HAHNS PEAK, Colo., June 30 — As many as 8,000 hippie-tinged campers arrived here this 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.
They expect their numbers to double through the holiday weekend.
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. That was when it burned to the ground.
Just one narrow dirt road in and a single-track trail after that lead to the heavily wooded Rainbow camp.
Kent Foster is losing sleep.
“You wake up and play out the scenarios,” said Mr. Foster, zone fire management officer for the Forest Service in Steamboat Springs, about an hour south. “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 night after 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. “If you’re going to have a fire, have closer to 10 gallons tonight!”
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.
A woman with a baby slung on her chest slowly swiveled a Hula-Hoop in the center. Other people chatted and waited for the wedding that rumor had it would soon unfold. Dogs and children roamed about. People smoked regular cigarettes and marijuana in the grass in violation of the fire rules even as Circus gave his best fire-warden speech.
Anxiety and worry are emotions that the Rainbows, as they call themselves, by and large try to shed for these weeklong get-togethers. The group has no hierarchy or organizational structure. No commercial activity is allowed — though barter is encouraged.
And things occur on Rainbow time, which means not by the clock.
Spontaneity and do-it-yourself democracy, from the communal kitchens and free-massage tents to the volunteer-staffed first-aid centers, are held out as the highest social expression. Strangers passing on the trail say they love one another.
But the confluence of forces increasing fire risks across the West this year — a parched spring, an intense June heat wave and the steady march of the bark beetles that have killed millions of spruce and lodgepole pines —has imposed a darker tone, many people said.
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. Mr. Chambers said he had never 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 people 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.
Although alcohol is discouraged, except at a smaller camp down the road, partying of other sorts seemed unhampered by the supposed threat.
At one spot on the trail, a topless young woman who said her name was Sunshine was lying on the ground having her body painted by friends she said she had just met. Passers-by were asked whether they had any marijuana and were invited back for naked mud wrestling after dark.
At a tent called the Blue Stars Rest Stop, James Bradford, a massage therapist from Cape Cod, Mass., was playing an Australian didgeridoo. Passers-by stopped and listened to the moaning, throaty tones. Some entered to sit around the little altar that Mr. Bradford created not long after his first Rainbow experience in 1992.
The altar collection began with the seashells that once belonged to Mr. Bradford’s grandmother, he said, and has grown every year through new donations. Every year, he returns with the expanded collection because he said the items are part of what creates the Blue Stars’ sense of peace.
Circus Maximus said he was confident that spontaneous firefighting crews would arise in the camp if fire broke out, as happened in 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. Mr. 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. on 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.