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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Discovering America’s Virtues in a Wildfire

Big Sur Wildfire

Big Sur Wildfire

Work ethic, community, and compromise in Big Sur

Ann Skeet

In between two extraordinary political conventions, my husband and I found a few days to get away to one of California’s treasures, the Big Sur coast. We planned the adventure months ago when we realized we were going to experience that beautiful alignment parents learn to appreciate—both children tucked away at overnight camps at the same time. Therefore, we didn’t let a natural disaster stop us, and barreled right into firefighters battling the Soberanes Fire burning just over the ridge from the coast.

What we discovered was the essence of America. And it was good.
We experienced the work ethic, the community, and the compromise that contributes to a uniquely American reality. We were welcomed to Big Sur under a tinted sky where fog and smog mingled, leaving rainbow-like layers of atmosphere hugging the coast, and by the hearty people who choose to live and work there. Tourism is their business. They bravely had their game faces on and answered questions about activities that could still be done with the state parks closed, and provided assurances that we would have a good visit as the fire turned and began an inevitable march deeper into the coastal community.
Big Sur firefighters went to work, and the rest of California went to work with it. We watched a truckload of firefighters from the Sequoia National Forest—over 200 miles away— meet in a parking lot, workers representing a range of ethnicities and perhaps even nationalities. They were dirty and tired, but ready to head back to work. We thanked them.
We learned the locals were tapped into their own communication network and were aware of the news before we would hear it on the radio: the first death of a bulldozer driver, the additional homes lost, the homes that would be lost. A few shared with us how long their families had worked in the community and how hard they had labored to build whatever they had—a restaurant, a place to stay, a business. More than a few shared how they had spent time away from work helping friends evacuate and find safety.
There was a profound respect we encountered over and over again, for people, for their different goals, for their hard work and kindness. The firefighters understood that keeping Highway One open was critical as it was the lifeline of the community and the mainstay of business. The businesspeople understood that in doing so, the firefighters were accepting a harder task and taking greater risks.
The locals and visitors alike accepted that we cannot control these kinds of situations. Every so often, the wilderness needs to burn. Crisis repeatedly reveals the strength of our country that values hard work, but understands the vagaries of luck and life.
In the bizarre political process we are winding our way through as a country, we find again how much we value hard work, our communities, and the need to compromise to thrive. A few days experiencing a Big Sur wildfire reminded me that our country, any country for that matter, is made up of all of us, what we choose to do and how we choose to treat each other.
This article was originally posted on Santa Clara's thought leader blog Illuminate on Aug. 24, 2016.
Aug 26, 2016

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