Surviving the 180s

Three weeks ago I was up to my ears in work.

I would come home late every night and spend a few hours half working, half spending time with The Chief until I retired for a short sleep and awoke to do it all over again.

The Chief, on the other hand was searching for work extra work to supplement the lack of fire work he’d been called for. The fire season was off to a strange start and the jobs he would have normally been assigned hadn’t been sent his way.

The Chief was at home and hustling for work while I was rarely at home and hustling at work.

He kept up the house and I crashed once I got there.

I was exhausted, he was restless.

We were in different places.

 

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Sunrising / Sunrisen

 

It was a complete 180 degree shift from this Winter where he worked every day he could when he wasn’t sick and I was instead at home keeping us running.

It was a complete 180 degree shift from last Summer when we both were working like mad. We kept sane not through the support of a spouse at home providing a clean house or homemade meals but through the craziness of new love. It powered us through the summer madness.

Then, two weeks ago The Chief found more work and another 180 degree shift came. He and one of his best friends started working twelve-hour days for a film crew followed by a construction job. Things started falling into place again. A new rhythm started to establish itself.

 

Then, the storm came.

 

Literally.

I came home one night two weeks ago early for once and spent the evening alone since suddenly The Chief was the one working late. I enjoyed the time to just be in our home and listen to the thunder roll. Thunder and lightning in Alaska is a new thing. Coming from California and spending many Summers in the Midwest, I am used to thunderstorms. I crave them. They are so dramatic, so all-encompassing and then…they’re gone.

Yet, even a mere ten years ago, thunder was a rare occurrence in Alaska. Now it is common. The Lightning Belt has actually traveled North and so with the belt comes a cinching in, a sudden concentration and constant presence of lightning in Alaska.

Amazing, right?

In a way (for a lightning lover), yes and in another way, no no and no again.

You see, lightning as we all know, strikes.

In less rural areas it might not be such a big deal but in the wilderness? It’s a big deal. This Summer the state has been littered with lightning strikes, so much so that the map shows more red (strike points) almost than green (land) at times. And when lightning strikes, fire is a very real possibility. With most of the state being dense wilderness versus populated areas there often is little to no fire response nearby.

And so, that evening while I sat by myself and enjoyed the roll of thunder, I also felt a sense of worry for what the lightning accompanying the thunder might bring.

But what we worry about rarely comes to fruition and as a worrywort of sorts, time and time again I’ve seen that to be true.

Except for two weeks ago.

I worried that night two weeks ago that lightning would strike and cause a fire.

And cause a fire it did.

 

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This is the first picture I took of the fire as it started to become more and more noticeable.

 

And so, as the Fire Chief of the Volunteer Fire Department, The Chief was set to work by the Department of Forestry.

For days the fire went on with little concern from the outside. It had started in almost exactly the same place as a fire which had started 7 years earlier (the cycle of seven runs strong)  and so it was amongst “Old Burn” (areas that had already been burnt and therefore didn’t provide as much fuel for the fire). It seemed (or was speculated) that it would stay put in the same area, that the land would be re-scorched and then regenerate, and the fire would have served its purpose to help the land renew itself.

Wrong.

The weather this Summer had been unseasonably warm and the earth unseasonably dry and so, the new fire jumped the bounds of the old fire within days as it found new fuel.

 

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The fire starting to pick up fuels, especially due to the consistent wind to the Southeast

 

We spent the evening of a friend’s birthday looking out from the Hill Town down into the valley of the fire, watching huge smoke plumes build into mushroom clouds of smoke and watching flames jump so high into the air that we could see them with the naked eye 17 miles away.

 

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I’m down with a light show, but this was no Led Zeppelin experience. This was real and too close for comfort.

 

 

It was getting closer.

 

 

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The smoke plumes the morning after. The parts that look like clouds above the treeline are in fact smoke and that wind just keeps on blowing in the same direction.

 

Thankfully, we had a river between us and the fire.

Except that the river has a narrow point. A point where the fire could, if it had picked up enough fuel, “jump” the river.

Say what?

I’m no fire pro but I didn’t see fire as being particularly adept at jumping.

But it is.

The Chief told us all a sweet lullaby that night as we watched the beaming orange about fire and how she can get so hot and move so quickly that she can actually uproot huge trees in her path and spit them ahead of herself and high into the air like a catapult launching fire bombs to spread a fire.

Sweet dreams.

If this fire caught enough fuel and the wind kept up in the direction of the narrows, it was only a matter of time before it jumped onto our side of the river. Suddenly, less than 20 miles away no longer seemed like any sort of barrier. It was especially concerning for the isolated Lodge near the river jump point which was just downriver and in the exact direction the consistently blowing winds were going. The Chief was flown out over the fire to provide a better idea of its trajectory and then flew to the Lodge to help them create a plan of attack should the fire come their way.

