Smoke rises from the Chateau Fire in Teller County, Colorado.
M. and I were driving home from Pueblo on Monday, anxiously watching the horizon.
“This reminds me of those cartoons about cavemen where there are always some volcanoes erupting in the distance,” she said, indicating the mountains with a flick of her hand.
We had just passed through an area that burned on Friday-Sunday. To the north, two other forest fires were galloping through parts of Teller and Park counties.
To the south was the biggie, the Spring Fire, which currently has passed 79,000 acres in size (or 32,000 hectares).
And now a new smoke pillar was rising in the west.
An hour later, groceries unloaded, I had changed into wildland fire gear and was down at the station. This new fire was high on a mountain on national forest land, close enough to watch but nearly an hour away by truck. So we were just on standby in case in came off the mountain and towards town.
The chief and another firefighter went off in a brush truck to notify people in some subdivisions, in case they had missed the reverse-911 call. The rest of us snacked, drank water and sports drinks in the nearly 100° F. heat, and watched the air tankers pass overhead.
My mind was all over the place. Some Old Testament lines kept popping up: “This is a burnt offering to the LORD; it is a pleasing aroma, a special gift presented to the LORD” (Exodus 29:18, if you care about these things).
Yeah, but which LORD? Sky gods are supposed to like sweet-smelling offerings.
Then I mentally wandered off into thinking of some kind of mad “sorcerer’s apprentice” ritual in which the element of fire had been invoked in all four quarters and could no longer be dismissed. That was not very comforting either.
If only, as in this Danny Shanahan cartoon for The New Yorker, they could just be a backdrop.
It is 5:39 a.m., and the computer-generated voice on the telephone is saying, “We need a response to Bishop’s Castle — report of a structure fire.”
I pull on my jeans and scamper down to the garage. “Structure fire”—that means bunker gear, and so on go the heavy rubber boats, bulky pants with their suspenders, helmet, and the rest.1)Since I live some distance from the fire station, I keep three sets of protective gear at home: bunker gear, lighter “interface gear,” and wildland gear — the Nomex yellow-and-green combination you see on every forest fire. The radio is crackling as the other volunteer firefighters check in with the sheriff’s dispatcher.
Ten minutes later I am behind the wheel of the second engine leaving the station, red and blue lights flickering in the darkness.2)Normally the minimum is two firefighters per engine, but someone else will be meeting me on-scene. No one else is on the road. The lights bounce off reflective road signs, rocks, and snow — it’s my own private rave, minus the music.
The castle, for so it is, perches at the far edge of our 110-square-mile service area, which is mostly forested mountains. In a slow, top-heavy vehicle, it is at least a 40-minute drive, up a canyon, over one divide, down the other side (watch your speed on the switchbacks!), up over another, down again, and up a long pull to the destination ridge.
Firefighters confer in front of the castle, which is untouched.
On the scene, I see that the hand-built stone castle is untouched, as is its gatehouse (complete with portcullis.). The fire has destroyed a two-story stone-and-wood house built in the early 1960s and now used mainly as a gift shop (lots of swords) as well as a small adjacent cabin.
The first department there had come a shorter distance, maybe 20 miles (all uphill), but now the fire is knocked down and they are out of water.3)No hydrants in the woods. They are outside their service district, but have come under the principle of “mutual aid.” Nevertheless, they arrived too late to do more than spray the ruins.4)Visit any rural fire department, and you will hear someone say, “We never lost a foundation yet.”
So we take over, supplied by a county Road & Bridge Dept. water truck — all the messy work of moving debris to extinguish fire underneath or inside it, knocking down parts of the porch roof that were still actively on fire, spraying down some fir trees that were slightly scorched, doing what we had to do.
Metalwork on the towers shows Jim Bishop’s artistry.
It is the work of one man, Jim Bishop, a Pueblo maker of ornamental ironwork, who has worked on it off and for 40 years. (You can read the history here.)
The style is not medieval-defensive but romantic fantasy, all arches and soaring towers, complete with a giant dragon’s head on top.
Through the death of a son in a tree-felling accident in the late 1980s, through serious illness suffered by both him and his wife, Phoebe, through disputes with all levels of government, he has persisted.
People love it. They love Jim’s story with its whiff of outlawry. They like the by-donation admission too. They shoot bazillions of photographs and put them online. They come from out of state to be married there. They buy swords and daggers in the gift shop — or did until Wednesday.
I posted some photos on the fire department’s Facebook page, and they got hundreds of comments, nearly 1,500 shares, and allegedly reached more than 147,000 readers. People love the castle.
Even in a democracy, there is something about a castle. If you crave a “safe space,” there it is. Is it the archetypal family home, where the parents are the benevolent monarchs?
