A plea for help as wildfires rage across the West

Fire Chief Marc Bashoor shares heart-wrenching messages from a woman in Oregon trapped by wildfire, looking for help

By Marc Bashoor

The wildfires out West are off the charts.

Maps show the severity of what's going on from California to Colorado and everywhere in between. The pictures have been both awe-inspiring and apocalyptic in visual acuity.

This morning, I received unsolicited contact through Facebook Messenger from a friend of mine on Facebook, and I wanted to read to you what she asked me. It really does put everything into perspective.

She said: "I'm not sure where you are at the moment, but I need your help making a decision. I'm living in Klamath Falls, Oregon. As you know, everything is burning. We can't leave the area north, south or west. There was one road left out of the Klamath Basin, and that's 140 East. Until tonight, the fires were being held back but are now shifting east towards 140. We are a small area. I don't know who's in charge of deciding to evacuate. Almost all of the fire apparatus and responders are away fighting the fires. I feel very vulnerable. If we are to leave now, we can get out via 140 and then catch 395 South to Susanville, California. Should we go now? My gut says yes."

At first, I didn't even know how to respond to that other than the obvious – go! You think, “My God, aren't the authorities doing what they should be doing toward evacuations?” I’m sure the authorities are doing what they need to be doing, and No. 1 is about that life safety. But again, if you look at a map, it's got to be nearly impossible to make sure that they've covered everyone everywhere.

She went on to say: "The smoke is heavy here, and ash is falling. My concern is that the small two-lane road we have to leave in will fill with heavy traffic if we wait. Susanville is desert. My car has been packed for three days."

In my response, I likened her decision to that of a smoke alarm sounding in your home. I said when the smoke alarm sounds, it's time to leave, and it sounded like the smoke alarm in her mind was going off, telling her that it was time to go. She decided to go ahead and finish packing up and leave with her family.

A little bit later, she got back to me and said, "Just got word that our planned destination is surrounded by fire. Can you look at a map and see if there's another safe route out of the Klamath Basin?"

I immediately recommended if she's in that much danger, call 911 and tell them what's going on. She said that they're telling people not to clog the lines unless they're an imminent threat of death.

This is clearly an amazing set of circumstances going on for those folks out there.

She checked into things and came back with this: "Well, I have an excellent map. There is no way out. So all my pleading and preparation has been for naught. I have reached acceptance of the situation. I pray to God that when death comes, it will come quickly and efficiently. In a couple of hours, I will get on with the day as if it was another day. There is no help for us. I am numb."

She then quoted Dr. Seuss, who said, "Start with Plan A and continue until you get to Plan Z." She feels like she's at Plan Z.

We have communicated a couple times since, and I'll continue to communicate as long as I can and do whatever I can, but I want to have some reflections back on what we can do.

The No. 1 thing we can do is do our job as firefighters. We know what has to be done to rescue people. We know what has to be done to put these fires out, and ultimately that's our mission, that's our job.

Here on FireRescue1, we've covered these fires extensively. There’s the firefighter in California who saved his own house with water bottles and buckets of water, and there’s the Texas firefighter who was killed in a vehicle accident while fighting the Mendocino National Forest fire.

What can we do beyond doing our jobs and beyond rescuing the people and putting the fires out. What we can do is advocate for a change in the wildland-urban interface. We have to continue to advocate for that change. We've been doing it for years. We've been talking about it. We need to stop permitting in those areas. We need to stop building in those areas. We need to stop letting people occupy those areas without a Firewise analysis being done and implemented for those communities. There need to be

controlled burns, whether the states allow them or not, we need to figure out how to get that done across this country or we're going to continue to see the apocalyptic pictures, and we're going to continue to hear the sad stories of desperation from people that feel they have no other choice. Let's do everything we can to work through these wildland-urban interface issues.

As we go on, we need to support our brothers and sisters who are fighting these fires and do everything we can to get folks out of harm's way.

If you feel like it's time to evacuate, it sounds like your smoke alarm's going off. It's time to get out.

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