The Great Rainbow Fire

small-circleIn July 1994 the Rainbow Family gathered by Snyder Basin, near Big Piney, in the Bridger Teton National Forest. It was bitter cold at night and there was still patches of snow on the ground in some places when we arrived. But we found out quick that an intense drought had turned the Tetons into a severe fire hazard that summer. One morning snowflakes fell followed by rainbows in the trees and along the ground. That was a first.

There was a lot of talk at dinner circle about fire prevention and the need to respond with as many people as quick as possible.

I believe the photo (above) looks down on main circle. If so, I moved onto a ridge to the left of the tree line on the left. There was a brother camped high up on the next ridge over and he liked the look of my camp so much he came down to introduce himself. His name was Soma and we got along so well that I interviewed him with my trusty tape recorder and invited him to be a celebrity judge at the next Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam.

The New York Purple Gang was camped nearby, only they were in the trees and I was in the sun. Frenchie camped with the Purple Gang that year and his sweat lodge was just down the hill below us. I remember the first night I moved in, I freaked when I saw a huge bonfire down there. “Tell those brothers that fire is too big!” I shouted. A couple brothers went down to investigate and came back and said it was okay, they had shovels and water buckets and a trench around a stone-lined pit. They were just heating up the stones for the sunset sweat.

small-peacepoleThe Purple Gang got their name because so many of them started wearing purple. They’re famous for throwing the best brunch at the Gathering on July 5th, a ceremony that usually involves a cold bottle of champagne mixed with a few gallons of freshly squeezed orange juice. Alcohol really isn’t encouraged at Rainbow, except down near the parking lot, a place known as “A-camp,” a place where one suspects hard drugs and government informants may be lurking. And ice is hard to find and usually a precious commodity.

Main circle had a wonderful peace pole (above) and a panoramic view of the Tetons in all directions. There was a secret road that ran just west of the main circle that had a couple RV’s with Shanta Sena, the Rainbow Temple Dragons. Just north of their RV’s is where a fire broke out on July 3rd.

Screen Shot 2013-07-01 at 6.31.54 AMI was having breakfast at Sun Dog kitchen with Plunker. I remember I had a disposable camera and took a picture of Plunker at the kitchen when we heard the cry “fire!” go up. Plunker and I walked out of the trees and looked up the ridge above us. A plume of smoke was rising from the tree tops and blowing straight towards us. In the picture from the Discovery Channel (left), we would have been standing far to the left. The smoke cloud was moving fast towards us, like an evil serpent. Pretty soon, we saw flames licking the treetops and that’s when Plunker sprang into action. He had no radio, so he had to hustle back to his tipi to get one. He handed me his fire tool: a pick and shovel blade and told me to head to the fire. I sure wished I’d stayed with Plunker, however, because the first thing that happened to me was I was turned around by a ranger on horseback who was telling everyone to evacuate the area.

The rangers and police were setting up a line to sweep people out of the gathering and screaming “Get out of here! Run for your lives!” I went to main circle, where a woman looked at my tool and commanded me to start digging a fire line. “Do you know anything about fire fighting?” I asked her. “Yes, she said. And we need to dig a line.” So I planted my shovel blade and started digging a shallow trench, removing the top layer of sod and flipping it over. Suddenly dozens of people emerged on both sides of me, clawing the sod with their fingertips. The entire camp was in a state of confusion, but any attempt at organization was instantly imitated. Then another brother came up to me. He actually did know something about fire fighting. “This is worthless,” he said. “The fire is up there.” I looked at the woman who had told me to start digging. “Listen to that man!” she said, admitting for the first time she didn’t have a clue.

I was really disgusted having just blown a ton of energy digging a useless trench, so I put my pick shovel over my head and marched to the top of a hill shouting “Firefighters with a shovel assemble here!” By the time I got to the top of that hill, I had two dozen volunteers and we formed a circle, did an OM, and then sat down to discuss what to do next. Amazing Dave showed up and told everyone to get scarfs, long pants and heavy boots, as well as shovels, picks and axes.

I went back to my camp to put on leather pants and find a scarf. I remember Zero Boy was there. A lot of people were evacuating and no one knew whether to stay or go. Most of the women and all the children were streaming out of the gathering and had already formed a long trail leading out of main circle towards the parking lot miles away. Garrick was standing in the center of main circle telling people they had two options, leave or fight the fire. Some were getting agitated because they couldn’t deal with more than one option. Strangely, when Frenchie heard what was happening, he responded by climbing into his tent to take a nap. Meanwhile, Zero and I headed across main circle and up the hill to the fire.

But as we were crossing through some trees, we spied a plume of smoke rising from the ground, so we went over to inspect the situation. Zero kept digging and digging. The ground was soft and dry and mostly plant matter that had not fully decayed. Finally a red hot coal emerged. The source of the smoke. We stomped it out. At that point I was in such a state of confusion I thought the fire was spreading underground, when it was actually blowing over our heads.

The Rangers tried to turn us away again, but we outnumbered them 100 to 1 and just ignored their demands. At that point they threw up their hands and fled the area warning us our lives were no longer their concern. A bucket line had already formed to bring water from the nearest creek to the fire (see picture below).

small-bucketWhen I got to the fire line, Plunker was there along with one of the Chiefs of Calm (the Rainbow healers). They were both on radios. A brother walked up with an ax in his hand and pointed to a red line across his boot. He’d just planted his ax into his foot in his haste to bring down a burning pine tree. Everyone was running on pure adrenalin, but that Calm dude sure seemed calm as can be. He didn’t even stop his radio conversation for an instant, but just put his foot on the wound to stop the bleeding.

When I told Plunker about the fire we’d put out in the trees down below us, he instructed Zero and I to look around that area for more ground fires. Meanwhile a plane arrived and dumped a bunch of red slurry, almost none of which hit the fire, but did splash a bunch of us.

Three fire lines had formed and after about an hour they all united, which meant we had the fire surrounded and under control. A huge cheer went up.

The next morning, a crew of firefighters came in and inspected our work. Boy, were they blown away.  What could have been a major forest fire had only burned a few acres thanks to our rapid response. The local news, however, blamed us for starting the fire and gave the Rangers credit for putting it out. But we knew the truth. We had put the fire out and we also strongly suspected someone had used gasoline to start that fire directly upwind of our gathering.

This year’s Gathering just kicked off in Montana and less than 6,000 people have arrived on site so far according to the media, which is less than half as big as this amazing annual peace gathering used to be just a few years ago. With so much violence going on, I sure hope more people find their way to this annual prayer for world peace.

And yesterday, 19 firefighters lost their lives when a sudden wind blew a fire over them in Arizona. My heart goes out to their friends and families. I know what it feels like to walk into a forest and be surrounded suddenly by burning trees. And hearing about those heroes made we want to share this story.

Author: Steven Hager

I'm a writer, journalist, filmmaker and event producer.

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