BOZEMAN, Mont. – Late in the afternoon earlier this month Charles Worth was hiking with his dog, Brownie, down Deep Creek Trail in Montana, toward the Yellowstone River, when he noticed a churning column of smoke in front of him. Only a mile from the trailhead and his truck, he stopped to weigh his chances.
The fire was heading toward him up the drainage. A thick stand of dry timber stood between him and the smoke. He retreated to a boulder field and watched. The fire moved fast. Suddenly it was burning in the close timber. Worth had to make a move. He decided to run for it, back up the trail, hoping to gain the high divide before the fire did.
Driven towards panic by adrenalin, he knew he had to pace himself, conserving his strength. He had already spent eight hours bushwhacking through the backcountry. Now, to make the divide he had to climb another 2,000 feet in three miles. He could hear what came to be known as the Pine Creek Fire behind him, a roar whooshing through lodgepole forest, relentlessly climbing, driven by winds, fed by drought-parched fuels. Worth switchbacked steeply uphill, gaining altitude and perspective on the flames below. The mile head start he began with steadily evaporated. The divide loomed above him, agonizingly far. His legs burned with fatigue. Terror numbed his mind.
“It was not looking like a good outcome,” he told me. “It became very simple. I was just another animal running for safety. Whether I’d make it was very much in question.”
It is a striking image, running for your life just like all the rest of the animals. It is easy to forget for us humans that we actually are just another animal in the most basic and fundamental ways. In intense moments of danger such as described here, we run just like the rest of them and when our environment can no longer support us, we try to migrate, running from starvation. True enough, that we are supremely adaptive and have higher reason and technology to help us, but eco-system services are very real albeit ignored and taken for granted, and we are still nowhere near the terraforming, geo-engineering, omnipotent and indestructible super heroes we only find in our own movies. Climate change is destroying our own planetary life support system.
People have limits. Societies have limits. When we reach them, we will end up running, just like the rest.