Driving up I-5 towards Portland at 3 a.m. the other night, I saw a surreal orange light glowing in the pitch black trees in the hills. I was confused as to what it could possibly be. It looked like a UFO was landing or something. I remembered years ago taking a bus between Austin and New Orleans in the middle of the night and seeing the black sky on fire from the refinery towers way out there in the barren Texas wasteland. For a moment I thought that might be what I was seeing . . . but of course there are no such things in the Oregon wilderness, at least not there. I had driven up and down this section of highway a million times and had never seen anything like it. I considered that it might be St. Elmo’s fire, but could only know if I got closer, which I was gonna do whether I wanted to or not. Going about a hundred miles per hour I rocketed down the dark highway and approached the strange lights in the trees. I saw this:
Yes! The god damn forest was on fire! I was completely alone on the highway. I didn’t see a single car in either direction. I slowed down to a crawl and took these pictures. Was it a controlled burn? I didn’t know. This was right by Crater Lake National Park, where I had visited years before:
But then I thought, you know, there’s no way they’re going to do a controlled burn that close to a huge national park, and especially not at night like that. Also it was massive. I stopped cold on the highway and rolled down my window. The fire was completely silent and smoke filled the sky. It was so weird to see and I almost considered that in my delirium I was imagining it. The smell! A bonfire the size of Rhode Island. I couldn’t believe it. What else could I do except drive on? So I drove on. I searched for news stories on the fire and found nothing. Had it not been for the pictures I took, I would have chalked it up to a dream.
Days later, round about 6 p.m. on my way back down to Oakland, I saw a massive line of cars at the very same spot where I had witnessed the fire. It was gonna add another hour to my trip . . . but I pulled off the highway and cut through a small town about three miles long, and then got back on the highway, which allowed me to avoid all the traffic entirely. The highway was condensed into one land beyond this point since the fire was raging on about twenty or thirty feet away from me, and sometimes getting so close to the road that you’d drive right through the flames if you were in the far right lane, which was coned off and lined with firetrucks and dudes in hardhats.
Anyway this is what it looked like, now ten times larger than it had been a few nights before:
I only managed to take a few pictures because all these park ranger dudes were waving us through like it was the end of the world. I read later that at that point in the day, the fire had consumed over four square miles of surrounding land, and was apparently started because of a god darn bolt of lightning. Man oh man! The air was polluted with heavy smoke for another two hours or so and seemed to be spreading south into California. I could hardly breathe. It was real bad.
Here’s the last picture I took before I escaped the fire zone: