Who is Kathy Shoopman? I guess I need to say who was Kathy Shoopman, because she died in the 2022 McKinney Fire near the California-Oregon border. Firestorm generated winds of up to 70 mph whipped the existing fire into an unstoppable inferno. It began July 29th and eventually burned 60,000 acres before being fully contained mid-August.
Disaster stories capture national attention. Like the fires, they flame up, consume, then die down as the attention shifts to the next catastrophe. Yet the devastation remains, and recovery – for animals and humans, for habitats and communities – is long and painful. Haunting ghosts will linger for many years. That is the nature of collective trauma.
Like the proverbial moth to a flame, I am pulled to understand as much as I can about the victims of fires, singeing my own wings as I draw close. How do wildlife - deer, bears, squirrels, snakes and insects - respond? We hear so little of their plight, although it was estimated that tens of thousands of fish died in the McKinney Fire alone. I agonize over how many animals can outrun, out-crawl, out-fly these fast-moving fires. If they are able to somehow escape, can they find shelter and food in their new locations?
With the human victims, my imagination circles around how each person may have made their final decisions, what caused them to linger a bit too long, what were their last thoughts. While I can speculate on the circumstances – the stuck car, the blocked roadway, the pets they went back for – I can’t know what was in their hearts and minds.
Four people died in the McKinney Fire, but it was Kathy Shoopman who became the face of the conflagration. As I read the local and national articles about her, I became startled, then captivated, realizing that her life could easily have been mine, if I hadn’t made a U-turn in my late twenties to pursue a psychology degree, leaving my forestry career behind.
The similarities feel eerie. We are the same age, and judging from her photo, we looked like we could have been sisters. We both began working for the US Forest Service in 1974 when few women were in the ranks. We each worked on fire lookout towers, taking pride in our ability to precisely pinpoint wisps of smoke in order to lead fire crews to tiny flare-ups before they spread.
The synchronicities become even more intricate. For a brief period we both lived on the outskirts of the town of Klamath River, population 200, a town pretty much wiped off the map in a matter of hours by the 100-foot flames of the McKinney Fire. Given the Klamath River community was her home base when not working on the lookout towers, she too probably worked out of Oak Knoll Ranger Station, a small Forest Service outpost in the remote Siskiyou Mountains.
In reading her story, it seems she lived on the same piece of land for fifty years. I only resided in the area for two fire seasons, camping in a 15-foot trailer in the nearby trailer park, maybe the best location of any home I’ve ever lived in, and that is saying a lot. I was about forty feet from the Klamath River, a river I kayaked and canoed. My boyfriend Jack was working in Tahoe National Forest and he would make the twelve-hour round trip drive to see me as many weekends as he could muster the energy for the long drive. He would bring our exuberant young Airedale dog, Zubie, who would tussle with the river raccoons. Their ferociousness made them seem more intimidating than the local black bears. Jack and I still laugh about the night he made a surprise visit. I was sound asleep when he opened the trailer door. Waking from a dead slumber, rather than thinking it was a burglar, I assumed the intruder was one of the raccoons. I leapt out of bed, raising the sheet like a shield as I shouted and waved my arms.
In the newspaper articles, many colleagues and friends affectionately described Kathy Shoopman in words my friends and family might use to describe me. “Kathy was one of those furiously independent people.” “She was soft-spoken, hardworking, always wanted to do everything just right.” Known for her love of animals, her dog and cat stayed with her at the lookout, where she enjoyed the solitude that went with her job.
I can’t recall ever meeting Kathy Shoopman, but who knows, I very well might have, given the tiny community. There were only a few stores and one had to drive a bit to get to the nearest saloon. Had we sat on bar stools next to each other and traded stories about being one of the few women working in the field? Or challenged each other to my favorite bar game of shuffleboard?
But here is where I get hooked: I left, she stayed. She not only planted a large garden, she planted herself in this one place that she loved so much, and for fifty years, until she knew the contours of the land as well as the lifelines on her palm.
