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 any sort of flash hit the ground, but had to wonder if there was one up there, wherever it was that lightning came from, that had one of our names 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 Tarryalls needed it. A real downpour might put an end to the Hayman Fire as well as whatever it was that was burning up above us on the mountainside.

After weeks of focusing on fire, we were all a little on edge. I woke up in the middle of the night in question, in my warm and comfortable bed, to look out the 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 simply had to be dealt with right then and there.

There were 8 or 10 others, fast asleep around the base camp that night. All sprang into action when we realized what was going on. Some stayed back to call 911 and man the phones, we positioned others along the way with radios to relay info and the rest of us headed on up toward the fire with fire extinguishers, shovels and axes as if at least one of us had any idea about what to do with them in this case.

We knew for a fact that the fire was up there, even though we couldn’t see or smell it once we got on the same ridge it was on, but down below it. It’d been so obvious from our vantage point across the valley and up at the lodge, but once we got closer, it wasn’t. We clung to the idea that as we got higher, it would just appear. So, we did just that, hiking up into the storm and darkness, expecting to see it with every small ridge that we crested.

My heart pounded and my lungs began to burn as we climbed. Lightning kept flashing, but the time between strike and thunder kept increasing, telling me it was getting further away. The wind was more than just a gentle breeze, and provided welcomed relief from the increasing body heat I was generating, as we kept hurrying and gaining elevation.

We had a sense of what direction to go, 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, making the going tough, but eventually we moved up into more open Ponderosa Pine forest. We crested ridge after ridge, figuring we were about to see it, but each time there was only 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 in front of us. 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, at least the flames were lighting up our work space. Some of the tree’s limbs were actually on fire, but the whole thing was not. The fire extinguishers shot out only so far, but thankfully far enough to reach the flames. 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 axe and hacked off a couple of the lower limbs that continued smoldering and then used shovels to scrape down burning areas on the trunk, as well as the limbs. Some of the perimeter brush was beginning to burn, but thankfully the area around the tree was mostly rock, dirt and only scattered grass and it wasn’t spreading.

Adrenaline kept rushing through our bodies as we worked, with the vision of the entire mountainside going up in out of control flame continually streaking through our minds. After a while, darkness began returning, as we put the fire 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 apparent to do, we loaded up what tools we could manage and headed back, and for the rest of that night at least there would be no more trees burning in our part of the Tarryalls.

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.