Rain and Infernos
Freezing, huddled in my soaking jacket as it clung to my skin, my young eyes watched, wide open, as my camp instructor proclaimed that our group was about to light a fire. Pitter-patter pitter-patter, the sharp foreign noise of rain droplets hitting my jacket dominated my thoughts. It was as if the towering redwoods and cedars were flinging water at us, trying to douse any hope of fire in my little mind. The frigid, eucalyptus-tinged air swirled through my nose, irritating it. Clear and cold the wind sucked any warmth from my skin. Doubt crept up from my belly, through my chest, and into my mouth; I struggled to light a fire on dry summer days, how could my instructor get one going in a downpour?
Many years and successful fires later, I am at the same camp, this time as the instructor. Accomplishment and invigoration pour through me, my limbs are light with excitement, despite weeks of hard work. Fire, nurtured to life a few moments ago, spreads its warmth, lighting up the twelve elementary school faces huddled around it. Their eyes are wide at the foreign sight of the orange and blue flames. The flames lick at the edges of brown logs, gradually turning the wood black and then white as it crumbles. The familiar scent of smoke rises and curls out of the fire, permeating my clothing. As I gaze over the impressionable eyes in front of me, echoes of my childhood wonder at the creation of fire well through my chest; the desire to create the same experience I had as a child for my students fills my head. Due to the lack of rain, I decide to challenge my group to light a fire on their own, without my help.
50 years ago, a single fire destroyed 15% of Point Reyes National Seashore and 45 homes, totaling 12,000 acres of damage. Over just nine hours, the Mount Vision Fire burned 500 acres and 40 buildings, forcing the evacuation of 100 houses. This devastating natural force was an accident created by just four teenagers attempting to camp for the weekend.
Fire (noun) – the phenomenon of combustion manifested in light, flame, and heat. The music rang out clean and simple. The notes glided from the guitar as the lyrics seemed to melt out of Dane’s mouth. I couldn’t move my body; it was as if the music was holding me still, sucking me in. As I sat there around the campfire, listening to Naked as We Came, I couldn’t help but relax my shoulders and lean back into the dirt. Shrouded in darkness, the only light was our bubble of fire glowing defiantly against the night. It was as if the vast darkness was trying to pull us apart while the blaze acted as a forcefield, protecting us from the unknown. At that moment, the world felt small and simple. I was only 11, surrounded by high-school-aged campers and adult instructors, but I felt like we were one group, bonded as a community inside of our own slice of a massive world.
My heart pounds with excitement and apprehension. “Are you ready for the fire challenge??!” I call out to my students. The redwoods surround us, leaving space for a small clearing and path out. The roots of the redwoods arch, snaking around the edges of the clearing. It is as if the redwoods are helping to ground and contain my nerves. After discussing with my co-instructor, Jeff, we decide on the plan for our fire challenge: the culmination of the week.
We plan to leave our 2nd and 3rd graders “alone” in the clearing (filled with trip hazards and slightly poisonous plants), with a sharp saw (easy to cut oneself with), and foraging boundaries (easy for kids to forget). They would have 45 minutes to find their wood, process it, then set up a fire structure. Once their time was up, Jeff and I would return with a book of matches, hand it to one, and watch them light it (or attempt to).
Twelve eager bodies crowd around Jeff and me, their excited chatter ricocheting around my head. Worry and fear creep through my throat; it’s as if there is an iron ball creeping up my esophagus, weighing me down. What would happen? Would students get hurt? Would they fail? These thoughts crash through my head, turbulent waves threatening to sink me. However, I am held afloat by the belief that children are more capable than we give them credit for. I know they can do it.
“Come back with two handfuls of tiny DRY sticks!” My instructor shouted out. My tiny feet scurried around over the redwood duff; the pouring rain pelted my jacket. The tall redwoods and cedars seemed to stretch indefinitely into the sky. My eyes looked from side to side, scouring for small sticks. Ironically, despite being in a forest, it was as if all of the sticks were hiding. The sticks I did manage to find were soaking; even with my numb hands, the soft wood squished and flexed under my fingers. My eyes glanced over at my instructor, his hands were filled with dry small sticks, perfect for starting fires. Surprise and astonishment coursed through my mind. He must be superhuman, there is no way anyone can find that many sticks, I concluded.
