Dry lightning—we’d had our share that year.
On that early afternoon, a neighbor was checking his fields. He spotted a column of smoke on our side of the canyon. A juniper tree had taken a hit in the previous night’s storm and was smoldering in the freshening breeze. Nothing serious, no homes were nearby. Livestock had plenty of time to get out of the way. It was simply a matter which required attention by our community—sooner rather than later.
In our part of the country, first responders for range fire protection is us—the ranchers. Our neighbor made a phone call and word spread faster than a thunderstormdriven gully washer. A short time later, we had a parade of pickups with ATVs hurrying down our dirt road. Yours truly joined the line.
When we arrived, the breeze was still gentle, but the fire had jumped from its host tree to the bonedry sage and grass. Still, no big deal.
The sky was clear, bright and blue. We felt the afternoon thunderstorms beginning to build.
Another neighbor and I took our ATVs as close to the blaze as we dared. We strapped on our bladder bags and headed to the fire line. It was hot, dirty work along the side of a steep canyon.
The fire was creeping along. In my mind’s eye, I’m thinking about the green grass that’ll be coming up in the area next spring. Meanwhile, we kept one eye on the fire and the other on the sky.
My neighbor was more conservative with his firefighting water than yours truly. I ran out and started the long slog over a ridge toward my ATV. A few hundred feet from the crest, I heard the first— CRACK, BOOM—of a lightning strike. There was virtually no delay be tween the flash and thunder.
I glanced at the sky— still blue. Looking up canyon, I noticed a microthunderstorm bobbing along, just over ridge-high, down canyon toward me. ...CRACK, BOOM...
It was a tiny storm—a few hundred yards wide— floating gently and creating havoc as it went. Near where the canyon widened out, I thought, ‘Oh great, this thing could go in any direction when it gets down here.’ ... CRACK, BOOM...I ran before the storm ... CRACK, BOOM...
Looking over my shoulder, I saw the tiny storm veering in my direction. There wasn’t time to hike over the ridge without getting caught in the open, so I dived into a crack in the rocks. I wanted as many objects as possible to be higher than me on that ridge. Only the buttons on my shirt kept me from getting closer to the ground.
...CRACK, BOOM... CRACK, BOOM...
It’s a lonely feeling when you’re jammed in a crack while the world’s tiniest
thunderstorm shatters the air over your head. Between strikes, my mind flashed between family and friends—but mostly, my brain clenched like a fist as thunder echoed around the canyon.
I assume the storm wandered down canyon and, probably, dissipated somewhere in the desert. Yours truly was still hunkered down in the rocks.
When the thunder quit rolling around the rim rock, I climbed out of my crevice, glad to be alive. After the long trudge over the ridge to my ATV and more water, I headed back and kept working on the fire. After a lot of work, the fire was out, with about 50 acres burned. Each of us went home to a late supper that evening.
Fire season is coming folks—stay safe!—D. “Bing” Bingham [Bing Bingham is a writer, rancher and storyteller. He doesn’t mind fighting fire in the desert, but he’d rather not fight thunderstorms. If you have a story to pass along, contact him at bing@ bingbingham.com.]