A small mistake and fireworks aren't the only things we'll be watching burn.
Some many years ago in the mid-1980s I ran into an old Florida boyfriend in, of all places, South Island, New Zealand. He'd long since left St. Petersburg and moved to Truckee, California. At that time Truckee was still a small mountain town where my ski-bum athlete friend spent his summers. He invited me up.
That visit was over the July 4th weekend. My favorite memory of that evening was being bundled up in multiple jackets and coats to watch a show that in no time flat, was rained out. Pacific Northwesterners with long memories will know that memory.
Not any more.
This past weekend and into the week Seattle and Portland are still reeling from triple digit heat, and every air conditioner within 200 miles is likely sold. This part of the world is a largely a stranger to those devices, but again, not anymore. Because of the extreme fire danger, and the tinder-dry woods that surround us on all sides, my neighborhood in Eugene has banned all fireworks from 18th street south, which includes my fir forest.
This notice was posted five days ago:
Due to the severe drought conditions and the upcoming 4th of July holiday, an emergency is declared to exist and on Monday, Eugene City Council voted unanimously to temporarily ban all fireworks in the south hills, south from 18th Avenue and east of Agate Street through 2021 and 2022. This ban, effective immediately, was a necessary step for public health and safety. The ban includes legal fireworks like fountains, flitter sparklers, ground spinners and wheels. The temporary ban penalty is a fine not to exceed $500. The presumptive fine is $250.
When I moved to Eugene the first day of August last year and began settling into my new home in the southwest hills part of the city, I was surrounded by this cool fir forest. Still am. However, that was the year which, thanks to freak winds over a hundred miles an hour, multiple fires burning all over the area and just a perfect storm of circumstances, I spent one morning organizing a camping go bag just in case. My phone was set to the local alarms. I woke up repeatedly listening to my new neighbors just up the McKenzie River being told to GO NOW GO NOW GONOWGONOWGONOW.
It was terrifying. I called the sheriff's office. She told me we were fine as the fires were ten miles away. Ten miles, with fires that can leap crown to crown, with hurricane force winds, are barely a matter of minutes. I've lived around that kind of fire. My closest male friend Dave is the wildlands fire supervisor in Vallecito, not far from Durango, Colorado. We were roommates his rookie year on the force. The 2002 Hayman Fire burned 360,000 acres in temperatures so hot that it burned the first few layers of topsoil.
That was the worst, until 2020. He's still working those fires, now aged sixty. Like a lot of those guys, his lungs are torched, his body is tired, as the constant demands placed on first responders and the bigger fires creates an unending pressure on these people.
July Fourth is hardly the only issue. It's how we're stretching the first responder resources.
Part of the problem is that too many folks head into the woods, or even the woods close in around here, without the slightest clue how a single match or spark can mean the end of an entire neighborhood, if not much of a city as we've seen in California and here up along the McKenzie River. That lack of awareness is what so often leads to huge fires in the high country, started not just by lightning but also by tossed cigarettes or a campfire left untended.
This story from KOIN 6 in Portland underscores our real and present danger:
The problem in the high country- and everywhere else in fact where climate changes have created such ongoing disasters- is that firefighters and first responders are getting burned out. A gender reveal party that turns into a massive fire can stretch the resources of a department, and then the same department receives call after call for yet more fires and emergencies. After a while those first responders are fried. With fires getting bigger, burning longer, and with far too many inexperienced folks in the back country, the manpower is already stretched thin. Worse, those folks who are still working are experiencing serious health consequences. You and I cannot simply assume those first responder resources are always going to be there. What's also real is that those firefighters are having to make heartbreaking decisions about what to save based on priorities. Unfortunately, how we're managing our resources isn't keeping up with the changes in wildfires, the allocation of resources and where people are insisting on building homes. People want to live in the woods, which is understandable. But they also don't want to do fire mitigation around their homes, which means cutting down most if not all of the trees close in. Fire mitigation can be expensive, but without it, the chances of your losing your high-country home in the woods goes up exponentially.
To that: two houses along the McKenzie River that I had seriously considered purchasing are now ash for those very reasons.
Burnout isn't just the forests any more
Sometimes, the firefighters can't do enough, not just because there aren't enough of them but also because they are simply getting burned out themselves.
