Darby Lee Patterson
Last year my husband and I had been taking our usual morning walk with our two dogs when we looked above tall pine trees on our eastern horizon. Rising above that cedar and pine landscape was a billowing cloud of grey and crimson and ochre – a tumult of smoke folding in on itself like stirring cake batter. We were only a country block away from our home, and we ran with our pups to start packing to leave. It was clear the Caldor Fire that had invaded our niche of the Sierra was rapidly approaching communities tucked into clearings in the forest.
We had made initial preparations – a "Go-Box' of nonperishable food and some basic necessities. We'd packed a suitcase of clothes to last a few days. Stored all our important papers in a box. While my husband dashed out to hook up our small camping trailer, I swept through the house, quickly assessing what was truly 'valuable.' My musical instruments, the wedding photo of my grandparents in its 1920's brass oval frame, embroidered work my grandmother did, and my own I'd done in honor of her. Husband, Randall, grabbed records vital to his work as a mental health policy expert, bagged a good supply of dog food, and packed up our electronics. Within a half hour, we joined a long chain of vehicles inching down the steep and winding road to the highway – leading us to a friend's empty home in Sacramento. We were fortunate, but so many more of our neighbors fled to shelters and tents and nearby emergency centers in parking lots and churchyard.
This year we are again engulfed in a smoke-filled environment with 76,200 acres burning to the northwest of us. Several small communities have been evacuated, repeating our experience of a year ago. We have about 12 miles between us and the fire but are watching reports about wind and containment published daily online. Thus far, 78 structures have burned, thousands were evacuated and making do, hoping, praying. This week we are getting some rain, but we also had fierce winds with the arrival of the storm – the firefighters' nemesis. And I realized because I'd written a lot about the 2021 Caldor Fire, that for emergency responders, the Mosquito Fire is a replay of last year's experience. Too much and too soon.
Along with the emotional lessons about facing the loss of a home and prized possessions, I learned a great deal about the extent of a major firefighting effort. How so many agencies must cooperate (despite some historical rivalries) and coordinate their efforts to successfully contain and bring down an active forest fire. With daily updates and my weekly chats with fire personnel, I came to realize the wide-ranging skills and knowledge required to strategically fight an active fire. The disciplines of physics, mathematics, engineering, meteorology, and environmental science all converge with on-the-ground knowledge of the terrain.
Understanding the behaviors of fire and nature's forces creates an action plan – abstractions on a whiteboard translated to conditions on the ground by crew chiefs whose primary duty is to safeguard the lives of the crew who literally stand face to face with an inferno. Carrying out strategic plans, working long hours with little or no relief, granted a day of respite at long intervals in a fire camp, and then thrust back into a life-a threatening environment. The fellowship of firefighting has no borders. Local fire departments from cities and counties throughout California and other states far and wide showed up to fight shoulder to shoulder with regional tribal crews. One El Dorado County captain told me about a team of Israeli firefighters who flew in to fight the blaze that eventually torched 222,000 acres.
So today, reading daily updates on the Mosquito Fire, I'm again reminded of the expertise, experience, intuition, and raw grit it takes to manage a forest fire – and I do mean 'manage.' Here's a short excerpt from this morning's report. Note the strategies in this joint update based on fire engineering and ground conditions:
"… moisture saturation decreased fire behavior significantly; however, areas under thick canopies were less affected by the light precipitation and were still available to burn. Heavier rains and south winds over the fire continued overnight. Firefighters and equipment remained in the communities throughout the night. … crews continue to patrol the containment lines along the communities to ensure there are no slop overs or spot fires as a result of embers or debris crossing the fireline …. With rainy and wet conditions in the area, crews must remain vigilant for the increased hazards that come with the additional precipitation. This landscape is already steep and rugged, and it becomes even more treacherous with the addition of rain, making the terrain muddy and slippery."
There is also a daily youtube update on Facebook – Tuesday's HERE.
When my family was able to return to our messy (but standing) home after the Caldor Fire, I was overwhelmed by what we'd experienced and what I'd learned. From every agency – local, state, federal firefighters, law enforcement from several counties, nonprofits, foundations, animal services, churches, and businesses – it would not be possible to express gratitude to each one. When our neighbors who now endure the active Mosquito Fire return, it will be due to the collaboration of professionals and volunteers who strategized, fought, and protected their homes.
Some of you know I'm working on a bronze monument to honor all those who fight our fires in different yet collaborative ways. I started the project last November when I saw handmade "Thank You Firefighters" signs tacked up on utility poles. Heartfelt. Colorful. And I knew they'd soon fade, unlike our memory of the fire. I felt compelled to build a public and permanent symbol of gratitude. It's an uphill effort to raise the funds needed to cast each bronze panel – but nothing compared to what firefighters and their collaborative agencies do throughout every fire season. You can read about the Caldor Tribute HERE.
This week’s rain brought some hope – sometimes Mother Nature shows up to help our heroes. We're hoping the Mosquito Fire will surrender to her and to all the courageous people called to protect and serve.
I know that some of you also have experience with a fire like the one we're currently fighting in my neck of the California woods – and I appreciate hearing your words of wisdom and advice. Receiving your feedback inspires me to continue sharing my thoughts with you. Thanks for sticking with me. And a very big hug of gratitude to those of you who've contributed to the casting costs of the Caldor Tribute!! Stay safe, be optimistic, get creative! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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