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The Fireball 

Experienced backpackers, they had lit their cookstove uneventfully hundreds of times. Then came a gust. And, later, the bill.

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The Fireball
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The Fireball

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Cal Fire confirmed Sunday that the nearly 500-acre wildland fire located at the Spanish Flat in Kings Range is 100 percent contained. ... The fire, which started Friday night, ended up covering 498 acres of grasslands with minimal effect on timberlands. No injuries were reported.

-- Times-Standard, July 4, 2011

 

Five seconds after I lit the match, I knew the fire was out of control.

Up until then, we'd been enjoying a warm evening on that first day of July 2011, our third backpacking venture into the Lost Coast. My wife, Louisa Rogers, and I had set up camp at an idyllic spot just off the coastal trail, in a gully next to a tiny snakegrass-bordered creek at the base of a waterfall. After five hours of hiking from the mouth of the Mattole River, where we'd left our vehicle in the parking lot, we were looking forward to a leisurely supper of chickpeas and rice.

It's a gorgeous part of the world, certainly the wildest part of the California coast. A glance at a highway map shows roads hugging the entire coast of our state -- except for an 80-mile stretch that starts north of Fort Bragg, where Highway 1 turns east, avoiding the steep slopes of the King Range that plunge into the ocean below. The wildness and solitude is what had brought us back here. From our perch, not a soul, no tent, no cabin -- just us and the roar of the ocean 200 yards below.

"Half a pot of water should be fine," Louisa told me, as she chopped garlic and spring onions for our stew. The northwesterly wind, which half an hour earlier had been fierce, had died down. Great: It was time to heat the water. I looked around for the best spot. The old gravel roadbed we'd camped next to was almost clear of vegetation. I pulled out some remaining grass to create a fireproof circle and primed the stove.

The process for lighting our little MSR WhisperLite stove is straightforward. I'd lit it maybe 500 times since we bought it 20-odd years ago. You prime the stove by opening the valve on a small, cylindrical canister of liquid fuel; leave it open for a few seconds to dribble a little fuel into a circular bowl beneath the burner; then close the valve tight and light it. The flame heats a coil, vaporizing fuel as it flows from the red tank. A minute later, with the priming fuel nearly exhausted, you gently open the valve to light the fuel-air mixture in the burner. No muss, no fuss -- you've just got to be careful.

Really careful.

I tried to light the fuel in the bowl, but my little Bic lighter jammed -- I must have left it out in the rain. No problem. I walked over to my open backpack, where I had matches, came back and lit the fuel. Instead of the expected soft, yellow flame, an orange fireball of vaporized fuel erupted with a "woomph" in my face. That 15-second walk to my backpack had made all the difference. Where moments before the fuel had been contained as a tidy little puddle in the bowl, evaporation had created an invisible cloud of highly volatile vapor. All it needed was my match.

Right then, a gust of wind hit, and this ball of flame took on a life of its own, jumping maybe 10 feet to my right and landing on a steep bank of dry grass. In seconds, the entire hillside was a crackling wall of fire. And that's all it took. It was out of control.

Any thought of putting out the fire vanished as it roared up the side of the gully. The next few minutes are a blur. I don't recall being scared for our own safety, at least not initially, since the now fierce wind was sending the flames away from us. I thought -- naively, as it turned out -- that our campsite would be spared. I did, however, have visions of the coastline south of us being engulfed by unstoppable fire, perhaps as far as Big Flat, several miles beyond, with its small community of homes.

Louisa ("Boo") remembers the next few minutes better than I do, so I'll let her tell it:

 

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"Boo!" Barry screamed. I turned from cutting up the onion and saw huge flames darting around like a live animal. I jumped up. "Let's get water from the creek!" I shouted.

"We're way past that," Barry said. We rushed to un-peg our tent and move it away from the fire, but as we did so, the wind turned. Suddenly, the flames were pressing toward us.

I stumbled around the smoldering grass in my flip-flops, coughing, picking up this and that and looking with rising panic for my boots. My surgery weakened ankle couldn't hold out for seven barefoot miles back to the car. But I couldn't find them anywhere. I gathered up what little else there was and threw it across the little creek.

"We'd better cross to the other side of the creek," Barry said. There was nothing else to pick up, anyway. Where had it all gone? I leaped over the water. The wind turned again and the fire started climbing the cliffs. At least we were safe, if not the grasslands.

And then, there on the "safe" side of the creek, half hidden in brush, I saw my boots. I was amazed. I had no memory of throwing them over there minutes earlier. We picked up Barry's windbreaker, the remains of our tent, and our half-burnt Therm-a-Rest air mattresses, and stuffed them into Barry's singed backpack.

My backpack was gone. I never saw it burn; it was just gone, along with everything in it -- my clothes, folding knife, glasses, journal, library book, bear bag, $20 bill, and other items meaningful and mundane.

"It's getting dark," Barry said. "I'm going to have one more look through the ashes. I'll catch up with you."

"OK." It was an easy half-mile hike back to Randall Creek. I arrived to find four or five people, a group from the Bay Area, cheerily making dinner. Their campsite sat in a dip, so our fire wasn't visible. I told them about it and everyone immediately pulled out their cell phones to try to make contact. But it's not called the "Lost Coast" for nothing: We were 10 miles from civilization, hidden behind the King Range.

