Yesterday I drove up to Mariposa, south of Yosemite, to visit my parents. I was on Highway 41, about ten minutes south of Coarsegold, in central California. The area has been hit by a heat wave, and it was 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Fresno, and 95 or 98 in Coarsegold. (Good time for you to not come, Sherwood!)

Highway 41 is narrow in that area, one lane going in either direction hemmed in by steep slopes studded with boulders, bushes, and the occasional spindly tree, and carpeted with grass and weeds as dry and brittle as straw. There's not enough of a shoulder to pull over without blocking a lane, except for limited stretches.

I turned a corner and saw a plume of smoke going up on the slope across from me. The hillside was on fire. It must have just caught, because it hadn't spread very far: scattered patches of small flames, and one large patch maybe twenty feet square. No trees had caught yet.

I should explain at this point that forest fires are both common and extremely dangerous in this area. Fire is part of the natural ecology, and one reason forest fires are so destructive now is that we suppress fires that, in theory, we ought to let burn, destroying the undergrowth and allowing the larger trees to flourish. (According to Walking Where We Lived: Memoirs of a Mono Indian Family, which I highly recommend, the Indians of the area understood this and selected which fires to fight and which to leave be.) However, at this point there are so many people living all over the place that any forest fire has the potential of spreading rapidly and uncontrollably, burning homes and sometimes killing people.

I pulled over at the first shoulder, where another woman had already pulled over and was calling 911. She said she couldn't get through. I got through on my cell phone and reported it. The dispatcher said fire trucks were on their way. I listened, but I didn't hear sirens. The fire was fairly small at that point, but I have seen how fires can go from tiny to gigantic in a flash. I waited a moment, but no trucks appeared.

I got my fire extinguisher out of the trunk of my car, but a glance across the highway told me the fire was already too big for one extinguisher. So I got out my emergency blanket (a queen-sized flannel sheet) and emergency water, and soaked the sheet in the water. I would have liked to soak my hair and clothes too, but I didn't have enough water.

I grabbed the extinguisher and sheet, stopped traffic, and started to run across the highway. This was where I hit the first snag: a queen-sized flannel sheet soaked in a gallon of water is really heavy and awkward, especially when you're carrying something else in your other hand. It tripped me up, and I had to drop it or drop the extinguisher. I dropped the sheet in the middle of the highway, glanced to make sure all the cars were still stopped, then managed to scoop it up and get across the road.

I stood on the narrow strip of blacktop between the burning slope and the highway. The fire, of course, had already spread quite a bit in the two minutes or so I had taken to make my preparations and get there. Smoke was billowing up and blowing across me, and flakes of gray ash floated all around in the air. I dropped the sheet, yanked the safety pin out of the fire extinguisher, and aimed it at the main area of the fire. Suppressant shot out and billowed like smoke itself. I put out an area about ten or fifteen feet square, and then the extinguisher ran out. Its range was only about six feet, and the spreading edge of the fire was far past that, upslope where I couldn't get to it. But there were a bunch of isolated patches burning on different parts of the slope, within reach.

I put down the extinguisher, picked up the sheet, and started smothering those patches. The sheet, as I mentioned, was very heavy and hard to use. If I'd had time and scissors, I would have been better off cutting it in half or even in quarters. Also, I couldn't slap it down, or I'd send up a flurry of sparks, which might catch other areas or my clothes. I smothered a couple patches, working for no more than five minutes, when the heat dried the sheet and the sheet caught fire. I ditched it on the slope and surveyed the scene.

Since I'd arrived, a 15 or 20 foot tree had caught fire. It was upslope, far out of reach and partially blocked by boulders, so I hadn't even seen that it had been at risk. But in the few minutes I'd been there, it had become completely engulfed in flames. The heat became much more intense, and the acrid smoke had thickened. I could still breathe easily, but I could feel that that wouldn't be the case if I stuck around.

There was obviously nothing more I could do, so I stopped traffic again and ran back to my car. Standing at the shoulder, I saw that the fire had jumped the highway, and a plume of smoke was going up from the slope on the same side as my car, across from the larger fire. I waited a couple more minutes, just to make sure that the fire department showed up, and then three fire trucks pulled up. There wasn't much room on the road and I didn't want to get in their way, so I got in my car and left.

I was soaked in sweat - my hair drenched an inch out from the scalp, and my shirt soaked through. That was from the heat, and probably some from exertion; I don't sweat a lot just from adrenaline when I'm awake. I'd inhaled some smoke, and my lungs felt sodden for a few hours, as if I was getting over a bad chest cold. I worried about heat exhaustion, so I cranked the air conditioning all the way, drank the bottled water I had in my car, went to a gas station, drank a big bottle of gatorade, and then hung out in an air-conditioned shop for an hour before continuing on my way. (I'm fine! No burns, no anything.)

I searched the net for fire reports, but found nothing. I assume that means the fire department got it. I'd like to think that my small contribution was helpful - I may well have stopped it from spreading laterally, though I couldn't stop it from spreading uphill. I'm satisfied with what I did, and I do not feel traumatized. In fact, after my last emergency, in which I felt that I could have done better, I feel that I redeemed myself. My medical emergency skills may have been shaky, but my fire skills - honed by an absurd amount of practice for a civilian - are still intact.

If you live in a fire hazard area, it would be wise to put a fire extinguisher in your car. I'm taking my parents today to buy one. I'm getting two for myself.

Kidde FA110 Multi Purpose Fire Extinguisher 1A10BC
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