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  • Writer's picturewendybrd

Disturbance and Resilience: Trial by Fire by Wendy Peterman, PhD

Updated: Mar 27, 2021

Towering whimsically above my head.

Their bases, ravaged by fires of years past,

they stand triumphantly above adversity,

reminding me we are one.

Fire is an important part of the forest ecosystem. It’s also a very hot topic, pun intended. It has become an annual occurrence for fires to decimate small towns in California in the past few years. Growing up in California, earthquakes, and wildfires were a part of life. They never seemed quite so devastating as I imagined hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods in other parts of the country. Now, they are on par with those other disasters in terms of impacts.

Forests in Oregon, which used to have fire return intervals of 100 to 300 years, are having annual conflagrations of thousands of acres, often human-caused. Those of us educated in the landscape ecology perspective see fire as a natural ingredient to forest ecosystems. We also see it as something that has been treated unnaturally by humans and is therefore out of balance like so many other natural processes.

Fire suppression has been the norm most of my life. Smokey Bear has always been there telling us “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Every lightning strike that has ignited a tree or blade of grass in a forest has been immediately extinguished by firefighters. This rush to stop every conflagration along with a history of clear-cutting and replanting with a single species has left huge portions of the landscape over-stocked with fuels for wildfires. Combine this with the increased frequency and intensity of droughts, leaving many of these fuels water-stressed or diseased, and we have a recipe for natural disasters. Rather than, “How do we stop every wildfire from starting or happening?”, the new questions, are, “How do we learn to live in a world where wildfire is a natural occurrence?” and “How do we make ourselves and our landscapes more resilient?”

As a small child, living in the “wildland/urban interface,” aka “WUI,” I experienced this reality first-hand. One of my most vivid memories is of a fire that started on a neighboring property from a spark emitted by some sort of power tool onto dry grass. The man who was using the tool took a break from his project to nap, and when he awoke, his whole world was on fire.

A wildfire is hot, SO hot, and LOUD. The heat isn’t just uncomfortable like when you stand too close to a campfire or furnace. It pushes against you with actual force, nearly knocks you over, and sucks the moisture out of every living thing within a wide radius. The fire itself sounds like a bull-roarer, amplified like a rock concert. The tempo of the sound is ragged as gusts of wind whip the flames in rapidly-changing directions. The air is full of smoke, and ash flutters to the ground like graceful snowflakes.

All that day, we watched firefighters running up the mountains with shovels, shouting orders, and we heard loud airplanes booming above as they dropped red liquid in huge swaths across the horizon.

I remember my dad using a hose to water the parched grass on our side of the creek, a futile attempt to keep the fire from spreading in our direction. After several stressful hours with no containment in sight, the bikers who lived across the pasture came over and talked to my dad for a few minutes, then they all ran toward the fire with their shovels to help the firefighters. For the record, this is exactly what private citizens should not do in a wildfire.

My mom, sister, and I were huddled pitifully on the front deck, waiting for my dad to heroically stop the fire from reaching our land, when a helicopter with a bucket on its tail flew right over our house. My mom pointed at it and told us how it would dump the bucket of water on the fire. My sister and I were in awe to see a helicopter so close. Then, with a loud wracking of the universe, the entire tail of the helicopter broke off. It just suddenly, without warning, broke off the helicopter right over us. It was still attached by a small piece of sheet metal, so it didn’t land on us, but the helicopter began to twirl in the air, doing a series of graceful, sickening loops before crashing several hundred feet up the hill. My mom, who was a nurse, took off running up the steep driveway. She yelled for me to run into the house and grab as many towels as I could and follow her. I did as I was told. I ran into the bathroom, grabbed an armful of towels out of the cabinet and yelled for my sister to run after me up the hill. I was at most six years old. She was four. My mom stopped momentarily at the top of the driveway to receive the towels, then told us to run to the neighbor’s house seven-tenths of a mile down the dirt road and wait for her there. We did.

