I never get used to it even though it happens every year – raging wildfires across towns, counties and states.
City people cannot fully appreciate the horror of such fires, but those of us who live in areas where wild nature is part of the daily landscape know how devastating and dangerous such conflagrations are.
I know it firsthand. While covering a fire as a reporter in the Malibu hills with a news camera crew, we were on a hilltop with the firefighters when suddenly the fire turned and jumped the canyon, right over us. We were surrounded, isolated and without the water trucks.
When I looked up at the sky, all I could see was sheets of flame. We were in the middle of a firestorm with no way out. Fortunately, it didn’t last, or I wouldn’t be here writing this.
I’ve never forgotten it, and I have great respect for the fires and the men who fight them.
Whether the fires are man-caused – intentional or not – or whether nature itself sparks the flames – dry lightening being the most dangerous – the end result is that the flames take the upper hand, destroying virtually everything in their path. The best residents can do is try to escape – with their animals, if possible – ahead of the destruction, leaving the firefighters to use whatever means they have to slow the flames and hopefully prevent more damage.
I just received a copy of the newspaper from my parent’s hometown in Arizona, and on the front page is a picture that chills the blood.
The panoramic view of the surrounding mountains is illuminated in the red and yellows of fire out of control. And, that fire is just one of many raging across that state.
I’m in California, and it’s almost impossible to stay up to date on the many blazes. The biggest is in Santa Barbara County where nearly 18,000 acres have burned – and an increase in winds overnight meant there was no estimate as to when control might be possible.
But there are at least 12 fires across the state with no estimates on control or containment. There are accounts of seven confirmed deaths, but that remains open-ended as time passes and searches of burned out areas are conducted. The number of destroyed or damaged homes and buildings remains open-ended too, as the flames continue their rampage. The loss of domestic and farm animals is not known nor is the loss of wildlife.
In this, the fourth year of a massive drought across the state, officials say flames have scorched twice as many acres now, compared with the same time last year. What makes this kind of statistic ominous is that the real “fire season” hasn’t really begun – that would be late summer and fall.
One of the problems this year is that the state had heavy rains in early spring – causing lots of grass to grow. Then came the dry heat, and the conditions became perfect for the conflagrations we’re enduring now.
But California isn’t alone. All the Western states are vulnerable and dealing with similar situations. Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are facing the same danger. Alaska has more than 300 fires with 625,000 acres affected so far.
British Columbia has horrific fire emergencies – 631 fires since April 1, with more than 45,000 acres blackened.
There are now an estimated 161 active wildfires and at least 14 communities facing direct threats. Entire towns are evacuating ahead of the raging flames with residents acting on their own to evacuate their animals.
While many people may not think about it, there are fire dangers in Hawaii – the situation being fragile on the big island – again, low rainfall and hot, dry weather. The danger is expected to continue through October.
The four-month prediction by the National Interagency Fire Center is dire for the Western states as well as for the plains states. Montana and the Dakotas are dealing with drought, as is the Southwest.
While it’s easy to blame the drought or the heat for the fire dangers, the role of people must be considered. For one thing, more and more people have moved into wooded areas. Whether for ranches, vacation homes or the growth of towns – more people live “in the country.” With that comes the danger of such fires.
In addition, there’s been an effort to stop thinning forests and an effort NOT to remove brush from under grown trees. The concept there has been to leave things as “nature” does it – the only problem is that “nature” would have random fires, which would burn out the flammable growth on the forest floor. Those fires would be smaller and less damaging. The Native Americans knew that and encouraged such smaller fires, which ultimately protected the big trees.
But “civilized” man wanted to prevent forest fires by not allowing smaller fires, especially in areas that have not been burned for many years. That acreage is a sitting duck for a conflagration.
We’ve also had a policy of leaving dead debris on the forest floor and not removing dead trees. The result is a ready supply of the tinder-dry material, which feeds the flames, allows the fires to climb into the tall trees and spread the flames at treetop level for miles.
It’s a lesson we haven’t totally learned, and it seems every fire season, it happens again. Combine that with cuts in firefighting budgets and you have a recipe for disaster.
We see the results now.
Media wishing to interview Barbara Simpson, please contact [email protected].