Clouds of smoke

Packing up stuff and dogs and getting everything into the car, ready for a trip across two states, is always rushed and a little stressful. I learned long ago to do most of my packing the morning of any trip, otherwise the dogs worry and Maia paces anxiously all night.

Heading from the Idaho house toward Washington I first have to make a stop at the landfill just outside town. All garbage from the house has to be removed, otherwise I'll find mice inhabiting the garage when I return.

That chore done, we finally start heading north out of town. I notice gorgeous, huge clouds soaring thousands of feet into the sky. Such thunderheads always remind me of my father. These are so pretty, I stop along the highway's shoulder and take some photos. 

Thunderheads hugging the hills with other clouds hovering well above.

Zooming in.
This is when I also notice a small plume of wildfire smoke to the west, far off in the forest. The breeze pulls the top of that plume eastward across the valley, toward the thunderhead. I remember hearing some thunder during the night, and when I awoke there were a few raindrops lingering on the ground, but not enough to quench the ground's thirst or lessen the likelihood of fires. 

Getting back in the car, I start our long trip to Washington in earnest. These are always long days - getting from one place to the other with three dogs - but with one time zone change in between it always feels easier heading west.

Nearing Riggins.
 A few miles up the road, I take this photo (yes, while driving; don't tell). Now I notice that there are wisps of cloud to the east and above of the huge thunderhead. Hmm. Maybe it's not really a thunderhead, but instead a plume of wildfire smoke?

Around a couple more bends in the road I start seeing Forest Service trucks everywhere - driving slowly, or sometimes parked beside the road, occupants looking up into the hills toward the huge cloud. Now I know for certain: it's a wildfire. Judging by the plume of smoke, a huge fire. I'm reminded of the enormous, ominous plume of ash that seemed to reach too high to be real after Mount St. Helens exploded in 1980.

Past Riggins, coming around another bend (this is a winding stretch of highway along the Salmon River) I see sage and other dry or dead plants on a steep hillside very close to the highway on fire, the intense orange of the flames and black smoke just above them a shock to see so close. A couple of Forest Service trucks sit on the road's shoulder, watching. There's little they can do but keep an eye on it.

A few miles north, near Lucile, I see signs warning of trucks on the road and airplanes overhead. There is a temporary grass airfield right along the highway in a wide flat spot between road and river. I've passed it so many times over the years, but never seen it in action. The Forest Service has several of these air strips in strategic places so that they can get fire fighting 'copters and spotter planes into an area. This clearly is a serious fire, and as I'm driving through, the logistics of fighting it are just being addressed. I can almost feel the combined senses of fear and excitement of the Forest Service firefighters. There are several fire and other trucks parked along the field. I realize I'm lucky to get through here - and away - this morning; later in the day, depending on the direction of the fire, the highway could close. Right now, the wind - and it's a brisk one - is blowing things eastward, away from the road.

Eventually we reach the long winding stretch up to White Bird Hill Summit. From this vantage, the fire is behind us and I get a new perspective on it. I stop for another photo. I'm not alone - there are more Forest Service and other fire fighting trucks stopping briefly to look at it before continuing southward to assist in the fight.

Looking south from White Bird Hill, fire burning high on the far hills.

The wind seems to be picking up as the morning progresses; not good, as it will feed the flames and spread the fire quickly. What I originally happily thought a thunderhead is now a huge plume of smoke being blown apart and spread for miles over a remote landscape.
Last shot, taken through dog-snot covered rear window.
The last photo I take, through the rear window, is near Grangeville, several miles to the north. The main smoke plume remains huge, and horribly beautiful. I try to imagine how much fire on the ground creates such an enormous climbing column of smoke. I know from experience living in this part of Idaho that soon the wind will whip the plume completely apart, the smoke settling closer to the ground, the air becoming brown and smelling of smoke. Now I'm really happy I chose this day to leave for Washington, keeping that smoky landscape in my rear view mirror.

I include this last photo not because it's a good shot, but because it shows what I call pupkiss: all the dog drool and snot that ends up on the inside of the rear windows anytime I take a cross-country trip with the dogs. I can't take credit for the term; a comedian from Washington who was popular in the 80s (and whose name I can't remember) included it in a very funny book he wrote full of such words and definitions, and I adopted it. (I see now that it is included in the online Urban Dictionary, without any attribution.) When, like me, you don't let the dogs stick their entire heads out the windows, instead rolling them down just a couple inches so they can sniff the air as it flies by, you end up with lots of pupkiss.

[The fire is called the Sheep Fire. I took my photos on September 9th. As of September 27th, it has burned 47,483 acres and is only 41% contained. Reports indicate it has a human cause, still under investigation.]
Rebecca WallickComment