LA PINE, Ore. — Even before he was allowed to return to his La Pine home, Mike Harper knew the damage from the Darlene Fire would be bad. The 72-year-old Harper returned to his 10-acres southeast of La Pine on Saturday afternoon after the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office lifted evacuation notices prompted by the fire.
What he found was worse than he expected. His plot, once an idyllic, off-the-grid cabin in the woods, was transformed into a moonscape surrounded by charred pine trees that stood like blackened toothpicks piercing the earth.
“Everything that was worth anything burned,” Harper said.
The structures on Harper’s property were just part of what the Darlene Fire tore through. Fire officials say it destroyed at least two homes, one RV, 11 structures and some vehicles. Fire officials said it had burned 686 acres as of Saturday.
But evacuation notices were lowered for all residents southeast of La Pine Friday night. Many still remain under a level 2 “get ready” and a level 1 “get set” notice, according to the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday afternoon.
When evacuation orders were issued at the outset of the fire Tuesday, Harper stayed behind. He had to sleep with a rag over his face as smoke poured into his cabin. The fire was close. Wednesday morning, he grabbed his two kittens and his dog and left, hoping to come back later to save some things.
He wasn’t able to return.
Harper purchased the land four years ago, and he worked it tirelessly. Just a week ago, one could find there a cabin and a beautiful, hand built log gazebo. In the garage was a new Mercedes-Benz, a medium sized boat and a lifetime’s collection of tools and items. Trailers and vehicles surrounded the plot, including a cherished excavator.
Now, only the cabin remains. Everything else was destroyed. Former vehicles were transformed into metal husks. The gazebo, is a pile of bricks.
The charred excavator, recognizable, stood lonesome and painful in the distance.
“If I could save one thing, it would have to be that excavator,” Harper said.
Harper’s land was off the grid. Melted solar panels lined the melted garage.
“You can’t even tell there was a boat in the garage,” Harper said.
He looked around at what was left before heading into his cabin.
“I worked my tailbone clearing this place,” he said. “At least me and the animals are alive.”
Even though people were allowed to return to their homes, there is much hard work left to be done by the 135 firefighters on scene. They have worked steadily since the fire was discovered at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Friday afternoon, they labored amid the smell of burned pine trees on the smoky western edge of the Darlene Fire. A team of 15 firefighters dug deep holes into ash, dust and dirt using pickaxes — and their bare hands.
It was as intimate as firefighting can get.
“You’ll notice a lot of them use the backs of their hands intentionally because they’d prefer not to burn the palms of their hands,” said Joel Basch, a spokesperson for the Deschutes National Forest who was at the fire Friday afternoon.
“And of course they have no gloves on,” he added. “Leather gloves protect our hands, but firefighters need to feel the smoldering heat that could be at the subsurface.”
As the Darlene Fire reaches its final stages, crews digging similar holes can be found along the fire’s cigar-shaped perimeter.
The process is called “mop-up,” and it involves looking for “hot spots” — sources of heat — left by smoldering root systems. They can allow wildfires that appear to be out to flare up instead.
It’s arduous. Seeing it in action provides a glimpse into the relationship firefighters cultivate with fire and earth.
In a fire’s early stages, the work of firefighting happens at a distance: Air tankers drop red-orange retardant, helicopters dump buckets of water and fire hoses connected to engines douse flames from afar.
But during a wildfire’s slow, smoldering exit, firefighters reach their bare hands into the earth itself, cautiously feeling for heat.
When the earth warms, or even burns, their hands, they dig up the root system and spray it down with water, often provided by a “skidgen” — a tank-like vehicle that goes where fire engines cannot that carry up to a thousand pounds of water.
Firefighters found a large smoldering root system Friday that required the whole unit to dig up.
Then they sprayed it down with water from the skidgen. Others carried “pump-packs,” 50-pound backpacks filled with five gallons of water used to spray the root system directly.
As they did so, plumes of steam rose above clouds of ash and dust. Dense columns of charred pines, dregs of the swift conflagration, surrounded them. Many firefighters worked without masks. Bent over the ground, they stalked the fire’s remains, steam and ash and dust rising into their faces.
The work is essential, Basch said.
“When you figure this has to be done around the whole perimeter of the fire, mop-up takes a while,” he said.
But as the work continues, containment levels should rise rapidly. On Saturday, the Darlene Fire was 35% contained, according to fire officials.
Mop-up work ensures that no flare-ups occur around houses or structures.
Some homes and structures inside the fire zone remained despite what appeared unthinkable odds. Every tree around them had burned.
How did they remain standing? Fire planning, Basch said.
At one residence, the owner removed thickets around every structure on his property, and he painted structures bright colors so firefighters could easily identify them.
The only structure on his property — an outhouse — where thickets hadn’t yet been removed was the only one that burned, Basch said.
“Those landowners that take it upon themselves to do that kind of preparation, that’s the first step in our success as firefighters,” he said.
As the afternoon progressed, Basch started thinking toward evening. A headcount was needed for dinner at command post. Mop-up means big appetites.
“Food is what drives these firefighters,” Basch said.