Instead, I made the difficult decision to leave my six-year career in forestry, deciding that I wanted to explore not only the wild mountains but also the wilds of the interior. So in late October of 1979, at the end of the forestry season, Jack and I packed up the trailer and bought a home, a converted 100-year-old schoolhouse in Arcata, where I studied psychology at Humboldt State University.
And I loved that rickety old house. We planted a huge garden on our acre of land, as well as many trees along the perimeter. We reconstructed the old barn into a boat-building workshop out of salvaged wood from an abandoned sawmill. I finished my bachelor’s degree. We had our son Jackson there. And then we left.
I left that home, that land, that life. And now, many changes and decades later, I find myself planted in the San Lorenzo Valley near Santa Cruz, which has the feel of a small mountain community defined by the river flowing through it. I guess I have come full circle.
But unlike Kathy Shoopman, I will never know what it means to live half a century in one place, especially in a setting like the Klamath River, that meets many of my soul’s criteria with rugged mountains, a navigable river, and remote wilderness. Even so, though I’ve only been in this spot for eighteen years, I can identify with how hard it would be to walk away from the place you love in the face of fire or any other threat. She told the sheriff, when he came with evacuation orders, “I’m more comfortable staying here.” Well known and highly respected for her fire knowledge, the sheriff may not have challenged her decision.
Myself, I did evacuate when the 2020 CZU Complex Fire came near my house and I would again if the warning came, although my son, who was helping me pack up and fireproof my place finally had to give me an ultimatum: “Do what you can in the next 20 minutes and then we are leaving.“ I couldn’t easily extricate myself, I wanted to clear away one more bit of brush, rake one more area, gather one more box of what I could not bear to lose, as burnt leaves and ash filtered down from the sky. Is that what happened with Kathy Shoopman? Later reports indicate that she eventually did try to evacuate, but the fire blasted through so fast that she had no chance.
So I get it, I think, her fatal indecision. Of course, I wish she had left right away. And that the fire never happened at all. I wish the Forest Service had done a better job reducing ground fuels, utilizing the wildland management wisdom of the local Karuk Tribe, rather than logging more old-growth trees. I deeply wish the tribe hadn’t lost their ancestral artifacts in the century-old Klamath River Community Hall, now burned to the ground. And every single day my heart pleas for our collective courage to radically change course before human-caused climate breakdown puts its deadly signature on everything essential for a thriving planet.
At the most personal level though, I just wish I had actually known Kathy Shoopman. That I had been her friend, perhaps gotten so close that we told each other it felt like we could have been sisters. In a way, I feel like I do know her, that I might catch myself sometime inadvertently saying, “Yes, my friend Kathy and I….”
What I also wish I had done - and certainly could have – before everything incinerated, is taken that long-intended trip up north. I would have turned west from Yreka onto Hwy 96 and driven along the Klamath River. I have often imagined walking into the Oak Knoll Fire Station, and then looking for my old spot at the trailer park. I intended to search for my favorite kayak put-in spots, and maybe have a picnic by a river bend as I reminisced about my work in the woods with the youth crews and on lookout towers. And who knows, maybe I would have sat down next to Kathy at some local counter, starting a conversation that went on for hours, about who we are after these five decades of choices made. I feel like she lived out one of my possible lifelines. And, perhaps, I hers.
These images of the McKinney Fire are from the internet. This was the only image of Kathy Shoopman that I found. It appeared in most every article I read about the fire. The Oaks Mobile Park photo below is where I had stayed while working there.
The photo below is where the Klamath River Community Hall once stood and where the Kaurk Tribe's artifact were lost through the fire.
While the photos below, as well as the look out tower photo above, are of me in my twenties during one of my stints as a fire lookout, this is the world Kathy Shoopman inhabited for fifty years. In this photo I am calling headquarters, perhaps during the morning check-in or possibly reporting smoke that I had just spotted. Although I probably wouldn't look that relaxed if I thought there was a fire.
Below is the lookout tower cabin that was my home for weeks at a time. The circular device is an Osborne Fire Finder, used to pinpoint a directional bearing for fires.
It is a small and simple life, and yet everything you really need is right there, within reach.
And you can't beat the view!
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