Interview with a Hero


Yesterday afternoon, when I went out to the store, I realized it was the first day in two weeks where there was no smoke.  As I drove through town, I could see fire service, and municipal fire department trucks and crews heading back home. Men and women who have spent two miserable and terrifying weeks fighting an almost impossible fire were starting to come down off the mountains, now that 75% containment has been reached. Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the Texans are returning to Ruidoso.

The Martinez Administration has already announced that Lincoln County will probably  not be receiving any federal funds.  The Pink Flamingo wonders if the governor has even applied for them.  Without a federal disaster declaration, the assistance will be minimal. One wonders just what the governor might consider a real disaster, since this is considered one of the largest in New Mexico history.

“…Ruidoso, NM (June 22, 2012) BAER assessment team members are making excellent progress in gathering data on the effects of the fire. The test results and data collected by these specialists will be used to model post-fire conditions that may result in flooding, debris flows, erosion, and damage to water systems. These surveys are being conducted on the ground and by helicopter.

Yesterday, several teams of specialists tested the burn severity of the soils in numerous areas of the fire to determine how much rainfall, if any, the ground can absorb when it rains.

A team of watershed specialists and engineers are looking at the burn severity in watershed areas including Eagle Creek and the Bonito Lake area. Engineers have taken an inventory of county, state and National Forest roads in the burn area and are documenting damage to structures, roads, highways, bridges, recreation sites and other infrastructure.

Archeologists have inventoried values at risk in the areas of Eagle Creek, Upper Bonita, Bonita Lake, and Loma Grande.

Wildlife biologists continue to look at the effects of the fire on wildlife, and damage to threatened and endangered species’ habitat. An influx of wildlife is being seen in the Village of Ruidoso.

The goal of the assessment team is to evaluate all potential issues associated with the burn area. If treatment can mitigate these post-fire concerns, then the US Forest Service will seek funding and implement treatments to reduce the impacts….”

The other day, The Pink Flamingo has agreed to keep everything off the record, I was fortunate enough to snag an interview with one of the heroes saving our homes and forests here in Lincoln County.  I won’t say who, when or where the interview was conducted.  I will give only lose biographical information.  The person with whom I spoke, has on his resume long time work as a Type I Hot Shot.  If you know anything about how these things work, you know that Type I are the best of the best.

Let’s call our Hot Shot “HS” for simplification.  The day I spoke to him, it was only his 6th day off in nearly two months.  He had been fighting at the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, had what was to be a couple days off, and was called in to fight the Little Bear Fire.  The man was exhausted, both physically and emotionally.  It showed in his body, his body language, and in his eyes, which were almost haunted he was so tired and stressed.  He’d just had about 8 hours sleep after coming off working 60 straight hours with just an occasional break.

The reason he’d had no break during those 60 hours was the location.  He showed me photos of where they were, at least several hours hike from a parking lot.  The hiking was into a high altitude and extremely dangerous. He and those with him could easily have broken a limb or even worse on the hike, alone.  They were in such an precarious position for 60 days, that they could not even lie down for a rest. There was no place to sleep.

He said the original Hot Shot crew, fighting the original fire had been on the job, at one time, for 14 days straight without any relief.  It is quite obvious that, in order to do such things, a person had to be in top physical condition, with endurance far beyond we mortals.

Among the things HS and his crew had done the past few weeks was dodge exploding propane tanks while fighting to save homes and lives.  Their lives were almost always in danger, in order to save others.

HS told me their priorities were, in order:

  1. Save and protect lives
  2. Save and protect private property
  3. Save and protect the forest

Lives were the number one priority.  We are fortunate here, this time, in that, thus far, there has been no loss of life and only minor injuries.  So far, there have been nearly 250 homes destroyed. I learned that several firefighters and cops lost homes while they were fighting to help save others.

HS is very unhappy with Congressman Steve Pearce for saying what he did about the original efforts to fight the Little Bear Fire. While he spoke about the incident, you could see the strain, stress, and fatigue. “Steve Pearce was way out of line.  I like the man and supported him.  I’ll vote for him in November.  I just think he does not know what was going on up there.”

