Fire in the Tarryalls

A tree catches fire in the Colorado backcountry at a particularly inopportune time.

CRT Mark 2003 046
Penitente Canyon, Colorado

Lightning streaked across the sky and was followed instantly by an explosion of thunder, telling me that the thunderstorm was somewhere right above us. It was unsettling, but there wasn’t time to worry about it. I didn’t see a lightning flash hit the ground but wondered if there was one up there that had one of our names written on it. The wind kept blowing relentlessly, and the constant gusting made the whole situation seem all the more chaotic. But, where’s the rain, I thought? The Tarryall Mountains needed it. A real downpour might put an end to both the monstrous Hayman Fire, and the smaller thing was that was visibly burning above us on the mountainside.

After weeks of focusing on wildfire, we were all a little on edge. I mysteriously awoke in the middle of the night to look out of my upstairs camp lodge window and see a small fire burning high up on a hill across the valley. For a moment, I did nothing, then a rush of adrenaline poured through my body, and I jumped up, ready to attack. There was no time for thought or hesitation- it plainly just needed to be dealt with right then and there.
There were 8 or 10 others, fast asleep around the base camp that night. Everyone sprang into action when we realized what was going on. Some stayed back to call 911 and handle the phones. Others were positioned along the way with radios to relay info. And the rest headed toward the fire to combat it with fire extinguishers, shovels, and axes.
We were sure that the fire was up there, even though we couldn’t see or smell it. It was highly visible from our vantage point in the lodge, which was directly across the Tarryall Valley from it. But as we got closer to it, it seemed to disappear, and its location became elusive. We clung to the hope that once we got higher, it would just appear. So, we did just that and hiked toward where we thought it was, expecting to see it with every small ridge that we crested.
My heart pounded, and my lungs began to burn the further we climbed. Lightning kept flashing, but the time between strike and thunder kept increasing, telling me that it was getting further away. The wind was more than just a gentle breeze. It provided welcomed relief from my increasing body heat, as we hurried and gained elevation.
We had a sense of what direction to go in, but clouds completely blocked out the moon, making it darker than dark. Our headlamps lit up the world immediately around us but did little on a larger scale. Initially, there were trees, vines, and bushes everywhere, which made the going tough. But eventually, we moved up into a more open Ponderosa Pine forest. We crested ridge after ridge, each time anticipating seeing the blaze, but instead, we were repeatedly greeted by more darkness.
And then, it happened. After almost 30 minutes of steady climbing, we topped a ridge and saw a tree on fire, some 50 yards out in front of us. It must’ve been caused by a lightning strike we all agreed, although at the time that part of it didn’t really matter.
We attacked. On the bright side, literally, the flames were lighting up our workspace. Some of the tree’s limbs were actually on fire, but the entirety of it was not. The fire extinguishers shot out only so far, but thankfully far enough to reach what was actually on fire. I’m not sure what we would’ve done if the upper limbs had been on fire. I guess we’ll never know. We had an ax and hacked off a couple of the lower branches that had continued smoldering and then used shovels to scrape down areas that were still burning. Some of the perimeter brush began to catch on fire. But thankfully, the area around the tree was mostly composed of rock, dirt, and only scattered grass, and it didn’t spread.
Adrenaline kept rushing through our bodies as we worked, helped along by the vision of the entire mountainside going up in out of control flame. After a while, darkness began returning, as the fire died out. When it finally got dark enough, we could see stars and only distant flashes of lightning that were, by that point, terrifying someone else.
We all shined our headlamps around the area, looking for any signs of fire. At first, there’d been plenty, but now there were none. A fresh northerly breeze reminded us that it was the middle of the almost alpine night. We were soaked with sweat and knew that it wouldn’t take long to begin to get cold. With nothing else to do regarding the fire, we loaded up what tools we could manage and headed down. For the rest of that night, there would be no more trees burning in our part of the Tarryall Mountains.

The Tarryalls
The Tarryall Mountains and Valley in Colorado


Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.

%d bloggers like this: