This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Los Angeles • My hometowns are burning.
I heard sirens before I saw smoke, en route to Topanga Canyon for a weekly trail run last Thursday. A chain of fire engines and other vehicles hurled past me toward the cloud blooming ahead in the evening light. I watched the charcoal flower unfold as I considered another fire, in another hometown, some 487 miles away.
Brian Head, my hometown from birth until age 18, is hard to explain. When you arrive, a sign welcomes you to "America's Highest Little Resort Town." This is accurate. The town and resort sit between 10,000 and 11,000 feet above sea level, the population hovers around 100.
Boasting only two ski-lifts and no parking lot, Brian Head was barely a decade old when my parents arrived in the mid-1970s. After meeting at a West L.A. elementary school, they forewent their urban heritage for the promise of featherweight powder days. More LSD than LDS, the town these big city, hippie-cum-ski-bum transplants and local outcasts built became a singular destination for Californians and Nevadans looking for an anomalous escape. Through several ownership changes, the resort grew to eight chairlifts and 650 skiable acres.
Since June 17, 2017 it's been on fire.
The two-week totals: approximately 60,000 acres burned, 1,500 visitors and residents evacuated, 21 structures lost, including 13 homes.
Against all odds, the town and the resort survived. But you would have hardly noticed it if you followed the news. Largely absent from the narrative are the volunteer, local and Interagency Hotshot Crew firefighters who saved Brian Head, the nearby towns, and are currently working to do the same here in Topanga Canyon and at wildfires across the country.
Wildfire suppressors have long gone unnoticed in the pantheon of lauded public servants who place themselves in danger for our safety. We applaud the members of the armed forces when they return home. We rename streets and highways after slain police officers and patrolmen. City firefighters receive our hearty congratulations for long, difficult hours on the job. These heroes are further embedded in the American psyche through film and television.
But sacrifices made by those who slice their lives into consecutive 16-hour work days are at best an abstraction. Their unpredictable work schedules leave no room for birthdays, anniversaries or holidays. For two weeks at a time, these folks sleep beside occupational environments most of us would sooner associate with Armageddon. Their reality is so altered the words summer, spring and fall have been distilled into the dismal term "fire season."
Wildfire suppression stories don't always end as triumphantly as in Brian Head. Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 left 19 firefighters dead, the most since L.A.'s infamous Griffith Park Fire in 1933, where 29 unprepared, underfunded volunteer citizens lost their lives.
In my hometown, though the response was speedy and the efforts of those firefighters admirable, Brian Head was also fortunate to have abundant resources and personnel available during an unexpected early lull in the fire season.
Though the Brian Head Fire was man made, it could have easily been caused by lightening, as was the case in Yarnell. The fires will continue, likely at a fiercer pace and scale, while firefighters receive fewer resources to rescue hometowns like mine.
America's Highest Little Resort Town is an insignificant place by many measures of importance even among ski resorts not unlike Topanga to greater Los Angeles. When in danger, these are the kinds of obscure places a central government might be tempted to shrug at, if not outright abandon.
It falls on us, then. Not only to be careful fireworks alone spark around 18,000 fires annually according to the National Fire Protection Association but to be grateful for those brave women and men who choreograph this delicate dance between nature, fire and humans.
Today, as we eat barbecued feasts and watch the sky explode, tens of thousands of public servants will wobble tiredly back to makeshift tents after another double shift of wildfire suppression in places like Brian Head, Topanga, and whatever hometown will burn next.
Their work obligates us to be more than grateful, more than careful. We must be supportive.
Alex Michael Dwyer is a writer living in Los Angeles and a native of Brian Head, Utah.