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The beauty and brutality of wildfire

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“Those clouds look like smoke.”

I brushed it off as the work of a funky summer storm system floating over the Eastern Sierra. “Yeah, the clouds are very cool.”

In a way, I was right. The object of my wife’s curiosity was indeed the result of a thunderstorm. But she was right, too: it was the start of what is now the 13,500-acre Indian Fire that’s scorching the sagebrush and pine-shaded slopes just southeast of Mono Lake. Only a few hours before we approached the apocalyptic horizon along CA 120, a cable of electric tightened to earth and ignited the basin’s hillside.

As the sun set in front of us, the sky blazed into a spectrum of astounding reds and ambers above the ridgeline. The intrinsic drama of our heading directly into this mountain-high mass of grey and flickering red was almost too much for us to understand, so our certainty that it was a fire wavered. “The sun can paint some incredible scene with clouds and a mountain range,” I offered. Each corner brought new theatre.

Once the rest of the world around the smoldering tower of lightening and smoke faded to black, we knew for certain what it was, and that it was surreal.

We stopped several times to photograph it but our point and shoot and iPhones were hardly up to the task. We convinced ourselves that its origin as a natural occurrence meant we could wonder at it, that it was alright to be amazed by this epic bonfire raging against the blackened high desert wilderness above Lee Vining.

Soon though, as the distant sirens indicated, people would be fighting it. Families would be separated as loved ones responded to it and residents in Benton and Lee Vining would begin to worry about their livelihood. We didn’t know how to feel.

CNN reported today that more than 70 wildfires are tearing across the west. It’s dry and windy everywhere and people are losing homes.

For them, there’s nothing amazing about wildfire. For us, it was only that.

I think we’re both right.

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