This story about Phoenix firefighters underscores what's going on, as my Durango based-friend can attest:
These folks aren't supermen, no matter how badly you and I want to romanticize their work. Dave, my friend in Durango, wanted badly to retire several years ago but his chief talked him into staying on. They couldn't find the crew resources, in part because the highly-specialized training that's required for the wildlands work means that they can't hire just anyone. Those people are in high demand everywhere we have forests.
Combined with Covid, which is hardly over, firefighters are suffering from burnout, PTSD and other maladies in ways that we haven't seen before:
Dave told me that he can't count the number of times someone has died in his arms. That takes a terrible toll, just as trying to save people, forests and homes from an intentionally-lit forest fire is emotionally defeating. As devastating fires have now become the norm in places where they were once unheard-of, the rush to hire and train those folks is on about the same time that folks are rushing to the woods for relief from the pandemic and the monotony of quarantine. Some of them aren't prepared to be in the woods, which is part of the problem.
This phenomenon is nationwide. First responders, especially when it comes to our wild lands, are tasked these days with chasing down people who wandered into the backcountry with little more than flip flops and their phones. To that, this piece, while it is from the Las Vegas area, is just as relevant to us up here in Oregon:
It is far too common for someone to just head out for a hike on a whim and not bother to let anyone know where they're headed. While that may sound both innocent and like a great idea, unless you have solid knowledge of your surroundings, and have the right gear with you in case of sudden weather changes, you could be in serious trouble. If you must go out alone, make sure someone knows where you're parking, where you plan to hike and when you plan to return. That way the first responders don't spend precious time and resources searching vast areas to find you, when you could be in terrible trouble waiting for help. A walk in the wild isn't a walk in the park.
At the very least, check the weather report, take adequate food and overnight supplies, a well-charged light source and phone, and a substantial water supply in the kind of heat we're seeing.
When I was in training for Kilimanjaro, I would take day-long, extensive hikes in high country to reach very high peaks. Time after time I passed other hikers who had on nothing more than sandals and a tank top and shorts. My backpack was loaded with gear, everything from rain gear to down layers. I rarely went on a day hike when I didn't have to pull out heavier protection, even on days that looked bright and promising. That's the nature of high country. Yet the hikers I passed seemed oblivious to the dangers. Overhead, the skies would be roiling. Even in August, snowstorms are hardly unheard of. Hiking that high without emergency gear, a coat and food is a fool's errand. Yet folks do it all the time, and then they are genuinely angry when help takes a long time to reach them.
Our changing wildlands require that you and I be far more responsible about how we use them than ever before. Your belief in what's causing the shift in temperatures and weather patterns is meaningless, for those patterns are now part of life. No longer can you and I wonder if July 4th is going to get rained out in a Pacific Northwest summer rainstorm. While they may yet happen again, the long, slow, damp springs that edged into summer are likely long gone.
With those changes, our awareness about and respect for fire danger that is right in the city, for the first responders who are currently struggling to save what forests we have left are even more essential. Fire is a real and present danger and it's right in our back yards. My home in Churchill, the beautiful old firs I am looking at when I gaze out my office window right now, could be nothing but char in a matter of minutes, and all the homes around me with it.
While it's a shame to have to monitor our neighbors and police the areas around us, doing so might just save our homes as well as the forests which surround us. This is what Eugene says about illegal fireworks use:
To report illegal fireworks within the Eugene city limits, call 541.682.5111. To report within the Springfield city limits call 541.726.3714. The Eugene base fine for illegal fireworks is $250. The social host ordinance in Eugene also applies to fireworks. The social host, or ordinance on unruly gatherings, holds individuals criminally responsible for hosting, organizing and allowing an unruly event or social gathering. Eugene property owners where the event is hosted will also be penalized if there are multiple violations of this ordinance at the same property. The Eugene Municipal Court has assigned a base fine of $375 for criminal violations of this ordinance. Both hosts and property owners could be civilly liable for police, fire and public works response to repeated illegal gatherings that fall under this ordinance. For more information: SOCIAL HOST
There may well come a time when fireworks are a thing of the past. This July 4th weekend, let's please be mindful of the conditions that exist and live in the present, and in doing so take care of both the beautiful forests and the first responders who are working hard to protect them for us. There is a great deal to celebrate, despite all that has happened. Let's celebrate smart this year, and do it in a way that preserves what we love and treasure most in this part of the world: our beautiful green forests.
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