factory that made cumulonimbus for the entire sky.

It was the start of the San Gabriel Complex Fire, the giant love child of the Fish Fire and Reservoir Fire that burned 5,399 acres in the San Gabriel mountains above Greater Los Angeles. Standing in the 43ºC heat on June 20, I watched the two DC-10 Air Tankers make passes over the ridge, striping them with bright red Phos-Chek fire retardant. Helicopters flew back and forth making water drops.

As the sun set, the plane and most of the helicopters departed, but a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane continued the trips from water source to above the flames, where, as my wife observed, it looked as if someone was trying to put out a bonfire by flicking droplets of water at it. At night, the flames outlined the slopes, with occasional flare-ups as they hit dense vegetation that hadn’t burned in over a decade.

Hundreds of people had to be evacuated, and several hillside neighbourhoods were in danger. But eventually the fire was contained, and several days later, I rode past some of the earliest neighbourhoods to be evacuated, marvelling at how close the flames had come to houses. A lone Skycrane landed at the water tank next to the San Gabriel River Trail and picked up a tank-load of water. It took off over my head into the mountains, to disappear around a ridge for about ten minutes before returning for the next load. It was the only aircraft in the vicinity but followed a clear flight path, hugging the south face of the valley on the way back and the north on the way out.

It was evening, so the CalTrans vehicles, and fire support trucks came down from the still-closed Highway 39 where a sheriff’s SUV sat behind the ‘road closed’ sign. The bored-looking sheriff talked to the driver of the big orange truck with a bulldozer attachment on the front.

I turned and rode down to the Santa Fe Dam Recreational Area where I had a view of the fire command staging area. There were mobile offices set up under the trees, and single person tents scattered all over the park. A helicopter sat the middle of a huge field, a tent pitched next to it. Nearby was a series of big-rig trailers converted to bunk-style housing. It made me think of the term “war footing”.

A day later I drove up to Chantry Flats and hiked to Hermit Falls, parts of the forest that would have been ablaze if it wasn’t for those hard-working fire crews and pilots. The trail went steeply down the side of a mountain into the shaded valley that led to a rocky swimming hole. I looked with renewed awe at the terrain—and imagined the “hand crews” hiking through it in 43ºC heat, carrying chainsaws, pulaskis and shovels, to spend hours creating fire breaks, often at great personal risk.

Scattered on the rocks around me were empty Corona bottles, and more of the plastic water bottles that were visible along the entire hiking trail. There were abandoned sweatshirts, shorts, socks, and even the packaging of a new Speedo. I collected the plastic bottles, uncapping them before stepping on them and recapping, the way I’d seen homeless people do at garbage cans. I turned for the car, following the trail of plastic, like breadcrumbs leading me out of the forest.

First published in Gulf News, July 5, 2016