Monday, July 7, 2008

Fighting Fires in Rural California

The tragic fires in California have been burning for a coupla' weeks now, and many of us in The Golden State have experienced at least minor consequences, e.g., bad air, from them. While wildfires in the West are often associated with rural places and exurbia, we do occasionally hear of evacuations from cities, such as that from the Goleta/Santa Barbara area a few days ago.

This morning 's New York Times gives us a different angle on fires in the rural West. It is the tale of the volunteer fire departments in tiny Elk and Comptche struggling to stave off fires in hard-hit Mendocino County, California with very little government assistance. (Both Elk and Comptche are wide spots in the road that don't even merit entries on U.S. Census Bureau website, but are noted on wikipedia, which lists Elk's population as 208).

Here's an excerpt from Carol Pogash's story:

When he spotted a small fire two weeks ago atop a steep hill outside this blocklong town, Charlie Acker, 57, the president of the local school board and a volunteer firefighter, jumped inside his stubby red 1965 fire truck and, with a skid and a prayer, drove up the nearly vertical incline to check out the situation.

Knowing that every other volunteer firefighter in this community of 100 residents was battling a larger blaze nearby, he used his cellphone to call his wife. She roused a crew of young kayakers who cater to tourists in this picturesque old logging town at the edge of the Pacific, some 140 miles north of San Francisco, and joined Mr. Acker on the line.

CalFire, the state fire agency, had promised to send a helicopter, but it ultimately was sent instead "to a higher rent district." When Acker sought more firefighters, he got 13 state prison inmates.

Pogash's story plays up not only the resourcefulness of these volunteers, but also the sense of community -- or gemeinschaft --associated with rural places. Pogash notes the contributions of local stations that let fire engines run tabs for gasoline; restaurants, caterers, and a market that provided free meals for firefighters; a hardware store that donated supplies; and landscapers that carried away brush at no charge. Locals donated more than $4,000 in cash to the effort, and many also participated in the effort in a hands-on way, with rakes and shovels.

Pogash writes:

Residents expressed both pride and shock that they mostly had to fend for themselves. “This community of rugged individualists pulling together is part of the reason we love where we live,” said Deborah Cahn, who with her family owns Navarro Vineyards. “But isn’t this what government is supposed to do?”

Now there's a rarity--at least in rural mythology: a rural resident invoking the need and desire for government assistance. Perhaps as owner of an upmarket winery, Cahn is not what I call a "traditional" rural resident. She may be a relative newcomer who does not share the anti-government attitudes typically associated with rurality. Indeed, it is possible that there are so few traditional rural folks in pockets of California, particularly these so close to the coast, that self-reliance is not so great a value there. Nevertheless, residents of Elk and Comptche certainly showed they could be self-reliant in a way that served not only their individual interests, but those of the entire community.

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