The ground crumbles under my hands and legs; the dried redwood duff poked into my hands leaving pockmarks. My partner Jeff leans back in the duff next to me, his green Grateful Dead jacket flopping in the dirt, contrasting with his bright red beard. We watch our students through the brambles of bay laurel and redwood branches in front of us, looking for any signs of trouble. Through a small opening, we see our students scurrying around looking for wood. Our mouths curve upward as our students organize themselves into groups to work on different tasks. Their feet pattering around, shrill voices ordering each other around. “Tinder, kindling, fire structure, oxygen, heat!” Terms introduced to them throughout the week echo out of the clearing into our ears. Pride and joy curl through my stomach and into my face as I grin at Jeff. He smiles back.
“They aren’t doing too bad!” he notes, echoing the excitement evident on my face.
“Not at all, not at all. We’ll see if they can get it going,” I add.
A pinpoint of light poked through the darkness of the Mount Vision Wilderness. The firelight flickered across the four teenagers’ silhouetted forms. Their names were never released to the public. Perhaps they went to school nearby and were finding solace in the woods from the pressure of school. As they sat on stumps huddled around the fire, the orange glow illuminated their faces from below, casting eerie shadows across their faces. The pops and crackles of the fire rose out of the ring, inhuman yet inviting, small reminders of the moment’s simplicity. Around them, the heat dissipated in a soft circle, swallowed in an instant by the trees. As the night wore on, the light from the fire lowered and darkened. What was once burning logs were now white-hot coals crumbling into ash. Huddled around the warmth of the coals and tired from a long night of joking and storytelling, one by one the kids said they were ready to turn in. Remembering past camping trips with their parents, they poured dirt over the coals, burying them deep. The glow of the coals diminished and then vanished as the dirt smothered them. Nodding to each other, the teenagers got ready for bed. Their excitement and energy having died out with the fire, replaced with solemn contentment.
The rain was smashing into my rain jacket. It was as if the droplets and gravity were having a contest with themselves about who could hit the hardest. My body shivered as I huddled around the fire pit, watching as my instructor talked about fire structures and techniques for creating fire in the rain. With deft movements, he placed the sticks we had found in a grid-like pattern, making a small burnable house sheltering our smallest materials from the rain. My eyes were glued as he talked about the sizing of wood and oxygen flow. He sounded so sure and knowledgeable about fire. As I watched, visions of me being able to light a fire like him danced through my mind.
The side of Mount Vision was quiet, the teenagers had long since left. Their jumbled voices returning to civilization. The forest was silent, trees standing sentinel against further disturbance as they waved in the wind. Below the trees, the ground stirred, a faint warmth emanated from below the fire ring. The coals buried the night before, compacted into a tight core of heat, churned and glowed gaining heat and fuel from the duff above them. Just above the coals, wind coursed through the forest, shooting through the trees and over the landscape.
The sounds of excited kids, their feet stomping over sticks, stream out from the clearing as Jeff and I, having determined that the kids would be fine, talk about mushrooms and other fungi. Suddenly, as naturally as most people stop before crossing a crosswalk, Jeff and I stop talking and stare at our students. Two hands pick up the saw and lay down wood to cut. Jeff and I already agreed that we could leave them the saw. Nevertheless, worry builds up in my throat as I peer at their little forms, looking for any potential mistakes. Would they cut themselves? Do we need to go up and help them? If we help them directly it will ruin their experience of doing it solo.
Wind whipped over the growing embers, sending them flying away. As the dirt and glowing coals sprayed through the air, they fell softly into redwood duff on the edge of the clearing. The warm flecks of red hot energy warmed the airy duff, bursting into flame. Fueled by the wind, the fire grew, dancing through the underbrush, spreading into trees. The orange light casted a haunting glow throughout the forest. Instead of easy-going pops and crackles, all that could be heard was the pure roaring of oxygen being transformed into carbon dioxide; harsh and violent, the sound of uncontrolled fire cuts through the forest, disturbing the stillness of the once peaceful trees.
