Blessings Gleaned From The Flames

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Aweary night was gathering, seeping through the smoke that shrouded Rim Country. Up on the slope above the suddenly forlorn and frail community of Beaver Valley, half a dozen grimy, soot-black firefighters gathered for a conference.

They’d been fighting the Water Wheel Fire all day, in the most dangerous of conditions. Firefighters hate monsoon wildfires, when the wind makes a mockery of their plans and the flickering back end of a fire can become the roaring front line in a moment.

The fire had already made a run at Beaver Valley, 50-foot flames leaping above the 30-foot tops of the dense junipers cracking and roaring with that elemental malice of a big fire doing whatever it pleased. But the wind had turned it back, with some help from the bombers.

Now the apocalyptic flames had swept on up the steep slopes of Diamond Rim. Time for the firefighters to move in with their chain saws and nonchalant courage, assigned to clear a strip of bare dirt all along the stark edge of the “black,” to prevent stealthy heat from infiltrating the strip of still thick brush between the charred slope and the helpless homes of Beaver Valley.

After doing a head count and discovering how few guys they had on this stretch of line to clear that break, they rolled their eyes and shrugged and hefted their chain saws. Then they worked all night up on that hill, which smoked and glowered like the aftermath of the last judgment.

Down below, the Red Cross handed out pizza to any of the hundreds of evacuees who came by the improvised evacuation center in the high school gym. Cell phone batteries chattered toward exhaustion with the calls of loved ones, strangers opened their homes, cheerful volunteers exchanged gossip, people shook their heads ruefully and joked about the strange things they’d packed as they fled their homes, dogs wagged their befuddled tails.

We’re an odd and loveable bunch, we human beings — most especially here in Rim Country. A big fire brings it out — the courage and the love and the selfless concern.

Of course, the big fires also underscore how oddly short-sighted and foolish we are when asked to think long term — like a forest. So we have bungled the management of the forest for a century, first creating a tinderbox by the short-sighted exclusion of natural fire cycles, then building lots of beloved and beautiful homes nestled among the trees, and now working with such desperate energy and imagination to save the houses we built from the disaster we created.

Such a welter of contradictions, we human beings. So the Forest Service can raise ridiculous objections for five years to creating a second emergency exit from Beaver Valley. But then when the inevitable fire comes and people line up to escape out the one good exit, that same Forest Service can overnight assemble a matchless team of 450 to 500 firefighters with spotlights, helicopters, bombers, showers and catered food and the skills to battle a raging fire.

We’re so careless and quick and magical: We think more like a fire than a forest.

We cannot help but love and admire the people we’ve seen, working on the line, wielding the chain saws, rescuing the horses, laying out the pizza and making jokes in the parking lot not knowing what they have left.

God bless you all.

We’re so grateful to know you.

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