My mom found the crashed helicopter at the same moment as a firefighter who had been leaving the fire for his brief period of rest and relaxation. The helicopter pilot was alive, and he had climbed out of the aircraft. It was still running though. He described to the firefighter how to get into the helicopter and turn it off to avoid having it explode, killing all three of them and starting yet another fire. My mom followed her training for an accident scene and stabilized his neck and back with her knees while waiting for the firefighter to get the paramedics out to the mountains.

As it turned out, there were multiple fires around the valley that day. The helicopter pilot was assigned to another fire, but he had seen ours from the air and decided to make a pass with the bucket he had just filled from a nearby reservoir to try to save our house. Experts assumed the rope of the bucket must have somehow wrapped around the tail of the aircraft, causing it to break, but we had seen it, plain as day, hanging straight down from the tail, and the tail just broke for no apparent reason.

I think the pilot was named John. My mom saved his life. He was paralyzed from the waist down. My sister and I weren’t allowed to visit him in the ICU, but my mom, who worked at the hospital, snuck us into the bushes outside his window so we could see he was OK. He waved at us from his hospital bed. I made pictures with my crayons for my mom to take to him to help him recover.

Years later, when we were living in Sacramento for my parents to finish their college degrees, we saw him again. He was standing on the sidewalk next to Sacramento State University. He had fully recovered. I, on the other hand, had not. That crumpled helicopter sat at the top of our driveway for weeks. We drove past it every time we went to town, and my stomach would wretch at the sight of the tailless helicopter with its mangled body, reminding me of the hot, smokey fire, the deafening sound of the Boraid bombers dropping their blood-red loads, the loud CRACK of the tail breaking, the helicopter, spiraling to the ground and the man using his arms to drag himself from the wreckage. For years, I would panic, scream, cry and sometimes swear or make obscene gestures at helicopters flying overhead with their lazy, intermittent growl echoing in the sky. I would plug my ears and run into the house, my heart pounding in my chest. Some nights, I awoke sweaty and terrified from nightmares that were probably less disturbing than the actual scene that had occurred that day in Northern California.

One night, when I was about fifteen, I was having a dream that I was in World War II. There was a bomb raid in London, like in every WWII movie I had seen. Sirens were blaring, lights were glaring in apartment windows, and there was that terrifying, rumbling roar of bomber planes. I suddenly awoke from that dream to see it was very similar to my current reality. My bedroom was flooded with light and the whole world was consumed by that awful, intense, mechanical sound. I lay there, heart leaping out of my body, hoping I was in a dream within a dream, and knowing I wasn’t. It turned out that someone had escaped from Folsom Prison and was running through the field behind our house. The search helicopters had found him and were hovering over our backyard in Orangevale, CA, shining a floodlight on him and ordering him to surrender.

Wildfires, helicopters, childhood trauma. Things we try to stop, avoid, or leave in the past, and yet, there they are. Natural, inevitable parts of our lives. One might think I would walk away from this past. Avoid the home with the broken-down swing set that faced the burnt skeleton of an oak tree I loved to stare at and talk to for hours, accompanied by the metallic creaking rhythm of my swing as I rocked in the air. Strap myself to a desk in a city, far from forests full of fuels ready for ignition in the increasingly hot, dry summers. Never talk about this experience, lest it arouse intense feelings or makes someone else uncomfortable.

Instead, I can be found walking up a steep dirt road, hard hat on my head, a backpack full of gear, carrying a shovel or a chainsaw, while helicopters roar overhead and heavy machine operators await my instructions on how to hydrologically stabilize a road that crosses a landslide above a stream with endangered fish in it. I am not paralyzed with fear or terrorized by the memory of those sights and sounds from my childhood. I am not avoiding experiences that remind me of major trauma in my life. I am not dulling my sensations or letting myself be sucked into self-destructive behaviors and repeated trauma like I have in the past.

I am fully alive, exhilarated by the chaos. Inspired by the heroism and dedication of my colleagues, enlivened by the sights, sounds, and smells of raw nature all around me. And, I am proud. I smile a huge smile and chuckle to myself as I send a mental image of myself riding in a fire scouting helicopter to my late grandfather who told me to hurry and finish my education to save the trees before there weren’t anymore. The trees and I are living an abundant life, Grandpa.

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