Forest Fires and Nine Eleven

Posted: April 27, 2007 in News and politics

In my youth, I was on a job with the forest service fighting forest fires. One day I was in a wooded area that was populated by trees about 50’ high. Those trees had most of their foliage near the top; which contributed to a condition rife for a phenomenon called topping out; or crowning out. This occurs when the foliage is so dry and clustered near the top of the trees, and they are close enough together, that fire leaps from one tree to another without coming near the ground. This occurred, typically, at about 40 miles per hour.

I started running in panic. I probably didn’t get a dozen steps before a seasoned fire-fighter yelled, “stop!” I immediately did so.

He took the time to explain to me that I was not just about to outrun that fire; and it became evident that we were in no real danger. The fire never did approach ground level.

What a metaphor for 9/11 this is!

When that terrible disaster happened I was on my way to work on the ferry. Considering the time zones and when it did occur I could not have gotten the word as I commuted.

When I got to work, Tony Lauderdale, one of the collectors in the department, told me about it. We were aghast at the thought that 10’s of thousands of people worked in those buildings. The potential loss of life was unimaginable.

After a brief discussion I went to my station and proceeded to do what I was getting paid for. I scarcely noticed that there was a difference in the way business was being executed except people seemed to be standing around talking more than usual.

Was my ignoring the fire and carnage in that distant place a result of the lesson I got when the forest fire topped out? Logic demanded that I couldn’t do any thing about it and it really didn’t affect my job. That it did have an effect on the conduct of the collectors in the department became evident later when I overheard some of them discussing the flexibility they were told to give to the companies that had occupied the World Trade Center because they had to deal with the emotional experience and finding new quarters from which to do business.

But it was the reaction of our government leaders that was similar to my panic when I ran, in fright, from that roaring (and I do mean “roaring” – the fire was making a deafening sound that added to the horror that made me panic.) Where were the calmer minds, we needed, to prevail in this time of our national tragedy? They were probably there; but they were being ignored by – for a better word for them – the incompetent people in charge.

The reason I compare the attack on 9/11 to the forest fire topping out, is seen in the event that happened some time ago. It seems federal agents created false identities, complete with forged documents, and penetrated the border security between Canada and the U. S. The conclusion that most people make is our borders are as leaky as they were on 9/11. With the billions of dollars and the full weight of the Patriot Act, there have been no improvements. Should we panic in the fear that our borders leak like a sieve? Should we demand better performance by the border guards? Excuse me, but I don’t think so. What this reveals to me is: if terrorists would have wanted to do us harm by now, they would have done it. I can recall exactly one plot, uncovered by agents, to perform another terrorist act. With our government’s track record of deception, can we even believe that account? Remember, I’m not cynical; just skeptical.

Do you see why so many of us have lost confidence in our government? This crisis in confidence is probably why our lawmakers are hesitant to take any real action against this administration. They see the collapse in their constituents’ attitudes towards our government.

We ran in panic when there was no possibility we could outrun the perceived danger from the initial attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon[1]. Our administration’s successful effort to get a majority of Americans to believe a connection between 9/11 and Iraq enabled it to get a resolution adopted in congress to invade Iraq. That ill-conceived operation had the effect that parallels what would have probably happened to me if I had continued to run as that fire panicked me in my ignorance: I would have probably met with an accident, like running into a tree. What made that a possibility was my looking at the fire as I ran.

And the metaphor continues to elucidate issues in the national debate as it is. We have run into a tree in the Middle East and our nation has been harmed greatly. The only way we will ever recover is to withdraw from the tree we’ve run into; and go around it (redeploy), and elect people with the experience and calm demeanor to do the right thing in moments of emergency. It is up to We the People to make that happen. It will only happen when we demand better accountability from those we elect and re-elect.

I encourage everybody to do more than just vote and “get a `D’”; as Howard Dean would say. Get active! Contact your party’s local election office and volunteer to help elect those who come closest to your idea of having sound minds to do the job you are hiring them to do. One other action you can take is run for office. It is an excellent way to get a feel for the experience of public service in politics. At the same time you just might lose a little of that cynicism[2]. What do you have to lose except that most obnoxious of many weaknesses we have.

And write to them often to offer your views. The truly competent leaders will continue to solicit your views and listen to them. I am convinced that the ones I write to are listening. Their responses have been well thought out and reasonable, in my view.

As a result of my experiences I am anything but a cynic. Yes, I am skeptical. I don’t assume anybody is doing their jobs. I pay as much attention to their conduct as I can, within my capacity. We, none of us, have infinite time and ability to study issues enough to be the ones on the front lines. But we can observe, in a calm and thoughtful manner, the events that are going on and offer our perspective to those who will listen.

In conclusion, I offer this as a short guide to contributing to your community, “Lose the fear and hate; get involved.”

[1] Read the excellent account of events on 9/11 in “Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the abuse of America’s intelligence agencies.” by James Bamford.


[2] “It’s a sin to be cynical; but skepticism is a virtue.”


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