We had seen the rising telltale tower of smoke yesterday on our excursion to Klamath Wildlife Preserve, twenty miles north, where Rachel had just added cinnamon teal, bufflehead, pied-billed grebe, and tundra swan to her birder’s life sightings list.
From that far away in the late afternoon, we had seen the distant column rising: the angry browns and solemn grays of a forest fire.
At the Preserve, we guessed that the fire’s origin was somewhere close to our house. Driving back south we couldn’t find any mention of it on wildfire-spotting sites or social media. In this area last fall, 15,000 acres of forest had suffered a catastrophic blaze, which tore through and closed the adjacent Collier State Park campground for the season and scorched the surrounding area for dozens of miles. We drove through that barren landscape four days ago from the west, to arrive in central south Oregon. On that drive, we crossed horizon-spanning cattle ranches and their surrounding evergreen forests, a large fraction of which were now charred, cut, stacked, and barren, their life cycle reduced to salvage timber and many decades of regrowth ahead.
Maybe our plume was a controlled burn, we thought, to reduce some of those mounds of tinder, now dried for months on the high prairie. But probably not. Probably a wildfire.
Driving south we passed the the pillar of smoke on our left. It rose to cloud level some miles west, diffuse behind nearby pine-covered hills. No red, nothing raging. With windows down we smelled no smoke. We passed an industrial wide-load truck hauling a bulldozer our way. Probably for creating fire breaks.
At camp we triangulated: the origin was about ten miles east and a little north. No smoke in the campground. No mention on wildfire sites. No ash in the sky. Camp hosts not in a panic. No rangers to evacuate us and the dozen other campers.
We could leave now, in early evening, to our planned destination at Sisters, just beyond Bend, where we intended to boondock. But after a three-hour drive we would be arriving in the dark, without reservations, to search on rutted, rugged forest service roads for a slice of public land to claim. Not a plan we liked.
Rachel wandered to the nearby Williamson River for better views and to splash about, as one does while on vacation. I stayed at camp, surveying news and sentiment. When she returned with no new information, we decided to stay the night.
We woke up to smoke. It was 3:45 AM.
We stepped outside into the chill, the darkest, coldest part of morning. Smoke was a dim fog, not so dense or acrid we couldn’t breathe, but a consistent blanket to the depths of our vision. Our breath was frozen puffs. Dawn had not yet broken, nor was there a crimson glow that would have forced a panicked evacuation. Most likely, we decided, it was the effect of the cool night air pushing the smoke down into the trees as the fire gathered its strength overnight.
In the dark we decided to leave at first light.
Then we looked up.
Pinpricks of white light were moving high above across the sky. Half a dozen of them, trailing like ducks in the break in the overhead canopy. Then five more along the same path, a necklace of intermittent lights moving steadily across the part of the night sky that we could see through the trees. Then a brief pause. Then a dozen more. Too many to be airplanes. Too fast to be satellites. Too slow to be meteors. Too high up to have any terrestrial cause. Then came dozens more, one after the other, spaced regularly but not perfectly, each individual light in our field of view for a few seconds before its part of the chain passed from view.
“These are the strangest lights I’ve ever seen,” I murmured. Rachel agreed, muttering a similar sentiment. Dumbfounded, we considered UFOs.
A few dozen more passed overhead during the ten minutes we watched them.
It was cold. We were tired, worried for the fire, absorbing smoke into our clothes, confused by the the aerial display. It took us a few minutes once back inside to consider the possibility that we soon settled on: these were drones carrying infrared cameras to map the fire in the coldest part of the night, when neither sunlight nor the day’s heat would obscure the blaze’s boundaries and intensity.
Our renewed search for wildfire alerts paid off, with red dots and fire symbols on our phones now confirming what our eyes and noses had been telling us since yesterday. But at this hour, as dawn approached, the moist cold air had turned the tower of smoke into a blanket — threatening but not dire.
We broke camp earlier than we ever had before, pulling up chocks at 6:30 to clearing skies, all the while scanning the horizons and airwaves. We drove past the Wildlife Preserve and two hours beyond to Bend, where we stopped for breakfast. We checked our phones one last time for updates and alerts.
On the wildfire map there was an outlier, a new red dot beyond the cluster we had seen this morning.
The fire had jumped to the road we drove away on.