Spent a day hiking through the mountains of western Montana, the region Jared Diamond writes about in his book Collapse. I was with about a dozen others, and we ended up at a beautiful swimming hole at the base of a small but fervent waterfall: crisp cool clear water that was just the ticket in a day of sweat and sharp sun.
The dozen do this hike yearly (well, for the last three years) as a "High Tea", with the hike uphill from the trailhead suggesting the pun on "high". They carry scones and clotted cream and biscuits and fine china and huckleberries and beautifully sliced radish up there, and they brew tea with water from the stream, plus the women were in gorgeous flowered hats and some of the men changed into tuxes or at least bow ties (I changed into my swimsuit) -- all for a very British high tea surrounded by ponderosa pine.
But that's a story for another time.
While hiking, I was struck by the vast areas around us that were obviously fire-stricken. Huge swathes of trees blackened and dead, others toppled over. Forest fires, usually set off by lightning, are a major headache in many western states, Montana no exception. There are various reasons for this phenomenon, some of them man-made, and no clear way to address the issue. That's a story for another time too. When I asked my hiking companions when all this destruction had happened -- even to my novice eyes it didn't look recent -- they said, "2000". Eight years ago. Eight years, and the destruction is still widespread and obvious. It must have been something to see, that fire.
It got me thinking of one of the ubiquitous "Adopt-A-Highway" signs I had passed a day or two earlier. Even though I stopped to take a photograph, already I can't quite remember where it was. These signs usually mention a local business, or a family, or sometimes a church group. This one had a small cutout of a helicopter on top, two names, a photograph of two young men in yellow shirts and blue helmets with a helicopter behind, and a wreath. Firefighters, I thought immediately.
Hours after High Tea and the ravaged hillsides, I found out a little bit about those two names, Jeff Allen and Shane Heath. Both in their early 20s, and firefighters indeed. In August 2003, a fire broke out on a hillside above the Salmon River in Idaho. These two men were dropped onto a ridge above the fire to prepare a landing spot for a helicopter, so more men and supplies could be pressed into service fighting the fire.
After a while, Allen radioed asking to be picked up. For several hours, helicopters could not get close enough to pick them up. When other firefighters finally managed to rappel down to the ridge, they found the landing spot ready for helicopters, but not Allen and Heath. Their bodies were later discovered down the slope. They had died from "inhaling superheated gases". (Forest fires can quickly become uncontrollable infernos with temperatures in the thousands of degrees). They had died, but not before finishing what they had been sent in to do.
The High Tea was a whole lot of fun. But it's now linked in my mind with vast stands of burnt trees on craggy slopes. And a photograph on a sign on a lonely stretch of a remote highway.