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“It’s like a war” – how an isolated town in California was rescued from the wildfires

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Manish Saini
Manish works as a Journalist and writer at Revyuh.com. He has studied Political Science and graduated from Delhi University. He is a Political engineer, fascinated by politics, and traditional businesses. He is also attached to many NGO's in the country and helping poor children to get the basic education. Email: Manish (at) revyuh (dot) com

Tennant, a small village in the center of the California forest, was forced to evacuate due to the wildfires. Although the fire department was able to prevent serious harm, the danger still exists.

Virginia Price works as a firefighter. She is stationed in Northern California at Camp Macdoel. The Antelope forest fire, which started on August 1st after a lightning strike and devastated 589 square kilometers of forest, more than the canton of Basel-Landschaft, is battled from here, among other things. The camp is primarily made up of tents, and 700 people live there.

For several months, the price has been the same. She is young, polite, and shy in appearance. She is, however, clearly fearless and a tough cookie. She joined the fire department in her hometown of Chicago at the age of 16 and stayed for the rest of her life. She travelled to Sierra Leone for an organization during the Ebola outbreak.

Anxiety?

“You just have to be careful,” she says.

What drives you?

“A sense of adventure,” Price replies.

“And trying to do something good.”

Too few firemen

With so many fires raging in the border areas of California and Oregon this year, the fire department had to be reinforced by people from New Mexico and Arizona, where it is quiet at this time of the year.

“But unfortunately it was a long time before they got here,” says Price. “We have too few firefighters, we usually have to limit ourselves to the settlements and just let the forest burn.”

Several villages had to be evacuated. Price suggests visiting the tiny Tennant, which is located – extremely risky – in the middle of the forest, but is considered a success story for the fire department. Of the hundred or so buildings, only five caught fire and no one was killed.

The road to Tennant is lined with burned trees for miles. The charred trunks soar into the sky like huge black needles. Price keeps stopping in a security zone. These are areas in which the street has been cleared to the right and left so far that a fire cannot reach it. This is where the fire fighters can withdraw in an emergency.

There were no such security zones in Tennant. Although the village consists of around a hundred buildings, it only has around forty inhabitants. It is surrounded by forest, in the worst case the fire fighters would have been surrounded by flames. There are also many trees in the village itself, everything is close together. For the “Firefighters” there was only one escape to the front.

A former lumberjack camp

Tennant is a typical example of the type of settlements that are called Wildlife-Urban-Interface in technical jargon: They are located at the interface between nature and inhabited areas. Such places are considered to be particularly risky because, on the one hand, they can cause fires that spread quickly due to the proximity to the forest, and on the other hand, they are difficult to protect once the fire has broken out. The phenomenon is particularly widespread in California because urban housing costs are often high. That’s why people keep moving out into the country, often in a less regulated way.

In Tennant, 69-year-old David Raymond, the head of the parish council served in the Air Force for thirty years and then moved with his wife into the oldest and most beautiful house in the village after the in-laws passed away. The orders and medals from his time in the army are in a showcase. He volunteered for the Air Force in 1971.

“I didn’t want to be sent to Vietnam as a foot soldier,” he says.

Nevertheless, Raymond spent years in Vietnam, not on the ground, but as a pilot of transport planes. You can feel how strange he feels at times in this godforsaken nest.

The village is named after J. D. Tennant of the Long Bell logging company. It was a logging warehouse and a loading station for the railroad, which transported wood here until 1951. The three-story mansion is evidence of a certain wealth that forestry once provided here. But today the settlement is pretty shabby.

“Many houses are no longer inhabited all year round,” says Raymond. “The owners have moved to a bigger town and only come occasionally to see if everything is going well.”

But the houses are cheap and attract people who don’t mind the remote location.

“Many of them are older, single men,” explains Raymond. There are also some “weirdos” among them – loners, owls, eccentrics.

Tennant’s school closed a long time ago, and there aren’t many youngsters left. The old, abandoned building is one of the houses that fell victim to the flames.

There hasn’t been a doctor here either for a long time.

“You have to go to Klamath Falls, Oregon for a visit,” says Raymond.

“It takes an hour; in winter, when there is a lot of snow, you can’t get through. ”

There is a fire department in Tennant.

“But most of the volunteers are around seventy,” he says, somewhat mockingly, “and the vehicles aren’t much younger either. We could put out a burning pan in the kitchen.”

Four brave villagers held the fortress

Raymond remembers how the disaster began.

