A Lesser Man: the Fight to Save Breitenbush

Right to left: They are Erik Wennstrom, Neil Clasen, Chief Pollack, Hollywood Dan and the author. Photo: Eric Wennstrom

When you’re going through hell, keep going.

– Winston Churchill

Should you ever find yourself surrounded by flames a hundred feet high, surely you will find yourself. I was brewing an untenable third cup of coffee when two firefighters clad in Nomex brush-gear pulled up outside the kitchen window in a golf cart. I went out and wished them a good morning. According to them it was not a good morning. A fire was on its way: evacuation level two, poised to go to three.

“What happened to level one?” I asked. They said the fire was moving that fast, had earlier this morning outflanked the north face of Mount Jefferson, and was prepared to hurtle down the Breitenbush river canyon to where we now stood. “That,” I said, “is unlikely.”

But for a few excursions to obtain an education, I have lived here all my life. There are people who know the area as well, but none who know it better. I told the firefighters that the Lionshead fire was ten miles away, four thousand feet higher, had to jump a thousand-foot cascade in a giant scree field, then get through miles of fire-resistant old growth timber in order for that to happen. They looked at one another and I recognized the look: “We’re wasting time on this fool,” because I had worn it a few times myself. Now the expression was on the other face, and, as I would soon learn, was a perfect fit.

Okay, I ignored their warning, but not completely, prioritizing and gathering possessions in a pile on the living room floor in case I found myself with fifteen minutes to spare. I then enjoyed a lovely Labor Day: clear blue skies, deep green forest, sparkling water, Bambi and Thumper in full frolic: a bluebird day, before knocking back a craft ale and falling into the sound slumber of presumed innocence.

I woke at 6:00 AM to flames outside the window and sprinted to the emergency radio a quarter mile down the gravel road to alert the Breitenbush Fire Department. My buddy Daniel, known as Hollywood Dan during his professional wildfire-fighting days, picked up the call. I told him I had a spot fire outside the cabin and he was there with a pumper truck in minutes. We suppressed the twenty-foot diameter fire, then Daniel said he had to get back to the springs but could I run over and have a look at his cabin. I ran across a short trail, then up the hill towards his cabin. As I crested the hill a wall of flame filled my entire field of vision: left to right, from the duff to as high as I could see. Daniel’s cabin was one immense flame with a deafening roar: Lionshead indeed.

As I raced back across the trail, what looked like bright red meteorites streaked down around me, igniting the ground wherever they landed. I ran into the cabin and looked at my pile of possessions. I didn’t have fifteen minutes. I barely had one. I grabbed an armload, threw it in the jeep and sped to the hot springs through ribbons of fire and a hail of embers. I found Daniel and told him that the summer-home cabins were gone. He choked back the grief of losing his

cabin and asked me what I was going to do. I said I was out of there, if I could even get out, and asked him if they were staying. He said that there was no “they,” only him. This did not readily sink in. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“I,” Daniel replied, “am the only one here.”

It was one of those dismal growth opportunities when you have a crucial decision to make, and seconds in which to make it. But a small yet clear and insistent voice in my head said, “If you leave him here alone, you will never be able to live with yourself,” and I told Daniel, “I’m with you. Tell me what to do,” as I had no experience whatever fighting wildfire. He said the first thing was to get the infrastructure in place: hoses, tools and other resources in the right locations. I grabbed a Nomex suit from the fire station, and we spent the next forty-five minutes setting it up.

The first spot fire arrived. We pounced and snuffed. Another appeared; we snuffed that, too. Within half an hour there were a dozen starting for every one we put out, and we began our retreat. After pushing fire back from Vista, the Healing Arts Center perched on the edge of a steep slope, Daniel asked me to check on the guest cabins. I ran to the area to see a long ribbon of fire behind the first row of cabins, advancing fast. I ran back to Daniel, told him what I saw, and opined that I did not see how we could save any of those cabins. He agreed without hesitation and we continued with hoses to push the flames back from Vista. But standing upslope from raging fire and trying to push it back down was not so different from Sisyphus with his rock.

I’d like Breitenbush’s Healing Arts practitioners to know that we did not concede Vista without a fight. But we could have spent all our time and water there, and lost Vista, along with everything else, anyway. So we shifted our attention to the Villa, a building which stands maybe fifty feet from Vista and houses the Breitenbush kitchen, also the oldest building on the land. Within seconds, Vista was consumed in flame. Daniel told me to soak the wall of the Villa facing the fire, saying that we may be lucky simply to save the lodge. I replied that we may be lucky simply to save ourselves. He nodded and ran off to see to something I probably wouldn’t understand.

