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The future of fire, and hotshots

Does anyone have a clue what more fires burning more intensely will mean for the young men who fight them?

July 28, 2013|By Bob Sipchen

We'd been through this before, and my wife, Pam, and I were calm as we into San Bernardino. This, however, was a harbinger, like no other fire I'd ever seen, as a child living in what wonks now call the "urban-wildland interface," or in the five seasons I paid my way through college working for the U.S. Forest Service.

For an hour or two, we stood in a distant wash, watching the firestorm cascade down from the mountains and into the city like a 5,000-foot-high wall of lava. Tim and I sneaked through the police lines and crept into a landscape Dante might have envisioned.

Fire engines slipped through the darkness, lights flashing helplessly. Several times the wind shifted and we turned and ran. That and the other wildfires of October 2003 claimed 26 lives and destroyed 3,361 structures across Southern California, our home included.

Almost a decade later, San Bernardino has not fully recovered from that $1-billion conflagration — not economically, sociologically or emotionally. As fires burn this summer, and as the tragedy in Arizona spurs commentary about more wildfires made more intense, we as Westerners have a lot to think about.

Here's one relatively small thing I think about with sadness: The almost supernatural threat of these new conflagrations may soon relegate to history the character-tempering crucible of hotshot firefighting.

Bob Sipchen shared in two Pulitzer Prizes in his years as staff writer and editor at the Los Angeles Times. He is now editor in chief of Sierra magazine and communications director for the Sierra Club.

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