Bzzzzp bzooop back and forth back and forth, the red saw slides with the guidance of two inexperienced 2nd graders. Jeff and I watch on the edge of our seats, both of us already planning the shortest route to get to them in the case of an emergency. The saw blade glints in the light, daring us to make a move. The kids' faces light up with determination and pride as they realize what a dangerous task has been entrusted to them. Sawdust flies out from underneath the blade as it breaks through their stick. When we notice our students’ pride despite our worry, grins and happiness radiate between Jeff and me.
“Gather round, gather round, you think we're ready to light it?” A chorus of cheers responded to my instructor who knelt in the fire pit. His gray pants dug into the mushy ash of the fire pit, his wide-brimmed hat a contrast to our tiny yet too big rain hoods. His match zoomed down the matchbook like an airplane taking off. The match light and glided into the structure. Silence echoed through our loud group. We all stared at the smoldering fire structure, hoping and wishing that it would light. The rain, previously a loud and present distraction, vanished from my mind. All I could see were the young flames curling around the wood. My instructor leaned over and with care and confidence blew on the tiny fire. It was as if he already knew what the fire needed and how it would react to him. The orange light gently built as the heat grew. The flames, no longer little, ate up the fire structure. It was as if the air was alive, warmth radiated outward as the rain retreated from the growing fire. Gratefulness and joy poured through my body as it warmed. Our group huddled around the fire, a beacon of warmth and light, as our instructor talked to us about fire and its almost magical properties.
Excitement palpable in their voices, “We’re done!!!” echoes from the clearing. The small LCD on my battered watch reads only 35 minutes. Astonishment and surprise race over my face; similar feelings are evident on Jeff’s. “Damn, it only took them 35 minutes!” I proclaim as we get up. As we enter the clearing, a couple of kids rush up to us asking to light the fire. Their fire structure stands tall in the center of the fire ring. A tipi of sticks against a stone backdrop. I swell with pride, all of the techniques we had taught them throughout the week are evident in their work.
“Friends, I am really really impressed with your work, this is one of the best student-made fire structures I have seen in a long time!” I say.
“Yeah, really good work, and in only 35 minutes!” Jeff adds. I hand one of the kids a matchbook. Its crumbled black exterior emblazoned with our company logo, a symbol of trust, handed off to our students. We watch as they light the fire, its tiny flames flickering upwards burning brighter. The light illuminates our students’ faces; their mouths curve upward as their cheeks squish and their eyes glow with accomplishment.
The teenagers’ fire, now an inferno of mind-boggling strength, raged throughout the wilderness, leaving destruction and havoc in its wake. After the fact, firefighters described driving through tunnels of fire; 100-foot flames on one side of the road in front of them shot across combining with 40-foot ones on the other. This terrifying natural force required 2,134 firefighters and 850 inmates on work detail to be put out. In an instant, the sounds of the birds chirping and the trees whipping transformed into eerie silence. The charcoaled stumps stood alone, the air heavy with smoke. Once tinged with the smells of the ocean and verdant pines, the air was now overwhelmed with the fumes of fire. Instead of invigorating those lucky enough to breathe it, the air felt as if you were rubbing sandpaper against your throat. However, deep below the rubble, small seeds were already starting to develop.
Fire (verb) – to give life or spirit to. Smoke rose from the fire with a meandering sense of ease. As the gray wafts curled upward, they reached the faint edge of the firelight and disappeared into the starry night. Through the smoke, the four faces of my friends gazed at each other, listening to the murmur of conversation. The fire in between us burned hot, a welcome contrast to the freezing night. Drawn in by the warmth, we huddled as close as we could to the flames. As we watched the fire dance amongst the wood, the stories from a summer of teaching outdoor skills flowed out of us and through the fire. As we listened, our eyes naturally drifted to the flames, their bright light a blinding yet comforting sight. The light lulled our bodies into a sense of ease. It was as if our exhaustion was rolling off us, sucked away by the fire. Coming to replace the exhaustion, appreciation and gratitude filled our hearts, forever binding us together.