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Home arrow Opinion arrow Columns arrow We need to fight fires, but is the cost too dear?

We need to fight fires, but is the cost too dear?

I fought fires on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest for three summers, 1989-1991.

About the worst thing that ever happened to me was once I had to stay out overnight unexpectedly and I had little to eat except a package of Wheat Thins of the size the stores would sell for Halloween, if homeowners often handed out crackers as treats.

Which, fortunately, they do not.

There’s nothing funny about fighting wildfires, though.

Firefighters die.

They die in van crashes while driving to fires.

Trees fall and crush their skulls.

Helicopters and slurry bombers crash.

And, perhaps most horrible of all because it seems so personal, so terribly ironic, sometimes the flames, which are nothing so much as a tornado of combustion, turn and strike at those who would corral them.

On Sunday, 19 firefighters, members of an elite Hotshot crew from Prescott, Ariz., were overcome by flames while trying to stop a fire advancing on Yarnell, Ariz.

Firefighting gets into the news often, of course, and much of the public debate has to do with whether the federal government, which has been racking up billion-dollar firefighting tabs in recent years, is spending too much.

I don’t care.

A billion dollars is a pittance in federal terms.

What I wonder is whether we’re spending too many lives, most of them young lives, on this campaign.

My gut answers yes.

But the question, I fear, is too complex for simplistic answers based on emotion rather than reflection.

The Prescott Hotshots weren’t engaged in a dubious enterprise, weren’t trying to prevent flames from killing trees 10 miles from anywhere.

They were protecting a town, people and houses.

We won’t cease sending firefighters into such places, nor should we.

The real conundrum, though, is that it’s well nigh impossible to recognize, hours or even days in advance, which fire is likely to transform from merely dangerous to deadly.

When that transformation depends on factors as fickle as the winds of a thunderstorm, well, we’d as well consult tea leaves or goat entrails.

Tragedies on the scale of the Arizona disaster are exceedingly rare, to be sure.

Sunday’s death toll of 19 was the highest, for a wildfire in the U.S., since 1933.

Yet the balm of the actuarial tables is cold comfort, indeed it’s no comfort at all, when you’ve just watched a procession of vans carrying 19 bodies to the coroner’s office.

. . .

When the first drop of sweat slides into the corner of your eye before you’ve made even one full revolution with the socket wrench, you understand that you picked the wrong time for the job.

The wrong hour.

Quite possibly the wrong year.

I winced at the slight sting of the sweat. The socket, which I had been tugging on with considerable force, leaped off the nut with all the stupid suddenness of a tool (tools, I am convinced, do not like me, probably because I’m mechanically inept, and that they delight in every bruise, gash or puncture wound they can inflict).

I rapped my knuckles on the gate hinge I was trying to set straight so that it would latch properly. This hurt more than the sweat in my eye, and was infinitely more annoying besides.

It was scarcely past 9 in the morning. When I stepped outside wielding a wrench and a hammer, it seemed to me not terribly hot.

Warm certainly, but nothing like the inferno the forecasters were predicting for the afternoon.

I pegged the gate repair as a five-minute job requiring the two simple hand tools and, fortunately for my fingers, neither motors nor reciprocating parts.

What I didn’t count on was breaking out so quickly into that flop sweat.

This prompted me to consult my array of meteorological instruments, which is not so much redundant as it is ridiculous.

Anyway the devices told the tale: The humidity ranged from 55 percent to 75 percent.

These of course are figures more typical of summer in, say, Savannah, Ga., or St. Louis than in Baker City.

 We suffer here from what’s known, with a certain affection, as a dry heat.

I’ve never much cottoned to that term, mainly because it seemed to me misleading.

But my painful experience at the front gate was something of an epiphany.

I used to bristle at references to dry heat because it implies that even when it goes over 95 around here that’s not so bad because the humidity, like as not, is less than 15 percent.

Well, that’s about what it’s like inside a lumber kiln, and I daresay there’s nothing pleasant about being inside a lumber kiln.

Or any kind of kiln, come to that.

But now that I’ve experienced, albeit in a brief and minor way, the combination of heat and humidity that’s endemic to the Midwest and the South, I concede that the defenders of dry heat make a pretty compelling point.

The older of my two sisters lived in Southern Virginia for seven years, returning to Oregon last August, and she tried to explain to me how uncomfortable truly sultry weather can be.

Her husband, Bill, told me about having to run his windshield wipers on clear days because the air was so heavy with moisture even though the temperature was in the 80s.

Try to fix a gate in weather like that — try to open a gate, for that matter — and you’d probably need to hook up an IV to ward off dehydration.

I stand by my belief that beyond a certain threshold on the thermometer — 90, maybe — it’s a scorcher no matter how low the humidity.

Death Valley’s even drier than Baker City, but you don’t see people frolicking around there on summer afternoons.

And I’m not talking about convulsions.

Still and all, I’m more respectful than before of the power of humidity.

It laid a few of my knuckles low and that only took a few minutes.

If I had to perform even my modest household chores anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, well, I’d be a repeat customer at the prosthetics store.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

 
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