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More than words 

Normally, about this time of year I write about the historical roots of Thanksgiving Day and its religious origins. I especially remind people that the day isn't about being a day of national gluttony as the term "turkey day" implies but rendering thanks to a benevolent creator for the blessings, realized or not, each of us has received.

Literally tens of thousands of our fellow countrymen are hurting in a way few of us have actually experienced. I speak of the victims of the wildfires, north and south of us, that have devastated families and communities in a way not really experienced by Americans (with the exception of Hurricane Katrina in 2005) since the 19th century.

The history of wildfire catastrophes, like that which recently devastated Paradise, were all too common in the 19th century, devastating not only towns but entire regions of the upper Midwest from the 1870s right into the early 20th century. For instance, a wildfire obliterated Peshtigo, Wisconsin, on Oct. 8, 1871, taking place simultaneously with the great Chicago fire that devastated that city. Few heard of Peshtigo until word began to dribble out of the north woods of a terrible calamity that killed more than 1,200 people in one night.

Forest fires were common in the great wooded areas of 19th century Wisconsin and Minnesota, near towns that grew up around the massive logging operations that fed the growth of America's railroads and the westward migration of tens of thousands of immigrants. Forest fires smoldered for weeks, even months, unattended in those days. An exceptionally dry summer turned the smoldering woods into an all-consuming conflagration. A firestorm generating its own weather descended upon the residents of Peshtigo, with a blast of superheated air preceding a wall of flame that dropped people in their tracks. As they fled, their clothing and bodies burst into flame, leaving but a few charred fragments, perhaps a belt buckle, to indicate that what remains is but a lonely residue of the life of a loved one. The fire was so intense it generated hurricane force winds that literally sucked people into the vortex of fire, boiling the water in wells and any who dared take refuge in them. Before this conflagration was controlled by natural forces, not man, 1.28 million acres of forest burned.

Fire was a mainstay of western migration. They were so common that the city fathers of San Francisco, after the great earthquake of 1906 that devastated the city, referred to the "great 1906 fire of San Francisco" in their promotions of the city, lest investors be frightened off by the catalyst of the disaster, the earthquake itself. People in those days simply accepted fire as a hazard of life.

That some fires usually devastated entire city blocks or even entire communities was a function of the limited technologies available for fighting fire, from small-capacity hand-powered water pumps to lack a of organization and training, all contributing to local fire disasters. Even as late as the great Western fires of 1910 that revolutionized how we handled wildfire, "wildland firefighters" were usually drafted out of logging camps and saloons with a logging foreman or a newly minted ranger directing their efforts on a fire line.

The town of Paradise is not unfamiliar to me. In 1977, freshly out of college, I was a seasonal firefighter for what is now known as Cal Fire, then the California Division of Forestry. I was stationed in Butte County, and Paradise was just a few miles up the road from my station. A wildfire threatened Paradise from two sides, its citizens evacuated, and at one point, a mutual aid task force of 50 fire engines roared up Highway 99 in "code three"—lights and sirens—en route to Paradise. They managed to save the town. It happened again in the 1990s, and Paradise developed in-depth emergency plans for wildland fire. They even conducted full-scale evacuation exercises with local citizen participation with scenarios assuming worst-case conditions. Paradise has limited access and egress and some problems aren't always solved by any plan or commitment of resources. Last week, the worst case occurred and Paradise was destroyed. As of this writing, more than a thousand people were unaccounted for and more than 70 were confirmed deceased within the city.

These folks are suffering long-term calamity: 90 percent of businesses were destroyed. Statistically, 50 percent of businesses destroyed in disasters fail within two years, even if fully insured. More than 9,000 residences were destroyed. People need shelter, water, and sanitation immediately. They will need everything the rest of us take for granted every day, like clothing to wear beyond the clothes they wore to escape. Lives were lost, even the memorabilia most of us take for granted to comfort us after the loss of a loved one.

Fire is merciless toward human emotions.

This is the time to support established, experienced, and capable charitable and rescue organizations. Ad hoc groups have good intentions but often create additional problems for all concerned. Some also have bad intentions and callously steal your money, so check out to whom you donate.

And don't forget to pray and give thanks for what you have because so many others have so little this Thanksgiving Day. Δ

Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor at

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