Photo Credit: Smoke was so thick you were unable to see the mountains that surround the community. Photo by Michelle Medley-Daniel

Sunday night was the first time that I could open my bedroom window since lightning started over 40 wildfires around Hayfork July 30-31. Yesterday morning was the first time I could see the sky and the mountains that surround my community. Twenty-three days of hazard-level air quality, forcing residents to stay in their homes, takes a physical and psychological toll. There is only so much worried pacing that you can do in a 1,500-square-foot house—and it’s no substitute for real exercise.

Of the original 40 fire starts, many were extinguished on initial attack, and the rest merged into the Fork Complex. The Fork Complex is one of seven large complexes burning in the area; to date these complexes have burned over 200,000 acres.

hayfork in smoke

Downtown Hayfork under smoky conditions. Photo Credit: Michelle Medley-Daniel

The first two days of the Fork Complex were chaotic. Residences, communications infrastructure and the center of the community were threatened, and resources had yet to arrive. Evacuations in one area of town overwhelmed the capacity of our emergency personnel, while on the other side of town people began looking out their windows to see flames. Facebook pages blew to life with neighbors trying to inform each other about the location of various fires. The Rail Fire, whipped by afternoon winds, billowed like a volcano, leading residents to call it Mordor. Early (and incorrect) news reports that the county fairgrounds had burned left many wondering if the whole town would be lost.

An area called Trinity Pines, a subdivision off-the-grid with approximately 1,200 parcels about ten miles from Hayfork, was also on fire. The Post Mountain (Trinity Pines) VFD, a six-person crew, was the only resource available in the first hours of the Blue Fire. They were able to create and hold a control line, but lost several residences, including the home of one of the VFD firefighters.

Fast forward a couple of days and a state of emergency declaration had triggered mutual aid from all over the state, and a Type 1 team was assuming command of the incident. LA City fire trucks, highway patrol units from Sacramento, and fire crews from as far away as American Samoa had made their way to Hayfork. Overnight the town’s population doubled in size with over 2,500 personnel assigned to the incident.

As the days went by new evacuations and road closures would be announced, town meetings held and, for several days, we intermittently lost internet and cell phone coverage as the lookout tower where both of these resources are housed was surrounded by fire resulting in power loss. Eventually, internet company employees were able to secure an escort to the tower to c

school sign hayfork

The clearing has made such a difference that marquees around town announce it. Photo Credit: Michelle Medley-Daniel

hange the battery backup, which resolved the problem. People began settling into a new-normal: living under a thick blanket of smoke, unable to go outside, and glued to computers and phones hungry for the latest fire information. With stress levels high and some of our best coping mechanisms unavailable—think going for a jog, meeting up with friends for an evening walk, or eating lunch outside–it felt bleak.

On the bright side, the inversion that was keeping the smoke here was also moderating wildfire behavior and having positive impacts on our drought-ravaged river system. In fact, water levels in critical salmon habitat rose as a result of the inversion. Still, predictions that the fires would be going “until the snow flies” left many Hayforkers feeling trapped. The world was still going on, and we were left behind in a morass of smoke. Then, overnight, the inversion lifted and it was as if someone turned summer back on. Beautiful blue skies and sunshine quickly began to raise people’s spirits. The fires are not out, but are more contained, and everyone is reveling in the gift of clean air while we can get it.

clear skies in hayfork

Wisps of smoke from the South Complex to the west can be seen on the right. The mountain in the center is Plummer Peak, home to one of our fire lookouts and our communications resources including cell towers and internet service. Photo Credit: Michelle Medley-Daniel

Sometimes when I tell people where I live—how long it takes to get to the airport, and how far from restaurants and shopping conveniences we are—I can tell they think I’m crazy to live here. And it does have a cost, but my personal quality-of-life-equation is factored on proximity to hiking, a complete lack of traffic, starry nights and mountain air. The loss of those amenities reinforces my motivation to take FAC actions. If I had a magic wand we’d be implementing landscape-scale prescribed burns (complete with smoke management plans) in every ecologically-appropriate burn window we get. We’d be more proactive in managing our relationship with the place we live, including our land-use and growth, and our resource management. We’d be busy restoring our cultural relationship to fire so that we can live more safely in fire-adapted ecosystems. What we can’t keep doing is punting this problem to the future. As I sucked smoke for three weeks, it occurred to me that that was part of the debt we owe this forest. Fire exclusion is passing the buck, and the future can’t afford the bill.

Some practical information about air quality

How do you measure air quality and what do the ratings mean?

How can you protect yourself from smoke impacts? Popular local news blog, the Lost Coast Outpost, offered information from Humboldt County Public Health on developing a “clean room.”

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