Burn Baby, Burn
Parshat Vayechi 5779
It all started with some bad rubber. On July 23rd, a couple was towing their Grey Wolf Select RV trailer down California’s Route 299 when one of the tires blew out. There was nowhere for them to pull off; the thin roadway was surrounded by deep gullies, so they continued down the road, looking for a safe turnout. As they limped along, the rubber tire shredded itself and abandoned the steel rim, which now scraped its way down the highway leaving a trail of sparks behind it.
Three of those sparks landed on dry brush on the side of the highway, two on the southern shoulder and one on the north. Those sparks do what sparks often do to dry brush, which is light them up. Three minutes after the initial tire blowout, there were three little fires burning on the side of Route 299. Three days after the initial tire blowout, a fire tornado was raging across tens of thousands of acres, eventually killing eight people and reducing entire communities to rubble. The Carr Fire, a thirty-nine day battle with nature, the seventh-largest fire in California history, never should have happened. The eight lives, 230,000 acres, and $1.7 billion in homes and businesses should still be here, because the Carr Fire had been predicted for years.
It’s no secret that California is in the middle of a prolonged drought, which has filled the state with dry brush and trees, a veritable tinderbox of massive proportions. But it’s also no secret that fires can only burn where there is fuel, which is why many professionals and experts in California have pushed for the adoption of aggressive fuel reduction campaigns, only to see those attempts deflected.
Fuel reduction is mainly accomplished by using controlled burns to remove the dry brush, and selective logging to remove trees that are deemed to be dead, dry, or too close to roadways or cities. Fuel reduction is not pretty, not while it happens and not after its done. During controlled burns, the air is filled with smoke, a small percentage of which lingers in the air for a few days. But more importantly, after fuel reduction, the pretty trees surrounding a town or road are gone, and people, especially California people, like feeling surrounded by nature. The problem is that people may like to hug trees, but trees don’t reliably hug back, especially not when they’re on fire.
The Carr Fire began just outside the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation) had worked on clearing a small portion of Route 299 that was under their jurisdiction, and then reported their concerns for the rest of Route 299 to the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area officials. They recommended burning all vegetation within four feet of the roadway and “and an aggressive brush and tree pruning, cutting and clearing from 4 feet to 30 feet,” and offered to carry it out.
Caltrans recommendation was rejected because it would go against the “scenic values” of the region. They were told that to clear the roadside would be considered a “major federal action,” which would be subject to a lengthy review under the National Environmental Policy Act, and that review would include a full environmental assessment that would likely stymie the project. Law also mandates public hearings on these types of projects and it was highly unlikely that the local citizens would allow the project to move forward at all, the locals don’t like smoke in the air, and don’t like seeing their beloved trees cut down by big men with chainsaws. So Caltrans made sure the Whiskeytown officials were clear on the risks and walked away.
Tom Garcia, the Whiskeytown area fire manager, was also hyper-aware of the challenges of the dry conditions and abundant brush. He prepared a report in 2016 calling for 150 urgent fire prevention projects around Redding, the closest city to the Carr Fire’s genesis. Two were funded. His entire budget for clearing fire hazards was $500,000 enough to protect 600 acres, he estimated he needed $3.5 million to clear the fire hazards of the 5,000 acres in danger. Interestingly, despite the Carr Fire being one of the most intense fires in California history, at one point featuring a “Firenado,” a twister of fire and debris spinning under 140 mph winds, the 600 acres that Garcia was able to protect was left largely untouched. For $3.5 million annually, eight lives lost, 1,604 buildings burned, and over $1.6 billion in losses could have been prevented.
There is government irresponsibility, and there is citizen irresponsibility, and both played a role in the Carr Fire. The Redding municipality prepared comprehensive emergency planning reports multiple times, and each time identified wildfire as the highest public safety threat. The citizens were made aware that they live on the eastern border of thousands of acres of dry brushy woodlands, and that forty percent of the city was in what was deemed a “very high fire hazard severity zone.” Citizens were called upon to reduce the threat by aggressively reducing fuel. Their pleas were met with a great big civic yawn, the citizens were far more concerned with rising housing prices, crime, and vagrancy.