It was about two o’clock in the afternoon. I was hosing down the hundred-year-old fir wall, feeling the heat at my back through the Nomex. Whenever I took the hose off a section of wall it was dry in seconds. The smoke was so dense it brought visibility down to a few feet. The magnitude of my hubris and sheer unmitigated folly was becoming depressingly clear, when out of the thick yellow smoke stepped Breitenbush Fire Chief Jordan Pollack in full wildfire gear, flanked by Firefighter-Paramedic Neil Clasen.

In his normal deadpan voice, Jordan asked me a few questions, told me to keep doing what I was doing, and assured me that everything would be all right. While the Chief talked to me, Neil disappeared and reappeared, reporting that Daniel’s allocation of resources was correct.

The next six hours was a blur of digging, hosing and scraping, while struggling not to be distracted by the walls of flame sometimes twenty feet away. The giant fire-resistant old- growth firs and cedars became massive torches, accompanied by the exploding propane tanks in the neighboring Summer Homes. The giant evergreens, green no more, sent shock waves through the ground as they crashed. I felt as though I was in a big-budget Hollywood disaster picture. There were two types of fire confronting us: the spot-fires erupting all around, sometimes right out of the ground, and the ravenous locomotive of the main body of flame in its inexorable advance.

While my own personal, well-earned hell transpired, Eric Wennstrom, another expert professional who came along because the Chief asked him to, was single-handedly saving the community village across the Breitenbush River. What happened then I still find hard to believe; it was hard to believe even as it unfolded before my eyes. The deep, crimson heart of the fire proceeded on course directly toward us. How could it be stopped? It was not possible by any means I knew. But with the Chief, Neil and Daniel on one side of the river, and, so far as I know, only Eric on the other, those calm, cool, professionals, with consummate skill, turned that marching, deafening, hurricane of flame, and directed it around Breitenbush, using nothing but shovels and one-inch wildfire hoses, which they referred to as, “toy hoses.”

All this time I concentrated, using the term loosely, on the simple tasks I was assigned. As I finished scraping a fire-line around Breitenbush’s office building, surrounded by billowing smoke and crackling flame, Neil suddenly appeared and said, “Want an ice cream bar?” We needed the batteries that were in the office/gift shop for sale to guests. The building was locked but Daniel had squeezed through a window, secured the batteries, and noticed a small freezer. Power was out and the gourmet organic ice cream bars were going to melt anyway. Not long ago I had wanted all kinds of things. Now all I wanted was an ice cream bar. “Eat it fast,” Neil said, vanishing into the smoke. Locked into a front row seat for a preview showing of the infernal world to come if we don’t get a handle on global warming, the cold, rich ice cream gliding down my throat was a grace note in a symphony of dread.

For I could only look at the fire, while the Chief, Daniel and Neil, read the fire. As they scrutinized the flames, I heard them discussing varying temperatures, pressures, and movement, while all I saw was Satan laughing with delight as the flames climbed high into the night. And as night came on, the motion picture I found myself co-starring in transformed from Towering Inferno to Apocalypse Now: Sundry bodies of glowing orange on all sides, explosions every few minutes. Once in a while the fire would make a “run” up the ridge opposite the river: a bright red streak that soared to the ridgetop two thousand feet high, incinerating all in its path, bellowing in rage at the preposterous humans who regard themselves as the apex of creation. A most unsympathetic fallacy.

In Ernest Callenbach’s novel, Ecotopia, one of the fundamental principles of ecology is that Nature bats last. Now it was the bottom of the ninth and Nature was at the plate. At one point Neil and I stood looking across the river to the ridge opposite: one enormous, shimmering,

pulsating ember with waves of deeper orange rippling across its two-thousand-foot-high face. Neil said, “That’s hot,” and we got back to work.

As night wore on, the orange glow to the east began to dim perceptibly as the body of the fire moved past us on either side. An occasional gust would fan the colossal embers, and flames would leap dozens of feet into the night sky. I would shudder, wondering if it was going to start all over again. But when the wind died down, the flames would follow, and I dared to think I just might possibly survive.

In the so-called back of my so-called mind, I also knew that the Chief and his pros were looking after the tenderfoot, saving all the dangerous positions for themselves. The Chief made sure I was drinking lots of water. He made me eat and rest at intervals, telling me that I would never last if I didn’t. As the dawn approached, he suggested I go into the lodge and lie down for a while. I said I couldn’t possibly sleep. The Chief rephrased. I lay on a bed in my rank, vile, filthy Nomex, adrenalin thrumming through my body. But the Chief was right as usual: my muscles got some rest, and in a couple of hours I was ready for another effort.

