Colin Remas Brown
Fire at the airport
In February, the Airport Fire burned more than 4,000 acres, making it California’s largest wildfire of 2022.
The fire started at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 16, in the wide, dry Owens Valley between the high peaks of the White Mountains and the Sierra Nevada to the east, just outside of Bishop, near Eastern Sierra Regional Airport. . West. Winds of 30 to 40 mph pushed the fire south to the west bank of the Owens River.
By 4 p.m. the fire was burning in the pastures of Yribarren Farm, owned by my friends the Etcheverrys, seven miles south of the Bishop. The fire continued through the night, moving toward large satellite dishes at the California Institute of Technology’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory.
The observatory is 12 miles south of Bishop along the Owens River through the Etcheverry pastures. It is one of the largest radio observatories in the world and is where firefighting teams take up positions. On Thursday night, the fire was contained just a few hundred meters from the observatory after burning more than 4,000 hectares of grassland. The fire may have saved the antennae, or “Big Ears” as the locals call them, but the Etcheverry cattle, which like to sleep along the river, were not so lucky.
Initially, more than 400 personnel, 66 vehicles, 1 helicopter and 6 air tankers – planes that throw fire extinguishers – were allocated to the Airport Fire. When I took these photos the following weekend, there were dozens of firefighters left watching hot spots. I stomped on my heavy boots several times to put out the burning ashes, but as I moved away over my shoulder, I saw that the surrounding area was starting to smoke again.
I alternated between driving on a blackened dirt road and walking with ankles covered in ash, searching for victims of the fire. Black dust devils, terrifying and evil, abounded with ashes and debris from fire. A few came within meters of me, forcing me to cover my ears and face. At the end of the day, I looked like a chimney sweep.
The calves I photographed far away from the river, dying of smoke inhalation, appeared to be asleep, while the mothers near the river’s edge, engulfed in flames, died a more gruesome death. You could see the pain on their faces, their tongues sticking out grotesquely. Two blackened and burned mothers were “born” even posthumously after the fire. One of the calves was “born in a caul,” meaning it was still inside an intact amniotic sac, while the other newborn calf was partially ejected from its mother and emerged unharmed, its hair soft and wet. When I encountered these two calves, the firefighter I was with was shocked and took a minute to come to terms with what we saw.
I took my last pictures on Sunday after dawn. As I drove down Highway 395 to the Owens River, I came across a long herd of bucks. As I approached the first cow, the screeching crows fled from its carcass and perched on a nearby skeletal tree. Across the river were the “Big Ears” of the observatory, and behind them the peaks of the White Mountains, where the sun was just beginning to rise. The ominous dust devils are gone, replaced by a new menace – the terrible stench of death. I put Vicks Vapor Rub on my nose and put on my KN95 mask.
The Etcheverrys lost eight cows, four pregnant, and 13 calves in the fire. Another 12 cows were badly burned. Seven other calves smelled of smoke so strongly that their mothers, unable to recognize the scent, rejected them.
The Airport fire is considered a success as no structures were lost. The cause of the fire is still unknown.
Colin Remas Brown
March 21, 2022