Once again, wildfires feed on the drought-stricken West. Uncontrollable infernos in a ravenous quest for combustible fuel rage against the forests, firefighters and man-made structures that stand in their way.
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, months that have crept by without significant rainfall.
We hear about homes destroyed and belongings lost; in quiet moments, we imagine with dread what it would be like to take refuge in a shelter, to have no home to return to and to lose the many things that surround us with comfort and pleasure.
A residential fire devastated my family’s home the year I turned 12. We rejoiced that no one had been hurt, and our basic needs soon were met; but we experienced a lingering sense of loss. We missed our treasures: a cat we never found, the set of china Lawrence sent from Japan, our tank-irrigated garden that grew blue-ribbon vegetables, the towering cottonwood trees decorated with our initials; favored clothes, toys, tools and books.
My family and I learned that though life goes on, the losses — large and small — linger long. So as summer’s heat gives way to autumn’s crispness which yields in turn to winter’s snow, I will continue to remember those who lost so much when a wildfire wreaked havoc on more than 500 Colorado homes.
The fires didn’t stop at the Black Forest. Just as people began to pick up the pieces of their lives after that destruction, we received the heartbreaking news that 19 members of the Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots — husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, friends — died as they battled a roaring blaze near Yarnell, Ariz.
On a day of high temperature and low humidity, gusting winds — fickle and fierce — pushed volatile flames back toward the 19 firefighters. They were engulfed by an explosive firestorm and died. Their average age was 26.
When I heard about their deaths, I felt the same shock and sorrow that gripped communities on the Western Slope when the fire on Storm King Mountain on July 3, 1994, took the lives of 14 firefighters. They died as they deployed fire-resistant shields in a desperate attempt to stay alive while oblivious holiday travelers streamed by on Interstate 70 below.
I was married for many years to a man who fought range and forest fires for a Bureau of Land Management crew out of Carson City, Nev. I know his work was long, hot, dirty and strenuous. He stopped fighting fires before the inception of Hotshots; but we had friends who later joined the elite crews: firefighters who hiked over difficult terrain while carrying chainsaws and other heavy equipment, who created fire breaks by clearing away brush and trees, who hoped to stop or delay a fire by depriving it of fuel.
I once asked Bill 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 think about it; you’re too busy trying to beat it.”
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 ever had 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 19 firefighters we lost in a wildfire in Arizona were touched by fear as they walked toward danger, conquered it and exemplified bravery.
Last Sunday, as a line of hearses left Phoenix to take the men home to their families, I prayed that the rains would come, the heat would break and those who fight wildfires would return safely to their families at the end of the season.