Firefighters arrived from 17 states to help the California firefighters battle the apocalyptic Camp Fire in Paradise and the disastrous Woolsey Fire in the south. These men and women didn’t hesitate. The images from both fires defy our ability to absorb what has happened there. But to call the firefighters heroes is an understatement. That kind of bravery is extraordinary. That kind of willingness to help is a remarkable sign of hope in the midst of such devastation. People wanting to help for its own sake. For each other.
Here is one firefighter’s description of what it feels like in the forest:
“As the fire approaches, it can become surreal because of the way the smoke filters sunlight. It feels like you’re on a different planet. It can be eerie. The wall of flames can reach 20 to 150 ft. depending on what’s burning and move very quickly. When the fire’s moving, it can sound like a freight train. When you’re in a situation where houses are really starting to get hit, you can hear tires exploding or propane tanks blowing off. Especially seeing the results afterward, seeing stuff burned to white ash when there’s no remnant of what was there before, can be strange. It’s like Chernobyl; it’s just gone.”
Contrast the firefighters to our politicians. If any congressman outside of California actually went to investigate and survey the appalling and desperate situation with the fires, we haven’t heard about it. The president went to see what was going on in Paradise long after the fires had been raging for days and felt his usual need to lay blame somewhere, a response so at odds with what he was seeing and what people were going through. Who does that? But we know he is a person incapable of empathy so could not show it — in fact, he looked bizarre as he strolled amidst the devastation, viewing it as he might an exhibit. He had no grasp at all of what the people there had gone through or what the firefighters had done and were still doing to contain the fires. He suggested forest management follow the Finnish example of raking the forest — the people of Finland have been mocking that one ever since. But again, the president is not a leader, he is a showman, and amidst the fires and loss there was no role for him to play — he was out of his depth.
But what does it mean that Congress gave so little attention to the fires? That the members of Congress continued their spats and mutterings and wheeling and dealing without going out to California to see for themselves, without offering direct help, without giving much more than the cliches in their tweets?
We can only hope the newly-elected members of the House of Representatives are made of different stuff and are less able to ignore the suffering of others vocally and practically — that they step up to a world that needs leadership, not self-interest, as its governing emotion.
For the firefighters who have fought the most tragic and unrelenting fires in California history, we owe a tribute. We must tell and show them our gratitude. Congress isn’t doing this. But we can. Over fifty firefighters lost their own homes. Some died. All of them felt fear and went through it to give help at a risk to themselves most of us will never, ever know.
We must honor them now and take the action that Congress has not personally offered.
Write to them. Let them know we are listening and watching and so immensely grateful for their presence.