Phil and Sandy crouch behind the underbrush that grows heavily beneath the canopy of the remains of a conifer forest in the highlands of Dixie National Forest. To the West, the exposed coral cliffs of Cedar Breaks National Monument drop suddenly and expose a vast chasm. To the East, the Grand Escalante Staircase National Monument makes its gradual terraced descent to Lake Powell. In between these protected landscapes a green ribbon of dying forest is releasing its final collective gasps of oxygen into the atmosphere as it succumbs to the onslaught of invasive beetles. The ground beneath their feet is covered in the crisp, yellow needles and bark shavings of the dead spruce that towers above them with its dead spindly branches quivering in the night breeze.
They trade a pair of binoculars as they monitor the progress of the film production crew that is busily engaged in shooting the raw footage for the film adaptation of The Monkey Wrench Gang. The crew is bathed in a sharp bright light that shines blindingly from light fixtures that surround the production site. The lights dim as the cameras start rolling.
“That’s him,” Sandy whispers as the two train their binoculars on the man who climbs onto the caterpillar tread of the giant bulldozer set piece in the soft artificial light.
“I still can’t believe they got Matthew Norton to be in this crappy movie. I kinda liked the guy until now.” The actor in the distance pours something into the fuel tank, then he climbs into the operator’s seat of the machine. He turns on the machine, and Phil and Sandy can feel the vibrations from the bulldozer drown out the smaller vibrations from the bank of generators that hum along the outer perimeter of the production site. After powering on the bulldozer, Norton, as George Hayduke, jumps out of the cab and acts startled. He looks uphill from the bulldozer to see a masked man on a horse. The horse rears on its hind legs, whinnies, and then horse and rider leap over one of the fallen logs that have been meticulously arranged to make the forest look like the site of a logging operation.
“I can’t believe they actually let them cut down some trees for the set. I thought it was official Forest Service policy to save them all for the beetles,” Sandy whispers under her breath with her trademark snark.
“Our friends in the government will bend over backwards for their friends in Hollywood. You know that.”
After the horse and rider disappear into the darkness the floodlights power back on, and the production zone is once again bathed in blinding light. Norton sits on the caterpillar tread as his director, the great Leonardo DiCaprio himself, and the cinematographer discuss something. A woman comes out of a nearby trailer and checks his make up and hair.
“I think now is a good time,” Phil says. He is wearing a ghillie suit that Solomon McAllister had helped him make. He and Solomon had grown close over the last several weeks after Cedar Mesa Ranch hired him to oversee the construction of their lab and the consumer-grade wind turbine installations – the kind sold to those wanting to go off-grid. On weekends, he and Solomon would head to the bush together, and Solomon had been teaching him survival and hunting skills. Sandy, on the other hand, had been recuperating at home from her broken ankle. Even tonight, she is still wearing a brace, but she has become accustomed to it to the point that she is now one hundred percent mobile, even though when she walks with the rigid foot brace it still looks somewhat awkward.
Sandy stays behind to play the role of lookout. The two had perfected their imitation of the call of the great horned owl. One hoot means to stop and wait. Two hoots means coast is clear. A prolonged series of four distinct hoots means abort.
Phil takes an indirect route from tree trunk to tree trunk until he arrives at the single axle trailer with a water tank on it. Hailey Whelan with her abundant supply of insider knowledge had informed them that the film crew was required by their permit to haul water into the Dixie National Forest as a precautionary measure in case an accidental fire was started. At the front of the trailer a gas-powered pump is connected to the water tank and a hose to enable pressurized spray of high volumes of water. Phil hides behind the tree that is closest to the trailer, and when he hears two series of hoots he runs across the clearing between the tree and the trailer and crouches. Behind the trailer, he is obstructed from the view of the members of the crew that are busily engaged in preparing the next take. Phil locates the spark plug on the pump’s motor and fishes a socket wrench from his jacket pocket. He fixes the wrench to the spark plug and quickly removes the spark plug and puts it in his pocket. After two more hoots, he runs back into the cover of the forest.
