Monday, June 06, 2011

Inside The Wallow Fire Cloudbank

June 6, 2011

Got back from New Mexico on Saturday about ten. Stopped for breakfast at The Small Cafe in Payson. One of my favorites. Had the veggie-eggs-benedict, tomato juice and coffee ($11 plus $4 tip).

On Sunday I lounged around and did a dozen impressions of driving through the Wallow Fire on Friday afternoon. I first spotted the downwind cloud bank just west of the continental divide, approaching Quemado (which ironically means "burned" in Spanish).

For Everything You Lose You Will Gain Something. . .
Grabbed my camera as I drove and snapped off three pics out the window of the massive fire front, but then got the flashing notice that my camera was out of memory. Pulled over and tried to fix it but got caught in menu hell, threw the camera on the floor, kept driving and tried to pay very close attention. This is my impression of the approaching cloud bank, drifting eastward from the head of the fire in the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest behind Alpine and Hannigan's Meadow, Arizona.

The Wallow Fire is named after the Bear Wallow Wilderness in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forrest, near where the fire was first reported (cause: speculated, an unattended campfire). As I got closer to the cloud I noticed low, white smoke, about a half mile off. At first I was afraid it was the actual fire, but I was about forty miles from the front and it turned out to be a low lying, cloud bank of soot hugging the ground.

As I pulled into Quemado, New Mexico, I quickly found myself inside the cloud and everything went to a foggy gray. I could taste the smoke and it smelled like a cookout fire the day after. My eyes burned.

I could still make out the horizon, but the landscape took on a ghostly visage. Incredibly there was still muted color inside the smoke, rust reds and blue-gray foreground.

The irony is that for the past four years I have been working on Mickey Free riding in Mexico into the aftermath of an apocalyptic fire storm. And, I've been trying to imagine what that might look like.

Painted this earlier this year. The reality is lighter, more gray, there are no darks, like this, it's all midtones, but the sun burning through the haze is pretty good, although the sun in the Wallow Fire looked like a blood red tangerine hanging there, more like this:

When I did this yesterday I thought to myself, Man, that looks like a famous painting but I couldn't place it. This morning, I was walking into the kitchen and on the pantry, cabinet door next to the refrigerator, we have a calendar we bought in France last year and there, standing in for the month of June is Claude Monet's Soleil Levant, ("Impression of a Sunrise," 1873, which is where the term Impressionism came from). Not sure whether I did this subconsciously, or what, but I maintain I came by it honestly, if you believe a poaching bastard from Kingman.

The farther into the cloud I traveled, the more eerie it got. The fire has burned more than 184,000 acres making it the third largest fire in Arizona's history. The largest fire is the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which consumed more than 468,000 acres in 2002. The second largest fire is the Cave Creek Complex Fire which burned more than 248,000 acres in 2005 (we could see the flames on the ridges east of our house, and Lew and Tera Jones lost their cabin near Seven Springs to this fire).

Took another crack at the smoke clogged sky and the sun burning through the thick haze:

I was driving towards Springerville and at Red Hill, I began to notice a red glow off to my right. I was concerned about this because this was north of Springerville and would mean the fire had burned through Eager and Springerville and was traveling north towards Saint Johns.

As I hit the state line and started to descend into Springerville, I was relieved to see that the glow was the sun reflecting light along the western edge of the cloud bank.

As I approached Springerville the smoke started to disperse and as I burned through town (sorry, couldn't resist) taking the northern route to Show Low I looked back at the billowing smoke just 15 miles south of Eager. I was now beyond the cloud bank I had driven through and was looking back at the rising tempest.

I read later, the crown was 32,000 feet in the air, and the front of the fire is estimated at six miles wide and the smoke has spread over four states, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. As of Sunday, the fire has burned more than 184,000 acres. There are 2,140 firefirghters on the ground, and this isn't the only fire in Arizona! We have three fires, The Wallow Fire, the Horseshoe Two Fire near Paradise, and The Murphy Fire south of Tucson near Peck Canyon.

I also read that the billowing clouds get more yellow near the epicenter because the flames kick up bright light underneath. I've seen video and images from the other side of the fire and it looks not unlike a volcanic lava flow.

"The fire is behaving like a living thing—moving, dripping back, jumping forward—it is hard to discern a pattern in efforts to fight the creature."
—William Hermann, Arizona Republic reporting

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