Jay Meehan: Smell of wildfires provides a trip down memory lane
More often than not these days, Heber Valley wakes up to find itself completely socked in by the smoke from nearby wildfires, not to mention those burning in California and Montana and such. It’s the same all over many parts of the Western landscape, of course. You can’t see the forest for the smoke from the burning trees.
Winds and extremely dry conditions within the fir, lodgepole pine, and ponderosa pine mixed conifer communities just over the ridgeline keep fanning the flames. And, alternately, it seems, dispersing the smoke or stacking it up like multi-hued Cumulonimbus eruptions along the horizon.
With the Pole Creek, Bald Mountain, and Coal Hollow blazes threatening to join forces, Highway 6 is once again closed with Diamond Canyon and Sheep Creek under evacuation. In fact, the closure area for the Pole Creek Fire now includes all National Forest system lands east of and including the Nebo Loop National Scenic Byway.
Smoky conditions reach as high as Lake Creek and Center Creek summits to the east and Park City to the north. As far as respiratory systems are concerned, it’s a jungle out there. Without warning, noses are off and running.
The same goes with memories, which can also be triggered by the olfactory sense of smell. I most often find it kind of startling when a casual sniff is all it takes to send me on a journey back in time.
Having a long-ago summer’s worth of fighting wildfires in my history folder, however, the specific aroma of woodland fire has always sent me back to the Coeur d’Alene National Forest (now part of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest) and the six months following my graduation from high school.
This wasn’t far (as the burning ember floats) from where the legendary Ed Pulaski, inventor of what came to be known as the “Pulaski” fire-fighting tool, ushered his crew by gunpoint into a mine entrance to keep them from certain death in the “Big Burn of 1910.” But I digress.
One night in particular during a summer filled with teenage hijinks, stands out. If memory serves, it seems that internal hormonal activity, along with a fire that had turned in for the evening, nudged me and a buddy off the fire line where we most often slept. Then, via his car, which just happened to be parked nearby, to a rock-and-roll affair with friends 10 miles or so down the two-lane.
The fact that we also hadn’t left the fire-line to shower in a few days didn’t seem to keep us from busting in on what was a young-people’s dance held in a cleared out auto dealership. Wildfire and body odors being what they were, I don’t believe there was much cheek-to-cheek activity on the dance floor that evening.
Surprisingly, however, a few of the girls, by curiosity if nothing else, drew closer into our small charcoal-smeared and odorous frame of reference than logic normally would have dictated. One would have thought our wide-ranging “essence” alone would have kept them at bay. Ah, teenagers!
It’s somewhat ironic how my memories of the summer of ’61 take me back to that night of “bopping” with a hard hat rather than one of the panic-filled moments while attempting to chop a fire-line in front of flames licking at the ground cover while racing downhill. Not that I hollered for help from the rest of the just-out-of-sight crew or anything.
Prior to returning to Southern California, where my family had relocated following my sophomore year and due again to the collective essence of the work clothing involved, the said apparel met its maker in an incinerator. There is something about the molecular level of wildfire smoke that refuses to be scrubbed away.
But back to respiratory systems and the Air-Quality-Indexes they rode in on. Hard telling when conditions will improve. Prognosticators haven’t exactly reached consensus on when the burning-vegetation-in-question will remove itself from the equation.
Luckily for us smoke inhalers and those currently treading hurricane-waters, climate change doesn’t seem to be an issue. However, I’m sure that once word filters down to Trump and his remedially educated peer group that their towers of power are ablaze, there may be reconsideration in the works. Nah!
In the meantime, stay indoors as much as your lifestyle allows. If that won’t work, utilize your olfactory sense and take a trip down memory lane.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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