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Save the Fish?

Res Publica

March 2003

by Rebecca Fowler

In late July, a crew of firefighters was sent to contain a fire in central Washington in Okanogan National Forest. This elite group of "Hot Shots" was sent to control the blaze early in the morning. The crew had contained what was known as the "30-mile fire," and had requested a helicopter drop of water at 5:30 am. They were told that water would not be available until 10 am.

At around 9 am they were replaced by a young "mop-up" crew, due to the fatigue of the men and women fighting the blaze all morning. The heat from the fire was unbearable at times, but it was just another day of fighting fires for these young men and women. Helicopter relief was expected to come within the hour, so their task seemed simple: keep these fires under control for a short time. They did what they had done many times before and contained the fires much longer than they needed to. This crew continued to try to contain the fire, as well as keep in contact with the helicopter that would be dropping the water. The fire began to get out of control once again due to lack of water. The flames began to surround some of the firemen, including four young men and women. The firefighters did not panic, because they were assured water was on the way. Noon passed and there was still no water. The young crew was beginning to worry. The fire was getting out of control, and they knew if they waited too long, there was a potential of getting trapped in the inferno. If they waited much longer, the fire would destroy everything in its path, including them. By one o’clock the fire was far out of their control. The firefighters began to gather closer to the river, hoping their closeness to the source of water would save their lives. The fire has come between them and the river, making it impossible for them to get any water.

The final permission to take water from the river did not come until two o’clock, and the first drop did not arrive until three. This was too late for our four young firefighters. They sat cowering under a tent as the flames slowly began to engulf them. They huddled together for support and comfort. They all began to accept the cruel reality of their situation. They were trapped in a fire that would eventually trap them inside a circle of fire, only a short distance from water that could save their lives. Their screams for help were to no avail. Their bodies began to get hotter and the skin slowly began to char. They were alive for what seemed like an eternity and tortured with the excruciating pain the burns all over their bodies were causing. Their hopes of being saved were quickly taken away by the extreme heat of the encroaching fire. These four firemen were not saved from the forest fire. They died a slow and miserable death.

They were left to die because a helicopter could have potentially scooped up a couple of fish.

An environmental policy caused the delay in granting permission to get water from the Chewuch River. The Forest Service policy in northwest United States requires special permission to get water out of nearby lakes and rivers, because the trout in these rivers are a protected species of fish and the dippers may accidentally scoop the fish out of the water. This delay was also caused by the fact that those who could grant permission were in a meeting discussing this particular exemption to dip into the Chewuch River, so they could not receive word that the drop was needed immediately. The first helicopter drop was made around 3 pm, but the fire was out of control by this point. Because of this inaction, four young men and women died that day cowering in a tent near the Chewuch River with no escape from the deadly flames.

What is the purpose of this policy? The only time firefighters would be drawing water from this river is if lives were in danger by a wildfire. Life is an inalienable natural right to humans. Governments are instituted among men to protect inalienable natural rights. They cannot make a law that would be contrary to this. Every wildfire has a potential to destroy human life. Usually the fires can be contained by the use of nearby water and other methods. Therefore, the firemen should be allowed to use the water to contain the fire and save lives.

Those who think the methods employed were correct and that the loss of life was just an unfortunate accident should look deeper into this incident. Every time permission must be granted, the lives of firefighters and nearby residents come into danger. Since government at any level cannot make a law that would endanger the lives of human beings, the requirement to get permission is unjust.

Human life is too high a price to pay to make the earth closer to what it used to be. This policy seems to be a manifestation of the sentiment of environmentalists; the environment has become more important than human life. This cannot be allowed to happen. Environmental laws, even if they are not directly destroying human life, contribute to not allowing men to improve the condition of human life. Instead of the government protecting life, it makes it more difficult for men to protect their right to life. The environmentalists perceive human life as secondary to protecting the earth and wildlife. The solution that environmentalists suggest to make the earth a better place seems to be worse than the problem.

Rebecca Fowler is a senior from Ravenna, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and Mathematics

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