Dawn slowly broadened into day. The office, the lodge, the Villa, the Forest Shelter (a workshop space) were all standing. Eric had saved eighty percent of the community village by himself. But for his expertise, it would all be ash. But the Sanctuary, Breitenbush’s pyramidal chapel, turned out to be the perfect shape to encourage fire, which hardly needed encouragement. I can’t say for sure but I think it was around midnight when I saw it erupt in one colossal flame, then the beams crashed and an even more intense flame erupted again. I actually forgot about my pathetic self for a moment and wondered how I would tell my friend, Michael Donnelly, who was a principle designer and builder of the innovative structure. Michael also had a summer home, representing years of work. He had finally dialed in its state-of-the-art, carbon-neutral, off-the-grid technology. Now it was just carbon.

After making a thorough patrol and stomping out the remaining spot-fires, the Chief proclaimed that the time had come for a real, no-holds-barred, firefighters’ breakfast. Caked in soot, grime, grunge and crud, I said that I simply had to make an attempt to get clean. I grabbed a large kettle and went to the community hot tubs across the river. As the plumbing no longer worked, no cold water was running into the tubs and the temperature was over a hundred and forty degrees. I filled half the kettle with water from a tub, then mixed it with water from the river. I stripped naked to find that my entire body was black. It had been so hot that I had stupidly taken my jacket off periodically, and the Nomex trousers were loose and held by suspenders, so I had let a lot of free-floating carbon under my protective shell.

Armed with a quart pitcher and a bottle of Dr. Bronners, I started pouring warm water and squeezing liquid soap over my skin, trying to work up a lather but basically smearing the grime around. I persevered. A dark gray lather began to emerge, eventually becoming arguably lighter, and revealing my skin as a roadmap of scrapes, cuts and bruises, with no memory of acquiring any of them. When I finally felt clean, I took the pale yellow towel I had grabbed from the lodge and dried off. I hung the towel on a hook. It was black.

I picked my way carefully across the burned footbridge and climbed down the ladder, the ramp long gone, then up the stone steps to the kitchen. The Chief was at the griddle presiding magisterially over hash browns. Neil was at the stove scrambling eggs with peppers, onions, broccoli and gruyere. There was the strongest coffee I ever tasted. There was toast. I told them of my bath, then said, “and when I hung up the towel, guess what?” They replied in unison, “It was black!”

The Chief handed me a plate and said, “That was amazing.” “The understatement of the year,” I replied.

“Not the fire,” he said, “I mean I’ve never seen you so humble.”

The Breitenbush Sanctuary goes up in flames. Photo: Eric Wennstrom.

After breakfast we started mopping up. We mopped all day: lots of little fires reemerging. But the conflagration was over. Neil wanted to call his wife and I wanted to call my sisters to let them know I was alive, so we drove in Neil’s truck down to the town of Detroit to see if we could get a signal. We had to cut through several trees to make the ten miles to Detroit, only to find that Detroit was gone, wiped off the map. We stood at the base of the com tower: no service. A patrol car appeared and the officer asked us who we were and what we were doing. We told him. He wished us luck.

Around five in the afternoon, the Chief declared that a celebratory picnic was in order. We arranged some picnic tables and Adirondack chairs on the lawn before the lodge. There was cheese and crackers, chips and salsa. Neil set a case of beer on the table with a resounding thud. I finally got to meet and talk to Eric, who patiently broke down the fire science for me so I could begin to understand what I had been through, and I learned a lot.

One of the things I learned was that these guys intensely dislike praise. I started to admire them out loud. They would have none of it: just doing their job. The word hero is an insult: the fatuous h-word. The expression is, “hero or zero,” meaning that if it doesn’t involve some stupendous, phenomenal, death-defying, unparalleled feat, keep your mouth shut. They did, nevertheless, compliment me on, for a rookie, keeping my shit together. I told them that if I hadn’t been so dehydrated, I would have peed in my Nomex.

All of us were EMTs or Medics, and we passed the pulse oximeter around. My normal resting heart rate is about fifty, now it was a hundred and five. My oxygen saturation rate was eighty- nine: hypoxic. The others were the same. The pros said that the reading was normal for our circumstances. But your resting heart rate cannot remain over a hundred indefinitely. After three or four days you’re courting a heart attack: a date you definitely want to stand up. Daniel and I retrieved oxygen cylinders from Breitenbush’s small infirmary, hooked up nasal cannulas and started breathing: in through the nose, out through the mouth, as long and deep as possible. The Chief and his pals said they’d be fine. Who were these guys?

