Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. That’s the expression we heard often about America growing up. And I’m all for it.
We saw a great example of the qualities this last couple weeks in the North Hills area that I think needs to be explored a bit. You can call it preaching or free advice, either way it needs to be examined in the light of future decisions we may have to face.
Let's start with Land of the Free. Residents were free to make the decision to follow the advice of deputies after receiving an evacuation notice. We estimate that 50% of homeowners heeded our warnings as the fire grew. This is not my greatest wish for these people who decided to stay in harm’s way, but they are certainly free to make that decision.
What we need to emphasize here is that once a resident had been advised of the evacuation notice, there were 300-plus homes, also in harm’s way, that needed checking to ensure everyone had received the evacuation message.
Manpower limitations dictate that once notice has been given of mandatory evacuations, it is the obligation of the owners to heed our warning or, and here it comes, defend their own Home of the Brave, should that be the unfortunate outcome. Returning law enforcement or firefighters, even in the most desperate time, is likely out of the question; there are certainly others in dire need. The initial warning had already been given in the face of danger to the residents, deputies, firefighters and crew.
It is not that we don’t care. We care enough to face the existing dangers in the first place, but returning is commonly out of the question.
Let’s take a look at the not-so-obvious problems of any fire. When notice is given, it can mean the roads are ready for a quick exit. That means leaving the boat and that RV unless it is your main vehicle and, possibly your prospective housing. In the North Hills situation, many roadways are single lane. In town, roads could be jammed with those running TO the fire. Not ideal situations for incoming fire equipment, especially at the very last minute. This may sound simple to many of you, but in a panic, common sense takes a back seat. Have important documents, photos and medications packed ahead of the emergency “just in case.”
We are blessed with the North Hills Fire that no one was killed and that no homes were lost. Obviously, there was no way of knowing the eventual path of the fire. We can predict but can’t promise. Our first priority is safety. Safety for you and the safety of the firefighters and crew who at some point are both exhausted and need help. You can be that help.
Leo C. Dutton is the sheriff of Lewis & Clark County.