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Blazing Heroes

Sep 30, 2008 05:00PM, Published by Super Admin, Categories: In Print




On July third, I hiked with my son to the top of Mt. Tallac, above Lake Tahoe. From our 9,700-foot vantage point we could see 360 degrees. It was beautifully clear and the lake below us glimmered like an alpine sea. But above us, angel-hair wisps of smoke drifted like cobwebs along the jet stream and to the north a hundred miles or so, a great industrial-sized column of smoke billowed from the hills of Butte County. West of us, in the Desolation Wilderness, Pyramid Peak rose starkly against a sky jaundiced from fires in the American River Canyon. It would be the last nice day we’d have for a while.

As I write, it is now mid-July and our air is filled with a choking yellow haze. The smoke from those fires, and others, collects in the valley like a searing fog. It stings the eyes, scratches the throat, and turns anything more than a hundred yards away into ethereal smudges. Like a skein of oil on the surface of water, it seems to settle the very air that carries it. A lid of heat holds it all down and inside we cook. In the foothills it’s worse: the honey-colored haze is sticky and thick among stands of oaks. It doesn’t just dissolve whole ridges, it erases entire mountains.

In those mountains, fire crews battle. There are thousands from all across the country and fire stations just down the street. Dressed in lemon yellow and armed with hoses, chainsaws, shovels and bulldozers, and supported from the air by nimble helicopters and lumbering C-130 tanker planes, they climb into the fire, stomping up steep slopes at high elevation, sometimes bearing packs weighing sixty pounds. They drink gallons of water and burn up to 7,000 calories a day. They are streaked with sweat, dirt, grime and soot. They watch for rattlesnakes and poison oak and tree branch torches that burn free from their trunks and fall without warning. They watch the wind, wary of any sudden gusts or unexpected eddies that could rouse the flames and quickly whip them into a life-threatening frenzy. These men and women are scratched and bruised and fatigued to their core. But still they fight, because it’s what they do and it’s what they love.

When you live down here among the stoplights, cul-de-sacs and shopping plazas, the wilderness we visit only in the best conditions can become abstract and taken for granted. Now, as it burns and the smoke fills our streets and our lungs, we are reminded once again that all of us—man, beast, and sugar pine forest—are connected.

Firefighters, like soldiers and police officers, belong to a profession that we too easily take for granted, until they’re needed. And too often we fail to pay proper tribute unless tragedy strikes.

A few weeks after writing the initial portion of this essay, the worst happened and nine firefighters were killed in a helicopter accident in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Days before that, two other firefighters lost their lives. Our hearts go out to their families. Our gratitude resides with their memories.

In this issue, we celebrate the best this region has to offer. I hope in some small way this piece serves to pay proper homage to the men and women who risked everything to step into the ring of fire this long, hot combustible summer.

Catch Tom on the Pat and Tom Morning Show on New Country 105.1 KNCI.

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