Under the category of shit happens I was driving back to work after a day off last week, my Monday, when I saw a flash in the darkness up ahead. At the same time an insulator on the power line paralleling the road looked like a sparkler on my right. I whoad-up my ride a little and speculated that the power would be out in the area. I was headed west on highway 20 out of Willows Ca. and mostly surrounded by orchards. I passed a house, lights on, interesting.
The road swept left gradually then went straight for a quarter mile before another gradual right. It was dusty ahead for some reason and then I saw three power lines. They were draped to the asphalt ahead and I was under them. I swerved right to the shoulder to avoid them and tried to slow down. I slid sideways left overcorrected and continued to perform the maneuver, right and left, until I came to a stop in the middle of the road with three power lines suspended at an odd angle above me. One was lying on the hood of my car. The thought that I might become a crispy critter crossed my mind. I was also sideways in the middle of the road waiting for the next vehicle. Mindful not to touch anything I pressed the gas pedal and watched the power line slide over my windshield and across the top of the car. I drove down the road fifty yards or so and stopped. On the opposite side of the road the lines were laying in the grass hissing as a dozen fires bloomed.
I was driving that same stretch this morning after another day off. It’s good to be alive crossed my mind as I passed the place without the drama. I thought about the evening before at the Sierra Nevada Brewery’s “Big Room” where my bride and I had dinner, imbibed, and listened to Steel Wheels, a string blues quartet from Virginia: they were awesome: eat your heart out.
With the time change last Sunday, saving daylight, it was light as I headed into Williams Gap on highway 20 toward Clear Lake. I had already witnessed a spectacular visual feast, sunrise on I-5 framing the Sutter Buttes, and now as I turned south into Mitchell Flat a herd of 50 or more elk grazed on the slope of golden grassland climbing Cortina Ridge to the east. The road climbs, winds, and then descends crossing Bear Creek where highway 16 follows it south.
The hills are stained with ash and fire scarred vegetation on the south side of highway 20. Crews had back burned off highway 20 and 16 on the Rocky Fire to good effect. A half hour later I’m approaching Hidden Valley Lake and Middletown, both had been devastated by the Valley Fire back in September. Occasional piles of brush on the roadside, the charred remains of a hundred cars are lined up neatly in a field, mangled twisted remains of metal buildings resemble abstract sculptures, all random victims of the fire. A burnt fence exposes a swing set and a foundation. The power poles are new now and the fleets of utility trucks have vacated their encampment.
The Valley Fire ultimately burned 76,000 acres and destroyed 1958 structures: 1280 homes, 27 multi-family structures, 66 commercial properties, and 585 minor structures. Four people died.
Four members of the Boggs Helitack crew were burned over, all survived, two are back on duty. One, the captain, was well known for his skill with the bagpipe and had often served with the Honor Guard. He will never play the pipes again. They are hoping to move him soon, from UC Davis Burn Center, to a facility in San Francisco, his hometown.
I have no concept of what they went through yet I have a sense of the shock involved when something completely unexpected tries to blow you away. They had been situated on the top leeward side of a ridge in a pen worn to mineral earth, set to wait out the storm. They heard something downwind and one of the crew went to look down the slope. He saw nothing and was returning to the group when a mass of super-heated air climbed from the downwind slope. Within seconds all four had sustained burns. They abandoned their position, having to scale a fence, and took up a location behind a metal building. The captain called on the radio, “deploying shelters”.
The intensity of the original blast of heat shrink-wrapped the shelters in their plastic covers. The plastic from one pack had bonded with the plastic cover rendering the shelter useless. We think the protective gloves did not allow for the dexterity to remove the shelters from the damaged plastic covers and gloves may have been removed for the effort. The position by the steel building was so intensely hot two crew moved to open ground several yards away and found some relief. The two at the structure joined them. They shared the viable shelters by draping them over their heads. The ground they held was covered with light fuels and on fire, so they stood. At some point the captains helmet melted on his head. Whatever had been stored in the metal building began to blow up. They were too close. They moved back toward their original position to a two-track road and bedded down. That’s where they were found.
If you ever think you’re having a bad day, take a deep breath, it could be worse. The sun will be brighter and the rain therapeutic. Kiss your wife, hug the kids, pet the dog, kick the soccer ball and scream Goalllllllll!