In Praise of Smokejumpers

Hurricane Odile hit the southern Baja peninsula last night, and here in San Diego County, we continue to feel the heat. Air conditioners are humming—the power grid is under stress. People are crankier than usual. Those in my water district have been living with Level 2 Drought Alert Conditions for roughly a month (other Californians have been on alert since last spring), and the Santa Ana winds season, which usually occurs during October, hasn’t even begun.

Last May, the county suffered under the effects of some 14 wildfires, the result of unseasonably hot temperatures, low humidity, and northeasterly winds. Fortunately, this threat became muted over the summer, though people in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest struggled with their own equally scary fires during these months.

Even as I write this, I find myself noticing a headline: “Hundreds flee 2 California wildfires; homes burn.” These two fires are currently blazing near Yosemite—and there is another east of Sacramento. And yet another in Orange County.

Sometimes it feels like all you can do is sit and sweat and hope the air will cool down.

In late October of 2007, the college I work for in East San Diego County was closed due to several wildfires, including the Witch Creek Fire and the Harris Fire, which eventually prompted more than 10 percent of the region’s population to leave their homes for awhile. A few of us at my college were asked to come in to work, anyway, to meet with the accreditation team, as it was in the process of assessing our school.

We all assembled in the student center and proceeded to answer questions for the team’s report. I remember stepping outside to take a break, and I could actually see flames on the hills just south of us. Needless to say, the campus was completely evacuated not long after that.

Now my college library hands out fridge magnets—created by the San Diego Office of Emergency Services—that also serve as evacuation checklists. Most people I know have considered just what they will pack in the event of a serious fire threat.

It does feel strange to accept wildfires as a fact of life. They were always a possibility, of course, but somehow they were “over there.” You saw them in the news and figured it was a once in awhile thing. The fires on TV were something daring people attended to while the rest of us continued living in our cozy homes. And some of the most heroic firefighters of all were the people trained to jump out of aircraft into fire zones.

I first learned about this line of work back in the late 70s. At the time, I was a Youth Conservation Corp teen participant under the guidance of the U.S. Forest Service. This group of teens and our respective counselors were spending the summer building fences and digging outhouse holes in Eastern Oregon, when a wildfire erupted not far away.

Our camp was immediately put on alert, though we were not in any immediate danger. While smokejumpers were expected to battle the flames right away—for up to 48 hours at a time without additional help—other crews were already sweeping into the closest tiny town. They proceeded to take over a high school that was closed for the summer (where we also happened to be taking our showers). Their mission was to provide food, showers, and a place to sleep for the smokejumpers and other fire personnel.

As this went on, our own work group received a great deal of information about what was happening (we saw their camp materialize overnight); yet we weren’t allowed into the fire zone until all that was left were some smoky hot spots. We were then treated to a real life demonstration on how to ensure the fire was truly out. Mop up.

In the end, I came away thinking… Well, this doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, we’ve got people trained to get on it. I couldn’t have imagined the efforts it would take to stop the Witch Creek Fire, the Harris Fire, or the earlier Cedar Fire that disrupted San Diego County in 2003. And I couldn’t have imagined this more recent volatile period—one fire after the next erupting in regions I am familiar with, from U.S. border to U.S. border.

Platitudes about how things change just aren’t overly comforting right now.

Update: I encountered this video on Facebook the morning after I posted this piece. It shows scenes from a recent fire in Weed, California.