Jim Bishop is a little rough around the edges. Just search “YouTube for “Jim Bishop + rant.”
I walk past one of the extra buckets for his skid loader, on which was painted, “YOUR SCUMBAG COUNTY” — and then the rest of the inscription was painted over in a different color. Someone trying to protect his reputation?
A sheet of plywood at the gatehouse was daubed with a rant that began, “Fire bans violate human rights!”5)Or words to that effect. The sheriff had imposed one a few days earlier, when we were having one Red Flag Warning after another. Had the fire happened five days earlier, before the snow, it might have jumped the highway and gone who knows where.
As we work, the undersheriff and a deputy are looking around. The deputy says that the people who reported the fire were “hinky.”6)Also, he said they made a cell phone video of the fire before driving off to find a cell phone signal. Twenty-first century priorities!
He is intrigued by a set of car keys lying on an old generator, and points out a set of tracks that go up to a propane grill behind the castle, walked around, and then came back down. He thinks someone might still be in the area. “Watch your six,” he advises.
That was comforting. And then we do hear two far-off rifle shots, and it is not hunting season.
But despite the deputy’s efforts to create a scenario where the fire was started by some sort of “transients” warming themselves at a different propane grill on the gift-shop porch, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation arson team that came later gave their opinion thus: “Probably electrical.”
I don’t know how this fits with the romantic-fantasy castle image, but there is something “hinky” about that area. Maybe it needs a feng-shui treatment. Maybe it’s just Jim Bishop’s sometimes-chaotic energy.7)In an alternative reality, I think he could be one of those “sovereign citizen” types who dies in a shoot-out with federal marshals.
Even though visitors park right on the highway in plain sight, every summer there are reports of car break-ins. Since no one lives nearby year-around, the criminals must be driving up there themselves and parking there too. Yet they are never caught.
That stretch of highway seems to attract every cut-rate Bonnie and Clyde who want to “head for the mountains” — and it eats motorcycles — but those are other stories.
I am still learning the energies of these mountains.
The Southern Rockies are in a drought, and fire season has come early to Hardscrabble Creek.
The alarm came on Monday, and as usual, the “fog of war” (which applies in wildland firefighting too) descended rapidly.
I am part of a little rural volunteer department — secretary of the board of directors, sometimes an engine boss, sometimes just a guy with a tool in his hand.
The computerized voice on the telephone said that there was a brush fire at the intersection of County Road ••• and Highway ••. The trouble is, the county road intersects the highway twice, about two miles apart. Which one was I going to?
Dressed in interface gear (for warmth, mainly), I called the dispatcher on my radio.1)The trouble is, the dispatchers all live up in the county seat, and they don’t know the roads in my part of the county very well. “Upper end,” she said.
M. heard me repeat that as I went out the door. Unfortunately, she did not hear the Dispatch supervisor correct the location to “lower end” as I drove away, which meant she was panicked that the fire was upwind from our house. And although I called her ten times, once I could break away for a moment, even landline calls were not getting through due to to an overloaded network. (Thanks, Century Link.)
Two of our engines were coming, but being closer, I arrived first. Some neighbors were poking at the fire with shovels, but two houses and a detached garage were in its path. Tense voices on the radio told me of the engines’ progress — it is a three-mile pull uphill from the station, and diesels don’t warm up fast.
Send the brush truck up high to “attack from the black,” I told them, and bring the tactical tender (which pumps a lot more water) down to the county road.2)Some people would call that a “tanker,” but out here we use Forest Service lingo: “Tankers fly, and tenders roll”
They did so, and before long, Chad D. was dragging a hose uphill toward the flaming oak brush behind the garage, two other volunteers assisting, while I started the pump and charged the line. In moments, our fortunes changed. We saved all the structures — and we looked good when “mutual aid” engines from two neighboring departments arrived twenty minutes later.
With the chief on the scene, I could call the dispatcher and say, “The incident commander is now Chief M., and his call sign is XXX.” Big relief.
The incident dragged into the night, and the waxing Moon was rising. Standing on that hillside, I could see scars from other fires. At least 33,000 acres have burned within a mile of my home since 2005.3)That is to say, one edge of the fire was a mile away or closer.
We have been fortunate, M. and I, but there is a psychic toll. When I went home on a supper break, she was a bundle of nerves, not sure if she was supposed to evacuate (for the third time) or not. Dog(s) . . . computers . . . favorite boots . . . we know the drill.
The Wheel of Fortune. From Two Graces Gallery, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
On the file cabinet near my desk, attached by a magnet on its back, is this rusty sardine can-and-glitter icon of the Tarot card of the World. And on the iTunes playlist when I started writing was Dead Can Dance’s “Fortune Presents Gifts Not According to the Book” (linked at the top).
I think that song is profound in a Pagan way.