The next day, Thursday, Eric and Neil left around midday, the Chief, after leaving instructions, around mid-afternoon. Daniel and I were at work on our assignment when another local fire

chief showed up to tell us that the three wildfires in the area were going to merge, creating the biggest wildfire complex in history. Strong gusty west winds were forecast, meaning the fire would reverse and burn back over us. A plume would form over our heads, the like of which had never been seen, and when gravity overcame thermal energy, that plume would collapse like a black hole, and flame would be irrelevant: there would be no oxygen to breathe and we would asphyxiate.

The local Chief wanted us to leave with him. Daniel was dismissive, telling him that we were not going anywhere. I piped up and told Daniel that I was not sanguine about this “we” thing. I walked the Chief to his vehicle. He told me that if I was going to leave, it needed to be within the next thirty minutes. If I wasn’t rolling by then, commit to the fight. There was a second wave of fire on its way, and it would be worse than the first. My immediate thought was that, “worse than the first” was impossible, but the concept of impossible had lost all meaning. I said, “Just to be perfectly clear, are you telling me that if I stay here tonight, I will probably die?” “That,” he said, “is precisely what I am telling you.”

The fire chief left. I returned to Daniel at the lodge. I told him I wanted to leave. He was determined to stay. I couldn’t leave on my own because my jeep was parked on the south side of the river and the exit road had over a hundred fallen trees across it, many of them burning. I think Daniel could have talked me into staying; he was supremely confident. But I was feeling like an ass for having been supremely confident a short time ago. Without batting an eye, Daniel said, “Take my truck. Keys are on the seat. I’ll see you when I see you.”

When I appeared at the Salem home of my friend Mark Ottenad, another Breitenbush alumnus, and rang the bell, he opened the door, smiled to see that I was alive, then quickly scowled and pinched his nose. “Take that crap off out there,” he said. I stripped on the porch, black once more. I walked in and he pointed up the stairs. “Shower. Now. Don’t sit down. Don’t touch anything. Go.”

Now I had a genuine hot shower. I was in there for half an hour, and came out genuinely clean. I stood naked in the bathroom and actually felt my skin breathe, although I would have night sweats for a week as my body flushed out the deeper toxins. The next day I learned that the west winds had not materialized and a crew was on their way up to start putting Humpty- Dumpty together again. I went up the following day, not only to return the truck to Daniel, but to deliver fuel, food, chainsaws, and medical supplies including several long cylinders of USP oxygen.

When I arrived back at Breitenbush, Daniel was grinning ear to ear. The crew had water, power and septic partially restored, full infrastructure restoration only a day or two away. My paramedic friend Charles Ramsay was on his way to bring me and whatever I had thrown in my jeep down to his place in Portland. I was a little trepidatious because I had a hard time getting past the military blockades, even though I was on the authorized list with the proper code on a placard on the dash. But Charles had no trouble, being about as unstoppable as the fire.

While waiting for Charles to arrive, Conrad Zevely, one of the charter members of the Breitenbush Cooperative, and I started clearing the road from Breitenbush to highway twenty- two, former site of the town of Detroit. The Forest Service had cleared a one lane access, winding around boulders and fallen trees, but with Conrad on the backhoe and me on the chainsaws, we got it cleared, fog line to fog line, and were finishing up when Charles arrived.

I took my leave from the crew with gratitude and esteem flying in all directions, left with Charles, and he and his wife Rebecca have drowned me in kindness and generosity. They gave me their son’s bedroom which has a king-size bed, banishing him to the basement sofa. But Rowan proved to be as gracious as his parents. I now recline in his bedroom, my laptop atop my lap, pecking out this subjective, hyperbolic tale, ten pounds lighter.

The logo of the Breitenbush Fire Department is the phoenix rising from the ashes. That is the task now before Breitenbush. Will they succeed? On the day I left, I rose early to ferry my stuff across the footbridge so I wouldn’t interfere with the crew’s work. But at 6:00 AM everyone was already bustling like beavers, putting in fourteen hours days with heavy industrial respirators strapped to their faces so they could work in the smoke. If they do succeed, and I am confident they will, although I think it unlikely that I’ll ever be supremely confident again; it will be because initially one man, Hollywood Dan, resolved to stay, no matter what. A lesser man would have left.

Tim McDevitt is a retired Wilderness EMT who practiced emergency field medicine in the Oregon Cascades for many years.