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Service to America

July 4, 2002

"Americans have always believed in an ethic of service and civic responsibility that includes helping those in need and promoting the common good. Since September 11, Americans have demonstrated their true character in unity, generosity, patriotism, and civic pride."

President Bush, from the Foreword to "Fostering a Culture of Service, Citizenship, and Responsibility" for the USA Freedom Corps

My "day job" takes me to Durango, Colorado about every three or four weeks. For the last several years I have spent a week every month there working with the Colorado Ute Indian Tribes and the Bureau of Reclamation on a new water project for the Tribes. This is in the Four Corners Area of Colorado and New Mexico, an area of little rain and where water is as valuable as gold.

We have had our water problems recently in Maine, and most of us know someone whose well is dry or nearly so. Last winter was mild with little snow. Lakes and ponds were low. With dry conditions come woods fires, and we were dreading a long wildfire season. We were lucky, however, in Maine. The rains came in March and April, we had several late snowstorms in April, and the rains have continued into summer. Our ponds and lakes are full, and folks with water wells have a little relief. Although we could still have a hot dry summer and groundwater levels remain low, much of the immediate water crisis has passed for us in the Northeast.

This is not the case in the Southwest, however. Durango and the Four Corners Area are in their seventh year of drought, and the snow pack this winter was only 20% of normal. There has been little rain this spring, and hot dry days going into the summer. This has turned out to be a terrible wildfire season in the Southwest, with huge forest fires in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. When I flew from Denver to Durango last week there was thick smoke in the air the entire distance. You could smell the smoke from the forest fires in the plane long before we landed, and out the plane windows the fire and smoke stretched on and on.

The Missionary Ridge and Valley Fires
near Durango destroyed 56 homes
Photo courtesy the Rocky Mt News

Missionary Ridge Fire

The Missionary Ridge fire started on June 9 from a spark in a ditch near Missionary Ridge road. It is located just north and east of Durango in the San Juan National Forest. The fire has consumed more than 72,000 acres and is still burning as I write this.

To put it into a Maine perspective, think of the area burnt as more than 22 miles from east to west and more than 12 miles from north to south. Visualize an area stretching from Gorham north to Sebago, and from Sebago east to Cornish. That is the equivalent area in Maine that the Missionary Ridge fire has consumed so far as it goes on record as the largest fire that the San Juan National Forest has ever seen.

The fires along Missionary Ridge, with their 100-foot-high flames in the ponderosa pines and towering plumes of smoke, were visible from downtown Durango. At least 56 homes were destroyed and more than 1,700 homes were evacuated at the peak of the fire. The fire was only 40% contained as of July 3. At the peak, new fires started every day from burning embers cast off from the main fire and/or lightening strikes. Roads in the area were closed. Summer tourism and the townís businesses suffered. One of the venerable tourist attractions, the Durango to Silverton narrow gauge steam train, stopped running because of the danger of spot fires from the coal-fired engineís smoke stack.

The Missionary Ridge Fire has consumed more
than 72,000 acres of forest and is still burning

Nearly 1,400 firefighters from all over the country were brought in to fight the Missionary Ridge fire, along with helicopters, aerial tankers, bulldozers, and more than 150 fire engines and pumpers. It was not enough, and there were many hot, windy and dry days when the fire was on the offensive and all efforts to stop it were for naught.

I was in Durango on business, and had a full schedule of meetings each day. But I also wanted to help these firefighters if there was a way to do so. On my first day in town I went to the fire command headquarters at the La Plata County Fairgrounds in Durango. The entire complex had been taken over by the fire effort, and there were pieces of equipment everywhere. The lawns at the Fairgrounds and the football field at the adjacent high school were filled with tents for the firefighters. The large assembly hall was turned into a giant mess hall. Showers, maintenance areas, communications, all the essential elements were set up to support the small army of firefighters.

Iím way past the age where I can run up and down mountains with a Pulaski digging fire lines, and havenít had a wildfire "green card" for years anyway. But I've had the wildfire training and a lot of time on the fire lines, and figured that experience ought to count for something and allow me make a contribution.

Fire crews from all over the country
battled the fire

"Can you use a volunteer anywhere around here"? I asked one of the U. S. Forest Service staff at the fire headquarters. I told her about my experience with the Forest Service, including a lot of time on western forest fire lines, and my experience as a volunteer firefighter. "My evenings are free, and Iím here for the week. I know Durango pretty well, too." I added.

"When can you start" I was asked. "We need someone to help at the Fire Information Center, to brief the media and to answer questions from people who call in. Sit right down there" she said, and motioned me to a makeshift command center with maps of the fire pinned to the wall, charts of fire and weather statistics, and lists of housing developments that had been evacuated.

