As Californians, it’s impossible to go through another day without being aware of the terrible fires ravaging our state. We have endured several years of record-breaking fires, but this year is the worst.
As I write, the fires are burning mostly in the north, but the blazing terror is spreading across the Southland as well. In fact, the largest fires in the state and the country are in Northern California where the flames have torched not only the forests but homes, cabins, businesses and, indeed, entire towns.
I’ve written before about the Dixie Fire, which destroyed the community of Greenville. That blaze continues its destructive path. It’s only 45% contained, is spread across five counties and is, in fact, the largest single-source wildfire in California history – having blackened 747,091 acres and destroyed 1,224 structures.
Remember, it is still burning and only partially contained.
Another fire that is spreading and causing great concern is the Caldor Fire. Not only is it causing fire damage – blackening, so far, 139,510 acres – it is threatening the South Lake Tahoe area and surrounding communities. Highways have been closed, residents evacuated. The air is filled with smoke, and the flames are threatening the businesses and resort facilities around the iconic lake. It’s a major disaster in the making and is barely 12% contained. The weather forecast is not good – increasing temperatures into the triple digits and increasing winds.
If all this isn’t stressful enough for the firefighters on the fire lines, there’s also another aspect of the blazes that usually doesn’t get much, if any, public attention.
Cal Fire is the state firefighting agency. It has some 7,300 permanent and seasonal people available to fight the flames when needed – but this year, that isn’t enough.
I’ve been thinking of the men and women on the fire lines – not just that they are doing one of the most dangerous and difficult jobs there is – but the fact that many of them live in the areas being burned. In fact some have their families evacuated and in some cases are losing their properties to the flames.
I saw a report in my local newspaper, the Bay Area Times, about one of the firefighters battling the Caldor blaze – and it made me consider their devotion to the job we ask of them.
The man in question is Buck Minitch. He and his wife, Hannah, and their two daughters live in a home in the mountain town of Grizzly Flats in El Dorado County.
He worked with Cal Fire but decided he wanted to spend more time near his family, so this summer he left to join the local Pioneer Fire Protection District.
It didn’t work out as he planned. Just three days after the Caldor Fire broke out, the Pioneer Fire chief called him to the fire lines. The blaze was tearing through the Sierra foothills with astonishing speed – estimated at 1,000 acres an hour! Almost everyone was taken by surprise. It burned down homes in the 1,200-population Grizzly Flats community within a few hours after evacuation warnings were issued.
Hannah Minitch got the warning and prepared to leave with her children, knowing that her husband was on the fire lines.
When she left the house, she said she still hoped the flames might spare them. Overnight though, the flames nearly doubled in size and destroyed their entire street. The Minitch family lost everything.
Thinking about it, Hannah said, “It kills me.”
Cal Fire hasn’t confirmed how many firefighters have lost their own homes during the fires this year, but for example, in the 2017 Tubbs Fire, 30 did, and in the Camp Fire in 2018, when the town of Paradise was destroyed, 45 firefighters lost their homes.
It was a tragedy for each of them, yet we hear nothing about it – and that’s a shame.
For the Minitch family, reality hit home the next morning after Hannah had been evacuated to her parents’ property, about 70 miles south.
She received a text from her husband – a photo showing a chimney rising from the ruins of their home.
He called minutes later. She was crying, and he said simply, “It’s all gone.” She continued crying.
She recalled him saying, “We’ve got nothing left. I’ve gotta go protect what’s left for other people.”
Then he was silent until he hung up so he could rejoin his fire crew.
That attitude is not unique yet we never hear about it. According to Tim Edwards, president of Cal Fire Local 2881, staffing during wildfires is often so thin, firefighters can’t leave to help their own families.
Even when given the option, many are determined to stay in the field – particularly those assigned to smaller rural communities where they have deep roots.
The Minitch family prepared for the possibility of fire – discussing the need to escape if needed. But, as Hannah said, “they didn’t plan to lose everything.”
She says everything is on hold even though she wants so much to talk to her husband and grieve together.
She says that thinking of Buck on the fire lines makes her feel “incredibly proud.” She knows this strike team is probably the hardest and says she texts him a reminder: “You are doing something. Look at what you are doing.”
Indeed. And something for the rest of us to remember are his words – “I’ve gotta go protect what’s left for other people.”
Talk about selfless. Talk about a hero.
Thank you, Buck Minitch.
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