After disconnecting the spark plug, it doesn’t take long for Phil to get into position camouflaged in the underbrush just outside the perimeter of the floodlights. The floodlights dim again, and the film crew does another take of the previous scene. After the floodlights power back on, Norton walks directly towards Phil to the spot where he had smoked his most recent cigarette. The actor stares into the black silhouettes of the dying trees as he leans against his knee that is raised upwards by resting his foot on a log. He smokes a cigarette down to the butt. When he finishes smoking he drops the butt into the dirt and stamps it out. When he is done smoking, he returns to the set.
Once the floodlights dim again, and the small army that makes up the film production crew is consumed in their work, Phil belly-crawls to the spot where the actor’s cigarette lies extinguished in the dirt. Phil is lying near another mound of bark chips and dead pine needles, and he fills the distance between the cigarette butt and the mound of bark chips and needles that pile beneath the flayed tree carcass with a trail of the dead matter. He then pulls a lighter from his pocket and sets the pile on fire where it now reaches to the cigarette butt. He then lights the larger mound in three more places when he hears the series of four hoots that means its time to retreat.
He ducks behind a thick hedge of undergrowth only a few yards away from the fire that is now growing in size just as one of the set dressers is one of the first members of the film crew to arrive at the scene of the fire.
“Fire!” He shouts. “Fire! Someone get water. Quick!” The set dresser believes the fire is still small enough to be stamped out, but when he stomps into the heart of the flames the embers just scatter into the chips of bark and dead pine needles that ignite almost instantaneously.
Others begin to arrive, and Phil tries not to chuckle when Norton arrives at the scene with a frightened look on his face. But he can’t help it. “Serves you right, you phony Hollywood, environmentalist puke.” Phil says under his breath.
“Don’t just watch, you idiots. We need to get the water,” The set dresser shouts as he is the first one with enough common sense to run to the water tank. He straddles the pump and grabs the rip chord, and pulls. He doesn’t expect so much resistance, but without the spark plug inserted to start the fuel cycle, the chord is only pulled to half its length, and the set dresser loses his balance and falls backwards off of the trailer. He gets back up onto the trailer and tries again. This time he is able to pull out the length of the chord, but not with nearly enough speed to start the engine.
“Let me try,” Norton pulls the set dresser down, and climbs onto the trailer himself. He pulls the chord frantically, and with each pull he shouts a different cuss word. There is still no response from the disabled engine.
“What’s wrong? Why won’t it start? Did anybody test this before we hauled this trailer up here?” Leonardo DiCaprio, who is actor first and director second, pretends to lead and is now shouting these questions to anyone within earshot, but no one answers them. Meanwhile the flames start licking the tortured trunk of the nearest tree. As the majority of the crew is consumed with trying to start the water pump, Phil retreats back to Sandy’s position. The two are downhill from the flames, so barring any erratic wind behavior, they should have enough time to escape to their pickup truck that is parked on the side of a dirt road about a mile downhill. As entertaining as it would be to watch the rest of this disaster unfold, they decide to put their respect for Nature and desire for self-preservation first and retreat. The last thing they hear as they navigate through the brush is a member of the crew shouting.
“Hey guys! Hey! I have two… no one bar of service on my phone. Tell me the model of the pump. I will look up a troubleshooting guide online.”
Phil and Sandy are long out of earshot when the same crew member comes to the conclusion that his phone was taunting him. By that point the flames had engulfed the tree and the gentle night’s breeze blows the sparks from the burning branches and boughs in the tree’s upper canopy into dead and dying remains of the tree’s neighbors. All it takes to set the next tree on fire, and the next, and the next is nothing less than a tiny spark. By the time the crew decides to abandon the crippled water trailer, that is now far beyond its capacity to do any good even if it was to defy the laws of basic mechanics and start working, the fire had indeed evolved into the embryo of an inferno.
The horse is the first intelligent being to fully ascertain the threat, and it breaks loose from the grip of its rider who is trying to hold it back with its rope halter. The horse runs at full gallop down the dirt road. A burly cameraman ceases his efforts to pull the rip chord of the water pump’s motor to watch the horse sprint past.
