Peter Cavanaugh

Oakhurst becomes Smokehurst

When Oakhurst turns Smokehurst – things just aren’t the same.

Thank the Lord Mariposa still stands.

Last week’s 78,000-plus acre Detwiler Fire brought the first series of smoke shrouded days this season, as even Deadwood disappeared at times behind a curtain of heavy, ash-laden haze.

It provided a dramatic reminder that Cal Fire and associated professional responders regularly meet such challenges with speed, accuracy, and outstanding endurance in a consistently reliable display of heroic performance.

It also offered stark confirmation of recent predictions by fire and police authorities that 2017 may witness the most destructive fire months in California’s history.

Along with last winter’s drought-defying precipitation producing abundant fresh fuel, so do a hundred million dead and dying trees. It now seems that formerly helpful and dependable night-time increases in humidity, with significantly decreased temperatures, have given way to shifting climate conditions - resulting in minimal dusk to dawn respite for fire control compared with traditional patterns. This is a big deal. Twenty four hour work shifts are becoming common.

Media, including the Sierra Star, cited numerous acts of selfless volunteerism with strangers lending a helping hand to those they’d never known before. There were countless stories of neighbors helping neighbors, providing food, shelter and clothing at a time of harried need. Some shelters even offered room for evacuated pets and livestock.

Being of critical assistance in times of tragic testing often seems to be a reflective, instinctive, intuitive act – the “better angels of our nature” referenced by Abraham Lincoln - urging us to take instant remedial action, often without conscious reflection.

Wildfires are as natural as the wind.

Native Americans were regularly burning parts of their ecosystems going back thousands of years, promoting a diversity of habitats to provide greater stability and security in their lives - but being cautious not to purposely burn when forests were vulnerable to catastrophic conflagration.

According to that big “fire hazard dial” on the right side of Highway 41 just before you head into Oakhurst from the south, that is precisely our current status.

We will be living these next few months with possible catastrophe a single spark away. A hastily abandoned campfire, a handful of illegal fireworks, or one carelessly tossed cigarette can explode into a wall of flames just as quickly as a lightning strike, airborne embers or other unavoidable phenomena.

Oakhurst is not new to evacuations. A bit of family strategizing with various contingencies in mind, including alternative planning, seems like a fine idea.

It could be worse.

The University of Utah Seismograph Stations report a Yellowstone National Park earthquake swarm has registered 1,284 events since June 12, including one of 4.5 magnitude June 16 in West Yellowstone. This represents a “notable uptake in activity.”

The Yellowstone Caldera sits on top of North America’s largest volcanic field spreading across an area of 300 miles. While most scientists believe the probability of a major eruption is small, it could blast 240 cubic miles of ash, rocks and lava into the atmosphere, rendering two-thirds of the nation immediately uninhabitable, and plunging the world into a “nuclear winter.”

We don’t need to worry about cold around here yet.

Washington is having a hot summer too.

Exactly 97 years ago this week (July 26, 1920) - cultural critic and iconoclastic journalist H.L. Mencken wrote a column in the Baltimore Sun which included this amazingly prescient quote:

“On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of this land will reach their heart’s content at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”