A lot of images from the sprawling wildfires in Southern California will stay with people for some time to come: A burning church steeple; an actual castle exploding in flames; the heart-breaking photographs of people returning to find their much-loved homes in heaps of smoldering rubble; or the expressions of gratitude of those who have returned to homes with minimal damage.
The massive complex of fires that have burned 500,000 acres from Malibu to the Mexican border is humbling to think about, because some of the same conditions that exist in Southern California are present here: Homes built high in canyons; bone-dry grasses and shrubbery; and canyon winds that could readily spread embers.
Between education, prevention and dumb luck, most residential areas in Utah have avoided such fires for a number of years. But the California fires teach that the potential for such devastation is present among us. Agencies and individuals must plan for that potential.
Unlike the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita in the Gulf Coast, the federal, state and local response to this complex of fires has been well-coordinated. Aid at public shelters has been dispensed ably, although fewer people have sought refuge in mass shelters, presumably because they have more personal resources than many of the Katrina/Rita evacuees. Seemingly, though, many lessons learned during the Katrina ordeal helped improve the response to the California fires.
At times like these, we are mindful of the efforts of front-line firefighters. They are literally heroes waging war against an unpredictable and unforgiving foe. Their efforts have helped save countless lives and property. The western states also deserve kudos for sending hundreds of firefighters to California to join their efforts and to relieve weary fighters who have endured five days of these unrelenting fires.
In the face of this devastation, there have been countless acts of human kindness extended by individuals, churches and nonprofit agencies. They have reached out to humans and animals alike. Some people have lost every earthly possession, and yet they express extreme gratitude that they escaped with their lives and have nothing but praise for firefighters attempting to quell the fires and the strangers who have opened their hearts and homes to them.
The bottom line is, there are some things humans can do to improve the odds of survival in the aftermath of an earthquake, flood or fire. We should all take the time to prepare for such emergencies, because one never knows when such a disaster can strike. A week ago, Southern California residents were living normal lives, not at all concerned with their personal safety or the safety of their homes. What a difference a week makes. As the California experience demonstrates, we are vulnerable to many of the same factors.