Only the Brave: Fires in the United States

Action, not reaction: where have you heard this? It's solid self-help advice. It's something we often seem to forget, with the sensationalist 24/7 news cycle populating our feeds (and a rather sensational President fueling it). 

It's also how firefighters operate.

These days, you don't just pump as much water as possible on fires when they happen. That wastes water, and doesn't do much to the fire.

In wild places where fires can't be completely prevented, they need to be regulated. In urban places, structure fires require strategic action, too. Reaction results in preventable losses; it creates more problems than it solves. Even when things get heated (apologies for the pun), professional and trained volunteer firefighters need to stop and think and prepare. You don't just run into a burning building, no matter how fast it's burning. You make a plan.

If this isn't instructive to our current political moment (in addition to being admirable on its own merits), I don't know what is.

Fires in the Urban Northeast United States

As someone who grew up in Massachusetts, fire rarely affected me.

A couple occurred in my neighborhood: one, a case of domestic violence and arson, the other, an unattended candle. In both cases, the families and first responders survived, though it was surely traumatic enough. 

On the news, we'd hear of ruptured gas lines, someone forgetting to turn off the stove, someone falling asleep with a cigarette lit, a lightning strike or a car crash. A subset of criminally excited sports fans would routinely cause fires in "celebration" of their team's victory.

People more knowledgeable than myself have written books detailing how the attacks of September 11, 2001 changed American culture and politics. I would like to comment, though, on the narrative that emerged of the first responders, NYPD, firefighters, and volunteers who showed such courage in their rescue efforts. 412 emergency responders lost their lives; of that, 343 were firefighters. The casualty count of 9/11 continues to rise, 17 years later, due to respiratory damage caused by inhaling dust that contained lead and other building materials.

The slogan "United We Stand" seems so distant in this divisive political time, and I respect that there are complex geopolitical reasons for this. The War on Terror is a controversial topic, very rightly so. But if we can stand united behind anything, let's unite behind the bravery of people sacrificing themselves to help others during a crisis. Firefighters and first responders exhibit the best humanity has to offer. Even though each person -- yes, firefighters too -- is a flawed, complex individual with their own opinions and biases and personal demons, I think we can learn from their example of getting in and doing what needs to be done, helping those in need.

In 2003, New England mourned the nightclub fire in West Warwick, RI. Caused by pyrotechnics lighting up soundproofing foam, it took 100 lives, injured 200 additional bodies, and continues to affect a whole community.

So, it would be inaccurate and disrespectful to say that the Northeast region doesn't understand fires. However,

Fires in the Western United States

I began to gain a whole new perspective when I studied environmental science. We learned about wildfire ecology, the necessity and inevitability of natural wildfires in dry regions. Fire management has evolved from a focus on fire fighting to a focus on strategic prevention. It took many homes and lives lost for us to learn that you can't put out all the fires, you can only try to direct them away from human settlement. Sometimes, that means fighting fire with fire, burning fuel on purpose before it burns out of control.

When I moved to Arizona, I did a Tarot reading for a woman in Tucson, and the theme was "balance." All the cards kept coming up with that imagery of restoring balance after disruption. It turns out that she'd lost her home to the Aspen Fire on Mt. Lemmon. Nearly ten years later, she finally felt like she'd rebuilt her life. 

Of course, we see headlines nationwide about fires in the West. They tend to be all lumped together -- "Fires in Colorado, California, Oregon" -- all these miles and miles of blazing forested mountains packed in a headline. The same headline length that describes a single house fire will also describe a raging inferno that necessitates thousands of firefighters deployed from locations as far as Virginia. If it's not in your backyard, it's really easy to pass over.

Wilderness managers work insane hours to prevent fires in populated areas. Yet these fires, when they occur, are the ones that gain the most attention as the stories take on more personal, heart-wrenching angles. Who can forget the story of the couple who took shelter in a swimming pool?

Fires are fast. Tragically, the Yarnell Fire outpaced a team of 20 Hotshots, killing 19, the 20th spared by the circumstance of being assigned lookout duty. More than 200 people hiked the Granite Mountain Hotshots trail on the 5-year anniversary of their death. A firefighter from LA County ran all the way to the fatality site, from LA to Yarnell, AZ, to place flags on the memorial.

The recently released movie, Only the Brave, tells the story of this fire, inasmuch as a fictional version can. It mainly focuses on Eric Marsh and Brendan McDonough. I enjoyed it and definitely ugly cried a little, with all due respect to the people affected in real life by this terrible loss. Art is weird: it both connects us, and draws attention to our disconnect... perhaps, in the end, inspiring us to connect more.

More immersive than the film is a visit to the memorial trail on Granite Mountain. When I went on a Monday morning, I was able to hike up in solitude, reflecting on all 19 memorial plaques and the tributes left by visitors. On the summit and on the way down, I met other hikers: the park ranger (who told me about the 5-year anniversary), a volunteer firefighter from Kentucky, a group of firefighters from Texas, a local couple, some tourist families. 

"What's it like?" I asked one firefighter.

"... It's hot," she said. "Really hot."

Writing about Fire

I thought, what the hell am I doing collecting stories and poems on the theme of fire?

I am encouraging people to write, which often leads to healing and catharsis. If I encourage people to write about Fire without even taking the risk of submitting, I've done good.

I am creating a forum of creative expression on a natural phenomenon already affected by climate change.

I am highlighting a truly nonpartisan issue. Though the rural regions of the West are often red on political maps, it doesn't (or shouldn't) matter. As I said above, there are events that unite us because they humanize us. Besides, fires don't care about congressional districts: where there's fuel, they'll burn it. 

The more we can set aside enmity and approach each other with compassion, the more we can accomplish for the greater good. The next issue, Borders, might be accused of partisanship; so be it. The goal is the same: to showcase humanity and suffering and healing; to light a way forward, perhaps; to clear the built-up silence that will burn out of control and take our humanity with it, if we don't listen to the stories of people from all walks of life, in their own words, removed from reactionary agendas.

I have long supported strategies to mitigate and reverse climate change, while fighting special interests that make this world a harder place to live for their own profit. I have found that with any problem we need to solve collectively, no matter how urgent, organized strategies accomplish more than rushing in, guns blazing. I have to remind myself of that frequently. We're all on the verge of igniting, it seems, and taking other people down with us, if we're not careful.

"Be Better" -- Andrew Ashcraft of the Granite Mountain 19

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