Hell on Not-so-Bland Mountain, 1987

Hell?

I’m tempted to say “I’ve been there.”

Memories of the not-so-Bland Mountain Fire bring to mind what hell might be—to be so immersed in fatigue; wallowing wholly in sleep deprived saturation; eyes gritty with ash; fire shirt and pants grey with ash; snot-clogged nostrils packed with ash, and that’s just on the walk to the line. If there is a line that day; you may just be floundering through the black, ever seeking the flaming front; through the patchy green; more black; spires of black, rocks of black, dust of black; soil black; skin gray only because the puffy ash somehow targets the moving human.

All else is black; it reeks burnt; it smells burnt; the charcoal is burnt; the ash is burnt; everything is blasted and burnt and black unless its gray. Monochrome horrorscape. But this only describes the view, so to speak.

Not the feeling.

Hell being of everlasting torment, one must pause at the twisted carcass of a deer, and think what that tormented creature felt as the strange wind build and battered her fur; now the forest muttered darkly as if the trees would shortly rend themselves asunder; the crackle and whiff and smoke and heat…first radiant; then growing, suffusing, enveloping; the labored gasping of air-sucking flight; then the desperate gasping as air is sucked from the forest, sucked from her chest; consumed by the maelstrom; radiant heat becomes embracing flame; no mere tendrils but a vomiting wall of orange-black horror erupts as if from nothing and becomes everything: wall of flame; sheet of flame; flames licking; there is no smell for heat sterilizes all; flames fly dozens, then hundreds of feet toward the heavens as earth burns in hell.

And this is one mere creature; one deer among many departed and fallen.

Yet a few hundred yards away, two others fell, loggers whose tombstone is a charred log yarder beneath which they sought shelter and found only suffocation and death.

For the creature in its last moment, for the men in their last moments, the earth, sky, air, and heavens are but flame; all flame; only flame. Flame. All. Flame.

Their passing was in horror. May their rest be in peace.

6 thoughts on “Hell on Not-so-Bland Mountain, 1987

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  1. WOW! WOW! WOW! Horrifying! I have not lived it as you have, so your analogy to Hell is very thought and emotion provoking! The absence of oxygen at the very time that every creature must flee for its life is so tragic! Although long ago, thank you for your service, and thank you for a valuable reminder for us all.

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    1. Thanks, Dale–you crossed my mind the other day; was wondering how you were doing. I pulled the plug at ADF in November, still doing some contract and allied attorney work. And with this crazy, endless fire season I finally posted that bit I wrote years ago as catharsis for the hard seasons we had in the late 80s ….

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  2. I’m glad I came upon this story. My cousin was Mark Giles, I was telling my husband everything I remember from that summer. I was only 6 years old but those memories will be with me forever. Every summer that there is a fire, it gives me bad anxiety. This story was so beautifully heartbreaking and I needed to read it. Thank you for your service and for answering a question I was afraid to ask.

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    1. Kara, thank you for your kind comments and I’m pleased to bring some closure. My daughters were about the same age as you back then, and the bad fires of the late 80s left the family in constant stress–I worked at Roseburg BLM and we lived out in Tenmile on Highway 42. Those long weeks of dark, smoked-out skies and seeing the nighttime glow were edgy days for everyone. And Bland Mountain was just nuclear–the only time I saw a crown fire run downhill, and the most intense fire behavior I ever saw running up the old growth on Bland Mountain. Old growth Doug-fir a good 200+ feet tall and flames 200′ high coming off them. Insane, and scary to this day….

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  3. My husband ( killed in Azalea in 1988) sons and I live 16 miles up Cow Creek Rd during the Bland Mountain fire.
    I have been in many fires over the years and I certainly remember watching this one crest over the mountain and ash/smoke so thick you could’t see your hand in front of your face.

    I had a t-shirt from that fire that had personal sentimental importance to me, but it was stolen along with about everything else I owned.

    Any idea where I could get my hands on another?
    I remember it was light gray.

    Thank you for reading this.

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    1. Thank you for writing! Just a few weeks ago I had a gentleman stop by my house; turned out his wife was a cousin to one of the loggers who died at Bland Mountain—I’d posted my blog locally after our neighborhood was burned over twice this summer. Lost thirty homes, five were my neighbors. Unfortunately, I never even got a T-Shirt from the fire—we were working straight from the Roseburg district and I suspect the shirts were sold near the fire camp.

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