Obviously, as a Pagan I do not buy into the Heaven & Hell model of the cosmos. I was exposed to the pop-culture version of Karma a long time ago, and while I think there is something to it (“The Universe rewards a right action” — does it?), you cannot look at karma as a savings account where you deposit good deeds and withdraw good fortune.
Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.
Thought must be the harder, heart the keener
Spirit shall be more — as our might lessens.4)In a military situation, I suppose that that is what you say after you call in an air strike on your own position.
Four volunteers and a brush truck versus fire and wind. That’s my lying-awake-at-4 a.m. worry about how it goes.
Great-great-uncle Fred, a dapper Old West sportin’ gent.
Sorry about the lack of content. Everything went topsy-turvy on the 17th and is just now returning to normal, or to a “new normal.”
I left home on the 11th for a trip to eastern North Dakota to go grouse hunting with an old friend who himself was facing heart surgery on the 24th. It’s a thousand-mile drive each way, but I have done it for seven of the last eight years. Lots of restful prairie driving (perfect for audiobooks!), and I can chose a route where the biggest city I go through is Pierre, South Dakota.
This year I tacked on a day and drove via Miles City, Montana, a place that I had never visited but where a number of my paternal grandmother’s relatives lived—her uncles and brothers.
I wanted to see sites associated with my great-great-uncle, whose résumé in the 1870s and 1880s apparently included civilian Army scout, buffalo hunter, saloon-keeper, occasional deputy sheriff, and landlord of and probably silent partner in a couple of “boarding houses” for young ladies. My cousins and I are trying to sort it out. (He ended up peacefully retired in Pasadena and left my grandmother a nice inheritance from the money he made “in real estate.”) There is a street named after him, a minor street in a residential area.
Entering North Dakota from Montana on I-94.
I bought a bottle of Montana whiskey to toast Uncle Fred. Another day’s drive east brought me to a little town dominated by grain elevators, where my old friend G. fetched up about 14 years ago.
We had a couple of days together; then on Monday the 17th my phone woke me with an emergency call. My little rural fire department was being called (at 6:30 a.m.) to assist with a “100-acre grass fire.” The location was roughly west from my house, conditions were dry, and a strong west wind was blowing, I knew. My guts turned to water.
More calls followed. The fire was blowing up: 9,000 acres. 10,000 acres.1)4046 ha. I could not reach M. at first, but eventually she called (after I was already packed and on the road south) to say she was preparing to leave for a motel in a nearby town as soon as the sheriff’s deputies said she had to go right now. I did not try to reach anyone on the fire department, just texted the chief and told him that I was two days away but on the move. I told M. to pack my wildland fire gear: “Just grab everything yellow.”
What do you do magically in such a case? Something sprang spontaneously to my mind as I drove — a giant Smokey Bear, skycraper-size, standing with shovel at the ready at a key road junction.
That sounds sort of comic book-ish, but it works for me. When I learned something about ceremonial magic in my twenties, I realized that my first (and to that time, only) experience of “assuming the god form” was as a 9- or 10-year-old wearing the Smokey Bear costume on the Forest Service float during parades in Rapid City, SD.
Magical work should be reinforced by material-plane work. The worst of the fire was over by the time I got home, but I still put in a day and a half on an engine crew, plus another day doing engine maintenance etc. at the fire house
The station also functioned as a disaster-assistance center, with various agencies setting up help centers there. In such cases, you are always overwhelmed with donated food. So I took a platter of two-day-old barbequed pork up to the wildlife rehabilitation center that I frequently mention on the other blog.
They have a couple of bear cubs that they are fattening ahead of an early-winter release. The BBQ was a welcome high-calorie treat.
Ten minutes in, there must have been smoke in the room or something, because I was having trouble with my eyes.
This was my heritage as a Forest Service brat back then and as a rural volunteer firefighter today. I walked outside afterwards, Her cold white light shining through the pines, still on that knife’s edge of beauty and terror, life in the mountain West.
One of these days I will pass again through Coeur d’Alene, and I will stop at Ed Pulaski’s grave to do a full-blown Pagan/Shinto/neo-shamanic thing with incense, flowers, whiskey, and the rest.
But the way things are going, I might have to wait my turn. Firefighters, I have learned, are a ritualistic bunch.
The area was thickly forested in ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and Gambel oak — too thickly, to my eye. (This is what comes of being a forester’s son.) The pines were thick — in some places they lay like jackstraws, toppled by the chinook winds of winter.
When this slope burns, I thought, it will burn like a volcano. And it did, on October 23, 2012, a date seared into my memory.
October 23, 2012: The spring would be just left of the brightest area. My home is on the other side of the ridge.
