Thursday, October 25, 2007

The California Wildfires

Like most Americans I am riveted by the news coverage of the wildfires in California. My wife is currently visiting friends in southern California. I am a member of the American Red Cross Mental Health services. Our chapter has approached me a couple of times asking if I could go to California. Due to work commitments that is not feasible. Still, my thoughts, my heart and my prayers go out to California at this time.

I have worked wildfires and it is difficult not to imagine what it is like in California at this time. I know each disaster is different and yet there are some commonalities with wildfires. It is a time of contradictions. A couple of years ago I was stationed 30 miles away from the fire front in Arizona and yet the smell of smoke permeated everything. The temperature was hot, 97 degrees in the early morning and rising to 109 degrees by the afternoon. Still, when the ash fell which was most of the time it looked as if it was snowing. Between the heat, the smell of smoke and the “snowflakes” it was like working in a snowstorm in hell.

During a time of stark destruction the soot from the fires makes for the most magnificent night skies I have ever seen. The sky becomes ruby red. If it was not the result of all of the pollutants from the fire its beauty could almost be a reason for celebrating.

Unlike other disasters, wildfires have a sound and sight all there own. They result in the formation of huge squadrons of planes and helicopters that attempt to thwart and then reduce the wildfire. A large air force is created on site. The firefighters on land are immediate heroes and deserve to be. However, with the army of firefighters on land and planes in the air there is a military atmosphere that occurs during wildfires that may not occur during other disasters.

During wildfires the Humane Society never sleeps. With immediate evacuations companion animals are left behind. The Society moves in to care for these frightened, abandoned and potentially dangerous animals. Livestock also needs to be moved. Wildfires occur in drought areas. So finding suitable land that can sustain herds of cows, sheep or horses is no easy matter. It requires finding land that is fresh enough for grazing, has an accessible water source, will not be further eroded by the animals and is available. It is not unusual for herds of animals to have to be moved multiple times as the fire front changes. All of this must be going on right now.

In California the fires are on the sides of mountains. While people pray for rain they had better not pray for too much rain. Without the trees erosion will quicken and with heavy rains the very real danger of mudslides increases.

I have worked in many shelters and I know the mixture of relief, exhaustion, determination, defeat and hopelessness that is played out in the shelters. Shelters can be the scene of isolated strangers living quietly alongside one another or they can be the scene of vibrant small communities that spring up throughout the shelter floor.

What is critical in wildfires is that the communities affected receive timely, honest information. This seems to be occurring. This is not Katrina. This is a massive disaster but the infrastructure just outside of the disaster is intact. People can leave and can receive services. The hard work for the people affected will occur after the mammoth job of containing and then eliminating the fire is accomplished.

I have been with folks when they return to their destroyed homes for the first time. The loss of things pales to the loss of dreams, memories and the realization that it could have been worse, there could have been loss of loved ones. Disaster Mental Health will be providing services for a long time.

Finally, my thoughts go out to all of the many, many agencies helping. Disasters are never responded to by just FEMA, the Guard and the American Red Cross. They are there but so are Southern Baptists, the Mennonite Service organization, the Salvation Army, the Adventist Community Services, Christian Contractors Association, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Church of the Brethren emergency services, Jewish Federation, Friends Disaster Services, International Orthodox Christian Charities, Catholic Charities and the Islamic Circle of North America-Relief. They are joined by so many other denominational disaster agencies. Lutherans, Episcopalians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and so many more are there. Along side these faith communities are the Americorp. Volunteers, the National Health Service Corps, prison inmates and spontaneous volunteers.

We know that disasters can bring out the worst in people. However, in my experiences, most of the time it brings out the best in people because it brings out the best people. So, today my thoughts and prayers are with the people of southern California and the many Americans from all over American that have traveled there to help them.


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