Around mid-afternoon I looked up from my laptop and noticed that the quality of the sunlight had changed. Across the street, all the buildings seemed to have shifted their colors towards the orange side of the spectrum. Curious… I left the porch of the Bridgeport Memorial Hall, where I’d been stealing electricity and writing articles, and turned my gaze to the west. Sure enough, a procession of smoke clouds was rolling into town, and I could smell the acrid tang of scorched forests.
I moved to the library steps and used their wireless server to scan the internet for information. The ash that rained down on my keyboard was mildly distracting, but I discovered a news item concerning a small fire southwest of Yosemite National Park that had recently erupted. I’d planned to do some backpacking tomorrow in the northeast corner of the park – my final trip of the season – and I hoped all this smoke wouldn’t ruin my scenic views.
Only days later did I realize my research had been faulty. The smoke originated from within the park itself, where a deadly situation was unfolding. The same winds that blew ash into the streets of Bridgeport had stoked the flames of a small backcountry fire earlier that day, transforming it from a sluggish nineteen-acre blaze into a two thousand-acre conflagration over the course of a few hours. The park service has a policy of allowing some natural fires to burn because of the positive effects they can have on ecosystems, and for two months, the lightning-caused Meadow Fire had remained modest and unthreatening. It slowly consumed the underbrush and returned nutrients to the coarse soil. But thanks to an extreme wind event, the fire had exploded, becoming an unstoppable force, and now human lives were suddenly at stake.