Yesterday I went scurrying out to my car, on my way to work, and discovered it was completely covered in fine white flakes. At first I thought the kids in the neighborhood had done something to it (I don’t know why I automatically assumed that) but then after a closer inspection, I realized it was ash. The air has been filled with smoke, and it wasn’t until I felt the burning in my lungs and my throat, I remembered there was a huge wildfire, named the Rough fire, burning with ferocity not more than 45 miles from our house.
I never look at the news, but searching for information regarding the fire up in the Kings Canyon National Park has drawn me to the local news websites. I learned this is an enormous fire. Because of the unrelenting drought over the last several years, the forest is dry, filled with dead and dying trees which is just fuel for the fire, so to speak. There is currently 128,796 acres involved, making it the largest active fire in California (http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/4456/). There are 2,570 personnel assigned to this fire detail (09/12/15).
These are impressive statistics, but don’t really mean much when one is scanning the news. It didn’t really mean much to me either, until this morning. I had decided in some ice cream deficient moment last night that I was going to go on an adventure this morning to see if I could get some photos (safely) of the fire and share them on my little blog. As with all my journalistic adventures, I went out to obtain information about one thing and came back with a totally different perspective. I left the house really early, around 5:45AM and travelled directly east. I became a little nervous as I got closer, but decided to follow a milk truck in, as he was going the same direction. I figured if it was safe enough for a milk truck, it was safe enough for me. As we started to climb into the foothills, my apprehensions grew as the smoke became thicker and the foothills more hazy. I no longer saw any cars coming the opposite direction. The milk truck and I rounded a bend and in front of us was a lighted sign stating the road was closed up ahead. The milk truck continued, and so did I.
We went over a little hill and around a final bend. That’s when I saw the flashing red and blue lights of the police cars up ahead. I knew I couldn’t go any farther. But then I noticed to the left of me, a field with what must have been hundreds of fire trucks and water trucks. An orange sign on the side of the road said “Incident Base”. I parked my little car on the opposite site of the road in a clearing, away from all the activity. I sat there for a moment debating as to whether or not I should get out of the car, but I had driven so far and didn’t want to go back home without any photos. As I climbed out of my car, a truck with firefighters pulled into the clearing right in front of me. The two firefighters got out of their truck.
After a very heated conversation with myself and chewing nervously on a hangnail, I went over and talked to the man with the rolled of papers under his arm. He was dressed in a blue uniform, with a baseball cap that had Visalia Fire Department written on it. I told him I had foolishly thought I could just pop over to the foothills and photograph the fire from a distance for a post on my little blog. He looked down at me and smiled. He said I could probably go up a little further to the next clearing and get some decent photos. I said I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way, and that I had no idea that all of that (I pointed to the activity across the road, in the field) was required to fight a fire. One never thinks about the logistics in battling a large fire. I told him, the news never shows all of that, the fire trucks, the planning and the personnel involved. We just hear about acres involved, land burned and percentages of containment.
He told me there were 2500 firefighters assigned to this particular fire. The fire fighters come from all over. They work 12 hours on and 12 hours off. The firefighters slept and ate (hence, the milk truck – I said that, not Joe) over in the field across the road. He unrolled his maps and showed me the two places where Incident Bases had been set up. He said he and the crew he works with had just come from another fire directly south of where we were standing. I shook my head slowly in astonishment and I said again I had no idea.
He told me Kings Canyon National Park contains Grant’s Grove, where some of the trees are over 3000 years old, and so the park has been somewhat coddled. Add to that, the drought has completely stressed the trees and so there is a lot of dead trees and debris, only adding another level of difficulty to the fighting of this fire. When I stood near General Grant (the tree) in 2007 – I was overtaken with emotion, in considering the history which must be contained in every cell of that tree.
I then asked him if he was ever scared when he went into fight these huge fires. He replied, “I’d be stupid not to be scared.” I let that comment sink in as I stood there and watched the activity across the road.
Other trucks began to pull in and around my car in the clearing. I realized it was time for me to leave. I thanked him wholeheartedly for taking the time to talk to me and give me a “ground zero” point of view and putting a completely different perspective on the “bird’s eye” view we normally get from the media. I asked him his name. His name is Joe Goforth. What a splendid name. He let me take a photo of him for my blog post. He was such a nice fellow who took the time to talk to me, answer my questions and put a face to all the people that leave their families and spend days and weeks out in challenging, potentially life-threatening conditions to keep the rest of us safe.
I must have timed it just right, because apparently it was change of shift. With a sudden jaw-dropping burst of activity, the trucks began filing out of the field across the street and one after another they began their trek towards the fire. An unbelievable amount of machinery and firefighting personnel, seated inside the trucks, passed by me. These individuals are not statistics, these are the people that go in to an area the rest of us would instinctively run from and spend 12 hours fighting a fiery, unpredictable monster. These are amazing people, these firefighters.
I went home and spent several hours whacking down plants in my overgrown garden. I was hot and the sweat was rolling down my face from behind my ears. The weather was sweltering, about 100 degrees. I was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts. When I could take no more, I went inside to clean up. It was about 3:00PM. I was still thinking about Joe Goforth and all the thousands of firefighters out there, dressed in their gear, with at least 4 more hours left on their shift. I wondered how they did it. In my mind, I thanked them for doing what they do.
Thanks to Youtube for the video on Kings Canyon National Park!