Seeing the Forest Through the Burning Trees

Photographers take pictures of The Springs Fire near Camarillo

By Square Peg





I never fail to be amazed by the reckless disregard that some people have for the power of nature, for their own safety, and for the safety of others. This has been brought home to me again by the tragic loss of life and property in Black Forest.

Earth, wind, fire, and water, the elemental forces that rule our planet, should just not be messed with. You can’t stop a hurricane or turn a tornado. Yet with fire, a foolish few think that wild land firefighters are like lazy wizards who could control a raging inferno with ease if they really tried. These folks choose to ignore the reality that an extreme wild fire is a force of unstoppable destructive power. For example, last week I spoke with an individual who complained that fire fighters had not responded fast enough in Black Forest. Yet when I confronted him about his statement, he admitted that he was largely ignorant of the logistics of firefighting and the dynamics of extreme fire behavior, and had done little or no fire mitigation on his own property in Teller County. This week there were at least three spot fires within striking distance of his home that were rapidly extinguished by vigilant fire crews.

To get the big fire picture, imagine a large scale firefight as a life and death game of speed chess. All of the different pieces must be rapidly brought into the game in a strategic and efficient manner to avoid a disaster. In firefighting, the threat has to be indentified, communicated, and assessed, and then a response has to be quickly organized. In Black Forest, firefighting crews, law enforcement officers, and military resources from the local, state, and federal levels came together. Within hours they formed a team on the ground and in the air to get people out of harms way and attack a raging beast of an extreme wildfire.

As a community, we have repeatedly witnessed the fearsome power of fire, having experienced three of the most destructive fires in state history; the Hayman Fire, the Waldo Canyon Fire, and now the Black Forest Fire. However, I am convinced that many of us have still not learned to respect or plan ahead for fire.

With life pulling us all in so many directions, I know that many people don’t make the time to educate themselves about the natural disaster risks in their community (although we all should) and leave it to local officials to prepare. But when the officials say, “You are in imminent peril. Evacuate now!” there are always a few who respond with “I’m an American, and you can’t tell me what to do!” Happily for them, as Americans they have the right to choose wildfire as the method of their own demise. Unfortunately, at the eleventh hour, when they are facing their own mortality, these are the kind of folks who will call upon others to risk their lives to come and save them when they could have saved themselves by packing a bag the day before.

Currently, there are people in Black Forest who ignored the original evacuation orders and are now complaining of ill-treatment because they are running out of groceries. If they leave their neighborhood to go shopping, they will not be allowed to return until the evacuation orders are lifted. Others have been escorted back to their homes to check on their property, and then refused to leave again. One man who was interviewed on television claimed, “We are being treated like criminals!” El Paso County Sheriff Maketa has responded by saying that people violating the safety restrictions in place could face possible arrest. Rikes, Raggy! I’m sure I can’t imagine the stresses these people are under, but I know that thousands of others removed themselves from harms way when asked, leaving their homes behind, never to be seen again in many cases. To fight the very people working to protect you and demonize them for it in the process makes no sense at all.

As fire fighters increase the containment area and mop up, they are putting out every hot spot and the evacuation area is starting to shrink. This is not a punishment for the besieged residents of Black Forest, but an exercise in patience as people from all over the region do their best to help them.

Not every fire will become a raging firestorm like the terrible episode that has brought so much hardship to the people in Black Forest, but the risk is always there. As citizens of land prone to wild fires, we are an important part of the fire prevention team. Educate yourself about the risk and how you can be prepared. If you see a smoke, report it. Remove excess fuels from your property. Have an emergency plan. If you’re asked to evacuate, leave. Smart assertive action is far more effective than leaving the planning to others and whining about it after the fact.