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Of Wildfires and Trust

July 02, 2002

In the last 10 months, we've become more accustomed to seeing firefighters as heroes. Now, how "gut-wrenching," as one official put it, to see two of them--a Forest Service worker and an Arizona contract firefighter--accused of igniting two of the summer's largest, most damaging Western wildfires, destroying hundreds of homes and millions of dollars in property, including timber.

The damage is much greater these days than in generations past because more buildings are near forests, and after decades of fire suppression, poor maintenance and drought there's much more to burn. Tons of volatile kindling per acre await a heat source. In frontier times, wildfires were regular occurrences, sometimes set purposely to ease travel, clear land or aid wildlife foraging (and thus hunting). Today's conflagrations are extraordinary events.

It's not unprecedented in low-income areas, as idled woodlands often are these days, for wildfires to be set by those seeking seasonal work fighting them. Nor is it unknown for fires to be started by regular firefighters with arson in their hearts.

In recent times, Americans also have seen the occasional nurse who murdered patients; too many priests who violated their calling; greedy corporate chieftains who lied, bilked companies and hid their doings; accountant watchdogs who became lap dogs; inattentive government regulators; stock advisors with financial conflicts. Their motives--including derangement, revenge, laziness and pure profit--matter less than the accumulating wounds to collective trust.

Think of the myriad ways we each trust daily--children and parents, husbands and wives, employee and employer, driver and driver, friend and friend. Now imagine distrust there. Frightening, isolating, weakening.

By next spring, the fires' nitrogen-rich ashes will nourish a bounty of grasses, wildflowers and seedlings. But nature works on more enduring cycles than humans. It will take 80 or 90 years for this summer's fire damage to heal. That's far longer, we hope, than our own recovery from so many seemingly coincidental wounds to our collective human trust.

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