According to HS, the original lightening strike was in very difficult terrain. “The first problem was jurisdiction.  Originally they thought it was on the Mescalero Reservation.  They initially sent a team of Hot Shots in to check on it, but discovered it was not their land.  They then sent a two man chopper up to see if it was on BLM land.  Finally, it was decided it was on forest service land.”

“The real problem was the fact that the fire was on top of the scar left from the Pinion Fire.  There was a tremendous amount of fuel on the ground, that no amount of water, and not even an infinite number of Hot Shots could suppress.  There was simply too much fuel on the ground.  That’s what Steve Pearce doesn’t understand.  Nothing would have mattered.”

HS gave the impression that the fire was doomed from the beginning. HS also spoke very well of Susana Martinez, who, he said, has always been very supportive of the firefighters, never hesitating to contact the injured and their families.

Ruidoso News

We are starting to get to the bottom of things.  It is quite obvious, someone has screwed up here, and is trying to avoid the blame.  From what The Pink Flamingo can tell there is plenty of blame to go around, from the cost-cutting libertarian minds in Congress, to the idiot liberals who don’t want to hurt the virgin forest.  What we have had here is the perfect storm.

“...Many officials, and residents, have expressed sentiment that the fire was not given the proper attention it demanded of firefighters.

Pearce earlier alleged that resources were not allocated to the fire soon enough, and that it could have been extinguished earlier if water drops had been ordered.

In a later public meeting at Ruidoso’s Town Hall, after Warnack’s Sunday briefing, he said he would like to see the old fire management strategy of putting all fires out by 10 a.m. the next morning reinstated, as well as to increase thinning in the area, perhaps by logging.

He said he had requested the daily reports of firefighters first on the incident to begin an investigation into the fire.

“We don’t have the resources to do an investigation,” he said. “But we’re going to get them.”

Michael Swickard, co-host of News New Mexico, said in a June 13 column that the decision to let the fire burn was political and the Forest Service was using the fire as a controlled burn to clear out fuels. He also said that water was denied on the fire after firefighters had requested it.

He later added that in the wake of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire burning in the Gila National Forest, Forest Service officials should not have been taking any chances with fires in such dry forest conditions.

The fire in the Gila also could have been prevented, he said. In its early days it had been spotted by a small aircraft and several loads of slurry would have likely extinguished the fire.

Swickard said, “the first contract I would have would be with those people running the Mescalero forests to do the same (forest management) with the rest of the state.”

Yet Mescalero Bureau of Indian Affairs officials say that they have received budget cuts, rather than congratulations, for the care of their forests.

“We will only receive 33 percent of the usual funding for thinning, and may have to consider layoffs this fall if we can’t get more projects funded,” said Thora Padilla, BIA program manager for the Mescalero Division of Resource Management and Protection, the organization that has cared for the forests for the past 13 years. “In addition, our 16 Springs Stewardship Contract with the Lincoln National Forest expires December 2012, and it is uncertain at this time if stewardship contracting will be renewed under the Farm Bill. Not good that one of the most proactive thinning crews in the state may end up laid off by the end of the year.”…”

NM Politics

The Pink Flamingo happens to agree with Steve Pearce.  I take HS at his word that the entire scenario was doomed from the moment the lightening struck.  BUT – I also think that someone is not quite being candid about what happened and when.  I think there is plenty of blame to go around, with this one.

What I have wanted to do with this post is to portray the man, HS, and what he was enduring.  A humble man, he did not even want our thanks for his efforts.  He said that neither he nor those around him ask for praise or thanks.  They were just doing their jobs.

HS told me that there were three groups of fire fighters.  There are those from the reservations, who are Department of the Interior. So are the BLM fire fighters.  The Hot Shots are with the Forest Service.  They are a part of the Department of Agriculture – the department the libertarian budget cutters in the GOP in the House, and Mitt Romney, want to eliminate.

If they do, just who will be out there protecting us?  Let’s face it, this is our tax dollars at work.  I don’t mind at all.  If you do, you’ve never had a home saved by one of these brave men and women who avoid praise.  They say they are just doing their job.

We know different.  They are heroes, one and all!