Rain and Responsibility

The past couple of evenings I’ve been able to lie awake in my bed and listen to the sound of rain tapping on the metal roof. I’ve always loved this sound but I really enjoy it now because of the metal roof; it truly brings out the sometimes steady and other times not so steady drum of the rain drops. Given the dearth of precipitation this past year the soothing sound of rain drops striking the roof are truly appreciated. But there is even more to love about this sound as it signals an easing of the drought conditions in this area and is assisting the firefighters in their heroic efforts to control the wildfires of Alaska. Although it truly took a while Mother Nature has finally seen fit to bathe this area in some much needed moisture!

Across the past two days I’ve reported 0.94” of rain to CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network) and while July is the third wettest month of the year in Talkeetna we now have 2.41” of precipitation. Given we’re just 18 days into the month and showing 2.41” we’re 67% of the way to the normal rainfall total with 13 days remaining so with a bit of luck we might make the average rainfall total for July. If this happens it will be the first month in 2015 that we’ve reached or exceeded the monthly rainfall amount.

Sadly this is a bit late for the victims of the fires in June and early July and comes on the heels of more information released about the inexcusable stupidity and utter disregard for safety displayed by the perpetrator of the Sockeye Fire, one Greg Imig, along with Amy Dewitt whom both live in Anchorage. No, they have yet to be arraigned but Imig reportedly confessed to burning trash on that fateful Sunday morning which quickly escaped his control and began what would become the Sockeye Fire. The couple claimed they called 911 when the fire was already out of containment but they gave no location or their names. In addition, they apparently left in huge hurry leaving a chainsaw, gas cans and jack pads for a motorhome behind. Spent fireworks were found at the scene but they are not believed to be the primary source of the fire.

But there is more to this story that provides damning evidence regarding the utter negligence of this duo. Imig was apparently an on-air meteorologist at one time; given the conditions that Sunday morning any rational person would have recognized the utter stupidity of having open fires but a meteorologist should most definitely have known better. There were Red Flag warnings all over the state and any sensible person would have realized the immediate danger of any open flames. Yet this individual decided to ignore common sense and all the warning and burn open brush piles..?!?! Because of this pair’s rank idiocy 55 dwellings were destroyed, many more damaged, an uncounted number of animals threatened and some apparently killed, hundreds of acres of boreal forest incinerated, multiple forced evacuations were implemented and hundreds of firefighters risked their lives spending days fighting a completely unnecessary fire.

Because we are a country of laws, or were before the recent administrations decided they know better than our founders, this must be allowed to play out in our court system. Somehow I have a feeling the real pain for these incomprehensibly stupid people will come in the form of the soon to be filed civil actions. This is how our system works and we need to allow it to take over and proceed. Assuming this pair is to blame, and with Imig’s confession of guilt it seems a given, they should feel the full weight of the legal judgments against them.

All of us wonder why someone would undertake such dangerous actions in the wake of so many warnings; it just seems incomprehensible. Sadly, I fear this is yet another example of the PC driven solipsism that seems to be sweeping the world. So many people are so powerfully inculcated to just live within their own heads and serve only their own interests and needs; we’re becoming a culture that almost refuses to look outside ourselves. In such a scenario if one wanted to ‘enjoy’ burning trash and debris then just do it; such individuals never even consider the potential consequences of their actions except as it might affect themselves. Perhaps if our numbers were just tiny fractions of what they are currently we could get by with such a mindset but this is not the case. Human beings tend to live in groups and as such it becomes necessary to not just think about one’s own needs but to think also about the good of the group. Yes, this does require more effort, at least until one trains one’s self to automatically figure the group’s needs and safety into one’s mental calculus, but it is necessary for people to exist in close proximity and especially in large numbers. Yet paradoxically, as we continue to increase our numbers, a large portion of us put ourselves ahead of all others and continue to be focused upon just our own wants and desires. This trend is not something that is wise yet somehow we have generations of folks who follow its path; often to the detriment of their fellow human beings.

