As my wife and I were headed home from work Monday evening, we were, as usual, chatting about the events of the day. But as we exited the Elm Tunnel at the north end of St. Helena, the conversation stumbled, then stopped.
In unison we said “uh-oh.”
Over the hills southeast of Calistoga was a tall plume of brown and white smoke, joining the pervasive haze that has been hovering over the area for weeks as fires burn to the north.
As we drove, we watched with concern as the plume swirled in the hot breeze and grew.
Along the highway, cars were stopping and people were watching stoically, or taking photos and posting to social media.
At Dunaweal Lane, we looped back and drove back down Silverado Trail as I tried to determine the location. Was it in Dutch Henry Canyon? At Calistoga Ranch?
Finally it became pretty clear that the blaze was at the Clover Flat landfill, which reassured me somewhat since it is a reasonably clear space, minimizing the chance of spreading to wildlands.
But still it was a grim trip to the grocery store to pick up dinner. All over Calistoga, people were watching with evident fear.
In the end, it turned out to be a minor and easily controlled burn at the landfill, but I doubt there was anyone Upvalley watching that smoke plume without visions in their minds of last fall’s wildfires, and the horrendous devastation being wrought right now in Lake and Mendocino counties and around the city of Redding.
We had just come back from a family vacation, a road trip up through Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho. There are few things I enjoy more than a nice long road trip, seeing the sights of the country at ground level.
But this trip had an unsettling background theme. We left the day the Carr Fire began its destructive attack on Redding. We had planned to stop in Redding for lunch, but instead we saw the huge smoke column and listened to all-too-familiar radio reports of residents being evacuated.
We drove through the city of Weed, which still bears the scars of the horrible Boles Fire that burned into town in 2014, and which, on the day we passed through, was wreathed in smoke from fires burning in Oregon.
Once in Oregon, visibility dropped to less than a mile for long stretches from fires burning across the south and west of the state, almost all the way to Portland.
We had a clear day in Bend, but as we headed off to Spokane the next day, the smoke was so think that we could barely discern Mount Hood and the other towering giants of western Oregon. All through Washington and into Montana, the sky remained a gloomy grey or brown.
Coming back from Missoula, by way of Boise, large swaths of Idaho were on fire. We drove within sight of a fire along the Payette River. Firefighting camps were set up for miles along the highway and sea planes were landing on Cascade Lake, scooping up water and taking off again to dump it on the flames. So thick was the smoke that it set off my Check Engine light, fooling the sensors into thinking I had an emissions leak.
Driving home on Saturday, through Reno and the Donner Pass, was incredibly sobering. In addition to fires burning north of Reno, winds were blowing in smoke from the fires in California, creating a thick, soupy fog all the way into Sacramento.
Gov. Jerry Brown has called the terrifying fire seasons of the past few years “the new normal.” Experts debate whether he’s exactly right on that, but there is no question that the frequency and intensity of fires in the West has increased dramatically in recent years, as a warmer, drier climate combines with a century of poor forest management and development to create perfect conditions for horrifying firestorms.
Certainly smoke is our pervasive companion in the summer months, no matter how far we may travel in California and neighboring states. It’s a constant reminder that no town, no home, no forest or farm is entirely safe anymore.
And that’s why a minor, easily controlled blaze at the Clover Flat Landfill brought life to a grim and frightened halt for an hour on Monday afternoon.