It was a big week in the Pacific Northwest for heroism.
The heroes responded to demanding moments, and also reminded us why they’re always in demand.
With Washington state going through its worst fire year in history, and much of Oregon bursting into flames like an oil-soaked rag, thousands have been mobilized and sent to the fire lines – a phrase clearly, and understandably, modeled on the language of battle. The people who fight the fires professionally are called “hot shots,” a curiously – and maybe, in a whistling-past-the-graveyard way, intentionally – flippant title for a job that any wind shift can make suddenly lethal. The job and situation have become more dangerous with the spread of cheatgrass, a water-depleting species sometimes known as “grassoline.”
Last week, three firefighters, Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31, were killed by a forest fire near Twisp, Wash. Part of an elite crew that went in first to gauge the size of a fire, they were in a car accident, and before they could escape the fire was upon them.
Interviews with the firefighters’ next of kin agonizingly displayed not only their numbing loss but a heartbreaking pride.
“He was the light of our life,” said the father of Zbyszewski, who for two years had been fighting fires to help pay his costs at Whitman College, and whose parents fought fires for 20 years.
“We just want people to know what a wonderful person he was.”
Wheeler was a fourth-generation firefighter, and his mother said, “He died a hero.”
Over decades, we’ve gotten better technology and strategies for dealing with wildfires, author Kyle Dickman wrote in The Washington Post Sunday. “But the most effective weapon in the increasingly sophisticated arsenal remains the many thousands of young men and women who, each year, spend their summers removing flammable materials around wildfires with chainsaws and hand-held tools.”
And who can suddenly find the fire on top of them.
A few days later, on a train on the other side of the world, three young Americans including Alek Skarlatos – a 23-year-old Oregon National Guardsman from Roseburg recently returned from Afghanistan – ran at and captured an attacker aiming a high-powered rifle at passengers. The shooter kept pulling weapons out of a bag, nearly cutting off the thumb of one of the Americans, who later had it surgically reattached. The gun jammed; if it hadn’t, Skarlatos said in a Skype interview with The New York Times, “I don’t even want to think about how it could have went.”
He told the Associated Press afterward, “In the beginning it was mostly gut instinct, survival. Our training kicked in after the struggle.” Instinct was indeed driving their response; until seconds before they acted, one of the three was fast asleep.
“I’ve always said that I felt I could trust putting my life in Alek’s hands,” Karlotas’ stepmother told reporters. “I honestly can’t say I’m surprised that he knew what to do when faced with that kind of situation. It’s just who he is.”
We like to think that our world is increasingly controlled, more wired, more monitored. Yet we live in a time when both wildfires and train rides are getting not less but more dangerous, and heroism still does things that a computer model can’t. To attack an inferno with a shovel, to charge an assault rifle with only instincts and reflexes, remains a heroism vital in the 21st century.
Monday, awarding the three membership in the Legion d’Honneur – offhand, Skarlatos may be the only member from Roseburg — French President Francois Hollande declared, “You have given us a lesson of courage, of determination and therefore of hope.”
In the movie “A Few Good Men,” Jack Nicholson’s Marine officer delivers the famous speech proclaiming, “You need me on that wall.” Nicholson’s character, of course, is not the hero – that’s Tom Cruise – he’s the bad guy, and guilty, and in his way deranged. But he does get the movie’s best lines, and understandably an Oscar nomination.
Because we know we do need the people on that wall, and at any moment it can become a terminally dangerous place to be.
After the news of the deaths on the fire line, one local TV station showed a hand-lettered sign left on an evacuated house by the family that had fled.
“Firefighters,” it read, shining through the smoke, “It’s just a house. Stay safe.”
I hope they saved that house.
I hope they saved that sign.
I hope we save that attitude.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 8/26/15.