Two more days of intense smoke-filled skies went by as tensions started to rise. The Chief now was no longer just working again, he was working around the clock. I, on the other hand, ended up with two days off in a row (I was actually still doing work from home for web design but at least I was finally at home except now, I was the one who was alone).

Another 180 degree shift.

 

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Water / Land

 

The heat kept up and tensions grew and grew. The Chief’s phone rang endlessly with concerned residents and Forestry briefs and attack plans. He was on the clock for 12-14 hours daily but couldn’t turn around without being questioned, on the clock or off. A town meeting was held to discuss the upcoming approach for different scenarios and that night an air attack was launched with the goal of preventing the ever-increasing fire from jumping the river.

The air attack (planes which dropped water and then refilled their huge tanks at local lakes) worked tirelessly and by the morning the fire hadn’t jumped the river. And then, just like that…

It started to rain.

Another 180.

It’s been raining ever since.

 

In the first week of the fire, I had two days off. The Chief had none. In the second week I suddenly had three as I had stopped working at the food truck. The Chief still had none. On my newly free day off I ran into a friend.

“A bunch of us are going into the backcountry for the next few days. We are bringing instruments and packrafts and we are going to just play music for the weekend and hike and then paddle all the way back. Wanna join?”

 

As a singer, I honestly can’t think of a better retreat into the wilder wild of the backcountry.

It was hot and sunny and the perfect time for backpacking. I was nervous about getting all the gear in order and squaring away things in time and I’ve always been wary of big group outings but I could tell it was a nervous that I needed to work through and so I set myself on going and started thinking of feelers I could put out for borrowing gear.

The very next morning was the start of the rain.

The trip was cancelled.

Another 180 degree shift.

And in some ways, in retrospect, I was glad. I spent my entire first day off in the cabin, grateful for the dreary weather in ways that were twofold: one, for the fire and two, so I didn’t feel guilty for staying inside. My body and mind were exhausted.

I finally felt myself start to relax. I let myself know that there was nothing that “had” to be done that day other than run the generator and do a few other chores. Overall, I could build a fire and read or watch movies or just do nothing.

It was heaven and in stark contrast to the go go go I’d felt since Summer hit. I don’t think I’d actually taken a deep breath since and so I melted into the day. Since it was still raining, The Chief was expecting to be off a bit earlier than his usual 10pm and so I started making a special dinner, excited to finally be home together when both of us weren’t moving at 100 miles per hour.

Wrong.

Just as I was settling in post-chores The Chief called.

“Change of plans, babe. I’m headed out on a helicopter to the Forestry station and spending the night there. I’ll be home in a bit to pack.”

Right. Expectations. I should have guessed.

Dinner for one, please.

Another 180 degree shift.

And so I spent the day alone, interspersing chores with utter nothingness and enjoying every minute of it (except for the moments when I worried, having not received word of his landing safely. I told you, I’m a pro worrier but also weather conditions in Alaska do change faster than you can imagine and I can imagine the worst).

And so now I sit in the middle of three days off, the most time off I’ve had in months. I planned to spend it outside in the middle of nowhere surrounded by music and people. Instead, I’ve spent it inside in the middle of my cabin. I’ve spent it mainly alone and chosen to do so. I’ve spent it with my thoughts whom are not always kind but are there to teach and with our pup whom is a pretty good teacher (especially in the art of relaxation) as well. I’ve spent it listening only to the sounds of the fire crackling and to raindrops on the roofing (oh, and to some so bad it’s good Netflix).

 

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New blooms from newly refreshed soils.

 

I’ve never lived a life like this, where the actual shifting of the wind can change the entire week or a rainstorm can send plans spiraling into the distance. Where Seasons are king and work is fluid and walking through life is done on one’s toes, constantly being ready for a change.

I’ve never looked back to a year past before for advice and found myself in the same physical place yet in such stark contrast to the daily life of the last year that there was no comparison and no advice other than to just go with it and expect change. There is no typical day or typical week or typical Season. This life is always changing.

It might sound exhausting and I guess sometimes it is, but it’s also the lack of pattern, the surprise of tomorrow and the tenderness of now which is beautiful. When you never know what’s next and never know if what you hope happens will in fact pull through you become a little more aware of what is now. Now may not be perfect or pleasant, but the 180s promise that it won’t be forever.

And so, for now, I sit cozily in our cabin, reheating the special meal for The Chief and hoping he does in fact get off of work early today on his return home, all the while knowing it’s entirely possible that he won’t. I’m sitting in the unknown and “planning” accordingly by trying not to plan at all. Clearly, I’m still working on it but I’m sure a few hundred more 180s will help me find my way.

Let’s just hope I don’t get whiplash.

 

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Rain may bring a dreary sky, but she also brings heart-shaped puddles, wonky as they might be.

P.S. A good friend of mine is a magician behind the lens. Here is what he captured of the fire pre-rain from the Hill Town.

 

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