My experience began on a sunny Saturday afternoon in early September. Labor Day was the first time my wife and I had all three of our busy, nearly grown kids with us since Christmas. Figuring we’d spend the day together romping around Oregon’s natural playground, we drove 40 miles east to the Eagle Creek Trail, a path that follows a waterfall-clotted river on an uphill climb toward the richly forested Bull Run watershed.
When we arrived just after noon, the parking lot was so crowded that we had to double back and bootleg a spot on the side of the road. Setting out through a thicket of multigenerational tourist families, taut hikers, cooler-toting beer dudes, toddler-chasing couples, and dozens of other Oregon types, we continued for three breezy miles, had a shady lunch at the High Bridge, and after an hour or so headed to the Punch Bowl Falls swimming area for a cooling dip. We were back on the trail at 4 p.m. for the gentle two-mile stroll down to the car. A sweet end to a lovely afternoon, right until one of my sons, Teddy, came sprinting back from walking a few hundred feet ahead of us.
The trail was on fire, he shouted. In fact, the entire hillside was ablaze.
Thinking dad thoughts, I made a few steps forward to check it out, but Teddy put his hand up to my chest. You do not want to get closer.
Twenty minutes earlier, a few feckless teenagers had tossed a smoke bomb from the trail, and hell had been unleashed. Our cheerful family outing had sent us into the maw of a deadly siege. But that was absurd. So I sighed and girded myself for something more reasonable: an unexpected pain in the ass.
Back at Punch Bowl Falls, we spread the word among the 100-plus hikers, swimmers, and out-of-town visitors and joined them all in standing meekly on the riverbank watching the thin yellow haze of smoke grow into a seething black curtain. Forest Service choppers buzzed in to drop water on the blaze, made no impact, went off to reload. A smaller helicopter fluttered in to drop a note, but the instructions were vague: WE SEE YOU ... STAY PUT ... DANGER! Then that chopper was gone for good.
We stayed put on the riverside. Some teenagers tossed a Frisbee. Parents played with their kids. A few well-put-together women stood together and fretted. One asked me: Is this one of those fires that sucks the oxygen away and suffocates us right here?
I made a face. Of course not.
How do you know?
Because it just isn’t.
Denial is definitely not a smoke-wreathed river in Oregon, but I had to maintain some level of control of the situation. Not far away a ball of fire shot through the dense black smoke.
I kept peering past the tree line, waiting for some kind of cavalry to come galloping in. Instead, a 30-ish fellow with short dark curls and a beard climbed up on a boulder and called out for attention. He was Technical Sergeant Robert Dones of the U.S. Air Force, a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan. After scoping out the movement of the fire, he had some ideas. The flames were too close for us to stay on the riverbank. We needed to get out now, and no matter how fast, how slow, how young or old, we were all going together. We would stay together until we were all safe.