'Somebody has to do it.' Unsung heroes fight California wildfires

Here awhile back, which is Southern for "I can't remember what year it was," I took my family on about a monthlong vacation. We drove all the way to California - and back - in our Dodge Caravan. Despite what my kids might tell you, we had a grand old time.

Think of Chevy Chase's "Vacation" character, Clark Griswold, on steroids and you have some idea of the type of overenthusiastic tour guide I was, and still am, given the opportunity.

During our Western odyssey, we spent an afternoon at Hoover Dam, which is an engineering marvel, by the way. As we were walking across the dam, headed back to our car, an armada of green trucks came by bearing the logo "Hot Shots." The trucks were filled with clean-cut, good-looking young men who shouted and waved at us as they drove by.

I later learned that the Hot Shots were elite firefighters and that they were on their way to California to help their neighbors battle one of the out-of-control wildfires that often plague that region during particularly dry summers.

You see, out in California they have something called the Santa Ana winds. When a fire starts burning out of control, the Santa Ana winds can whip it across the landscape faster than a horse can run.

You've seen it on television, if not in person. Whole towns sometimes have to be evacuated. The news networks like to show the multimillion dollar mansions that are sometimes consumed. While that's a tragedy, there are also a lot of regular folks who find themselves in harm's way, too - and that is just as tragic, if not quite so sensational.

A few days after our visit to Hoover Dam, we found ourselves at Lake Tahoe and were treating ourselves to a couple of nights at the Tahoe version of Caesar's Palace, which is pretty high cotton for an old linthead from Porterdale.

We were walking through the hotel, headed for the "Roman Spa," which is what they call their hot tub at Caesar's, when a group of firefighters came through the lobby. They had been bused in from the edge of the fire and the hotel was putting them up for the night.

I have never seen a more beaten-down group of young men in my life. It was 95 degrees in the shade, but most of the men were still wearing their heavy coats. I figured it was because they were just too tired to take them off.

Their faces were black with soot and grime, their shoulders were slumping and fatigue was in their faces - all of their faces. They were in stark contrast to the group that had zipped by us down at Hoover Dam.

A few minutes later, a group of them joined us in the spa, which was about the size of my house. For a long time they just sat together quietly, staring into the bubbling water. Eventually, they started talking quietly to one another about the prospects of stopping the fire's advances the next day. I didn't want to intrude on their conversation, but I finally did ask one of them why he would undertake such a dangerous mission.

He looked at me for a long time, as if he couldn't comprehend the question, and then shrugged and said, matter-of-factly, "Well, somebody has to do it."

The next morning, as I was headed out to photograph the sunrise, the firefighters, cleaned and scrubbed and full of enthusiasm, were headed out, once again, to fight the beast.

Now, I told you all that to tell you this.

At this moment, fires are raging in Southern California - near Palm Springs - and young heroes, like the ones we encountered on our swing through the West, are putting their lives on the line to save wildlife, property and human lives.

The climate is dry, the flames are hot, and the Santa Ana winds are whipping the fire into a frenzy. The fire nearly 40 square miles as we went to press and was still spreading - and four heroic firefighters had already been consumed in the flames. A fifth was barely clinging to life.

And they were doing it, as I heard straight from the horse's mouth, because somebody has to.

But nobody would have had to fight this fire if someone hadn't decided that it would be a fun thing to set a fire and watch it burn. The California fire has been labeled a "clear case of arson." What a heinous crime, particularly in a region where a fire can get out of hand so quickly.

Marion Ashley, who supervises firefighters in Riverside County, has made a plea to the public for someone to "turn that scum in."

I hope somebody does, too.

And I hope that no more of the brave men and women who are battling the fire and Santa Anna will be able to return home soon. There isn't much we can do for them back here - except pray.

Maybe you can try that. I'm pretty sure that if my Dodge Caravan can make it to California, your prayers can.

Darrell Huckaby is a Rockdale County author and educator. E-mail him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net.

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