Lightning streaked across the sky and was followed instantly by an explosion of thunder, telling me that the thunderstorm was somewhere right above. 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 Hayman Fire (Colorado’s largest wildfire ever, up to that point), and the smaller thing that was visibly burning on the nearby 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 saw 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 other people, fast asleep around the base camp that night. Everyone sprang into action when I yelled and they 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 knew the fire was up there, even though we couldn’t see or smell it. It had been highly visible from our vantage point in the base camp lodge. But as we moved toward it, it became invisible, and its location became increasingly elusive. We clung to the hope that once we got higher, it would just reappear. 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 I developed profound lung burn the further up we climbed. Lightning kept flashing, and the time between strike and thunder kept increasing, which indicated 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 continued to gain 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 their suppressant only so far, but thankfully for the most part it was 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. After extinguishing most of the flames, we used an axe to hack off a couple of lower branches that continued smoldering and then used shovels to scrape down a few small 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 it wouldn’t take us long to begin feeling 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 Tarryalls.