Guest Column: A brush with fire; a lesson in respect

Without question, the discovery of fire has changed our world. New research indicates that man learned to control fire more than a million years ago, far earlier than previously thought.

The simple process of fire has not changed in all of those years. Put simply, fire is merely the rapid oxidation of a material in the exothermic chemical process of combustion. In that process, it releases, heat, light and various reactionary products.

Flame is it’s only visible part as fire continues to transform our world.

It has allowed man to stay warm at night in caves. It has allowed man to make swords, plowshares and other tools to facilitate incredible leaps of destiny.

With refinement, it tempered gold, melted iron to build skyscrapers and today is ubiquitous with chemical processing, electricity and the transformation of earthen elements into all the conveniences of modern life.

However, when unexpectedly unleashed by nature, the majesty of fire quickly becomes a killer…an enemy capable of inflicting excruciating pain; a predator that instantly destroys everything in its path.

In many ways, a forest fire is like bad kinfolk. You never expect them and don’t want them near your home when they are in the neighborhood.

But sad to say fire did come to California this week, leaving in its wake a trail of death, destruction and human suffering.

Thousands of people in Orange County woke up to the reality of a forest fire last Tuesday morning. Personally, I left my Anaheim Hills home that fateful morning with not a single thought that this day would harbor the potential to change my life.

I’m sure the day started much the same way for every affected resident.

The Canyon Fire 2 began very near where I live my home and within minutes, the blaze jumped from 25 acres to more than 500. The scramble was on. Then the call came. “If you want to save anything, you need to get back as soon as you can.”

By then, of course, Orange County, especially near Anaheim, was already pandemonium.  After an hour of trying to get up the hill, the wind and the smoke at times obscured the view.

It was surreal as traffic was crammed into every lane, coming and going, and eventually stopped. Dead. Not moving. Cars could barely move, even as the fire trucks and ambulances struggled to get through. Exasperated residents exchanged words through open windows but our fate was clear. It was time to forget the belongings, turn around and get out.

Eventually, police restored order, turned us all around and slowly, painfully, the pitiful caravan began snaking in retreat back down the hill.

In less than two hours, Canyon Fire 2 was out of control and burning everything in its path.

Ironically, in northern California, an even greater fire was roaring through Santa Rosa, taking with it not only property, but precious lives of those who were not fortunate enough to get out alive. There, even the refreshing sanctity of a swimming pool was not enough to save some from the searing heat of a forest fire out of control.

Uncontrolled fire is truly hell on earth. It’s power rivals that of its Creator as in an instant, everything it touches becomes little more than ashes to be swept up. One cannot believe its ferocity until you’re caught up in it.

Back in Orange County, six houses at the top of one hill went up in flames first.  Fire departments from throughout the state were rushed in. So were the air tanker DC-10’s, busy dropping their orange fire retardant chemicals.

Firemen, National Guardsmen and even members from local military bases were rushed to the scene. Even inmates (one of whom maybe escaped) were called to battle the fire on the front lines. It was all hands on deck as friends and neighbors were suddenly at risk of losing their property and maybe, their lives.

Sadly, only at times like this, and perhaps only those who are truly at risk understand the inherent fear fire can strike the heart of someone directly affected. The sheer randomness of the fire and the quickness with which the wind can shift it is mind-boggling. It leaves some homes reduced to ashes while others, only a few feet away, stand completely untouched.

Thousands of evacuees, thankful at first, were scurrying and worrying public safety officials to get back home. Almost as soon as the tragedy began, it moved on as fast as the wind. Too many lives were lost, though fortunately none in Orange County, while dozens of local structures were destroyed, many damaged and almost 10,000 acres burned in the Canyon 2 fire alone.

In the blink of eye, the amazing power of fire had come and gone. Our house came within 10 minutes of being destroyed before the wind shifted and our block was saved. Others nearby were not so lucky.

Firemen came from many states to assist and now that the Canyon 2 fire is nearly contained, many of the firemen have moved on to northern California, where things were, at press time, significantly worse.

Orange County had a life or death emergency and the community (Los Al, Cypress, Anaheim firemen, first responders et al) reacted with impressive ferocity. Without them, the outcome would have undoubtedly been much worse.

Times like these remind us to respect the fragility of life. For sure, we should marvel at the enormous power of fire, but equally be grateful for the generosity of others who almost always put everything else aside to save us from it.

Maybe we should all welcome our cousins more often.

David Young is the staff reporter of the News Enterprise.