I started to lay out our tattered tent, wondering how to jury-rig it to provide some shelter that night. One of the campers came over and introduced herself. She was Jacintha from Croatia, working in Oakland. She offered to help. Barry arrived and together we finished constructing a lean-to. Then, with the other campers, we hiked up the bank to see the "view." What had been a lot of smoke at dusk was now, in the night sky, flames cascading along the entire ridgeline.

Before we went to bed, Jacintha said I could have her socks for the next morning. She'd worn them all day, but I had none. Later, Barry and I huddled under the tent as it flapped in the wind. "This could be a game-changer," he said.

 

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Louisa and I spent a cold, sleepless night on our damp, damaged sleeping pads in the remains of our tent. My mind wavered between the immediate challenge -- getting word out about the fire -- and our uncertain future. At first light, we set off toward the mouth of the Mattole, taking advantage of an extra low tide to skirt several awkward headlands.

Three hours later, I ran into the Petrolia Store. "I need to report a fire," I called past the customers at the counter. The clerk didn't hesitate, grabbing the red phone marked "FIRE" off the wall. She listened for a moment. "It's dead," she said, with an apologetic grin. A minute later, using a regular phone, she got me on the line with Petrolia Volunteer Fire Chief Travis Howe. "I'm reporting a fire!" I said, assuming that the now 14-hour-old fire would be news to him. "Spanish Flat?" he asked. "You know?!" I replied.

Turned out, somehow -- someone told me later a commercial plane flying down the coast may have reported it -- they'd found out about the fire an hour or so after it had started, and firefighters from the Bureau of Land Management, Cal Fire and the Petrolia Volunteer Fire Department had been out there all night. Up to that moment, it had been "our" fire, with all the responsibility for getting the word out on our shoulders. Knowing that the authorities had been battling it for several hours was weirdly comforting. I ran outside to our camper van. "They know about it!" I told Louisa, feeling safe, finally.

We went back inside for a cup of coffee. That's when it really hit us, just how tense and anxious we'd been up until this moment. "Fragile," was how Louisa put it. Now we could relax. Others were now in charge. I'm not sure if we wept. I do know we both felt enormous relief.

Which, as it turned out, was premature.

 

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Within an hour of returning to Eureka that Saturday, an Arcata-based enforcement officer from the Bureau of Land Management was interviewing us in our home, taking our voluntary statement.

"The best thing to do under the circumstances is to be totally honest and not hold back anything," he told us. Seemed reasonable. We had nothing to hide. In my mind, yes, I'd started the fire and yes, it was an accident. Those two statements fitted neatly into my mental "fire story" box. Yes, I'd been negligent in not noticing the wind kicking up while I got the matches ... but not that negligent, I told myself. True, I hadn't cleared the sparse grass on the old road base to the full five feet required by law, but this was, in my mind, a moot point. The fireball had jumped more than twice that distance over the ground adjacent to our stove, and no amount of clearing would have made any difference. Still ... is this how the authorities would see it?

"You'll be hearing from Cal Fire," the officer told us.

Spanish Flat, like most of the King Range, is within federal BLM jurisdiction. However, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection -- Cal Fire -- was the agency that coordinated a day-and-a-half of firefighting.

And that seemed to be that. For more than a year we heard nothing, and after a while we stopped worrying. Cal Fire must have much larger fish to fry, we thought. I dayhiked back to the site in November with a pal to recover the damaged gear I'd stashed at Randall Creek to speed up our return hike, and I was amazed by the regrowth. Emerald green grass sparkled in the fall sunlight. New leaves grew on trees and scrub. Life had wonderfully returned after the scorching fire.

Thirteen months to the day after the incident, we received an envelope, certified mail from Cal Fire. "Letter of Demand," it said in bold letters across the top. It recounted the particulars: "July 1 ... vegetation fire ... 523 acres of grass and brush." The acreage had increased since the first report.

"The cause of the fire was determined to be your camp stove," the letter said. This was a bill, a demand for restitution for the cost of "suppressing and investigating the Spanish Fire." The final paragraph read like any other bill, except for the number: "Please make your payment of $143,887.81 to The State of California ... ."

So much for our complacency.

Now a different sort of panic set in, and with it came fleeting thoughts of declaring bankruptcy, running away to Mexico, paying off our massive debt in installments. When the fire started, it was all about safety, getting the word out to the authorities, practical stuff that we knew how to deal with. This demand was a different matter altogether, one which we knew nothing about, involving, we assumed, attorneys, courts, settlements. Time to hire a lawyer.

Some acquaintances recommended a good one, and our fate was turned over to negotiations between our $350-an-hour lawyer and the State of California. ("You did what?" our lawyer asked us. "We made a voluntary statement, told them everything." He rolled his eyes.) We had something else going for us: our AAA renter's policy, with $100,000 in personal liability coverage. That, however, was far from a slam dunk. Everything depended on how AAA interpreted the cause of the fire. Was it an accident? Or was it negligence?

We don't know just how it all got handled, who negotiated what, but a few days later we got a call from our attorney. "AAA says they will honor your policy, and Cal Fire will accept $100,000 in settlement." And in that moment, our lives regained their previous shape again. It took another six months to hash out the details, but finally we signed a release agreement from Cal Fire. AAA paid the state to the limit of our policy, we paid our attorney, and we were in the clear.

So we're still here, older and, we trust, wiser for the experience. And as for backpacking? As the BLM Officer was leaving, he asked if he could take our stove, as evidence. "Sure, but will we get it back?" I asked. He looked at me quizzically, then said, "Why would you want it back?"

Why indeed. We've since switched to a canister stove: No priming required!

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