Breathing in Trees Out West

I’m on a little walkabout (driveabout) in the wildfire-ravaged West to visit my long time friend, Anne. Ever since I left Boise, my eyes are burning, sinuses stuffed and the nearer I get to the Dixie Fire the worse it gets.

I can’t shake the sensation that with every breath I’m breathing in trees, or their ghosts anyway. What I’m ingesting has shape-shifted into vapor. Solid matter gone up in smoke. It breaks my heart.

Driving between Boise and Northern California I stop to take a photo just outside of McDermitt, Oregon/Nevada. I think it’s bad there but it only gets worse. In retrospect, the air quality was better there than in Winemucca where visibility is about 1/2 mile, maybe less.

As I head west on I-80 (sorry for blasting through without stopping, Eva and Belinda!), the cloud of smoke thickens, pushing eastward over the Pacific Crest Trail and off toward Washington, DC. At least I hope it does, far enough east that an otherwise preoccupied Congress gets the message: send funding for sustainable forest management and better responses to drought and climate changes.

Turning north up Hwy 395 I get half an hour out of Reno – to  Hallelujah Junction – before hitting the Dixie Fire roadblock. Susanville is on high alert for evacuation. No one is getting past without a very good reason. The weary, red-eyed CHP officer takes one look at my Idaho license plate and stops me.

“Where ya headed?” he growls. He allows me to turn west toward Quincy when I tell him I’m not trying to push through for home.

A half an hour later I arrive safely in Graeagle for a visit with Anne. We raised our daughters together, spent many happy hours in the Sierra riding our horses. The last few years she’s stayed one step ahead of wildfires, first in Mariposa County and now here.

Graeagle is not presently at risk, although a fire person here told us this morning the fire’s crossed 395 headed north. Should the wind shift south, she says, ash falling on her head and shoulders, it could run the 35 miles to Graeagle in an hour. I’m thinking the ash silently testifies it has already turned.

Regardless, ahead of a possible apocalypse, cattle and horses graze the high mountain meadows peacefully. Birds sing away and deer slip in and out of cover. The forest stands quietly. Waiting. All of us, breathing in trees.

There’s a place behind the post office where Greenville evacuees are camping, waiting anxiously to return to their homes. Some of the residents here are refugees from Paradise’s devastating Camp Fire. The area (and much of the West) is under red flag alert, but so far so good. I tell Anne I brought the truck to help her evacuate if necessary.

We lose power before dinner. Pots are on the stove, meat is in the oven when everything goes dark. We shoot the breeze in the dark, brush our teeth by lantern light, and retire at who-knows-what time. Every window in the house stays open all night – no fans or air conditioning. I text the Professor an update from my dark bedroom, breathing in trees that waft in on the breeze.

I awake after 3 am to a brightly lit bedroom. There’s a curious clicking sound coming from the dining room. It’s an oscillating fan I’d pushed against the wall earlier so I didn’t trip. Passing through the kitchen I find we left two burners and the oven on. They glow red, heating the room and creating their own cherry-colored red flag warnings.

Tonight I’m racing to post this before 5:30 when the power will again be shut off. We’re better prepared this time. We will be sleeping with both ears open though, waiting for a loud knock and an order to evacuate if it comes. The wind has been shifting all day like a dangerous, rebellious adolescent. It may, or may not come our way. In the meantime, we breathe in trees.

Pray for the West, the people, stock, wildlife, habitat, and the glorious landscapes in flames (and those at risk). Pray for firefighters and brave men and women in planes circling overhead. Pray for leaders who will address this crisis. Pray for families and businesses, for those with health problems, and for those to whom the Dixie Fire provokes no small measure of anxiety. That would be all of us.

Lives, property, economies, and the land and resources that sustain us are on the line. Everything and everyone here seems to be waiting. The entire West out here, breathing in trees.


    1. Thanks, Nancy. I think about the forests and my friends everything the wind blows smoke into the Treasure Valley. I remember during the Rim Fire the news attributed our poor air quality to it. I thought then as now about the natural resources going up in smoke.


  1. I didn’t get the chance to read this before leaving the Central Valley for my own meeting with friends in Minden. I took Hwy. 88 through my old stomping grounds (and the evacuation zone for the Caldor fire) and over the Carson Pass, then back again on Sunday. The inside of my car still smells like a campfire. I don’t find the aroma as pleasant as I normally would.


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