When I was little, we lived in Napa, at the back of a box canyon. Steep hills on three sides. Only one way out. It was beautiful California ranchland—green until summer, then browned grass, shaded by big oak trees. Serene and lovely. With one major problem. Fire.
There weren’t fires every day, of course, or even monthly or annually. But when they happened, they raged. The properties in Soda Canyon relied on wells, which required power to pump water. One summer evening, we watched a fire burning in the distance. I was four at the time and asked what we should do if a fire came close. My dad told me, “Save water. If the power lines burn, there won’t be any water.”
The next summer, a careless burn ignited a blaze at the front of the canyon. The wind picked up embers, carried them up the hills on both sides. That fire came burning straight toward us. We got the call to evacuate around ten p.m. As my mom put the dogs, cats, canary and my little brother in the car, I filled two bathtubs and three sinks with water before my dad chased me out of the house. He refused to leave. Our house had a wooden shake roof. He wanted to hose it down first.
Car loaded with kids and pets, my mom made a serious run for it. The fire burned all around us. On one side of the road was a dry streambed, so the fire wasn’t quite as close there. We were maybe two-thirds of the way out of the canyon when a tree fell across the road in front of us. Other cars were coming up behind us. My mom had nowhere to go.
I remember her crying and my little brother crying. I remember being terrified that we were going to burn right there. Suddenly, there was a knock on the window. It was a firefighter. His truck was on the other side of the tree, which had ignited on one end. While another fireman worked a hose against that hill, this one directed my mom, and the cars behind her, over the embankment and into the streambed. Somehow, we all managed to get around that tree, back up the embankment, and make our way to town.
Firefighters battled that fire for three days. Water was, indeed, an issue when the power lines went down. That water I’d saved? Firemen soaked gunnysacks with it and beat them against burning roofs. There was a picture in the newspaper of one firefighter, eye-to-flame as he saved our house with wet burlap. The paper called five-year-old Ellen Wagner a heroine for saving that water. But I knew who the real heroes were.
Today, I still live in the west, and wildfire is a huge threat every year. Last night, I posted photos on Facebook of a January fire that raged very close to our house through tinder-dry brush. Sixty mile per hour wind gusts blew that blaze across the valley on both sides of the highway. Firefighters put themselves between the flames and houses, saving hundreds. Their lives were on the line, as they are every time they go to work.
Obviously, they don’t fight fires every day. But when they do, the risk is great. These men are heroes. Those who claim we don’t need them have never been threatened by fire. Those who claim their benefits are too expensive have never seen a firefighter eating smoke. Those who claim firemen and cops and teachers are killing our economy are dangerously misinformed, shortsighted and looking for easy fixes where none exist.
President Obama is absolutely right. We need more firemen and cops and teachers and librarians. Government can work for We the People, and in these places it must.