Greg Zaller: Fire! (Do I have your attention now?)
I still vividly remember 9/11/1988 when as a volunteer fireman on the 49er Fire Department I stood in awe watching the 49er Fire move toward my crew mates’ position on its way from North San Juan.
There was an expanse of forest, and I could see trees exploding in giant plumes of flame as the conflagration revealed its progress. When the inevitability of what was going to happen sunk in, I broke away and began knocking on doors advising the residents that their homes were in danger and to flee. There was no stopping this.
A short time later the fire arrived, and we engaged in a charged and sometimes desperate battle to save homes. I saw a lot of craziness and a lot of homes burn down during the 30 hours we spent in action before being relieved with a fresh crew. I will never forget.
In the end, 52 square miles and 148 homes were burned, and this community was very lucky it wasn’t far more.
Today, we face the likely threat of another fire that could potentially dwarf this one. That’s why our fire insurance is skyrocketing. The recent Thomas fire burned 422 square miles or the equivalent of half this county. So much of our beautiful forests, our homes, our lives and our memories could all be gone.
While much is being done to increase fire clearances, remove brush and require buildings to be more fire-safe, there is one thing that stands out as utterly insane: forcing our often inebriated and mentally ill homeless to hide deep in brushy areas where they regularly start fires. How can this be?
These people cannot be swept under a carpet, especially when the carpet is a dangerously flammable hiding spot in the brush. This county needs safe locations where our homeless can camp, not be a danger, and be able to access a pathway of opportunity and education that allows them to climb out of their predicament. People can change. If they still choose to camp dangerously and illegally, then put them in jail, but then again give them the help they need to put their lives together.
If there is a concern that more homeless will be attracted here because of a common sense humanitarian effort, then implement this plan in conjunction with other counties. Without even preventing a fire, we would save 10 times over present-day costs of homelessness, and if it prevents a fire, probably a hundred times.
We need to do this, we can, and it needs to be done without delay to be prepared for the next fire season.
Sometimes when making a critical decision, I go through an exercise where I imagine myself in the future looking back on what I am considering at the time.
How could we ever look back after a catastrophic fire and say we did the best we could if we don’t address now the clear need to bring our homeless out of the woods and then help them to recover?
Greg Zaller lives in Nevada City.
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