I took this photo at dusk, bracing my pocket camera against a corral post (one of the ones that was not burning like a candle) while waiting for the the fire engine I was working on to be re-filled with water at the landowner’s well. It was too windy for air tankers, too close to darkness for hand crews to hike up there, so it just burned, while I implored the west wind to keep pushing the fire away from my home.
Fisher the dog did what he does best, finding animal parts in the woods (including a bear cub’s paw) but even that activity seemed sadder.
We returned again in May 2013 to make an offering at the spring. During the previous month, the Bureau of Land Management had hired a contractor to re-seed the area with a grass mix by helicopter. The purpose was to get something growing and stabilize the slopes against the summer thunderstorms. It worked. We had adequate summer rains (not like the storms and flooding in northern Colorado), and by late summer the slopes were almost lush, as the photo below will show.
October 2013: A bear cub drinks at the spring.
I put my most expendable scout camera up there from late September until a couple of days ago — although the batteries died some time in November — which is how I got the photo. The best part is to see the spring running—you can see water flowing down the right-hand edge of the photo.
December 2013: Winter scene, with the spring off in the middle distance.
All this is prelude to thinking about how an animistic/polytheistic outlook copes with such changes to the land. No, it is not like someone paved it over and put up a Family Dollar store. Something will come back—the scrubby Gambel oak has re-sprouted, and there were wildflowers last summer, but the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir will be much slower to return. I probably won’t see this valley forested again.
I will never forget walking around a week or two after the fire, when the slopes just felt nuked. Crows overhead were the only life—the rattlesnake guardian almost certainly died, if tree roots were being burned underground.
The little seasonal spring, however, remains as sort of natural shrine, a focus for hope and continuity, bear cubs and wild turkeys.
Back in 2000, I was writing an article about a prescribed fire on the national forest near my home, so I hiked in with the ignition crew. Some point during the day, I heard a radio crackle with the message, “Come up that little ridge and bring fire with you.”
Bring fire with you. I thought of one of my favorite movies, Quest for Fire, and the language of its Neanderthal characters. And I thought of how that sentence could probably be translated into Neanderthal — if only we knew how — and certainly into a later Proto-Indo-European.
Those might be “utraconserved words,” as defined by this piece from the Washington Post.
You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!
It’s an odd little speech. But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.
That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Those few words mean the same thing, and sound almost the same, as they did then.
Pagel and his co-workers took a first step by building a statistical model based on Indo-European cognates. Incorporating only the frequency of a word’s use and its part of speech (noun, verb, numeral, etc.)—and ignoring its sound— the model could predict how long the word persisted through time. Reporting in Nature in 2007, they found that most words have about a 50% chance of being replaced by a completely different word every 2000 to 4000 years. Thus the Proto-Indo-European wata, winding its way through wasser in German, water in English, and voda in Russian, became eau in French. But some words, including I, you, here, how, not, and two, are replaced only once every 10,000 or even 20,000 years.
Jekabs Bine (1895–1955) “Perkons (Thunder),” 1941. Oil on canvas, 53 x 65 cm. The Janis Rozentals Saldus History and Art Museum, Latvia.
The next issue of The Pomegranate will include a special section on the revival of Paganism in Latvia, a revival that blossomed in that Baltic nation’s first period of independence, 1917–1940, or between the Russian Revolution, which released Latvia from the old empire, and the beginnings of World War II, when the small nation was scooped up first Soviet Union, then by the Third Reich and then by the Soviet Union again, a crushing embrace that lasted until 1991.
I was partway through layout on an article by the Latvian art historian Kristine Ogle on Pagan themes in Latvian art before World War II, when M. came in from the veranda, saying that she could hear the emergency siren from down the valley.
Drop editor persona, assume volunteer firefighter persona. Over my clothes I put on my “wildland interface” jacket and pants, since the sheriff’s dispatcher was saying this was a report of smoke, not a structure fire. I grabbed pack, radio, helmet, and was off, soon to be driving one of our brush trucks (wildland engines) up a county road that might lead to the site. But nothing.
Eventually we ended up with another firefighter and me in the brush truck, two more following in personal vehicles, a sheriff’s deputy, and an engine from the Bureau of Land Management. We split up to investigate different muddy ranch roads — still nothing. So after an hour, we called it off.
It had already hailed briefly in the morning, and soon after I came home, another little thunderstorm went through. So it seemed reasonable not to worry too much, not this week. People are still jumpy after the fire last October that took out 15 houses near mine—a wisp of low-hanging cloud might have looked like smoke.
Back at my computer, I continued where I had left off on the article. I had been just about to place a graphic in the file, and you can see it up above — the god of thunder.
Thunder has been much in evidence today here in the Wet Mountains, but given the painting’s date, you have to wonder if the dark clouds over the peaceful Latvian farmstead were more than thunderheads.