Wildfires

Once again, wildfires feed on the West. Uncontrollable firestorms, in a ravenous quest for combustible fuel, rage against the forests, range lands, homes and firefighters that stand in their way.

Brush Fire

Those of us who call the west home scan horizons stacked with layers of brown-gray smoke, smell the acrid odor of burning landscapes, and count the number of days, weeks, and sometimes months that have crept by without significant rainfall.

We hear about homes destroyed and belongings lost; we imagine what it would be like to take refuge in a shelter, to no longer have a home, to lose possessions that brought us comfort and pleasure. We know life goes on, but the losses, large and small, linger. So we remember those who lost their homes to hungry flames.

With a deeper sense of irreplaceable loss, we also think of the firefighters who have died over the years as they battled the inferno that is wildfire.

Forestry Firefighters

On June 30, 2013, we heard the heartbreaking news that nineteen members of the Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots — husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, friends — lost their lives combating a blaze near Yarnell, Arizona.

On a day of high temperature and low humidity, gusting winds —fickle and fierce— pushed volatile flames back toward the nineteen firefighters. An explosive firestorm engulfed them, and they died. Their average age was twenty-six.

When I heard about their deaths, I felt again the shock and sorrow that gripped communities on the western slope of Colorado on July 3, 1994, when a fire on Storm King Mountain took the lives of fourteen young men and women. The firefighters died as they deployed fire-resistant shields in a desperate attempt to stay alive while oblivious holiday travelers streamed by on I-70 a short distance below.

I was married for many years to a man who fought range and forest fires for a BLM crew out of Carson City, Nevada. I know Bill’s work was long, hot, dirty, strenuous, and dangerous. I once asked him if he was afraid as he advanced toward a wind-whipped fire while dry trees exploded in flames. “Sometimes,” he replied, “but you don’t really have time to dwell on fear; you’re too busy trying to beat the fire.”

Somewhere, sometime, I read an exchange that I’ve never forgotten—though I can’t credit it because all other details of the piece, including the author’s name, have faded. As I remember the dialogue, one man mentioned another’s brave past and asked if he had ever known fear. The answer came quickly and humbly: “Of course I’ve known fear. If you’re not afraid, how can you be brave?”

I believe the nineteen firefighters we lost in a wildfire in Arizona and the fourteen who died on Storm King Mountain walked into danger, conquered fear, and exemplified bravery.

So I pray the rains will come, the heat will break, and those who fight wildfires will return safely to loved ones as another hot season ends.

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52 thoughts on “Wildfires

  1. In Australia, fires and floods are part of life. Although as a city dweller, I have been spared. I think some of our Aussie firefighters have gone over to help, just as you have sent help to us in the past.
    I can’t imagine what it must be like to fight fires, in those heavy suits. Over here, many of them are volunteers. We often forget those who provide meals for the fire-fighters; their role is different, but essential
    We have just returned from isolated North-west Australia where they are re-introducing traditional methods of using fire to prevent build ups of lots of flammable material. Introduced plants have changed the plant mix; some of these are far more flammable than the native vegetation.
    I hope the rains come, and you stay safe.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I have read about your fires in the past,Sally, and knew my Australian friends would identify with this post. I didn’t know about the two countries sending firefighters to one another when needed. That’s wonderful. Your information about more flammable, introduced plants changing the mix is very interesting to me. It seems so often that when man messes with nature, we pay a price down the road. Thanks for a great comment.

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    • We, too, are no longer living with smoke. I hope the change is permanent, but the fire season is a long way from finished. Thank you for highlighting wildfire’s real tragedy, the loss of life of those defending homes and vegetation.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The South-Coast of NSW, Australia, is right now in the midst of tremendous downpours. What grows after these heavy rains is going to make a lot of fuel for our forthcoming very hot, very dry summer-season. We do have to be prepared for a lot of bushfires. (We call wildfires “bushfires” in Australia.) Our firefighters are well trained and equipped. I think some of them as well as some New Zealanders are right now being sent to your area to give some of your firefighters a bit of relief.

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    • Sallykj also mentioned that Australia has sent firefighters to help us, something I didn’t know. I am glad, and appreciative, that your country helps ours in this way. I remember when my fire fighting husband explained to me that spring rains often predict an active fire season because of the increase of fuel. Thank you for adding that fact for others who read this post and its comments.

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  3. Thanks Janet- I have never seen such bad drought as this summer on the Wet Coast. We are getting the smoke from Washington State- (sucks to my asmar) The wheezing secondary to the homes and livestock lost. James Keelaghan did a great song about the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana some years ago- “Cold Missouri Waters” Quite haunting. Lotta twits up here throwing butts out car windows, and ignoring the fire ban-ought to be set out with pulaski and shovel. Great post, stay safe, and pray for rain.

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    • I’m familiar with that song and Montana’s Mann Gulch fire, Sheila, and your word, haunting, is the perfect descriptor. Interesting that you mention a pulaski. When my husband told me he worked with a pulaski, I replied, “Oh, where’s he from.” We both laughed about my ill-informed response for many years.

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      • We had a fire one summer near a camp where I was cooking- all my crew were sent out with pulaski’s, thats how I know, and “PissTanks”, they were street kids, and to them a big adventure, as the kitchen rattled with planes overhead, I made Burritos for 400 people, with help of a chap who’d sprained his ankle. One of the girls was also alone, standing on a picnic table, trying to keep 200 kids entertained…a grand team effort by all. We had some laughs to, over Pulaski the old Piss-tank, wheres he from?

