Not every run ends with a beer or a glass of wine necessarily. Thursday was a perfect example: while I planned on getting a run in, an opportunity arose which I couldn’t pass up. I was sitting at my dining room table checking emails when the color of the morning light changed as it entered the room. It took me a moment to realize that the color of the sun transformed from a warm radiant yellow to nearly a blood orange. I looked out the window and could see smoke rising in the distance. I rose, walked out of the house and into the street to see the large brown and white plume climbing nearby. Kit, ever excited by my rapid movements stood eagerly at the front door, tail wagging, tongue hanging out of the side of her mouth. I looked at her, looked up the street at the smoke, looked at her again, and said, “Yeah, let’s go!”
I grabbed a small pack to throw my phone in along with some treats for Kit, and we trotted up the street to watch the growing inferno in the fields beyond. Keep in mind this was a controlled burn—announced ahead of time to let residents know to not be concerned. From what locals tell me, these fires usually occur in early October because the conditions are just right: light winds, high pressure, and good temperatures. Thursday was no exception. Kit and I had run through some of the areas designated to be burned on Tuesday and had seen how the land hand been cleared and prepared. Now it was happening. I had no intention of running as close as I could to the fire—fortunately there are enough trails close to the house that one could run parallel to the main roads separating where I live from areas “B” and “C”—the areas designated to conduct the fire. When we got to the first clearing atop the ridge separating us from the fire down below, we couldn’t help but pause and be in awe.
Only stopping to take a few pictures, we followed the trails weaving in and out of the shrubs to get the best views. The smoke kept the sky a nearly blood orange as the sun was at just the right height to be shaded. We watched helicopters circle overhead making passes along the edges of the fire to keep it contained in what resembled a beautiful choreographed dance of loading up with water at nearby water sites, and circling the fires, and dropping their payloads on the fire’s edges. Whenever we passed by roads, you saw police and fire crews either standing by or enroute to do their work. It was seeing these professionals that I was reminded of another fire that I had been connected with once upon a time.
The South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain outside of Glenwood Springs occurred in the summer of 1994 and cost the lives of 14 firefighters. It was a tragic day for these brave individuals who heroically gave their lives combating this blaze. Their sacrifice was not in vain: recently National Geographic published a piece marking the 20th anniversary of this tragedy and how as a result firefighting tactics and techniques have changed for the better. I became connected to this fire 9 months later as a cadet at the Air Force Academy, who along with dozens of other cadets, volunteered for a weekend to help build a memorial trail up the mountain to the sites where the firefighters perished. For two days we ferried supplies from the base up to the memorial sites and helped to improve the trail up the mountain. It was one of the most memorable and meaningful things I did at the Academy and left an indelible mark with me as to that horrific fire and the lives lost.
Back in California, the smell of burning brush completely filled the air when Kit and I reached the two mile mark . While the smoke still rose high into the air before being blown to the southwest, it still provided a filtered red lens to the sun’s rays. The light as we ran through more dense trails became nearly orange. As we hit mile 3 and the last mile to home, the scene continued as the smoke continued to rise. We made it home and still stood in awe at the beauty of it all.
Later that day I took Kit out for a walk back up to the overlook we first watched the fire from that morning. Now it was coming closer, but the choreographed flight dance of the helicopters continued to ensure the fire stayed in check.
The burn lasted the rest of the afternoon and by evening was dying out. Friday morning when I got up the air had the acrid smell of the burned wood in it. As my wife noted to me, “It smells like someone’s been having a bonfire out there.” Kit and I took one last walk up to see the results: smoke still hung low in the valleys and fields charred over now. I’m sure we’ll get out there later this week to survey the results up close, but for now we’ll keep our distance while it smolders. In the meantime, I’ll be raising my glass to the brave fire crews who worked ever so hard to not only manage this burn, but all of the wildfires they encounter.