The picture above is from one of the many fires burning in my state of Utah and throughout the West. This one is personal because it is just a few short miles from a treasured family cabin, with little to stop it but hope and prayer. Information on these fires is hard to come by, especially this one, since it is in a remote location high in the mountains of central Utah. This fire was the force that finally induced me to join Twitter, where I can follow the random updates and photos that concerned people are posting. Information from official sources is spotty and infrequent.
There is such a feeling of helplessness watching these large fires. We appreciate the brave men and women who face danger and exhaustion fighting these fires, but, in the age of the iPad, this image of men and pickaxes seems strangely anachronistic. There are bulldozers and planes and helicopters dropping what seem like teacups full of water occasionally, but in the end we have little to do but hope the winds will shift or that temperature cool down.
In the Mountain West we get our water primarily from snowfall. Rains in the summer are mostly just temporary moments of refreshment. When it rains, we wonder if God is blessing us or taunting us for choosing to live where spring grasses dry up by July (this year, by June) and the land becomes a tinderbox, waiting for the next lightening strike (the apparent cause of the above fire) or, more often, to stupid human behavior involving fireworks, cars, guns, vandalism or any number of other things that can causes the dry earth to explode.
Many small communities are cancelling their fireworks shows this 4th. There is already enough smoke and fire in the air. The fire pictured below started yesterday in heavily populated Utah County, where I live. Our relatives have been evacuated. Meanwhile, the Freedom Festival is in full swing, tying up the roads with traffic and noxious fumes. Later tonight we have Scotty McCreery (of American Idol fame) and the Beach Boys performing at the stadium. Hopefully Wilson, Love and the other old boys realize that all the respirators in the state are needed for people suffering from smoke inhalation. They will have to breathe on their own power tonight. A couple of years ago at the “Stadium of Fire,” one of the visiting artists was actually blasted with a live rocket while sitting in the stadium. Hopefully, the folks in charge (led by Osmonds and other local dignitaries) have improved their aim. In the neighborhoods above the stadium there is a $1,000 fine for lighting fireworks. They wouldn’t want to pay that.
After many winters of heavy snowfall and heavy spring rains, this last winter was a dry one. Droughts usually go in 6-7 year cycles. It is time for another period of drought, unfortunately. During droughts we watch nervously as the reservoirs drain and the springs dry up, and we pray for more snow. Many people here learn their climate science from Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, so they don’t worry about such things. But I fear the next extended drought is going to be much worse than the last one and the one after that even worse. I don’t like the prospect of seven years of crappy skiing, but that would be just the tip of the iceberg (not that there would be any icebergs, of course). With its scenic wonders, tremendous recreation and safe, pleasant communities, Utah is a highly desirable place to vacation and live. Now it is burning up. Forbes magazine recently identified the city of Provo as the #1 spot for business in the nation. How will that change when we run out of water, when our beautiful vistas are blackened, and when ash falls from the sky more often than rain?
Our Republican governor is trying to figure out how much authority he has to do things like ban target shooting and fireworks, which has started several of the fires. During the past decades, Utah actually weakened its fireworks restrictions under pressure from the business that like to sell fireworks. Yesterday the local paper ran a story from the gun lobby about how they are not responsible for fires.
The normal fire season would just be starting around now, but everyone is already tense and exhausted. Resources are stretched thin. Even if the state can cough up more money, fire engines, helicopters, trained personnel and other things don’t just materialize out of thin air. If you want a business tip, get out in front on equipment and technologies that can be used to fight wildfires. Your market is guaranteed!
But that market and the whole wretched enterprise of preventing and fighting fires is largely a mess. There are various market failures, federalism issues, and a host of land use and water use issues that don’t lend themselves easily to market or government solutions. One sad example: my sister’s brother-in-law was killed a few years ago piloting a plane much like the one above. He was a great guy that I enjoyed spending time with in years past, and he left behind a wife and four children. Compounding the tragedy was that he worked for private contractor that was poorly insured, and the compensation his family received was barely enough to cover the funeral costs, if that. Deaths and injuries to those fighting fires is likely to only increase in coming years.
The picture above is of my house taken in my favorite season: winter! How I wish we could fast-forward to December. I hope the snows keep coming. Faintly in the background you can see the mountainside on which I live. The only neighbors I have behind me are lots of deer, rabbits and rattlesnakes (which, by the way, are showing up all over the neighborhood this year: apparently the ground is too dry, even for them). The hillside behind me is so dry, angry words could start it on fire.
So, from every mountainside (including mine), let freedom ring!