Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Remembering the Thirtymile Fire and Lives Lost
I still remember where I was when this devastating event took place. I was in the North Cascades doing the Eldorado - Austera traverse; a high alpine traverse over several glaciers in one of the park's most wild of places. We summited four summits in one day on this glorious trip. We had a high camp at Klawatti col, with an amazing view of Eldorado and the massive Eldorado glacier before us. Life was grand. We didn't want to leave.
Shortly after descending, we heard the news. It took all the wind out of our sails. Talk about a reality check right to the gut.
Down the road where firefighters were running in retreat, the wall of fire advanced at an estimated rate of 125 feet per minute under the strong winds.
This is the short version. From here, the details get complicated. I highly recommend visiting John McLean's website. Warning: Even his website is "can't put it down" reading.
Fast forward to 2014, I found myself planning a trip to the Pasayton Wilderness for the first time since this historic event. Call me late to the dance. While I was excited about my venture into this new land, targeting a lake famed for its larches, I also was determined not to leave without visiting the memorial I had heard about, honoring these brave firefighters. My trip would be incomplete otherwise.
Back at my vehicle 42+ miles later, it was time to seek out the memorial and pay my respects.
As I neared the last two signs, I noticed the pullout was paved and there was a small walkway leading away. It was the time of truth. My heart grew heavy.
As I read the last two signs, I became aware that I was standing in the middle of where the event took place. My SUV was parked in the exact spot as a van, who's lone occupant survived the ordeal with only a melted license plate frame. Above me on the boulder field was the scene where the emergency shelters were deployed, ultimately succumbing to the heat of the fire. Below me was the river, where refuge was sought. Where did those hikers come from out of nowhere, complicating the survival plan? It was intense reading.
As I rounded the corner of the paved walkway, I was surprised at what I saw. The memorial was decorated with remembrance items from fire departments, search and rescue organizations, respectful individual visitors, and more. The sight was overwhelming.
What's more, all these years later and there are no signs of disrespect to be seen. No graffiti, no vandalism, just an outpouring of love and a collection of undisturbed remembrance items, from signed t-shirts to personal notes and offerings.
The memorial is easily found. Turn up the West Chewuch Road (county road), which turns into forest service road #51. The memorial is 21 miles up the road, on the left side.
Don't miss it.