Jim Morris
Jim Morris

Jim Morris has worked for newspapers, radio, television and various Websites for more than 47 years. He has been a writer, an editor, an editorial writer and a columnist. For 23 years, Morris worked for the Troy Daily News as sports editor, managing editor and executive editor. In 1994 he began working at the Dayton Daily News as an outdoor sports columnist and night sports desk editor. He retired from the DDN in January of 2010 and is now a freelance writer with his own Website for outdoors stories.

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It’s been a difficult year for Mother Nature and people all over the world. There have been earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and drought. And one of the most-terrifying: wild fires. Here are some thoughts and reports about the lethal outbreak of fires in northern California.

Living in Ohio, I’d say we have it pretty good. Sure, we get some big storms rolling through now and then. Yes, there are occasional tornadoes. And about the time the snow on your patio reaches a foot, you might be dreaming about moving to sunny California.

Not so fast.

I know some folks who recently relocated from Columbus to the Napa Valley area of northern California. Both you and I might say, “Ahh, what a wonderful, picturesque place.” And it is, except during earthquakes and, as of October 8, fire storms.

The dry season in that part of the coast lasts from June through October, on average. But it’s not just drought, it’s also wind, plenty of wind. A recipe for disaster.

“When it’s so dry and windy, any little spark can set it off,” said Penny Schmaltz. “We knew about the fires from previous visits, but we weren’t prepared for this.”

Perhaps long-time California residents would be conditioned, so to speak. But is anybody ready for constant smoke in the air, all day and all night? Or how about trying to sleep at night not knowing if you will have to evacuate at 3 a.m., leaving all of your possessions behind? So you keep all of your family photos packed in a suitcase with Grandma’s silver tea set to be grabbed at a moment’s notice as you leave almost everything behind, perhaps never to see it again.

“Everyone’s on edge,” she added. “You can tell it just talking to people. And another bad thing is the ash. It’s constantly falling from the sky. And it’s all over everything…I’d rather have snow.”

The rash of wildfires to hit that area was “the perfect storm,” as one resident said. The area is very dry. Humidity in the single digits. The origins of the fires may never be determined. But the wind, usually strong at this time of year, just happened to also be low to the ground, spreading the fire quickly.

“There have been 22 fires in this area. The closest one to us was about six miles away, so we were on alert to evacuate for about 5-7 days. But not now,” she said.

“We are seeing stories about people in Santa Rosa who woke up to a wall of flame outside their house,” said Brad Schmaltz, Penny’s husband (both are Wapakoneta High School grads). “It was too late to jump in their car, so they jumped in their swimming pool. They were there for six hours and some died. Some made it through.”

As of midweek, the death toll was at 42 and rising. Mostly in Santa Rosa, there were about 7,000 homes destroyed.

“They are used to fires out here,” Brad added, “but these might be the worst on record as far the damage is concerned. The people do a great job fighting the fires and preparing for an outbreak. But nobody could have envisioned the fires getting into Santa Rosa and doing the damage that they did.”

I was also interested about how the area’s wildlife is handling the fires. Their homes are being destroyed, too.

“The wildlife around here has learned to adapt,” said Conrad Jones, senior environmental scientist supervisor for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Certainly there are going to be short term shortages of food, but they seem to understand about fires. Fires have been on the California landscape long before humans ever arrived, so animals have learned to adapt.

“It’s somewhat a survival of the fittest. They either move to an area that is safe or they perish.”

He said animals are not showing up in cities and towns, any more than they do in normal times. Just like in Ohio, there are areas in cities and towns with deer, raccoons, even coyotes, among other critters. In California, there can also be bears and mountain lions.

Ohio doesn’t have as much danger for wildfires, especially around Dayton and the western side of the state. What it does have are firefighters trained to take on huge fires. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources trains and coordinates firefighters from its own ranks and from fire departments and private citizens throughout the state.

There is a fine fire training facility near Reynoldsburg. So fire fighters from all over Ohio come for training. The forestry instructors teach 40-hour courses twice a year.

“The first four days are in a classroom setting. On the fifth day we give more hands-on, practical training,” said Aaron Kloss of the ODNR Division of Forestry.

So far this year Ohio firefighters have helped fight fires in Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and California. Remember that big fire in Gatlinburg, Tenn.? Ohio firefighters were there.

“Our priority is safety,” Kloss said. “Safety for the people in the fire’s proximity and safety for our own personnel. And all the time we are dealing with the fire.”

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