From our shelter in Sacramento, we monitor the Caldor fire throughout each day. There is seldom good news – other than learning homes in our community, within less than two miles of the fire, remain safe. Further up the mountain, South Lake Tahoe, America’s beloved gem of the Sierra, was evacuated – more than 20,000 nature-loving residents sent fleeing into uncertainty. Fire officials say today (Wednesday) will be another tough day of battling quixotic winds. Air quality throughout a vast region from the 10,000-foot elevation to the valley has been hazardous and unhealthy for many days.
This is our daily, highly personal reality—uncertainty, fear, anxiety. And following the news as we are compelled to do, we cannot ignore the great pains suffered by those beyond our borders. This is when we want to shout to the universe, “enough is enough,” and look for signs of light through clouds of smoke that block the sun.
So, I seek out the good and helpful – and I always find it because it's ever-present. The generosity, courage, tenacity of people who rise above adversity. This week I talked with a woman who is also, like our family, an evacuee from Pollock Pines. Unlike us, however, she’s been surrounded by fire much of her life.
Heather Campbell was immersed in foresty management, firefighting, and law enforcement throughout her professional life. She was the first woman on a Forest Service engine crew in 1983, worked as a timber technician in Alaska, and a law enforcement officer in the Tahoe National Forest, where she investigated wildfire origin and cause. She then became a Special Agent for Enforcement and Investigations in the Los Padres National Forest – where she received a prestigious award for her work. In 2008 she was on a mission to rescue captive horses that had been abused and neglected. The animals panicked and stampeded. Campbell suffered a traumatic brain injury that ended her professional career – but not her commitment.
She moved to El Dorado County and immediately observed the overgrown condition of forests and their
proximity to homes. In 2014 she started the El Dorado Fire Safe Council that’s become the dominant resource for education about fire safety, prevention, and preparation. “We live in a fire environment, and it will come back,” she says. “In the early 2000s, we could expect a big fire to be 27,000 acres. Now we have mega-fires.”
Today’s reality requires that mountain dwellers always be prepared to leave. “People need to make a ten-minute and 30-minute plan for evacuating,” Campbell says. “Have the important things – documents, medications, animal supplies – ready to go in ten minutes.” After the essentials are ready to go – plan what else is most important to keep fire-safe, she adds.
I wonder to myself how well we did this. For sure, we had our pups covered, and their medications packed. But we didn’t count on our local vet also being evacuated and had to search online for refills within days. Finally, before inching down the hill to safety, Campbell suggests we make a sweep of our yards where we have decks with umbrellas and outdoor furniture. “Take everything that’s burnable far away from your house,” she says, “Clear off your decks.” Why didn’t I think of that?
She also talked about a more long-term need – making mountain homes defensible. We’d had limbs of cedars trimmed away from our house, pulled out flammable plants and bushes, and checked for “fire ladders” that could reach branches that arc over the roof. But I learned that we haven’t done nearly enough. Our rain gutters and vents are not adequate. The bushes in our front driveway could torch deciduous trees that line our property which, in turn, provide a “ladder” into the many pine trees surrounding our home. And there is a neighborhood issue with nearby properties overgrown and dense with what a fire sees as fuel. Remarkably (and illogically, in my view), people stack firewood underneath decks and stairs – providing kindling that will ignite an entire house.
These tweaks to forested environments are based on the concept of “defensible space” – not a new idea, but now it’s a critical one. Every year we read about devastating fires up and down the West Coast, and still, we have the magical belief that it will never happen to us. However, behind every magic trick, there’s a plan – one that Campbell implemented at her own home in Pollock Pines. “I left my house confident that if fire burns through it, it will not burn it up,” she says. “I can leave stress-free.”
And, as a forestry and fire professional, she’s accepted an uncomfortable reality – one that she’s spent her life teaching and preaching. “My takeaway is that this is going to continue to happen. Now is the time to start preparing for the next time. We live in the environment. It will come back.” From her temporary shelter, she sends out fact-based updates and links to numerous communities throughout the region – our go-to fire expert and advocate for effective forest management practices
So, Heather Campbell and countless volunteers on the local Fire Safe Council look ahead, as we all need to – beyond the smokey horizon, past the heart-wrenching headlines and the latest disaster, toward mitigations and solutions. Some things are doable (making defensible homes and spaces), and others are simply beyond our touch or influence. It’s in the ‘doing of things’ in times like these that we can reclaim some personal power and look forward to better tomorrows.
The Current 9/01/21 stats: 204,390 Acres burned / 20% containment / High concern about erratic winds in the Tahoe region throughout today and tonight.
Thank you all for the kind and compassionate feedback I’ve received and for sticking with me each week. You bring warmth and sunlight into a smoke-filled reality. I deeply appreciate hearing from you.
Here is this week’s eBook opportunity – a book written by an Indie author (like me) :
By Dan Petrosini – A USA Today best-selling author: The Barrow Case
Regret is a little word that lasts forever...
Most homicide detectives remember their first case. For Detective Luca, it was the second one that scarred him.