IT IS SAID that there are at least two sides to every story. The story of the fire that burned through the Monte Lake community and the Paxton Valley is one of them and it is a painful one to discuss.
On the night it happened I watched helplessly from a distance, checking for updates every few minutes and hoping that that beast of a fire would not engulf it all. The next morning, I learned that someone we know lost their home, along with many other people. Not just homes, but livestock and livelihoods.
I also know that some of those whose properties were in the way of the fire wanted to stay behind and save as much as they could. Yes, it’s been discussed on social media and the comments have not been kind or understanding. The people who stayed behind were called irresponsible and idiots and everything in between.
What if we pause judgment for a bit, though, and look at this dreadful fire story from their perspective? People who opt to live out on the land are not the delicate types. They know what hard work is, and they are not afraid to go for it when it’s needed, which is often. Also, they know that challenges are part of the life they chose.
They also know who their neighbours are because that’s part of how you live out there. You depend on each other.
I grew up like that. My family lived in a city of 50,000 people, but on our block everyone knew everyone and that meant safety, peace of mind and, quite often, one or two extra people at our dinner table. But besides that, people were helping each other with various things that needed to be done on one’s property. The system worked.
I saw the same unfold on a much larger scale in the countryside where my aunt and uncle lived. People in the small community they called home were there for each other. In happy times, sad times, challenging times, they stuck together, and it worked. Self-reliance was a must. It defined people, along with resilience, and if there’s something that can be said about present times, is that we are seeing less of each and that’s not good.
A community is only as strong as the bond between its residents is and the fire that destroyed so much of Monte Lake and Paxton Valley showed exactly that. People were ready to jump in and help put out the fire as soon as it started, not just on or near their own properties, but also their neighbours’.
However, as stated by many area residents in a poignant documentary which you can watch here, there was a solid red tape that lasted 48h after the fire started which prevented anyone who could have done something to act on it.
I know someone who stayed behind as long as they could before it became too risky. Not out of foolishness, but out of concern. People’s livelihoods and, for some, sadly, uninsured properties, needed protection. And let’s not be hasty in calling them idiots: they live on the land, and they are prepared to face challenges.
This is not an encouragement for people to behave in a foolish way, but an invitation for those who dictate how a situation should be handled in a community threatened by fire to consider allowing local qualified people to help.
To be clear: I have always expressed gratefulness for the incredible hard work of wildland firefighters who often work 16-hour days for long stretches. They work and sleep in heavy smoke, they inhale all the chemicals that billow in thick clouds in a fire zone. They are as much at the mercy of those who decide what happens when a beast such as the White Rock Lake fire starts, as the people whose communities are threatened.
But what if the knowledge left behind by this awful fire that devoured so much of the Monte Lake community and the Paxton Valley, can be employed to design better strategies to avoid future disasters? People who know and love the land they live on have to be listened to.
And we all need to pause and think before we call them fools for defending their properties. It’s not foolishness but self-reliance and grit that makes them do so.