July 2013

Young men and fire

The loss of 19 hotshot firefighters in a wildfire in Yarnell, Ariz., on June 30 is so stunning and tragic it defies comprehension. Ever since 14 wildland firefighters were caught on a hill at Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colo., in 1994, precautions were supposed to be in place that would prevent something so horrible from happening again.

Naturally, everyone is already pointing fingers at ostensible culprits:

• The Forest Service is to blame, because there were road closures somewhere in the hilly public lands near the tiny town and somehow this created dangerous conditions.

• The firefighters themselves or their leaders are at fault, because they failed to anticipate the way the wind could shift, and the men strayed too far from their safety zone.

• People who want to live in or near forests are the problem, engaging in selfish behavior that inevitably means firefighters will someday be risking their lives to protect homes in a danger zone.

• Or, on a broader scale, climate change brought about the conditions that led to the fire and exacerbated its intensity.

And so on.

There will of course be a lengthy investigation into the circumstances that brought about this horror, and perhaps the conclusions will help prevent a similar occurrence in the future. As Norman MacLean wrote in “Young Men and Fire,” his eloquent book about the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana that killed 12 elite Forest Service smokejumpers, “Unless we are willing to escape into sentimentality or fantasy, often the best we can do with catastrophes, even our own, is to find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts.”

But there is one important point to be hammered home here and now: Fire is deadly.

The Yarnell Hill Fire was reportedly sparked by lightning; however, the very recent Black Forest Fire north of Colorado Springs was human-caused, whether accidentally or deliberately, and resulted in the deaths of two homeowners who were overcome in their own garage, their car doors open, when the fire swept down upon them.

Likewise with last summer’s Waldo Canyon fire, also near Colorado Springs. Human-caused, it destroyed 347 homes and killed two residents.

July is the height of summer and a time when people love to set off fireworks and camp outside and target-shoot and enjoy their barbecues. It’s very easy to convince oneself, “Come on, the fire ban is too stringent. I’ll be careful. My kids want to see these fireworks. Why should the stupid government tell me what to do?”

But last year, right here in Montezuma County, we had two major wildfires that were started by people acting foolishly: A juvenile apparently deliberately set the Weber Canyon Fire near Mancos, which burned some 10,000 acres, and a man burning debris started the 400-acre Roatcap Fire near Dolores. Fortunately, no one died in either of those blazes – unless you count the helpless wildlife that couldn’t move fast enough to get away, the small mammals and lizards, the nesting birds.

But as the Yarnell Fire demonstrated anew, any time you have flames and wind in combination, there is a terrible danger to property, animals, and human lives. A moment’s foolishness, and someone could wind up dead, and someone else could carry the burden for a lifetime of knowing he or she had caused that death.

So, folks, in the midst of this hellish heat and drought, let’s continue to be careful, as we have so far this summer, so that we may escape the tragedy of a human-caused conflagration.

Let’s all watch our kids. Children love to play with fire. Know what they’re doing. (A recent local fire that was quickly extinguished was reportedly started by kids lighting spray paint as it squirted from its can.) Kids can’t be held to the same level of responsibility as we alleged adults, but we can at least keep an eye on them and try to influence them by example.

Also, let’s forgo the freelance fireworks. Don’t even buy them. There will be other summers with more rain.

And let’s keep our eyes out for suspicious smoke plumes. The sheriff ’s office and fire departments would rather check out a false alarm than let a blaze get a foothold.

Sheriff Dennis Spruell made a good point at a recent commission meeting, asking if the sale of fireworks could be banned entirely in the county, since discharging them is illegal this year. Unfortunately the answer was “no,” since state law allows the sale of supposedly benign “sparklers” and so on, but our legislators might consider rethinking this, especially for years of extreme drought.

There are currently multiple fire restrictions across the San Juan National Forest, in Montezuma County, Dolores County, San Juan County, Utah – all across the Four Corners. Let’s abide by them.

The hotshot firefighters who died outside Yarnell, Ariz., ranged in age from 21 to 43. They were well-trained and experienced. They were brave and fit. They had high-tech equipment.

None of that saved them from a wall of smoke and flame.

Want to honor their memory? Then let’s not put any other lives at risk needlessly. Let’s be safe and sane.