When the news broke that the Rim Fire near Yosemite – which burned some 250,000 acres, 11 homes, dozens of structures and cost more than $80 million – was allegedly started by a hunter’s illegal fire, the reaction was predictable.
A desire to make the hunter pay for his misdeed. Perhaps literally.
I just shivered at a memory.
Several decades ago, I nearly burned thousands of acres on the west side of the Six Rivers National Forest in Humboldt County.
It was the summer I was the activities director at a Christian camp. I was 19, but had all kinds of authority – dangerous for a teenager. My job description was to make it fun for the campers without profanity or extreme sexual content.
That worked for me, because I had more enthusiasm than judgement. I was close enough to the age of the campers that I planned fun, crazy events – and participated in them, trash-talking the kids to make it more fun (at least for me).
On the final afternoon of camp – after days of crazy sports and nights of leading campfire skits and games – we held a Camp Olympics. I don’t remember the “events” – I presume they included tug of war, water balloon fights and other camp standards – but I remember my disastrous idea.
It was the arrival of a torch to start the Olympics!
I soaked several rags in gas, then tied them around a big stick. I had a high school cross-country athlete run through the woods and into the camp, carrying the flaming torch.
It seems ridiculous now.
Why would I think it was a good idea to have him run through bone-dry forest land, with plenty of dried brush and grass, while holding a torch that had burning pieces flying off?
More importantly, WHY DIDN’T ANY OF THE ADULTS TELL ME IT WAS A BAD IDEA?
Perhaps I didn’t share it. I don’t remember.
But when the runner started through the trees, the brush fires began. A little one here, another one there.
Then there’s this: The camp didn’t have running water – it was pumped from a nearby river.
It was going to be a disaster.
We were miles and miles from the nearest phone – and even farther from the nearest fire truck. It would take hours for any kind of fire suppression to begin, by which time the conflagration would be out of control. Hundreds of acres would burn. Maybe thousands or hundreds of thousands.
I pictured years in a federal penitentiary, locked up with men who had killed people, robbed banks and beaten up 19-year-old firebugs. I prayed fervently.
Fortunately, several of my friends – the dishwashers, counselors, cooks – took action. They grabbed buckets of water from a water-tower shower (the only “running water” we had) and used blankets and their feet to stamp out the small fires. They stopped the torch-bearer and snuffed his flame. They put out the fire.
I thanked God.
Had my friends not been so attentive, I might have been the subject of a current story: “Prisoner who started the largest fire in California history reflects on Rim Fire.”
It was a lesson learned: Think things through. Don’t do stupid camp tricks.
It didn’t take, because I was somehow promoted to camp director the next year and made the unfortunate choice to play a terrifying audio tape of scary noises in the middle of the night (no electricity, middle of the woods, a bunch of teen girls. What could go wrong?). That move incurred the wrath of all the counselors, including the future Mrs. Brad.
But here’s what I learned: You don’t need a torch to start an Olympics.
And this: Don’t be too harsh while judging a rube who started a huge forest fire. He might just be an overenthusiastic, unwise camp activities director.
That, and he might enrage his future wife in a year.
Reach Brad Stanhope at 427-6958 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bradstanhope.