“It was Sunday, August 1st. We were having dinner in a group of about 15 people when a thunderstorm was approaching. We did a control round, but saw nothing abnormal. The next morning we heard that eight fires had broken out as a result of the lightning strikes. In the afternoon the nearest fire was six miles away and it was spreading rapidly because of a breeze.”

He remembers the high column of smoke that you saw from afar – a typical sign of a forest fire. Some of them left Tennant voluntarily on Monday. In the evening, the forced evacuation was announced.

“That wasn’t easy,” says Raymond, “because some handicapped people live in the village and have a lot of difficulty walking.”

There were also animals that had to be taken away – to an “Animal Evacuation Site” set up at short notice. Raymond himself went to the nearest Air Force base, some stayed in hotels or with relatives, others owned a mobile home. Gyms have also been converted into emergency shelters.

“At least there were showers there,” says Raymond. One of the residents had to be evacuated by force.

Four men chose to stay on the scene after discussing with the fire department. On Wednesday, August 4th, the Antelope Fire reached Tennant. Because of the burning overturned masts, the power went out in the village. There was a generator, but it couldn’t be started. Fortunately, the four who had stayed in the village were able to repair it. “Otherwise the village would have been lost,” says Raymond. Because without electricity, the pump at the reservoir would not have worked and the hydrants would not have supplied the fire brigade with water.

There are nine fire hydrants in Tennant. “Two were defective,” says the community leader.

“One could be repaired, the other got stuck. But the men did not want to open it by force, because otherwise it might not have been able to close and water would have splashed out uncontrollably; we had to use it sparingly.”

Powerless and traumatized firefighters

A difficult situation arose when a house caught fire that was only accessible via a small bridge. The unofficial bridge led over a small stream, but had no sign that gave information about the maximum weight it could withstand. Therefore, the firefighters could not drive the truck up to the building.

“Some later resented them,” says Raymond. “But they couldn’t risk the bridge collapsing on the crossing. The fire engine might then have got stuck in the stream and would have been unusable for further services.”

Many firefighters are exhausted and traumatized from months of continuous use, you can hear everywhere. Whereby the most strenuous is obviously not what has been done, but what cannot be done due to a lack of resources.

“It’s a constant weighing of expense and return, opportunity and risk,” says Raymond. “These decisions have to be made quickly and often based on inadequate information. It’s like a war.” During the operation in Tennant, the smoke was so thick that you couldn’t even see from one side of the street to the other. One of the tough decisions was to let the old school burn down. Today there is only a black rubble surface.

The firefighters had to think carefully about where to use their limited capacities. “The owners of the houses that burned down later complained that their home had not been saved,” says Raymond. “But they were all buildings that were poorly maintained. Everything was covered with dry needles from the yellow pines. Everyone knows that the most important precaution against fires is to clear them away regularly.”

There were also a lot of old cars standing around. Why should firefighters risk their lives for someone who didn’t care a bit about fire protection?

Raymond points to a pile of rubbish lying next to a house with dry clapboards. A burn hole is visible. “Glowing ashes were blown here,” he says. “Fortunately, someone noticed immediately and put out the fire that had started. Otherwise, the old house would have gone up in flames within minutes.”

Contaminated soils and looters

In general, Raymond is amazed at the carelessness of the residents, since every year fires broke out in the area, even if, as if by a miracle, it never got closer than ten miles to the village. “Some lived here for fifteen years, but never thought for a moment that a fire might break out one day. There was no plan at all. As a soldier, I am used to being prepared for any eventuality. As the fire drew nearer, some asked me in which direction to drive away. ‘Best not in the direction from which the fire is coming,’ I answered them. Fortunately, there are four streets that lead out of Tennant.”

Some of the residents who lost their homes did not have insurance. “To make matters worse, some of them can no longer build on their property. In a forest fire, the temperatures are so high that even the concrete melts. Toxic materials such as asbestos were often used for construction here. The soil is then usually so contaminated that you have to wait a long time before you can build again,” explains Raymond. “It is also no longer suitable for agriculture.”

When the fire was over, a second plague came: looters. “We organized a patrol,” says Raymond. “The advantage here is that outsiders immediately notice. As soon as we approached, they drove away.”

When Raymond’s wife shows up, she reacts a little suspiciously in view of the journalist in the living room. “Is it about climate change?” She asks. She doesn’t quite believe that the forest fires have anything to do with it. There have always been hotter and colder weather periods, she says. She remembers a cover for Life magazine in the 1970s. “It warned of a new ice age.”

Image Credit: NZZ

You were reading: “It’s like a war” – how an isolated town in California was rescued from the wildfires

Originally written by: David Signer

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by Revyuh staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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