Revisiting the 2006 Esperanza Fire tragedy

I remember hearing about the tragic Esperanza fire when it occurred in 2006, but avoided reading much about it, mainly because it hit a bit too close to home. The fact that a number of Forest Service firefighters had died in the line of duty was bad enough, but at that point in my life, I felt the return of a growing resentment that my former firefighting career had ended. True, it had ended in 1983 with one of two knee surgeries, and I held onto resentment for a long time after that, but the feelings were back as my current career goals began to suffer in a downhill economy. You see, I wished I’d still been in the action. Did I want to die in a fire? Of course not. But whenever tragedy struck the wildland firefighter community I felt like I was missing out on something.

While I was writing my book, I decided to read a few books on firefighting. A friend loaned me John Maclean’s book “The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57.” That book upset me so much I couldn’t sleep. Nightmares took over my dreams, and the feeling of loss was overwhelming, both for horrible way the victims died, the friends, family and coworkers of the men, but again for the loss of the career I did not want to leave.

Therefore, when I read this morning about how difficult it was for the screenwriter to complete the script for the upcoming movie “Esperanza” I understood why. The story is a complex one, and to present the events without boring non-firefighters would be challenging. I am not sure I will be able to watch the movie however, which at this writing does not have a release date.

Also, just the other day I read an extensive article about how the Forest Service is looking to change firefighting protocol based on the events of the Esperanza Fire. The reason these men died was because they were protecting an unoccupied home. It amazes me that after 10 years fire officials are still examining that practice. Wildland firefighters are not trained to fight structure fires, nor do I believe they should be risking their lives to protect homes from fire. That is how those men lost their lives. With the urban-wildland interface conflict increasing as more homes are built next to remote areas prone to fire, authorities need to make a firm decision on where wildland firefighters must draw the line before more lives are lost. Why this has not yet been resolved, I don’t understand.

Women firsts: Joy Lofthouse, WWII pilot

Joy Lofthouse and her sister Yvonne, thanks to Pauline Gower, who persisted in questioning Parliament why women weren’t allowed to fly planes, eventually making it possible for the pair to join the Air Transport Auxiliary in 1943. Their job? Ferry Spitfires and Hurricanes from the front lines to the factory for servicing. This in itself was a dangerous job, and back then, for a woman to take on such work, was also unheard of.
What is also amazing is that they actually earned the same pay as the male pilots. Ironic, since that rarely happens even today.

When recently interviewed, Mrs. Lofthouse said she was proud of the work she’d done and did not concern herself with the dangers. It was important to her to be a part of the war effort, and, she said, to have the opportunity to be her own person and earn an income at a time where most women were concerned about getting married and having children. She loved the independence this job gave her. She also reveled in the reactions from people back then when she told them she flew aircraft before she learned to drive.

Then, at the age of 92, Mrs. Lofthouse had the honor to fly a Spitfire once again, 70 years after she’d last flown. This both thrilled and delighted her, if not scared her a bit. But she managed and said she felt young again. Sadly, she passed away just days before her 93rd birthday, but she will always be remembered not only for one of the first to enter man’s flying world, but as a trailblazer for women’s rights in equal pay for equal work.

"Let it burn" versus "put it out."

50,000 acre Hog-Fong Fire. Klamath National Forest 1977
When I worked for the Forest Service back in the 1970’s, we put out ALL fires. Big ones, little ones, ones started by lightning, ones started by humans. Total fire suppression back then was still considered essential. Not only that, but a 50,000 acre fire was considered monumental.

Within ten years however, biologists had a new take on fire ecology. Without fire, forests grew thick and impenetrable. So thick, that when a fire did start, huge conflagrations (hundreds of thousands of acres) engulfed forests leaving nothing but sterile soil and little hope of recovery.

The “let it burn” policy was implemented in the 1980’s. The idea was to let fires burn naturally if they were caused by natural events and if they threatened no people, homes or other structures. This all sounded good on paper. In practice, though, not so good. In fact it’s proven to be nearly impossible to implement. Why? Because we’ve been putting fires out for so long, the idea of “Oh, just let it burn itself out” ends up creating catastrophic fires that can’t be put out at all. Most wildfires now either die out because there’s nothing left to burn, they are rained out, or they meet up with natural firebreaks such as large expanses of rock or pavement.

