By 3PM, the once towering pyrocumulus had collapsed. The brown tinted aftermath darkened the sky—extending over 100-square miles. As I took in the vantages of Emory Pass, a lone buzzard circled above in the eerily calm air. To the south, the steep slopes of Percha Canyon were scorched. While thin veins of trees remained miraculously untouched, the fire was unforgiving to most. Spires of smoke rose from rekindled understory as a breeze moved up the mountainside. Our crew boss signaled it was time to go; Incident Command was ordering everyone off the mountain. The fire had turned back our direction and was threatening our escape route. As we descended the winding road, trees swayed violently.
On our way off the mountain, we encountered a lone black bear cub walking the highway near the edge of a smoldering ponderosa grove. My vision narrowed and a lump grew in my throat as we approached the small beast; raising my camera for the capture proved nearly impossible. The ignorant child in me wanted to jump out of the truck and grab the bear. The Forest Service granted me escort me into the fire to photograph—not to play hero, or make decisions, or do anything that could jeopardize the crew. Although photography suddenly felt grossly insignificant I stepped out of the truck and did my job, staying at arm’s reach from the cab in case momma was lurking. We emptied our sack lunch leftovers on the roadside. We cut water bottles open and planted them firmly in the soft ash. The bear treed once it realized our presence. It climbed 20 feet within a few seconds; all while letting out high-pitched growls and groans. The bear wasn't about to jump into the arms of a fully suited fire crew. All we could do was record the bear's location for the wildlife personnel at Incident Command. Despite our dramatic surroundings, gusts and thick smoke, the ride back was silent--we were all heartbroken.
Some will ask: "Why did you not do anything more?" "Did you see momma bear around?" "Was the bear rescued?" -- and so on. I guess the only way to answer those questions is to not--I have no further details or info on the bear--believe me, I followed up. I returned to the site many times after the fire had run its course. All I have to share is a moment will stay with me forever. Much respect to this bear for making it as far as he did that day; he is "The Comeback Kid".
Photo Series: Silver Fire - Spring 2013 | Black Range of the Gila National Forest | Sierra County, NM | All Photos & Text © JakeQuiñones/NMBR Complete Silver Fire Gallery Link HERE