Perhaps we are reaching a tipping point of sorts when we must all sit back, take a deep breath and look into ourselves with as much objectivity as possible and ask; “Am I really concerned about the needs and safety of my fellow human beings?” After all, in the end we are all the same and in this together. Personally I’ve found I have no choice but to accept assistance from others and this only increases as we age. Maybe it is time to really evaluate just how much empathy we have for our fellow human beings? Living in Alaska one of the things I truly admire is what I call ‘the fierce sense of freedom and independence’ so pre-eminent in so many of the people. But along with this comes the undeniable acceptance that at times we all need a hand. Alaskans in general manage to balance this so very well; we cherish our independence and freedoms but we are also among the first to offer assistance to those truly in need. In this sense the lower48 and, indeed, the rest of the world could learn a bit from those of us who call ‘The Great Land’ our home.

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

My First Look At The Willow Area

My final OT session was yesterday (Thursday, June 25th) and so I had reason to make the 64 mile drive south down the Parks Highway to Wasilla; in so doing I drove through the Willow area. It occurred to me I’ve never actually seen an area recently burned by a wildfire and so I was basically clueless as to what I would see. Much to my surprise it was actually rather limited in scope but then this was only what  I could view from the highway as I had no intention of wandering around the area. I began to see burned areas perhaps four miles north of Willow and recognized the destruction was extremely haphazard in nature; in some areas wide swaths of forest were burned but in others just pockets of forest and grassy areas were blackened with other areas immediately adjacent untouched. I also witnessed a couple of apparently intact dwellings surrounded by blackened forest; this bore testimony to the valor and skill of the hero firefighters and possibly some die-hard locals.The air was just a bit hazy but I believe this was due to the slowly breaking down temperature inversion we’ve experienced across this week but the instantly recognizable smell of ‘wildfire’ was everywhere. Along with the smell were numerous signs thanking the firefighters; in addition there were official signs designating command centers, a heli-pad, and marshaling points. I also did see a few fire vehicles off the road in burned areas. The main town of Willow appeared to be untouched by the fire but was mostly surrounded by burned areas especially to the north and east. While driving through Willow I tried to imagine how it would have appeared with smoke and active fire all around the outskirts; it would have been very frightening!

I must admit that I had expected to see more damage given all the reports and aerial coverage but was very pleased to see a relative dearth of destroyed buildings. This is not to minimize the destruction wrought by the Sockeye Fire; it was very costly and only because of the heroic actions of the firefighters and immediate action on the part of the Mat-Su Borough in getting evacuation plans functioning were no lives lost. Even so it was a debilitating fire and something no one would want to experience if given a choice. It is up to we Alaskans to insure our sisters and brothers receive all the assistance they require to put their lives back together. While heartbreaking to lose one’s home and possessions to such an event in the end it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been especially as Mother Nature did not cooperate. In the final analysis possessions are just ‘things’ but life is special and also irreplaceable.

Concentration of firefighting vehicles just north of Willow

Concentration of firefighting vehicles just north of Willow

Burned areas on both sides of the Parks north of Willow

Burned areas on both sides of the Parks north of Willow

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

Fire truck heading north on the Parks Highway

Fire truck heading north on the Parks Highway

 

Just When We Don’t Need Hot, Windy and Dry Conditions…

Alaska has an amazing way of demonstrating just how little real ‘control’ we humans can exert upon this awesome state and yesterday we saw another humbling example of this truism. My friend Mark stopped in around 14:30 and told me a wildfire was burning to the south around Mile 78 of the Parks Highway. We immediately turned on the television but had to wait until 17:00 to get an Anchorage newscast; from it we learned a wildfire was burning out of control along the western side of the Parks at Mile 76 and had jumped the Parks Highway and was now burning along the east side as well. The state troopers had closed the Parks at Mile 78 to any traffic south bound; they were also diverting folks trying to drive north. At that time the fire was believed to be about 30 acres in size. Around 17:20 we decided to make the 7 mile trip to Cubby’s – a small grocery store – at the intersection of the Spur and the Parks Highway. As we approached the entrance to Cubby’s from the Parks we could see a huge cloud to the south along with the upwelling of ash brown smoke. This was our first glimpse of what was to become the Sockeye Wildfire.