A prime example is what happened in 1988 to Yellowstone National Park after summer storms sparked multiple blazes. Because these fires were lightning caused, officials chose to monitor them instead of fight them. However, high winds, added to a drought-stressed landscape, in no time caused 150,000 acres to disappear in twenty-four hours. Nearly 10,000 firefighters were dispatched, but even they couldn’t contain the monster. It took months to put the fires completely out, but not until over a million acres were scorched and 120 million dollars were spent.

Fire officials had to admit the “let it burn” plan wasn’t working.

In 2009 a new policy was introduced. Instead of letting fires burn or putting them all out, a more logical approach is in practice. It took that long for officials to figure out that we don’t have that much wilderness left to let fires burn. I’ve been saying that for years! Now they are looking at all of the components affecting the decision to fight the fire or not, including the encroaching of humans on wilderness edges.

Let’s face it, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to build a home with a protected forest in your backyard if you could afford to? What people don’t understand, however, is this comes with a price. Just like those who build in hurricane, flood, tornado or earthquake territory: you have to be prepared for loss. What’s different about building adjacent to wilderness areas is those homeowners expect the Government to protect their homes from a wildfire, when they really have no right to. The tragic part is that although wildland firefighters are not trained in structural firefighting, they want to help, and some have lost their lives trying to save private structures.

Then there is the public outcry over the loss of our precious National Forests and Parks, which I think has validity. Should we really be letting what little we have left go up in smoke? It’s not like there is plenty of scenic lands left to convert into new parks. I’m looking at that scenario right outside my living room window. The 2005 Florida Fire in the Santa Rita Mountains destroyed 75% of this unique “Sky Island” when the Forest Service opted for “let it burn” instead of suppression. I’ve hiked to the burned areas recently, and recovery is spotty, if at all. Certainly I will never see majestic ponderosas and Doug firs in those areas in my lifetime. Was letting it burn a smart move, considering how few acres compose the Santa Rita range?

Because the wildland-urban interface conflict and the ‘let’s save what we’ve got’ stance are a major concern, the new policy is designed to look closer at what dictates managing a fire and when to let the fire manage itself. This is not going to be easy. Will wildland firefighters now be trained to battle structure fires? Will structural firefighters now be called to battle forest fires? Should we put out fires in areas where not putting them out can completely destroy an entire ecosystem?

I am glad a new policy is in effect, but the challenges are still great. You can’t undo 100+ years of firefighting in one fire season or many fire seasons. Fire management practices are changing and will continue to change. The focus now must be on fuel management (thinning and prescribed burns) more than fire suppression, but even that takes years to accomplish. The answers are not cut and dry, and they are not easy. In the meantime, catastrophic wildfires will continue, and millions of acres will be lost. Let’s just hope we get a handle on it all before there’s no forest left for our children’s children to enjoy.

Women firsts: Conquering Mt. Fuji and dispelling myths

It’s interesting to note that years ago, even if a woman wanted to climb Mt. Fuji, she was forbidden to do so. It wasn’t until the Meji Era ended in 1912 that the rule ended. This Era brought about a more accepting and modern culture, permitting women to participate in activities that were considered “for men only.” Despite the rule, however, one woman made it to the top in 1867, but details are sketchy. Lady Fanny Parkes is officially recorded as completing the trek.

As one legend goes, Mt. Fuji was thought to have a woman deep inside the mountain. Should she become jealous, she would erupt. This is why it is thought no Japanese woman climbed Mt. Fuji, even if she could. It took a brave Ms. Parkes to prove that no eruptions would take place if a woman set foot upon the mountain. After she did, other women soon followed suit.

Women firsts: Engineer for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge is considered a historical monumental engineering project unlike anything built before. This bridge, spanning across the East River from New York to Brooklyn, was designed by John Roebling in 1869. Roebling’s daughter-in-law, Emily Warren Roebling, became in involved when her husband, Washington, took over after his father passed away.