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      • My idea of a nightmare: standing on a picnic table trying to keep 200 kids entertained; I’d rather be making burritos — and I’m no cook. I do know about Pulaski, Sheila. Here is what I remember my husband telling me; I can’t vouch for the truth of it.Pulaski worked for the forest service many years ago and helped save about 40 firefighters caught in an inferno in Idaho. The common belief is he invented the tool named after him as a result of that fire and the need he saw for better equipment on the fire lines.

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    • Yes, it is scary, Barbara. My husband and I had to abandon the cabin we lived in near a campground he managed in the Sierra Nevadas when a wildfire threatened the area. I’ll never forget the heart-thumping drive down the mountain through thick smoke with a dog howling in the back of the truck.

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  4. This is a great reminder that we are powerless over the elements. I live on the east coast of NSW, Australia and it has been months since we had any rain. As we start the push into spring and then summer fire predictions already threaten the warmer months. The sentiments reflected in your post are a beautiful reminder of how tenuous is our hold on life when nature rages. 🙂 Linda

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  5. A very thoughtful, timely post Janet. I’ve often wondered why, why, do the firefighters willingly work with suffocating heat, miserable hot winds, exhaustion from strenous work, and such long hours. The pay can’t possibly compensate for the dangers they face.
    Perhaps it’s because they, also, love the wilderness areas that we’re sadly watching burn, and they desperately want to save them. Perhaps it’s because they know their efforts make such a difference in the lives of people whose homes they’ve saved. Perhaps they’re among the best of the best.
    Thank you for giving voice to what myself and so many are feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When Bill was doing it, Mary, we and most of those he worked with were young, immortal, and the pay was good. It took maturity for me to understand the power and danger of wildfire. Also, as you mentioned, Bill’s lifeblood at the time was wilderness and being in it, which I think motivated his decision to fight fires as well. And, as you said, in the moment of the fight, I think those on the lines are the best of the best.

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      • “young, immortal, and the pay was good” also describes my daughter Chris during the two summers she fought fires for college money. She enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow fire fighters, not realizing the concern it caused her mother!!

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      • I had forgotten Chris fought fires as well. The phrase “for college money” caught me attention. Think how far that girl went with the start those classes paid for with firefighting money gave her. Most impressive.

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    • You make an interesting point, Troy, and that is the human element as the cause of fires. And I would add our insistence on building homes in mountainous, wooded areas without proper fire breaks as another human mistake.

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  6. What a beautiful, intimate piece written by the wife of one of our “day to day heroes”….very emotional piece for me, Janet. I pray that the rains come soon to quench our dried-up, thirsty forests and land, but am fearful of the growth and vegetation that the rains bring with them…more food for the lion’s mouth. I have friends that live in the fire regions and friends that are fighting the fires and I pray that all of them survive this season…makes me so sad that there are those among us who continue to be in denial about the harm we are doing to our environment and continue to abuse it…..my sincere appreciation to your husband and ALL the brave men and women who HAVE and continue to serve us as fire fighters!!!

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    • More and more I sense that you and I see many things in much the same way: we do harm our environment and then deny the impact of our abuse. I fear for the world my grandchildren will inhabit. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment, Lucie.

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      • Yes, I do believe we do, Janet…..I sincerely feel that if we “lived closer” that we’d enjoy a lovely conversation over a cup of tea…..And you’re very welcome (re: my compliment). 🙂

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      • I’m thinkin’ the same thing, Janet. I think we’d have some fun conversations. I’m not one to agree with people on their opinions all the time, but I definitely respect everyone’s opinions . Not everyone LOVES me, but I think I can safely (and honestly) say that most everyone I know (adults and children, alike) RESPECT me. (And a few of them even LOVE me….) I’m the kind of woman who’s very loyal and very honest, and tries to be very kind – sometimes , though, my “loyalty” and “honesty” may come across as unkind….it’s a fine line to walk……I look forward to developing “our blogging friendship” and thank you, once, again, for your kind words….. 🙂 Lucie

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  7. Here’s a weird thought I had while reading this piece: I choose to live in the arid west, in a remote neighborhood surrounded by juniper and sage, and I would feel extreme guilt if a firefighter died while trying to save my home from a raging range fire.
    Here’s what I’m trying to say (I think): Maybe those brave firefighters shouldn’t be putting their lives on the line to save homes like mine–homes which are built in places they shouldn’t be built.

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    • Wow, Rita, what a thought. It is such a dilemma. I lived in a cabin in the woods surrounded by fuel for several summers, and my husband went off to fight wild fires. I never gave it a thought. I should have.

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  8. During my first marriage, I was the secretary of a small rural fire-brigade. All our rural brigades are manned by volunteers who receive basic training in the skills needed. My husband of the time often took part in fighting fires, or burning-off operations. Once while fighting fires over on the South Australian border in the pine forests, a fire leapt across the tree tops, crossing the road above the truck. He thought he was going to die. They were lucky they had enough water in their tank to stave off tragedy.

    Nowadays, after losses of life, I believe rules were introduced so truck crews have to keep a base water level in case they get trapped and their own safety is perceived as more important than that of property.

    As well as the exchange of fire-fighters, every fire season since 1997, Australia brings out various aircranes and skycranes from the USA (the fire-fighting helicopters). It’s convenient our seasons do not coincide.

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