By Jack Neworth
Currently, 18 brush and forest fires are raging in California. By far the worst is the Carr Fire in Redding where at least eight have died (including two firefighters) and four residents are missing. The inferno, ignited by a spark from a towed vehicle, has destroyed over 113,000 acres and 1,000 homes, and severely damaged 200 others. It is already the sixth worst fire in California history.
The arson-caused Cranston Fire in Idyllwild, the small mountain community above Palm Springs, has destroyed seven homes and 13,139 acres but thankfully, there were no fatalities. With historic “extreme heat” on four continents and record rains in the Northeast, the planet looks like Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” right before our eyes.
I lived in Idyllwild for five years and still have friends there. One is Connie who lives in a trailer in Mountain Center, which she had to hurriedly evacuate. Upon her return, she was told there may be no electricity for a month. Grateful her trailer didn’t go up in smoke, she jokes that, until power is restored, she’s going to be “glamping,” (luxury camping), i.e., eating a lot of sandwiches.
During my Idyllwild days [mid-1970s], I worked for the U.S. Forest Service and worked on a few forest fires. It’s exhausting, even in your 20s. It’s also dangerous as firefighters heroically risk injury and even death.
On a brighter note, I’ll share a, hopefully, amusing personal story from many years ago about a potentially huge forest fire I thought I spotted. Summoning my inner Smokey Bear, I felt I, alone, was going to prevent the entire forest from being destroyed. But, as you’ll see, I, alone, almost did exactly the opposite.
It was in August, just like now. I had recently been “promoted” to garbage truck driver. You may wonder why a college graduate (law school dropout) loved driving a huge, 2-1/2-ton garbage truck for the USFS. Simple. When you were in garbage collection, you were your own boss. (Which also meant some of us smoked a little pot, on occasion.)
To get the promotion, I fibbed (OK, lied), claiming experience driving trucks. A Jewish kid from W. Los Angeles, I had none. In fact, I had great difficulty just backing up this huge vehicle.
So, after hours, I used to sneak back to the Forest Service parking lot to practice. You had to rely solely on the exterior rear-view mirrors because the window in the cab looked directly into the truck bed. Soon, however, I mastered the truck and was very proud of myself. (Obviously, it didn’t take much.)
The truck was a brand new Forest Service green, 2-1/2-ton, 10-speed International Harvester, with a bed that could be raised and lowered from inside the cab. This meant getting rid of the garbage at the county dump required merely swinging open the back doors and, with a flip of the switch, the garbage went bye-bye. Meanwhile, because of the heat and drought, the threat of a major forest fire was so extreme, the entire Forest Service was “on alert.” This also mandated that the radio in my truck was temporarily given to extra fire patrol technicians.
On this particular day, I drove merrily up a dirt road (yes, a little stoned) to pick up the garbage from a remote campground. It didn’t occur to me that, sans radio, if there was an emergency, I had no way to reach headquarters.
This changed drastically when, as I got much further up the road, I suddenly smelled the distinct odor of a smoldering fire. Eyes nervously peeled for flames, I drove very slowly and the smell of a fire kept getting stronger. Around each corner, I thought I was going to see a wall of flames. Finally, the smell was so intense, I decided to get out on foot and inspect where the fire could be coming from.
As I hurriedly exited the truck, to my horror, I immediately got my answer. The entire truck bed was engulfed in a huge blaze. Aerosol cans were exploding like hand grenades and flames were shooting toward low-hanging tree branches. (Talk about a buzz kill!)
Here I thought I was tracking down a forest fire and all along I was the forest fire! The flames were seen in Riverside 50 miles away and within minutes, like a giant military operation, every plane, helicopter and fire truck in the district would be speeding my way. (Suffice it to say, Smokey would have been very unhappy with me.)
So, what did yours truly city boy do to prevent flying embers from setting the entire forest ablaze? Unfortunately, since I just hit my 800-word limit, you’ll have to check back next Friday for Part 2. Going out on a limb (pun intended), I’m confident you’ll find the conclusion entertaining. That said, at the time, I definitely didn’t.
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and [email protected]