The fire came to the outskirts of Durango

They gave me a few minutes to read the situation reports and familiarize myself with the fire maps, and then turned me loose. I spent from 5:00 p.m. until midnight at the Fire Information Center every night while I was in town. I helped write press releases, manned the phones, handled walk-ins, gave taped interviews to TV and radio stations all over the region from Denver to Albuquerque, briefed the newspaper reporters who were all over the place, followed up on reports from citizens about new fires, and generally helping to get the word out.

From where I was working Missionary Ridge loomed over the Fair Grounds. We only had to step outside to see the fire. We could watch the smoke and flames up on the ridge, and the helicopters and aerial tankers battling the flames. The fire was a real, living and breathing thing that we were always aware of.

Durangoís Spirit

My role was a very small one. The real heroes were the firefighters. Fighting wildfires is hot, exhausting, and dangerous work. You can tell it on the soot-streaked faces of the young men and women in smoky yellow nomex fire gear who build the fire lines and risk their lives every shift. The fire claimed one firefighter's life and injured nearly two dozen others on the fire lines so far. Two things struck me as I worked at the fire center, took my meals with the firefighters and met the public: the resilience of the firefighters; and the overwhelming outpouring of support from the community to support them and the positive effect that it had on the firefighters.

There were banners and billboards everywhere in Durango expressing support for the firefighters on the Missionary Ridge Fire. The chain link fence at the fairground was plastered with signs and cartoons. In the mess hall were bulletin boards full of cards and letters. There was a steady stream of people making donations to the Red Cross of everything from toothpaste to socks and underwear. Everything was offered free to the firefighters at a corner of the large mess hall. Kids came in with jars of pennies they had collected.

Firefighters found it hard to spend their money in town. Restaurants offered free meals and other businesses contributed as well. Firefighters could get a free haircut or massage right at the fairground. At supper every night there was a different musician singing or playing for the diners.

All this was not unnoticed by either the firefighters or the families directly affected by the fire. When the fire was at its worst, and it didnít seem that any progress was going to be made, the firefighters were pretty discouraged. I talked to many of them, from all over the country. To a person they appreciated the community support and had been heartened by it. I definitely feel that it made a difference in their performance, and helped them in their efforts to get parts of the fire under control.

Durango opened their
hearts to the firefighters

There was a similar outpouring of support to the hundreds of families who had been evacuated from their homes, or who had been warned to be ready for potential evacuation. Three evacuation shelters were set up, and families could stay there for free. Meals and amenities were offered. A roster of people who had volunteered trucks, trailers and labor to help move people was maintained. Pets were cared for. Freezer space was donated. Everything from pasture to graze your evacuated horse to counseling was available.

I also talked to a number of people who had been evacuated from their homes, and helped one lady move some of her family valuables to safety. The support from the community made a big difference in how the families evacuated from their homes were able to deal with all the stress and uncertainty in their lives.

Our charity is appreciated no matter how each of us volunteers our time and energy. We can make a difference.

Service to America

Sebago Days is the annual fair that we have here in town. This year it will be July 19 and 20, 2002, and most of the town turns out. I suggested to the Sebago Days Committee that the theme of the parade this year be "Service to America". This patriotic theme seemed appropriate in light of the way that America has come together since September 11, 2001 to honor those that have served America so well - our servicemen and women, fire fighters, emergency workers, police, volunteers and others who gave of themselves to help their fellow citizens, often putting themselves in harms way in the process.

Americans have always believed in an ethic of service and civic responsibility that includes helping those in need and promoting the common good. It is a demonstration of our true character in unity, generosity, patriotism, and civic pride. The American Spirit to volunteer is not a new phenomenon. We have been known to the world as a nation of caring, compassionate people who help each other. When Alexis de Tocqueville, the social historian who wrote the classic reference Democracy in America, visited the United States in the 1830ís he was greatly impressed by the spirit of involvement in America that he was convinced made democracy work in this country.

When floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes and other catastrophes have devastated America in the past, Americans have always responded with open hearts and wallets to succor the victims. Donations from individuals to support charitable causes are indispensable. Involvement of citizens in government helps make this country great.

The level of service to our country, our communities, and to our fellowman, however, has been steadily declining in recent decades. A series of national surveys by the Roper Organization since 1973 has documented a decline in public participation by more than a third. Every year over the last decade or two, millions of Americans have withdrawn from the affairs of their communities.

