Guest post by Rodman Philbrick, author of Wildfire
Images of the multiple fires in Australia are terrifying. Four thousand inhabitants of one small city, completely surrounded by flames, fled to nearby beaches and had to be rescued by boat. Smoke darkened the bloodred skies, blotting out the sun. To those escaping, it must have looked like the end of the world.
For some victims, it was.
A similar event once happened in my home state of Maine. In 1947 a severe drought dried the normally damp forests into kindling and more than two hundred fires swept from the mountains to the sea. Residents of Mount Desert Island were forced to flee by boat, and in nearby Bar Harbor, terrified survivors gathered on the town pier, awaiting rescue. A hundred miles to the south, the population of North Kennebunkport waded into the sea to escape a wall of flame that consumed their town.
I first heard about these terrible fires from my mother. She was a college student in Boston, Massachusetts, that fall, and recalled how the stench of the distant fires made her eyes water. Empty trucks poured into the city, recruiting student volunteers to help fight the fires. Her descriptions were so vivid that the idea of writing a novel about the Great Fires of Maine smoldered in the back of my imagination for years.
My original intention was to set the tale in 1947, when a fire season like that was a rare event. There were always dangerous fires, of course, but at the time the notion that thousands of residents might find themselves trying to outrace walls of flame from one end of the state to the other, that was unheard of.
That’s no longer true. Droughts, rising temperatures, and extreme weather events have made it all too common. That’s why I decided my tale, now the book titled Wildfire, had to be set in the present. I kept the locale in Maine simply because I know my home state better than, say, California. My settings would be a lakeside summer camp for kids, an abandoned lumber camp, and the deep Maine woods. My characters would include a determined boy, an ingenious girl, a hippy-dippy DJ, and a venerable Jeep. I wanted the pages to turn so fast the book itself was in danger of bursting into flames.
Even as I was writing about Sam Castine’s desperate attempt to flee a wildfire, the real life-and-death Camp Fire exploded in Paradise, California, destroying almost twenty thousand structures and killing at least eighty-five victims. The destruction of entire towns and villages, the displacement of thousands of victims, these terrifying events seem to happen every fire season.
I never imagined that my story, originally inspired by events that happened before I was born, would be so terrifyingly topical. The world can be a scary place sometimes, but there’s no need for us to live in fear. Don’t be afraid, be prepared. If your family lives in a fire-prone area, keep a “go bag” ready, packed with whatever you’ll need if you find yourself fleeing a fire. Have a plan, know the escape route, download local alert apps to your cell phone, and pay attention to the local news.
Knowledge and preparation may well give you the power to survive—and to help others!