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Dispatches From the Road: Fire in Big Canyon Country

October 5, 2018

In his latest dispatch, Courthouse News' western bureau chief unintentionally follows fires from California to the canyons of Idaho.

Chris Marshall

By Chris Marshall

Western Bureau Chief for Courthouse News Service since 2014. San Francisco Federal Reporter and Northern California Bureau Chief from 2006 to 2014. Passionate about photography, camping and history.

"Did you see the Glacier evacuation news?" the text message read.

I looked at the grimy walls of the auto shop office, chuckled and Googled "Glacier, evacuation." A fire raged in the national park.

"I do now,” I wrote back. “We might have to reconsider our plans.”

The trek to northwestern Montana was to be part work and part vacation, as well as a test of a fairly new to me but old to the world truck and camper combination. A failed air conditioner I’d already paid a pretty penny to fix brought me to the mechanic early that Monday morning.

Though needing to drive almost 400 miles that day to get to Alturas in Modoc County, California – after which I could declare to the nobody who cares that I'd been to all of California’s 58 counties – I wasn't meeting the researcher until the following morning, and the prospect of a cool truck in the late summer heat was worth the wait.

After charging the system and replacing some O-rings the mechanic sent me on my way, but not before muttering he expected the compressor to go next. That and his inability to discover the source of the leak didn't inspire confidence.

Smoke made what should have been a clear day slightly overcast. The air conditioner held as Klaus the dog and I made our way over Donner Summit in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Just shy of the Nevada state line we lost speed while trying to pass a tractor trailer. Succeeding only in slowing down a half-dozen other cars, I eventually pulled back behind the truck and coasted through much of the decline.

Approximately 30 minutes after gassing up in sunny and blue-skied Reno the "Service Engine Soon" light came on. I pulled over and searched for a chain auto parts store that I hoped would carry tools to diagnose the problem.

Thankfully there were plenty. Thirty minutes behind me in Reno.

Not wanting to backtrack I set a shop in Susanville, California, as my destination. While also out of the way, at least it was north.

"Eh, it's nothing,” the clerk at Autozone remarked after claiming his diagnostic device worked only on "Check Engine" lights.

He recommended Googling how to turn it off.

We carried on.

The air thickened, my nostrils burned and the sun shone orange as it sank through the clouds, smoke and hills over the mountains to the west. On the other side the Carr Fire raged outside Redding, California. The inferno forced thousands of residents to flee, burned more than 229,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,000 residences, killed three firefighters, an elderly woman and her two young grandchildren, and took more than six weeks to contain.

A plan to sleep at a lakeside forest campground south of Alturas stymied by the detour to Susanville, we instead stopped at a rundown RV park managed by a chipper old man.

After a visit to the court a few blocks away the next morning I started the truck. To my surprise the "Service Engine Light" did not greet me. To my chagrin hot air blew from the vents. I tried some canned refrigerant. More hot air.

By the time we reached the Oregon Outback the heat was stifling. I continued to sweat through the southeastern end of the state, where the verdant farmland contrasted with the smoke that now hung thick and low in the sky. My dutiful co-pilot panted from the seat next to me.

A site with full hook-ups at a KOA just outside Boise meant I could check a newly installed air conditioner in the camper.

Cold air.

Usually determined to be my shadow, Klaus didn’t protest being locked in the camper as I made dinner outside, nor did he seem to mind spending the next afternoon in an air-conditioned room at the local reporter’s house while we visited the court.

We hit the road again that evening, but only after I exchanged peaches from the tree in front of my house for a selection of Idaho craft beers. My reporter knows me well.

The air grew smokier as sprawling Boise faded in the rearview mirror and we descended into what I attest should be called Big Canyon Country.

Great hills enveloped us, cutting off cellphone access and trapping the smoke. The hills turned from brown, then green, then back to brown.

The smoke eventually dissipated as we approached McCall, where the hills receded and the valley expanded. After a conversation with a large and talkative gas station attendant more concerned with infernos in California than those in his home state, we headed out of town.

A doe and two fawn chewed on grass next to a strip mall. Then traffic stopped. Construction had shut down one lane. The woman in the car in front of me hopped out and hugged a transportation worker holding a stop sign. They started chatting.

I regretted not stopping sooner.

After the pair had long enough to catch up on years of gossip the woman hugged the man again and hurried back to her car. He flipped the sign around to “Slow.”

We carried on.

Just before dusk the first faint whiffs of campfire touched the nose. The smoke soon filled the canyon. A sign indicated a fire burned 10 miles ahead and advised riders not to stop. I looked at my GPS. Twelve miles to go.

I couldn’t see the source but the thick smoke hung low like fog as we pulled off the road to our RV park: a handful of spots on a thin spit of dirt hugging the river, just below the main road.

Outside the relative refuge of the truck cab each breath felt like sucking in second-hand cigarette smoke. The dog, oblivious, chased a varmint, then stopped, stuck his nose close the ground and sniffed. I shined my headlamp on the spot. Nothing. Moving closer I saw a beetle the size of my thumb. Perhaps they should call it Big Beetle Country, I thought, before convincing the pup to leave the bug alone and returning to the camper.

Not long after we wolfed down our respective dinners I decided to bed down, but first re-packed everything.

The smoke stench increased as I tossed and turned. I flicked on a flashlight. Smoke had started seeping into the camper. While almost convinced I’d hear a knock in the middle of the night followed by a voice telling me to evacuate immediately, I was too tired to move. I shut off the light, laid down and faded into fitful sleep.

To be continued...

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