The parking lot of Cubby’s was filled and inside it was a mess; many locals and tourists didn’t even know there was a fire and those that did were scrambling. The RVer’s were buying anything they could grab and many tourists in cars were panicking because they needed to get south. Few people had even the scant information we possessed so we disseminated what little we knew to the crowds. Upon finishing our shopping we headed back to the Spur; in so doing we saw a trooper parked on the side of the road stopping folks southbound on the Parks. They were allowing anyone access who lived at Mile 80 or further north; all others were being diverted to Talkeetna or asked to head north. Driving north on the Spur I saw three large Princess Cruise Lines buses pulled off on the side of the road; I’m sure they were trying to figure out what to do. As tourist season is in full bloom most of the rooms in Talkeetna were occupied and I’m sure by Sunday evening there was no lodging to be had in the village or outlying areas.

Our weather was about the worst it could be with blazing sunshine, an air temp of 84 F along with 30+ mph northerly winds and a relative humidity of just 22%. Sadly today is the same but as of 13:12 AKDT the outdoor temp is already 84.2 F with just 26% RH and 25+ mph northerly winds. Given our maximum temps are now occurring around 20:00 we will most likely set a record with temps near if not exceeding 90 F. Because of the northerly winds this area is safe; in this sense we are extremely lucky. But the fire continues to burn out of control and within a bit over 12 hours it has grown from just 30 acres to more than 6,200 acres; that’s an increase in size of almost 207 times!!  The Parks is currently open but is just one lane through the Willow area and vehicles can only drive this area when led by a pilot car.  Given the usual amount of summer traffic on the Parks coupled with a very busy tourist season there are a lot of rightly worried people.  Sadly many tourists are getting a taste of what it is like to live in Alaska!

Out of control due to high winds and hot temps with low humidity the Sockeye Fire burns ever onward

Out of control due to high winds and hot temps with low humidity the Sockeye Fire burns ever onward

The tenuous hold we humans have in ‘The Great Land’ is highlighted by this fire; in just 24 hours the blaze has cut the only road from Anchorage and the Palmer/Wasilla area to the interior and is destroying homes and properties. Normally the state allows wildfires to burn uncontrolled unless lives or property are in danger; in this case they are working feverishly to contain the fire.  Six ‘hot shot’ teams were flown in from the lower 48 last night and are on the fire lines along with every available firefighting team from the state. As of this writing it has spread to the outskirts of the Nancy Lake area which is large and densely populated – at least by Alaskan terms – with expensive homes, summer cabins and lots of docks with lake access.  Just to the SE is Houston; it really lies at the northernmost reaches of the Wasilla area. These folks are being evacuated as are those in the Nancy Lake area.

Iditarod contestant Jan Steve's Willow home

Iditarod contestant Jan Steve’s Willow home

Alaskans know Mother Nature will largely do as she will and there’s little we can do about it but go with the flow. But we can support our neighbors and do all we can to help them not just survive this disaster but also rebuild. For the near term just trying to organize to assist them is a huge chore; no one knows just how much work will be required in the future to help them re-establish their lives.  Not that most of us needed the reminder but we humans exist in this majestic state at the benevolence of Mother Nature; as such we must always remember she can be a fickle landlord.  Please say a prayer for all our neighbors to the immediate south and for all the brave firefighters!

Water tanker aircraft makes a run on the Sockeye Wildfire around Willow

Water tanker aircraft makes a run on the Sockeye Wildfire around Willow