“Maybe we better get out of here.” Cynthia McRae, the actress they had cast to play the role of Bonnie Abzugg, shouts in between choking coughs from inhaling smoke in her heavy Brooklyn accent at the group of men that had to this point seemed hellbent on conquering the stubborn pump motor or die trying. She and the make-up girls and one of the set designers get in one of the production SUVs and leave. Shortly thereafter, the remaining crew gives up on the pump and makes a frenzied run for the vehicles. The vehicles are not parked for quick retreat. Their environmental impact mitigation plan required they park along the shoulder of the dirt road, and the set pieces were in the way of any area wide enough to turn around.
The row of SUVs is parked bumper to bumper. Norton, DiCaprio, and McRae get in the vehicle that is furthest down the road. Their vehicle has two unused seatbelts, and this combined with the fact that four of the vehicles occupants had flown in by helicopter, means that there will be a shortage of seats in the remaining vehicles. This SUV full of Hollywood’s elites makes an effort to do a U-turn on the narrow dirt road. The driver of the second vehicle, who also happens to be the horseless horseman and who also happens to have an extensive background in stunt driving, watches in his rearview mirror as the first SUV proceeds through the steps of the eighteen point turn that it must make in order to turn around.
Just as the the first SUV angles its nose far enough to be able to proceed down the road, the remaining crew realizes there aren’t enough seats in the remaining vehicles. Six men watch the red tail lights disappear in the smoke that is now starting to fill the road below. The fire is spreading mostly uphill, but the explosiveness of the dying forest combined with a steady knight breeze is enabling the spread in all directions. The crewmembers that didn’t make it into a vehicle knock on the window of the second car. The stunt driver locks the doors, turns on the engine and doesn’t bother to turn around. He just drives down in reverse. The crew with no ride and those in the third and final vehicle, which is Hayduke’s Jeep, watch the headlights disappear.
“Can you guys fit a few more?” One of the men standing in the road asks.
“Maybe a few,” The man at the wheel of the Jeep replies. “But not all…”
“But what if we stand and hold onto the roll bar?
“We can try it.”
The remaining group piles into the Jeep, and they manage to all fit. One man in the driver seat, two in the passenger seat, five stand on the back seat and hang onto the roll bar, and the two remaining men remove the fuel cans that sit on platforms attached to the back of the Jeep and stand on the platforms and hang onto the spare tire. The Jeep has the best turn radius of all the vehicles, and it is able to complete a U-turn after only a five-point turn. The driver then shifts the Jeep into a low gear and idles the overloaded Jeep down the dirt road. The fire has now spread along both sides of the road, and the two men clinging to the spare tire watch the set burn behind them. The trailers, the light fixtures, the camera equipment. All of it begins to burn and melt and crack and smolder in the intense heat. The bulldozer turns into the biggest spectacle of all as thick black smoke streams off the oil greased exposed engine.
The passengers of the overloaded Jeep don’t see the explosion of the bulldozer, but they feel the concussion of air at the same time that they hear the cracking boom. For a brief second the earth itself trembles.
After a few hundred yards on the dirt road, the road cuts across a steep incline. On the driver’s side, the road runs along a cliff edge that drops suddenly to a river below, and on the passenger side, ten to fifteen feet of graded gravel meets the forest above. The road narrows to a point that two vehicles would have a hard time passing each other along this narrow stretch. This is the point where a burning tree lies fallen across the road.
“Does the winch on the front of this thing work?” The man driving asks as he stops the Jeep in front of the burning log.
“I believe so.” The set technician over vehicles replies as he exits the Jeep and powers on the winch. They extend enough of the winch cable to choke it around the fallen tree. The Jeep driver then begins to retract the winch to hopefully pull the tree out of the way. Just as the tree begins to give, the others who remain in the vehicle watch the fire jump the road down below them where the road switches back, and it starts closing in the space below them that had been safe so far. Where the road had been serving as a fire break, the thin clearing created by the road below was now obscured by smoke and flame. The night breeze had been picking up, and the fire is now spreading at a breakneck speed. Ahead of the fire line, several sets of headlights flee down the road toward the safety of the valley below.
