Six weeks ago, I was backpacking through the Sisters Wilderness Area, taking in the sights, breathing in the clean air, and searching for the Holy of God along the way. I feel like I don’t know a whole lot during these pandemic, racial unrest, and economic downturn days. What I do know is hiking those trails provides perspective and hope. It is grounding to walk through ancient lava fields, surrounded by immense boulders. It reminds me I am but a wispy vapor in this vast span of eternity. Though much of the lava field is desolate, on occasion, sections exist where evergreen trees grow through the cracks of those hard places; a reminder that life emerges from destruction, it just takes time and some favorable conditions.
I had no idea by early fall, I’d be sitting under a heavy blanket of smoke and ash as a result of wildfires engulfing the state, devastating some of the holy ground I’d walked upon. Sparked by various factors and fueled by a historic windstorm, these fires have produced catastrophic events, not only in Oregon, but all along the Western US.
As the fires spread in my county, evacuation alerts were issued. My little town was placed in the Level 1- Ready zone. The line for Level 2- Get Set- was a mile away, just across the Willamette River. And Level 3- Mandatory Go- was a few towns over. I am not a wildfire expert, as I grew up in the land of sweet tea, hurricanes, and tornadoes. But thankfully, when my son was in 5th grade, he was alerted that the “big earthquake” might happen any day, so he spearheaded our emergency kit preparedness plans. Thankfully, the big earthquake hasn’t happened, because reexamining those kits this week, I realized we were only about 70% ready for a major disaster.
That preparedness status has changed as I hustled to complete the kits, pack our bags, and gather important documents. Our “go” items have been sitting by our door the past 4 days. In the event our Level 1 placement moved to Level 2, we’d load up and head to my in-laws in Washington. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened. As of today, we have been downgraded to Level Zero. Still the air quality is hazardous, ranking as some of the worst air quality on planet earth. A stark contrast to our normal.
When tragedy strikes and I’m not sure how to proceed, I look to the experts for guidance. Checking the county fire department for updates became an obsession for three full days. I needed to know someone out there knew what was going on and how best to manage the circumstances.
On Friday, I listened to an interview on Oregon Public Broadcasting with one of the top fire chiefs/marshalls. I didn’t catch his name, nor did I know his exact title. What I did know is that he sounded like he knew what he was talking about. He was level in his presentation of information and set reasonable expectations for the public. He shared what he knew and what he didn’t know. Because the truth about wildfires is that nature plays a huge part in how they behave and are contained, and nature is quite unpredictable. It was clear, this leader, despite years of expertise and experience, only knew so much. And I was completely ok with his not knowing. He knew enough to make a difference, but not too much as to be an arrogant ass. His honesty and humility were refreshing, especially during these days where few leaders seem to embody such traits. I wonder if this humility comes from working in a profession that faces the possibility of death each time an unpredictable fire is faced?
As I reflect upon various leaders, I’ve noticed the more a person embodies their own limited humanity, the more capable they are in leading in humble yet authoritative ways. Perspective matters, especially during times of crisis and unknowns.