Our firestorms

The tension was as thick as the smoke swirling around us. A strong wind pushing up the valley towards us fanned the fire.

The tension was as thick as the smoke swirling around us.

A strong wind pushing up the valley towards us fanned the fire. When the Ponderosa pine above us burst into flame we barely suppressed our panic.

I had never been in a fire before that night high in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Previously witnessing fire fighters go about their work from a good, safe distance had not prepared me for the reality we had to face.

A 40-bed retreat centre went up in flames.

A mobile home was literally reduced in minutes to glowing scraps littered around the metal beams that had supported it.

A volunteer fire crew eventually made it up the mountain to guide our efforts. All the other buildings were saved. The next day we found spots in the woods behind us where embers had fallen and started small fires.

Fortunately, for whatever reason, they had gone out on their own. If they had spread, we would have been in real trouble.

The sparks flying above us that moonless night still light my imagination and empathy when I watch stories like the billion-dollar fires afflicting California unfolding.

Whipped up by Santa Ana wind — föhn winds like our Chinooks — those fires, sweeping down from the Great Basin high up between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Rockies, have devastated the lives of tens of thousands of people.

At times, those hurricane-force Santa Ana winds compound the impact of bad choices we have made.

Factors like poor, car-oriented urban planning have increased the fire risk.

Some scientists argue that the human accelerated climate change we are experiencing has deepened the consequences of these natural occurrences.

Earlier this week, the 64th anniversary of another firestorm was marked.

On the evening of October 22, 1943, 569 allied bomber command planes dropped hundreds of tonnes of high explosives and incendiaries on the central German town of Kassel.

One report I read noted that the bombing was so intense that the incendiaries blanketed the medieval core of the city at a rate of two white phosphorus or magnesium bombs per square metre.

Within minutes a firestorm swept the city. Estimated temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees Celsius created winds upwards of 160 kilometres an hour.

People were literally sucked into the fiery maelstrom.

As many as 10,000 people died that night and 150,000 were left homeless.  

The firebombing of Hamburg before it and Dresden and Tokyo afterwards had even greater loss of life along with an increased magnitude of damage and suffering.

Military and political leaders made conscious choices to bomb civilian targets.

In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, Robert S. McNamara, commenting on his role in the bombing, noted that he and other decision makers “were behaving as war criminals.”

When the Japanese bombed Chinese cities in 1937, the US state department protested.

“Any general bombing of an extensive area wherein there resides a large population engaged in peaceful pursuits is unwarranted and contrary to principles of law and of humanity.”

It called the similar bombing of Spanish cities during the bloody civil war “barbarous.”

One survivor of the firebombing of German cities, Hermann Knell, authored a book in 2003 entitled, To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and Its Human Consequences in World War II.

He concludes, “One can say that the losses and destruction were unnecessary, and do not represent a leaf of honour in the annals of mankind.

They cannot be excused.

The best one can do so many years after the wars, is to analyze and assess them, dispatch them to history, and hope and pray that they will never happen again.”

Is that the best we can do?

We seem to be surrounded today with firestorms of our own making.

At some point, maybe when the heat rises a bit more, we are going to have to make some pretty fundamental choices, like saying no to war as a means of resolving conflicts or drastically altering our environmentally unsustainable lifestyles.

Will we make the difficult decisions needed to put out the firestorms or just watch them burn?

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse.

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