“Even if we get this out of the way, we’re not making it down this road,” The Jeep driver concludes as he chokes on the smoke that is engulfing them. “We need to try something else.”
He exits the Jeep and whispers something to the set technician. The two men nod in agreement. They loosen the winch, and the set technician clambers up the gravel incline towards a larger Ponderosa pine that seems to be growing right out of a rock. He loops the winch cable around the tree’s trunk and fastens the hook to the wire and cinches it tight. Below, the driver reels in the slack. The driver then gets back into the Jeep and reverses it to the edge of the cliff as the set technician runs cable out of the winch.
“What the hell are you doing?” One of the passengers shouts in between choking fits from the smoke.
“Hang on!” The driver yells as the Jeep backs off the cliff. After the Jeep is completely hanging off the side of the cliff by the cable, the set technician returns to the tree to make sure it looks like it will hold. Once he is satisfied, he returns to the edge of the cliff and looks down at the headlights that are shining up at him with the fire consuming the trees on the other side of the river below them. By this point the heat on the road is almost unbearable, and the technician climbs down the cliff to the Jeep and he stands on the grill that rises above the winch and hangs onto the winch cable. The driver takes control of the winch and lowers the Jeep until it is several yards below the road and away from the heat. The passengers in the rear stand on the seat back hold onto the roll bar and each other for dear life. It is in this position that this group of those who were left behind is found the next morning by a helicopter flying overhead en route to drop water on what is later named the Hollywood Fire by the Forest Service.
Phil turns off the headlights to the pickup truck as he pulls into the campground at Panguitch Lake. It is after midnight, and he doesn’t want to disturb those who are already sleeping in the camp. He proceeds at an idling speed until he and Sandy reach their campsite.
After parking near their tent, Phil exits the vehicle and looks to the West. There is no sign of a forest fire – not even a faint orange glow behind the ridge forested domes that make the horizon. It is still too far behind them. He saunters into the tent and Sandy hobbles.
“That foot hurting you.”
“Yeah, a little. I probably worked it to hard. If I just rest, it should be fine.”
They both climb into separate sleeping bags, and Phil falls fast asleep. Sandy is tired enough to sleep, but the throbbing pain in her ankle makes it difficult. She dozes in and out and puts off going out to the truck to get another dose of pain relievers and a drink. It sounds like so much work, and she is so tired.
It is in this state of fighting in and out of sleep for a few hours that she is startled fast awake by a cackling male voice shouting from a speaker.
“This is an evacuation warning. I repeat, this is an evacuation warning. Due to a spreading wildfire, we are evacuating the campground. Please evacuate the campground. This is not a drill, folks. We are evacuating the campground…”
The voice continues to sound the warning and the campground begins to stir with activity. Sandy wakes Phil.
“Phil, they’re evacuating. Wake up. Phil. Phil.”
“I’m up. I’m up. What did you say? They’re evacuating?”
“The fire. It’s already here.”
He startles fully awake, “It’s already here?” Sandy doesn’t answer. She let’s the ranger yelling through the speaker outside the tent answer the question. Phil processes this for a second, then he says, “I guess we better get out of here.
Like the other campers, they don’t bother to stuff their sleeping bags or neatly break down their tent. They rush through the process and throw all their gear haphazardly into the back of the truck. Other vehicles are already speeding out of the campground. A car alarm sets off and becomes part of the chaos of noise that also includes shouting adults, crying children, barking dogs, and the continuous shouting of the forest ranger telling the campers to evacuate the area immediately. To the West there is now burning orange glow that illuminates the smoke above in a gradient from pink and yellow. Occasionally a bright flame can be seen shooting up from the horizon.
As Phil and Sandy drive out of the campground as part of the single file of vehicles, dark smoke begins to settle into the valley where Panguitch lake is nestled. It is an opaque, dirty fog that blocks the vision of everything but the taillights of the vehicle in front of them. The line of vehicles slows to a crawl as visibility drops to zero. Then the line stops
“Phil. Why aren’t they moving?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think the fire got out ahead?”