A January 2002 survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the share of young people between the ages of 15 and 25 who volunteer continues to decline. Since 1998 the percentage has dropped from 73% to 63%. The share of 18 to 24 year olds who make charitable donations has dropped 14 points since 1998 (to 72%), those who have joined a club or organization has declined by 11 points (to 46%), and those who volunteered at a community organization has fallen by 10 points (to 40%). A survey of any of the national service organizations (e.g. Boy Scouts, Lions, Rotary, Kiwanis, etc.), as well as church membership, parent-teacher organizations, labor unions, etc.. would reveal the same trend. Fewer citizens, particularly younger ones, are joining and helping in the charitable work of these organizations.

Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone: Americaís Declining Social Capital) points to a decline of 25% in volunteerism and community participation over the last quarter century. He points to the loosening of bonds within the family, a decline in neighborliness, and the fact that Americans today are less trusting as some of the reasons for this decline. It is by our example in volunteering that others are encouraged to do the same.

We see the same thing in our own community. We all know that our local food banks, fire departments and rescue squads, meals-on-wheels, etc. could not function without the hours that volunteers contribute. However, it has always been difficult to get people to donate time to help. Too often we see the same people helping out over and over again.

For a while all these declining trends seemed to stopped dead in their tracks. The events of September 11 opened a window of opportunity and a desire for America to serve. This one event helped the whole nationn become more aware, more connected and concerned, with each otherís welfare. The outpouring of help from all over the country to the New York City and Washington, DC disasters was universal.

In his statements for the USA Freedom Corps, President Bush said "We have experienced many changes as a Nation since our country was attacked on September 11, 2001. Out of the evil of terror, we have found many opportunities to do good. We have been reminded that we are citizens of one Nation under one flag, with essential obligations to one another, to our country, and to history."

Has this been a fleeting thing to be forgotten as we get further and further away from September 11? I hope not. Because America needs each of us to give of themselves to help others in need, whether it is helping out on a bean supper, which in turn supports community programs, or just being a friend to a neighbor in need. No ancient holy book mentions "volunteering" by that name, but every religion in the world encourages charity, service to others, and personal risk for oneís beliefs. We are commanded by God and called by our conscience to love others as we would be loved ourselves.

Service to others is important in our own lives as well. Having a passion for service, or a cause larger than ourselves, helps us grow and brings rewards to each of us. By helping others we gain satisfaction that cannot be gained in any other way. Service gives direction to the gifts God has given us, and purpose to our lives.

And finally, in a nuturing community that cares about one another, we may ourselves be the recipients of charity some day.

An early morning fire gutted this old Sebago farmhouse

This certainly true in Sebago on July 4th. Our fire department was toned out at 03:13 a.m. to a fully involved structure fire. We arrived on the scene to find flames shooting out of the roof and walls of the old 1826 farmhouse owned by one of our fellow volunteer firemen. We knocked the fire down and put it out with some difficulty and the help of firefighters from six neighboring towns, but the house and contents were a complete loss. The family lost a lifetime of possessions. However, the outpouring of support in just a few days has been wonderful. The community has come together with donations of money, clothes and furniture, a place to stay, lumber and building materials, and all sorts of services and support that the family needs in this time of trial. The house will be rebuilt, and there will be pieces of the community and its love and support throughout it.

When I asked the firefighters in Durango about the support of the community for what they were doing, they couldnít say enough. It made a big difference in their morale. Knowing their work was appreciated helped them through some difficult times up on the fire line. The same sense of gratitude and moralle uplift is felt by our family in Sebago in their tough time as well. It does make a difference.

The citizens of Durango and Sebago have seized on these opportunities to serve their fellow man, but it doesnít take a huge wildfire or some other natural disaster for each and every one of us to seek out ways to help each other. If we look around, there are limitless opportunities close at hand to put the gifts and talents that God has given each of us to good use, each in our own way. Our volunteer time and services are needed - by our neighbors, our communities, and by America. We benefit, and by our examples we encourage others to volunteer their time and love as well. Everyone comes out a winner.

Good coverage of the Missionary Ridge Fire, with pictures and maps, is at the Durango Herald website.

Photo credits

Rocky Mountain News, Barry Guterrez (photo of Valley Fire home)
Durango Herald, Keith Alewine (map) and Jerry McBride (photo of firefighters).

More information on Volunteerism can be found in these sources:

Bornemeier, Jim. Young Adults Feeling Better About Politics and Government Post-Sept 11. Pew Charitable Trusts March 4, 2002.

Bush, President George W. Commencement Address at Ohio State University, June 14, 2002.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone:America's Declining Social Capital. National Endowment for Democracy and the Johns Hopkins University. in: Journal of Democracy 6:1, Jan 1995, 65-78.

Renner, Lori L. Religious Roots of Service. The Electronic Journal of the Volunteerism Community. April 2002.

USA Freedom Corps, Citizen Service Act.

Allen Crabtree

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Last updated July 4, 2002

Copyright © 2002, Allen Crabtree