Monday, July 1, 2013

Living with Wildfire

As a kid, I hung out with a kid whose father flew fire planes in the summer.  Brett Hansen's dad, Pete, flew an S-2 - an anti-submarine plane converted to drop fire retardant.  Brett and his family spent the summer and early fall in Columbia; the winter and spring in South Dakota (where Pete flew crop dusters).  One of the truly cool things I got to do in the summer as a kid was to spend the day at the Columbia airport at the tanker base.  I learned (without knowing I'd learned it) that flying a fire plane involved a great deal of waiting around - punctuated by incredibly intense times of fighting wildfire from the air.  Piloting a fire plane, it seemed to me, was a glamorous occupation - Pete got to fly (which I loved) in the mountains (which I also loved).  I could always tell when a fire plan was flying over - just by the sound of the twin engines.

I'm not sure how old I was when Pete crash-landed his plane during a fire on the Stanislaus National Forest.  He was fortunate - he walked away from the crash. The accident, however, made me realize as a child that fighting wildfire was exceptionally dangerous.  As I grew older, the thrill of hearing a fire plan go over my house was replaced by fear that the fire was close.  Indeed, when the 49 Fire struck near our home in Auburn several years ago, I was first alerted to the fire by the sound of turbo-prop S-2s flying low over our rooftop.  At the sound of fire planes overhead, I always gauge the proximity of the fire by the altitude of the planes - a low flight path means the fire is close at hand.

As an adult, I have friends who are in the fire service.  At least one of my high school buddies, Pete Gookin, flies a fire helicopter for CalFire.  Pete actually flew on the 49 Fire.  Other friends, like Matt Smotherman and Kevin Summers, work in more urban - and equally dangerous - settings.  Having been close enough to fire to be frightened, I have utmost respect for my friends and their colleagues.

Summer wildfires are part of living in the West.  The tragic deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots yesterday in Arizona reminds us that we owe our safety to men and women who are willing to risk their lives every time they're called.

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