“No. It’s probably just an accident or something.”
“I told you we shouldn’t have returned to the campground, Phil.”
Phil considers responding to this statement, but instead of litigating his reasons for the umpteenth time for returning to the campsite, he turns the steering wheel sharply to the left and begins to pass the line of traffic in the other lane on the highway.
“Phil, what are you doing? What if there is oncoming traffic? You’re going to kill us.”
“There won’t be oncoming traffic. I’m sure the police have the road blocked off.”
“What if police, or firefighters are coming up?”
Phil watches in his rearview mirror as pair of headlights appears through the smoke as the herd mentality of the other drivers kicks in.
The feeling of relieved tension doesn’t last long as a pair of tail lights appear through the smoke ahead of them, and they’re stopped. Phil hits the brakes and slows to a stop a little more quickly than he would like. He braces for the vehicle behind him to impact, but it never does. Phil notices he’s sweating and his heart rate has increased suddenly. Phil looks around and sees that in addition to the line of cars in the lane to the right, there is also a line of stopped cars in the shoulder to the right. People are standing outside of stopped vehicles.
“I’m going to go see what happened,” Phil says and puts the truck in park.
He follows a line of cars for about a quarter mile to where there is a blind curve in the mountain road. As he rounds the curves he sees a fire engine lying on its side and an ambulance on the other side of the fire truck with other incident response vehicles – all with lights flashing. A smashed SUV is leaking fluids atop a pile of broken glass and debris on the highway next to the overturned firetruck. Together the two wrecked vehicles are blocking the narrow road. The vehicles that are closest to the accident have already been abandoned. Their owners are already making progress further up the road as they flee the mountain by foot.
Phil jogs back to his truck. He passes others who are also learning what he has learned. When he gets back to the truck he sees Sandy is already standing outside the truck with water bottles in her hand.
“Everyone’s leaving their cars behind,” Sandy says.
“I know. There’s an accident. It’s an overturned firetruck. It’s blocking the whole road.”
Sandy looks down at the brace on her foot and winces.
“Are you going to be able to walk?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Yes. How far do you think it is?”
“It’s at least twenty more miles until Panguitch.”
“Twenty miles? I can’t walk twenty miles. With this foot?”
Where they are they can’t see the fire itself, but the smoke is ever present and signals the blaze’s looming advance. Phil chokes as he hasn’t fully caught his breath yet from jogging.
“Then we have to wait here for them to clear the road. It’s the only choice. I don’t think any of these people are going to make it twenty miles before that fire catches them. Let’s get back in the truck where we can breathe.”
Phil helps Sandy back into the truck, then he gets in himself. He looks ahead and the smoke has thinned somewhat. Some of the vehicles still have their brake lights shining. Others do not.
“Dammit!” Phil blurts out when it hits him.
“What is it?”
“Even if they clear the wreckage, all these idiots are leaving their cars behind. They’re going to have to move dozens of abandoned vehicles to clear a path.”
As Phil says this a family of two adults and three children walk past the truck from behind them with their shirts pulled up to cover their mouths and noses.
“Phil?” Sandy’s voice quivers. She tries to fight back tears. “We shouldn’t have done this. We shouldn’t have.”
Phil doesn’t tell her that she is right. He doesn’t tell her that she is wrong either. But there is fear in his eyes that is soon replaced with desperate resolve.
“You stay here. I’m going to go start pushing any cars I can off the road.”
Before she can object, he is shutting the door of the truck behind him and opening the driver-side door of the nearest abandoned vehicle that is closest to the right shoulder of the highway. He leans across the driver’s seat to put the car in neutral. He sits in the seat and cranks the steering wheel as far to the right as he can. Then he gets behind the car, lowers his shoulders, and begins to push. To the right of the highway a creek flows at the bottom of a gentle grade. By the time Phil is done, the red Suburu Outback is half submerged in the creek. He then walks further up the road where he is no longer visible through the thickening smoke.
This excerpt is from a forthcoming novel. To be one of the first to read it, sign up below: