As a teenager, he was pushing it

Randy Cofer
Randy Cofer

For two summers, Randy Cofer pushed the fire off Glacier Point. On his day off, he might wander a quarter- to half-mile down the steep, little-used Ledge Trail to gain a different perspective of the Yosemite Firefall.

“It was wonderful,” he said a half-century later. “You could hear the coals hitting the granite face. It wasn’t like glass, exactly, but it was a crystalline kind of sound. That was very nice to hear. And it was nice to see.”

Cofer, 69, is a retired carpenter who resides with wife Sally Hammond in Silverton, British Columbia, about an 85-mile drive from the nearest U.S. town in northeastern Washington state. His brother lives in Oakhurst, and when the Canadian-transplant sibling visits, they might venture up memory lane into Yosemite Valley. But it has been a decade or more since Cofer has been to the national park.

Recently, I spoke on the phone with Cofer about his Yosemite Firefall experiences.

Q: What was your job at Yosemite, and how did that come about?

A: My dad was a ranger naturalist there, so as kids, my brother and I got to spend four summers in a row – from the time I was 8 to 12 years old – at Yosemite. Then I went back as a young adult, in 1966-67, and worked at the Glacier Point Hotel. One of my jobs was to push the firefall. Help build the fire, and push the firefall.

Q: What time of day was the fire started?

A: Probably 6 or 7 o’clock in the evening. (We used) red fir bark. That was provided by the park service. They would employ a couple of people with a big truck and they would go out and look for red fir bark. As the years went by, they had to go farther and farther afield to find the bark. So it was getting sort of expensive just to provide Glacier Point with red fir bark. …

We would pour kerosene over the bark, and when it was time to light it, I would go out and start the fire. And the kerosene, of course, would enable it to really catch.

Q: And this happened every night in the summer, between Memorial Day and Labor Day? Or was there a different time frame?

A: Every night. It was probably Memorial Day when it started. …

Q: Was it your job to push it every night?

A: Mm-hmm. I would have a day off, so somebody else would push it. But otherwise, I pushed it.

Q: What did you use? A shovel or a broom?

A: No. We had a, probably, an 8- by 30-inch piece of flat steel that was welded onto the end of an 8- or 10-foot pipe. I would try to push it as slowly and evenly as I could. It was really hot. Once you broke that pile of glowing coals apart, it got really hot. So I would be pretty much at the end of that pipe.

Once in a while, there would be an updraft from the valley. The sparks and embers would fly back up over me and the crowd. There would always be somewhat of a crowd there to watch what was happening from up on top, on Glacier Point.

Q: How long did it typically take to push the embers off?

A: I’d say two to three minutes. Pretty short. Maybe closer to two.

Q: Was there ever any point that you felt endangered? Not just the stuff that might blow back, but being so close to, obviously, a huge cliff?

A: No. While I was pushing the fire, pushing the coals, no. And when I was yelling down to Camp Curry, I was behind a railing. … In that regard, there wasn’t danger for me. I didn’t feel concerned.

But I get shivers when I think about the fact that I drove a three-quarter ton truck from the hotel area after we loaded up the bark (maybe a cubic yard). I’d drive out to the point, turn around, and back up. We’d open up double pipe metal gates, and I would back the truck up, a standard transmission, to within, probably, 10 feet of the edge.

If my foot had slipped off the clutch, you know, me being in reverse – a popped clutch, essentially – you know, it really gives me the shivers. And I did it every day as a 19-year-old kid.

Q: Do you remember how you felt when they said they were discontinuing this, or did you have any opinion at the time, or now, about the fact that it’s over?

A: Well, I actually was happy to hear it. My dad being a naturalist ranger at the park, he was always concerned about the fact that this was a man-made spectacle, and that the National Park Service was there to protect and provide experiences of the natural world. To have something like the firefall, in the midst of all that, was concerning to him. …

It was sort of a Disneyland kind of feature that didn’t belong in a wondrous place like Yosemite. At the time I heard the firefall wasn’t going to happen anymore, I was happy. … It’s sort of a double-edged sword. It was a pretty beautiful spectacle, but it was sort of in the wrong place.