Peace, love and forest fire fears

Peace, love and forest fire fears

2 July 2006

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In Colorado’s Hahns Peak area, thousands of Rainbow Family campers and drought-stressed woods add up to a nervous Forest Service

HAHNS PEAK, Colo. — As many as 8,000 hippie-esque campers arrived here last week in Routt National Forest for the annual Rainbow Family gathering.

The event, which began in 1972, has become a national pilgrimage of the fringe, the flower empowered and the spiritually engaged.

Their numbers are expected to double through the holiday weekend. But the forest around them is tinder-dry and more stressed by disease, insects and drought than at any time in at least 120 years, fire experts say.

Just one narrow dirt road in and a single-track trail after that lead to the heavily wooded Rainbow camp, and Kent Foster is losing sleep.

“You wake up and play out the scenarios,” said Foster, zone fire management officer for the Forest Service in Steamboat Springs. “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

Some of the Rainbows are nervous too. A man who calls himself Circus Maximus–in non-Rainbow life a chef and property manager in Seattle–has become a restless fire nag, patrolling the camp and spelling out the fire rules each night at the Circle, where people gather at dusk to eat and socialize.

The rules forbid individual campfires and allow group fires only in pits that the Forest Service has approved. Five gallons of water are supposed to be on hand at all times.

“If you see someone making a fire near you, please ask them to put it out!” he yelled as he made his way around the Circle on Thursday night, wearing cowboy chaps and a rainbow-colored neckerchief.

Some people paid attention. Others treated him as one more shouter in the raucous round of evening rites. Spontaneous groups of musicians had sprung up by then, with guitars, mandolins and bongos.

Dan Chambers, a stay-at-home dad from Cleveland, has been attending Rainbow gatherings around the country since 1983 and was here with his wife, Louise Foresman, and their 7-year-old son, Devlin. Chambers said he never had seen anything before like the drumbeat of fire safety this year.

“People are scared,” he said. “I think the Forest Service is really worried about us.”

Others say the spirit of the Rainbow is immune from gloom. Some talked about their proven success in praying for rain or said they believed that the Forest Service, which they say has been antagonistic to Rainbow gatherings over the years, is exaggerating the risk as a new harassment tactic.

Circus Maximus said he was confident that spontaneous firefighting crews would arise in the camp if fire broke out, as happened at past gatherings in Arizona and Wyoming, and that evacuation instructions that he and others have talked about in camp meetings–to head toward a nearby streambed and follow it to safety–would be followed.

Foster at the Forest Service said he was less worried about fire in the camp than about the unguarded woods beyond. Most summer wildfires in this part of the Rockies start from lightning strikes, especially “dry lightning” from a thunderstorm without rain.

About 5 p.m. Thursday, not long before the Circle was to begin, lightning flickered on the horizon and clouds gathered over Rainbow camp. But just a drop or two fell. Deep thunder boomed. A spontaneous cheer arose as the sound echoed out through the forest.


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