I was eighty miles south of Bend, a city of many thousands which former Oregon governor Neil Goldschmidt called the “middle of nowhere.” From my angle, driving into the small town of Silver Lake from the southeast after three hours crossing the desert, the loose column of smoke didn’t seem like much at first. As I took the cutoff road west over the hills, aiming for Klamath Marsh and a short-cut home to Medford, the smoke seemed a bit closer but its location still obscure.
Passing through ranchland and up into the juniper-covered hills, it became clear that I was heading more or less toward the smoke, but it didn’t seem enough to be a forest fire and appeared to be some random burning being done at a cattle ranch. Still, the fire warnings all said “Extreme” that day and what rancher would decide to burn anything so close to the forest on a windy day?
The facts of the situation became clearer as I came around an uphill curve and saw several vehicles stopped ahead of me, with smoke blowing in several directions and people walking about. A tow truck driver, frustrated by his inability to get past the mess and low on fuel, explained to arriving drivers that a trailer carrying hay and new haying equipment had seized its wheel bearings and caught fire. Its wheels could not move, so it squatted on the road like a grounded dragon, pouring out smoke from burning hay, tires, wood, oil and who knows what else. With fire equipment beside it, the road was closed.
The driver had managed to pull the tractor out from under it, which kept the situation from getting worse. Silver Lake fire crews were on the scene quickly and helped keep the fire from escaping adjacent grass into the juniper and pine forest, which, if burning on such a day of 20-mile winds, would have taken off for miles, torching ranch and forest alike and roaring straight into the route of Cycle Oregon, bicycles from which were pouring down the hill into Silver Lake on a nearby road.
The tow truck driver seemed unhappy, and when I asked about the gear he carried, he said that he had two fire extinguishers aboard but couldn’t use them when he got there. Astonished, I asked why not. The Medford-based towing company forbids drivers from using the extinguishers on anything but their own truck. A driver who violates this rule has to pay, from his own pocket, the $162 each to have the extinguishers refilled.
Has the company no shame, that it would allow a family’s income to burn on a hillside, would prefer a forest fire to start, than to commit $162 every five years or so to a better society? Is this really what our locally-owned businesses have become?
At that moment a pickup roared up the hill and pulled over into the loose gravel edge. Out jumped two teenage boys in what I took to be North Lake football jerseys. The North Lake School District consists of one building in Silver Lake serving some 225 students who live in an area about the size of Delaware.
One of the boys apparently mistook me, with white car and blue door signs, and the tow driver in his reflective-tape work suit, as some kind of perimeter guards, announced “it’s my granddad, we gotta go,” and dashed uphill into the smoke to do whatever they could.
Where corporations will not spend their $162, the North Lake Cowboys fear no dragons. You were wrong, Neil. The middle of nowhere? My vote goes to the Class of Silver Lake. It is the beginning of everything. There is yet hope for the Republic.