Wednesday, May 15, 2013


Massanutten was burning.

I first saw it one afternoon as I came home down the long valley, a small wisp of white smoke rising from its east flank near Veitch gap as though Massanutten were a volcano and the smoke from a fumarole. By the next morning, the smoke had several sources and the cool air in Front Royal was sweetly perfumed with the most amazing incense. That afternoon, and for many successive days, the smoke grew and thickened across valley, deepening as the June air warmed and grew humid.

The fire took hold in a period of bright, clear dry days with parchingly low humidity and challenging winds. It spread from a small patch of an acre or two to tens, then hundreds of acres. It burned in an area far from roads on the rocky east slope of the eastern ridge of the dual mountain, and could only be fought on foot by firefighters carrying hand tools and water. It was tough going and slow. And because there were so few man-made things nearby, and little value to the coarse timber, there was no great sense of urgency to battling the fire and it seemed to linger. The perfume became rank and cloying, burning the nose and throat.

Then one day, the breeze carried the scent of burning pine across the mountains into our county. The smell  was pushed southeastward, riding the bow wave of a raging mass of angry, roiling air.

That night, the storm came.

The silence of twilight, the low-hanging half moon, a handful of dim stars in the still thick haze. Then, with the night, sweeps in a dark curtain—a wall across the western sky, malign and laced through with lightning. With little warning other than the sound of the wind racing across the nearby hills, it breaks upon us like a wave breaks upon the empty beach. The trees have nowhere to go and the storm shows no mercy, offers no quarter. In a brief time the storm tramples us and moves eastward.

We awake Saturday to a disheveled, wrecked world. We consume a tank of fuel in the chainsaw before our second cup of coffee; all around us we see unexpected and utterly random damage. Trees toppling other trees, crashing down onto fence lines; trees snapped in half, others losing branches that themselves are the size of trees. The destruction is without rhyme or reason or pattern, an unspeakable elemental rage brought down upon us. 

We join our neighbor to walk the road and assess its state. This is one of the small pleasant rituals we have discovered since moving to our house in the woods, after snow or heavy weather, reminding me of Frost's 'Mending Wall.' We set the road right, clear debris from ditches and culverts, remove the downed branches  and return up the lane to our respective places, having restored a small measure of normal.

Yet the bulk of the damage largely remains, and it is prodigious. It adds another layer of work to be done onto an already lengthy list, and the damaged fences cannot be ignored for long. The paths will be cleared, the debris removed, but the storm has left a mark that will be long in erasing. And we are fortunate we suffered no damage to our home or our buildings, and neither we nor any of our animals were hurt. But we will be fixing this for a long time to come...

The Derecho of June 29-30, 2012, ended the forest fire threat on Massanutten, as well as causing a hellish amount of suffering and damage from Ohio to Delaware that persisted for a very long time. But far worse for us was a microburst thunderstorm some weeks later, which broke or felled at least ten large trees in our yard alone while doing very little else around us. We hadn't finished cleaning up that when Hurricane Sandy dropped a huge double-stemmed pine tree among other things. That one managed to just graze a fence line with some branches amazingly enough, as it had the potential to take out several powerlines. 

So we continue, keeping fingers crossed, and an eye on the sky. It's been a tough year for the trees, without a doubt.

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