“Really?! You’ve got to be kidding me! A campfire?!!” There was no hiding my disbelief. I was at PCT mile 2067 on the Warm Springs Reservation, a section of the trail that had been closed due to wildfires until today, and these two backpackers were having themselves a nice big backcountry campfire, miles away from the nearest water source. I just couldn’t believe it!
The wildfire just a couple of miles south of us was still smoldering, and I was tired of having to breath smoke and watch as our forests burned… Being caught in the woods during a wildfire is a terrifying experience… You feel so powerless in the face of fire… You have no control over how fast it burns, how big it gets, where it goes…
Yet here was fire in the woods, fire that didn’t have to be there… That was created by humans, and that humans controlled (at least for now). The evidence of what would happen if they lost control of their fire was all around us…
A few minutes earlier I had approached a couple of southbound hikers to ask them about the still smoldering fire at mile 2065. “Hi, are you guys from around here?” I’d asked. “Well, we’re from Eugene, does that count?” Yes, that definitely counted. I told them that I was from the east coast and not very familiar with this whole fire thing. “Should I be worried that a six foot by six foot patch of the forest is still smoldering?” I asked. “It’s within the fire lines.” They assured me that that was pretty common, when the fire gets into the root system it can take months to burn itself out.
We then had the usual backpacker conversation about whether or not I was going to stay there or press on. They were both going to stay, and I was going to continue on. “There aren’t that many places to camp coming up… “There are some nice flat spots way down by the river,” said one of the guys, “and about a quarter mile down there’s a couple camped in the Cadillac of campsites, with a campfire.”
“A campfire?” I asked incredulously. They then launched into the story of how they’d smelled smoke and prepared themselves for more wildfire, but found these backpackers with a campfire instead, and how they hadn’t seen anyone out here during wildfire season with a campfire, not in the last 25 years!
“Did you rip them a new one?” I asked. “No,” they replied, they had just stared in disbelief and kept walking… Who starts a campfire in a section of the backcountry that had been closed due to wildfires until the previous day? It was pretty hard to believe.
“Well, I think I’ll have a little chat with them,” I said as I headed down the trail. “If we hear a ruckus down there we’ll come and back you up,” they offered as they resumed setting up their camp.
I wondered why those two burly guys hadn’t said anything to the folks with the campfire. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might need anyone to back me up when I confronted the campers about their fire… I just knew that I had to say something…
At some level the PCT feels like it’s my home, my trail, and someone was doing something that endangered the trail and everyone on it… I had to say something because somebody had to say something, and because those guys hadn’t.
I didn’t really believe that anybody was actually stupid enough to have a campfire there until I rounded the corner, smelled the smoke, and saw the fire. The two guys hadn’t been joshing me… It was 85 degrees out, we were in an active wildfire zone, and this couple of yahoos had a raging campfire that looked like it was about to escape it’s fire pit… My jaw dropped in disbelief.
“Really?! You’ve got to be kidding me! A campfire?!!” I said in my out loud voice as I approached the couple.
“Yeah, it’s great isn’t it,” the woman replied. “It was just such a perfect spot, and someone had already laid out all of the fuels, so we just had to!” She smiled.
I’m not sure what I’d expected to hear, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t it. How was I going to handle this? They had no idea that they were doing anything wrong, and here I was, getting ready to burst their bubble. I reminded myself that there are things called tact and grace, and that sometimes it’s good to use them…
“You know, with wildfires still smoldering less than a mile or two away, a campfire might not be a good idea,” I said, trying to maintain a friendly tone.
“That’s a good point,” they replied, they’re relaxed position staring into their fire remained unchanged… They were doing a northbound section hike up to Cascade Locks, and had just walked through the same burn zone I had… How could their attitude about fire be so blasé?
“Well,” I continued, “you should be really careful, the reason why this trail was closed until today was because 27,000 acres burned, and it took them months to get it under control.” At this point the guy stood up and went over to poke at the fire. “Also, I’m pretty sure that since it’s fire season (and half the state is on fire) you could get in trouble for having a fire out here.”
“Well don’t you worry. I going to have a nice big drink and then I’m going to wee on it,” said the guy standing by the fire. At first I was a bit confused, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a conversation between adults involving the word ‘wee’. It took me a minute to parse the sentence and realize that his plan was to take a big swig of water and piss all over their campfire. I just stared at him for a moment in disbelief.
“He’s really going to do it,” his partner said to me while I was still parsing his statement, “You really don’t want to stick around and watch.” She was absolutely right, I didn’t want to stick around and watch… I didn’t want to stick around at all… I didn’t want to smell what would result from his pissing on the fire, and I didn’t want to camp anywhere near them.
I’d done what I needed to do, I’d made my point, and they were going to try to put out their campfire… I hoped that they would succeed, even if their methods were questionable…
As I walked away I heard the distinct sizzle of piss on fire… I didn’t turn back, I just kept walking… Eventually (about five miles later) I found a nice lush section of forest near plenty of water and pitched my tent… I appreciated the solitude… There was still a chance that the thunderstorms rolling through that night would start more fires, but at least those would be acts of God, and not acts of human stupidity!