In a courtyard of black tree-like columns, fragile young pasture carpet covers cracked ground. Deer and rabbits congregate silently to eat pale shoots. Under hoof and paw and shoot lies wreckage. Once proud Douglas fir trees, ancient cedar, hemlock and white pine; what was rich and diverse forest is now blistered earth and delicate stretches of grass.
Labor Day weekend stretched out hot and dry. The air trembled with magnetism. Nervous animals shuddered against the high pressure and thunder murmured mutinously miles above the forest.
High on a mountain in Opal Creek, a tall, thin plume of smoke appeared. A pin piercing the blue. Waves of smoke poured like ghostly oil through the trees, flooding the forest floor. Then the east winds came. The sky turned an ugly pink, then blood brown, then red. The trees came down with the powerlines. Darkness. Then, the mountain ignited.
A middle-aged couple woke in a dark house full of smoke. The power was out, the garage door couldn’t be prised open.
We’re going to have to run.
Through cloying and clawing smoke, three dogs straining on tight leashes, they lurched, panicking away from collapsing trees. The cat was nowhere to be found. Five stood in the water for an hour, fire and smoke coiling around them, licking at the bank. Dogs whining. She thought of her time in the military, here in the river was the most scared she’d ever been. Waist deep in water, choked by smoke and terror, she wanted her last words to be important.
Larry. I love you.
Once the fire front had moved through, they pulled themselves up onto the bank to wait for a rescue crew. Panting and shivering amongst the convulsing remains of their lives.
The fire chief skidded down highway 22 following the smoke. A huge white column jutting out against the blue.
The sky closed in. Soon fire was tickling the wheels. He could only see 20 feet from the nose of the truck but flaming trees lit the road as oversized torches. Ancient cedars lay at chest height across the tarmac. The fire chief doubled back and came up the other side of the river.
30 feet above the creek, the footbridge was on fire. Two men tiptoed across with the fire chief. Across the creek structure after structure was gobbled up by flames. The ramp on the far side was gone. Burnt out. Burnt away. He dropped to his hands and knees, crawling down off the structure and scrambling up the steep bank. Showing off, one of the men ran and leapt the gap onto the bank. He grinned palely back at his friends. The fire chief was in charge.
Dude. Don’t get broken before we can work.
The fire didn’t sleep.
Five firefighters napped in shifts on picnic benches, boxed in by fluffy clouds of thick brown smoke. The men felt strangely giddy, boyish; they were fire scouts, they would roast s’mores in the wildfire and daube soot on their faces as warpaint. In heavy red and yellow dress-up, they protected what was left of the buildings. Hacking and stamping, setting up sprinklers and running hose lines, chucking what little water there was onto quaking, blazing cabins. Losing them one after another. Laughing with chagrin as the fire bit chunks out of the community.
The fire didn’t rest.
After 12 hours of open warfare, the adrenaline dropped. There were coffee beans, but no power to the electric grinder. One of the men appeared with a blackened thing, a hand grinder he found in the rubble of someone’s home. They attached the scorched grinder to a butcher’s block in the middle of a dark kitchen. And five smudged men, giggling beneath filthy hardhats, scrambled eggs over a gas range by headlamp.
A dirty word. Yes, it was a commune. They called it a commune.
1977, a group of optimistic kids bought a deserted resort on the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains. Breitenbush. A handful of damp, rotten huts in the forest. They rebuilt. Established geothermal wells, hydroelectric power and laid irrigation systems for their organic vegetables. They were off-grid, man. They were communing together.
They worked for half a decade without pay. For the forest and for their community.
In ‘78 a baby was born by candlelight. November ice frosting waxy leaves. A young man with a kind face cut the cord and watched his daughter take her first breath, primrose pink flooding into her cheeks. In those days they drank water from the river and the fire was in the wood stove – not growing around them, absorbing the trees that bore witness to the birth of a child.
In the weeks that followed the Beachie Creek fire, a torrent of letters flooded in, sodden with sympathy. And out of these letters poured money. The kind-faced man will rebuild.
The fire is gone now, the ice has come to wash over the blistered forest.
Blackened and disfigured spikes, the ghosts of trees, jutted up either side of the sticky vein of tarmac. The fire chief’s phone rattled.
Hey, I’m just checking in to see how you’re doing.
We’ve stabilised everything here. How are you guys doing?
Heading over to Atlanta. Got a couple homes burning we’re going to try and save.
How’s Detroit doing?
Hundreds of homes. Stores, bars, restaurants. All gone. All rubble. The whole town of Detroit spreadeagled over scarred ground.
The fire chief came off the mountain into annihilation. The gas station was a cairn. The tatters of the motel were stretched thin over its broken limbs. Two days and two nights of heat and smoke, falling trees and exploding propane tanks; two days and two nights hit him like a fire truck. Hot tears scored breaks through the soot on his cheeks.
Skeletal trees and the bones of buildings sit in a mire of dirty yellow mist. A chimney without a building stands alone, reaching up through a net of downed power lines. Land shipwrecks. The world is drowning in murky fog.
Where once stood a town is ash and apocalypse. Homes, businesses, trees, cats, people; in a short, sharp, hot shove, suddenly flared out of existence. And all that remains is the acrid smell of the world burning.
And over grows the grass.
Nadia Leigh Hewitson is a final-year undergraduate student of Journalism in Cornwall in the UK. Her work is usually reportage but she also writes more abstract non-fiction pieces. Her specialist interests are social injustice and inequality, global politics, and the climate crisis.
CALL TO ACTION: You can learn more about, and donate to, the Breitenbush volunteer fire department here (http://breitenbushfire.org/index.html). Or if you want to help create change on a larger scale then check out the Sunrise Movement here (https://www.sunrisemovement.org), to engage with massive, progressive climate action.
Photographs: Jordan Pollack, volunteer Fire Chief at Breitenbush.