Flames at Our Heels

A hiker’s harrowing experience changes the whole meaning of a walk in the woods.

In mid-September 2012 I took a canoe over to the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley in southwestern Montana. Partly, I admit, I was drawn by morbid curiosity, because that stretch of river gave me a front-row seat to the Pine Creek Fire, still burning and expanding more than a week after it started at a construction site south of Livingston. Setting the boat in the river, taking the first bends, I couldn’t escape the sense of being on the edge of a war zone. The high tributary valleys were black. Mountain ridges were outlined by naked spikes of scorched trees. Wisps and columns of smoke rose out of the forest. The smell of burn, stinging and sharp, was as thick as the smoke in the air. Helicopters thumped overhead.

Fire, that summer, had been everywhere—just south of my hometown in Bozeman as well as in Yellowstone Park and in neighboring states—hundreds of thousands of acres. The news was full of fire, of homes lost, towns evacuated, air-quality alerts. For weeks the sky was overcast, breathing was dangerous, the lid of smoke an oppressive reminder of drought and record-breaking heat.

Here, on the river, the burn had come right to the water’s edge. One house, perched on the bank, had miraculously survived despite the fire’s burning up under the porch. The owner stood on his deck, overlooking the river and the blackened surroundings, as if still in shock. It was another hot and windy day. Astonishing numbers of turkey vultures filled the sky. Huge flocks of the buzzards soared above the burn, testing the perimeter, all drawn by the cache of cooked meat, the fire’s wild victims, waiting in the smoldering devastation below.

Perhaps it was the buzzards that reminded me of the story I’d been told, a few days earlier, by Charles Worth, an experienced local hiker and long-term resident of the Livingston area. “I was coming out Deep Creek toward the Yellowstone,” Worth told me. “I had been hiking all day with my dog, Brownie.” Worth was recounting events from late in the afternoon of September 5. He was tired, ready for the end of the trail. Then he looked up and noticed a churning column of smoke in front of him. A short time earlier a spark at that construction site had started a brittle, brown pasture ablaze. Flames raced through the grass, pushed by winds, threatening houses and the tiny community of Pine Creek. The fire spread along the arid foothills, consumed several homes, sped up gullies toward higher ground in the Absaroka Mountains.

Only a mile from the trailhead and his truck, Worth stopped to weigh his options. He climbed a rocky slope for a better view. He could clearly see the fire marching up the drainage, hear its growing roar. Wafts of hot wind buffeted him. Standing still he realized that he was hyperventilating with fear. He knew there was no escape down the trail, but he resisted. A thick stand of dry timber stood before him. He watched, hoping for a miracle, hoping firefighters might stop the flame’s advance. Suddenly flames bloomed in the close timber. Worth knew he had to make a move. He decided to run for it, back up the trail, hoping to gain the high divide above treeline before the fire did.

Driven toward panic by adrenaline, he knew he had to pace himself, conserving his strength. He had already spent eight hours bushwhacking through the backcountry. Now, to make the divide, he and his dog had to climb another 2,000 feet in three miles. He could hear the fire behind him, a roar whooshing through lodgepole forest, relentlessly climbing, fed by wind and drought-parched fuels.

Worth switchbacked steeply uphill, fighting the urge to run, gaining altitude and perspective on the flames below. The mile head start he began with steadily evaporated. At the end of one switchback, he’d feel optimistic, relatively safe. Coming back the other way, raw fear ate at him. The divide loomed above, agonizingly far. His legs burned with fatigue. Terror numbed his mind.

“It was not looking like a good outcome,” he told me. “It became very simple: I was just another animal running for safety. Whether I’d make it was very much in question.”

When worth topped the rocky divide, as evening came on, he was only a few hundred yards ahead of the blaze. “It was right on my heels,” he remembers.

Walls of flame hundreds of feet high licked at his back. The heat was volcanic. On the far side of the pass he spotted a large boulder field, free of vegetation, and ran for it, clambering into its center, calling his dog to him. There he watched as the fire crested behind him, towered high above the mountain saddle. There, without sufficient winds or fuel to drive it over the top, it stalled.

In the growing darkness, he heard animals scurrying for safety, herds of elk and deer, great flights of birds, all reduced to the same desperate gamble he had taken. He thought of all the life that didn’t escape, the country full of bear and wolf and hundreds of smaller animals, how close he had been to sharing their fate. He thought, watching the seething flames, how he might still succumb.

“I heard quite a lot of elk and deer chatter all around me in the darkness, big flocks of birds flying past,” he said. “Spooky stuff.”

Once he reassured himself that the fire had paused at the divide, Worth began a night hike, fleeing down a trail on the far side of the mountain crest, away from danger. He hiked for hours through the eerie darkness. Wind-borne embers the size of suitcases blew past him. Spot fires lit here and there. The moon rose red in the smoky sky. He could hear the conflagration bellowing in the distance, felt wafts of hot wind like furnace blasts.

“Normally I would have been pretty concerned about grizzly in there,” Worth said, “but all the animals were really spooked. All night long I heard things crashing away into the forest as I approached.”

Sometime around 4 a.m., utterly exhausted, he reached the trailhead along the West Boulder River and, from there, made his way to the safety of a friend’s cabin. “I didn’t feel secure until I got to that trailhead. And I’m not going hiking again until the snow flies,” Worth vowed.

For generations our actions have been pushing the warming climate, melting Greenland and polar ice, shifting ocean currents and wind patterns, creating underground instability by pumping pressurized water and chemicals into rock layers. While the consequences aren’t always clear or predictable, the alarming crescendo of environmental outbursts is. Fires, floods, tornadoes, and startling weather fill daily papers around the globe; catastrophes have become ordinary news.

Worth’s story made me think of people huddled in basements and closets, cowering before swarms of tornadoes in Oklahoma. I thought of the residents of Alaska and Eastern Europe, buried under unprecedented snowdrifts, roofs collapsing and avalanches pouring downhill. I thought of the effort to fortify New Orleans against storm surge, of cornfields withering, aquifers shrinking, the Mississippi flooding one year and so low the next that barges can’t navigate. I thought of tundra draining, islands disappearing.

I thought of the future, the world my children are inheriting. There the extraordinary caprices of weather and natural calamity may be a feature of everyday life. When the next generation chooses places to live or work, in addition to the amenities and lifestyle formulas, they will have to factor in the oceans creeping toward them or fires swooping across the valley, the likely path of tornadoes or the insidious effects of thawing permafrost.

Paddling my canoe past the charred scenery, I kept imagining Worth hiking hard uphill with his dog—heat scorching his back, smoke filling his lungs, and the company of other creatures, each as desperate as he, each reduced to that primal, unequivocal drive to live another day. And I kept craning for views of the still simmering blaze.

Suddenly I noticed one of the pillars of smoke building. Within half an hour a billowing, smoke-gray cloud rose into the sky. Sheets of orange fire licked up rock faces. Miles away, safely in the middle of a river, the raw power and deadly reach of the blaze made my chest tighten.

Later, on my way home, at the turnoff to the boat launch, a dozen vehicles full of spectators watched the drama. Most of the gallery was local, neighbors to disaster, people with things to lose. I paused, too, long enough to feel the sense of unease in the group, something frail and vulnerable in the air. When I looked back into the conflagration, I made out the dark blots of birds against smoke, dozens of turkey vultures soaring in the turbulent, ash-thick winds, waiting their turn.