There it is again. You could make an argument that it sounds about like any other prop-driven aircraft, excepting the DC-6 has a low throbbing growl, perhaps owing to the weight 3,000 gallons of fire retardant it’s hauling. In some respects that sound should be reassuring. It means that someone is looking out for us, yet it’s thoroughly disturbing, because you only hear them when there’s a fire nearby.
Fire season comes every summer. Around here the worst of it usually seems to be in the springtime when folks are trying to clear away brush and the tinder-dry trees have yet to get a few good rain-showers. Further north, it tends to be worse later, in large part, because of increased lightening activity and much hotter, drier conditions.
As I listen to the fading hum of the aircraft engines, I start to wonder. Is this the year? I mean, it could be. Everything is green and we’re hardly in to May. In spite of repeteted threats, the daily appearance of ominous looking clouds have failed to do more than spit a few drops of rain for the last several months. Is this the year of the fire?
I’ve lived in Alaska for over 35 years, and I can’t recall ever having had spring this early. As a child I can remember hunting easter eggs in calf-deep snow. I may have been short and it was the granular dessicated snow of late winter that has a way of working it’s way into the top of your shoe and causing ankle freeze, but it was still snow. This year, my kids didn’t have an Easter egg hunt, but if they had, it would have been in above-freezing weather without snow under the swelling buds of the birches.
For years we’ve been hearing the phrase ‘early fire-season’. It’s been said routinely enough now I reckon it’s safe to just call it normal. Every one of those years I’ve heard it, I’ve wondered if wild fire will devastate the Anchorage hillside, reaching even into mid-town, displacing tens of thousands of residents. Perhaps, it will be Wasilla instead, burning through the sprawling suburban neighborhoods and even across Lake Lucille where flaming ash could alight on Sarah Palin’s house, causing even her to eat her words on climate change.
I don’t know, but what I do know is that every year, the feeling of danger is lurking just at the edge of my conscience. Sometimes it’s just general discomfort. This year, it’s a little worse. As I drove home listening to a report of the evacuation of Fort McMurray, Alberta, a northern city with a population of 80,000, I saw a jaw-clenching sight from the highway. A column of smoke, much too close to home, rising from the patch of land between the Knik arm and the Talkeetna mountians. It was not the smoke of a controlled burn. It was a wide band heralding the arrival of a potentially dangerous wild-fire.
As I thought of those people in Canada, with so little time to gather their most precious belongings and head for safe ground, I wonder, is this going to be my lot this year too? What will we do with the animals? If I have only 45 minutes to evacuate what to I take? Where will I go? How will many thousands of people evacuate on only three routes, two of which are only two-lane highways.
It also begs the question, how the hell did we get here? March used to be a bitterly cold bitch of a month. The past few years have been pretty damn mild, really. I understand that it’s an El Nino year, a year where warm ocean currents poke much further north than usual, but I’ve been through those before. They’ve been nothing like this. Is this what we can expect from climate change? Is this the shape of things to come? Will the fires continue to close in our our Alaskan urban centers until disaster? I expect the answer is yes. In spite of all caution and tireless heroics of our wildland fire crews, we could very well find ourselves watching as any one of the most populated areas of our state burns.
I know, perhaps this is all a doomsday scenario, after all the story is hardly a 3rd line note in the local news outlets, failing even to beat out an electronic-device sniffing dog, but as I sit and watch the thermometer outside my window with disbelief, listen to yet another DC-6 rumble overhead, and wait for the golden sky to turn hues of pink and orange, I wonder just how unrealistic it is. After-all, green trees before the end of April? Who ever heard of such a thing?