Emily Roebling didn’t want to be a passive assistant. While most women would have balked at engineering studies, Emily dove into unlikely topics such as mathematics, material strengths, stress analysis and cable construction. Little did she know how valuable those classes would be. Just a few years later her husband became seriously ill, leaving him nearly paralyzed. The bridge construction fell on Emily.

Mrs. Roebling stepped right in. So perfectly, that many thought she was the Chief Engineer. Seems to me she was, even though the title was never officially bestowed upon her.

While becoming an engineer had not been part of Emily Roebling’s life plan, she became one, overseeing the completion of one of the finest examples of engineering for its time.

Is aerial firefighting worth the risk and cost?

I just read an article questioning the effects of aerial attacks on fires and whether or not they work. That concern is nothing new. Dropping slurry on fires has often been the target of public officials disputing the cost, danger and effectiveness of this form of firefighting.

Slurry is composed of mainly water and fertilizer: water to cool down flames, and fertilizer to encourage regrowth. The problem is slurry alone does not put the fire out. By the time the liquid filters through tree canopies, all you get is a fine mist with minimal coverage. Actually, the intent is to cool down the flames enough that ground crews can move in closer and build line, a cleared area to prevent the fire from advancing. Is it worth the expense? Many say it is not. However, what is interesting is that even though it is not all that effective, every year thousands of gallons of the pink mixture are dropped on wildland fires all over the Country.

So why do fire officials continue to pour millions of dollars into aerial firefighting? Turns out it’s more for the news media and the public outcry than anything else.

Take your average forest fire. News reporters are not allowed to be any closer than fire camp, and sometimes not even that close. This means no spectacular photos to plaster on the TV or newspapers. Add a dramatic slurry drop, however, and bingo! You’ve got some pretty dramatic shots that sell papers and glue people to their televisions.

The other interesting phenomenon is that the general public doesn’t feel like a fire is being fought aggressively enough if they can’t see any obvious action. Aerial firefighting provides a sense of security to people, that something is being done to protect their homes, businesses and forest.

Aerial firefighting is extremely dangerous not only to ground crews below, but to the brave pilots that fly in hazardous conditions. Steep terrain, unpredictable wind shifts and fire generated weather, all make this type of firefighting one of the most dangerous kinds of flying a pilot could face.

Will aerial slurry drops end in the near future? It’s hard to say. What’s scary is that it might take a disastrous loss of life before changes take place. The deaths of the Granite Mountain 19 shook Forest Service policies to the core, and not only is the effectiveness of the fire shelter being revisited, but so is training and procedures previously thought to be adequate.

The take-away here, at least for folks worried that government agencies aren’t fighting fires aggressively enough, is that just because you don’t see planes dropping slurry, it doesn’t mean nothing is being done.

Women firsts: The first American woman bullfighter

Patricia McCormick was so good at bullfighting, an elite Mexican bullfighter once said that had she been a man, she probably would have been a top bullfighter of her time. She wasn’t the first woman to fight bulls, there is no record of who was the very first, but she was the first American woman to do so in Mexico.

Ms. McCormick was only seven years old when she saw her first bullfight and became fascinated with the sport. She took lessons from a retired matador, debuting in 1951 in Ju├írez. It wasn’t an easy fight: the bull trampled and tossed her around before she killed him.

It’s interesting to note that while many male matadors complimented her on her bravery and talent, none were willing to sponsor her so she could become a full-fledged matador, not just an apprentice fighter. But that didn’t stop thousands of fans from attending her fights, where she refused to fight bulls on horseback. She wanted to stand before them at their level.

Ms. McCormick suffered a number of goring injuries, including a horn into her stomach and a life-threatening wound to her leg. The stomach injury was so severe, the doctor was ready to give up on her and give last rites, but she survived.

Patricia continued to fight bulls until 1962, where she retired in California to a sedentary life of artistry and secretarial work. Life didn’t treat her all that well, and she continually had money troubles. Ms. McCormick never married, and never had any children. She died at the age of 83 in a nursing home.

While bullfighting has never been of interest to me (I’ve always thought it was cruel), the fact that Ms. McCormick pursued something she wanted to do despite the odds, is what is important in this overview of her life.