Lessons from a Fire

The last few days, experiences and observations have provided me a tremendous opportunity to better understand the impact, panic, and crisis of a wildfire. The experience is teaching me some lessons I wanted to share.

For context, we are in a warning-evacuation zone for the fire and I expect that to continue for at least another couple days. I have to monitor news outlets regularly and I’ve found twitter to be a great resource for new links to information. One of the more regular kind of tweets I was seeing was angry and judgemental outburst directed at people who “left their animals behind.” Some people linked a news story to a stable fire impacted near the origin site of the fire. They began indicting them for lack of an evacuation plan. In one post I read, a person tagged PETA in what I perceived as an attempt to incite a response of public or organizational out-cry. They grossly added insult to injury. I found myself internally needing to process my anger at the posts. I then realized I was processing anger at myself because how often have I knowingly or unknowingly engaged in the same behavior. I know I’ve been that person, sitting in safety and comfort, self-righteous in my commentary about a situation in which I have little or zero understanding or expertise. I say that because I could have easily been that person indignantly tweeting. Let me try to explain…

I grew up weathering various sizes of hurricanes and floods. We all know how devastating they can be, however the experience of weathering those were different because we always had so much warning or notice. We would get multiple days notice if not longer. We could slow walk to an ideal solution for our family and critters based on the circumstances and as we received updated storm status information. From there we could either supply up and hunker down or pack up and move to safety. When I would hear stories on the news and learn about fire evacuations, I think it created a false perspective on how much time people have to get to safety in these situations.

The start of this fire is close to where I live, so I watched the real-time local news coverage and a sat vigil looking out the windows the whole day. I watched clouds of smoke rise in the distance filling the sky before seeing the flames in the distance later that evening. The fire started in a critical moment of exceedingly challenging conditions, building it into a perfect storm potential for firefighters to battle. The lack of rain over the summer led to a dry, brittle landscape and that day we had reports of 6% humidity. The other factor is the Santa Ana winds. They originate inland and move toward the ocean carrying dry and super-strong wind streams that wreak havoc during critical extreme fire conditions.

For a weeks state officials have warned about the dry conditions so we can avoid risky fire activities (fire pits, smoking, etc). This week the warnings were at their peak with the strongest winds gusting the morning the fire started. To give you an idea of the wind strength, it was blowing so hard at our place it cracked and began to push 4x4 patio posts (and thus patio roof) so hard I feared we were going to lose them. We nearly had a paneled fence blow over. Gusts were strong.

Due to these factors, the fire moved dangerously fast and virtually without warning. We watched palm trees explode into fire behind a reporter trying to provide updates from the front lines. The fire raced into a retirement mobile home park and an equine training center among a vast undeveloped expanse of easily ignitable fuel.

People in the vicinity of the origin point of this fire had no time or real warning. The news broadcast initial interviews at the equine center in the first few hours. It was clear they had little warning before having to go into life or death crisis management situation with hundreds of horses. I’m unsure what their emergency evacuation plans look like in detail, but given the circumstances, they went into the fight with a deficit I suspect no amount of planning could prepare one to overcome totally. They quickly worked to free hundreds of horses from burning stables and land. Right now they are estimating 25 horses of the 480 stabled there (last report I heard) lost their lives in this fire. News crews began interviewing those impacted. I watched them interview a man who works at the facility recount his experience. He ran into burning stables to rescue horses, his horse among them. He was able to rescue many but when he got to his horse and opened the stable, the horse was so spooked by the engulfing flames it refused to move. Nothing he could do would coax the horse out of the open stable. He risked his life and then he watched his horse die.

The affected area is also home to many family farm properties. It is likely that many people who work 9-5 jobs learned about the fire impacting their property and animals while at work. They would have had to sit anxiously and helplessly a distance away at work not knowing the actual status of their farm or be able to help their animals proactively. I know a few folks who had to rush to get home to prepare for possible evacuation. They were lucky because their home was a distance from the origin of the fire and it bought them enough time to make the crisis rush hour drive of 2.5 hours drive to travel 20-25 miles home.

This week has been a reminder about engaging with arrogance rooted in an oblivious and tremendous lack of a comprehensive understanding. A reaction often born at a comfortable distance and safety from the real impact of the issue, allowing for the disengagement of a basic level of compassion and empathy. Come to think about it, this rule should likely apply to most issues and topics we find ourselves discussing today.

Compassion seems to be in a deficit often and suffering at a peak. Piling onto that suffering serves no one and it only perpetuates a painful ripple.

However, with that has come some great moment for holding gratitude. I have an incredible appreciation for the around-the-clock work of 1000 firefighters and air support offered by Camp Pendelton. So many non-profit and governmental agencies have worked so well together to keep the public updated and apprised of changes. I'm in awe and have a bit of renewed hope today.

#LilacFire #FocusOnYourRipples

(Origin is a personal Facebook post 12/9/2017)