While building codes were changed to require more fire-retardant materials and sprinkler systems in any new houses being built, the most important regulation called upon citizens to create a 100 foot ring “defensible space” around their homes by removing any dry brush, keeping gutters clear of dry leaves, and removing dry branches from any federal lands that abut their properties. And while city managers say they conducted 5,000 defensible space inspections annually, not a single citation was ever issued for violations in 2017.
Jeff Coons took a proactive stance. His son was a firefighter, and together they made sure that he always had the proper 100-foot defensible space. It took him two years to get the full project done, because his property borders federal lands and he had to go through miles of red tape to get permission to do all the measures he felt were necessary, but it was well worth it. After the Carr Fire, his was one of the few houses still left standing in the whole city. The 100-foot defensible space he created was covered in fine ash, but his house and prized 68’ Camaro in the garage were left untouched. His actions should serve as a model for the 16,000,000 other Californians living in areas classified as “high-fire threat zones.”
There are cities that have taken proactive stances to fire safety. Boulder, CO invested in a large ring of open space around the city. They turned it into a popular recreation area, while its main purpose as a fuel break for wildfires largely go unrecognized, which is fine as long as it works. San Diego is another example. After suffering from deadly fires in 2003 and 2007, they formed thirty-eight volunteer community fire prevention councils which educate residents, provide yard-clearing services and make fuel clearing events regularly.
But most cities in California and other dry areas of the West follow the pattern than never works. Sit around, do nothing because it’s expensive and bothersome, and only wake up after a fire has destroyed the community to ask “how did this happen to us?”
Recently, my wife and I went to PTA for one of our daughters, and met with all of her amazing teachers. We met with the teacher who is teaching her Navi, Prophets, and talked about the selection they are studying this year, the Book of Jeremiah. I found it to be a perplexing choice, as the Book of Jeremiah is not filled with fascinating stories like the book of Judges, Samuel or Kings, and is actually a pretty moribund book. It is the tragic story of a prophet who spent forty years begging the Jews to change their evil ways, prophesizing to them the exact nature of the disasters that would befall them, and watching his pleas fall on dead ears. Eventually, Jeremiah would have the agony of seeing all of his prophesizing come true; the First Temple being burned to the ground by the Babylonians, the mass murder they carried out in the Land of Israel, and the subsequent exile of the people to Babylonia in slave chains. He then wrote the Book of Lamentations, the most painful book in the Jewish canon, describing the horrors he saw.
The teacher explained that they studied Jeremiah because of the powerful language used throughout, and the many beautiful analogies Jeremiah used in trying to encourage the Jewish people to change. But perhaps there is another reason that it is important for everyone to study Jeremiah, because it holds one of the most important lessons of life, namely that when we are to sloth to respond to the clear and present dangers in our behavior, tragedy befalls us, and we are left wondering “How did this happen?”
Of all the species in the world, humans have the unique ability to create on a scale far above and beyond any other animal. While the lion, king of the beast, still hasn’t figured out how to make a sandwich, humans have figured out how to build MRI machines to peer into innards, satellites to tell us the weather from outer space, and 300-ton airplanes to fly us around the globe in hours. But humans also have a propensity to ignore potential harm to ourselves on a level not seen in the animal world. You’ll never see an obese tiger in the wild, you’ll never see a lemur smoking a cigarette, and you’ll never see a bee sitting on a lounge chair “chilling out,” instead of building wealth for the hive. You’ll also never see a deer ignore the leopard crouching nearby, or the horse discount the snake slithering toward him.
Evidently, when we humans got a soul in “G-d’s image,” it came with ups and downs. We have the ability to achieve enormous personal success by using all of our G-d given gifts, but we have also an unparalleled habit of self-harm, based on our desire to do what’s comfortable and convenient, totally ignoring all the signs that we are headed to disaster. Parents yell at their children, ignoring what they’ve learned from experts, that it is only going to cause the child to compound the behavior they are trying to stop or bring it deep underground where it will come out in negative ways down the line. We eat too much, smoke, drink too much, treat our sanctuaries like social halls and places of gossip, we act dishonestly in business, always ignoring the warning signs that this will eventually lead to our downfall. And then when the fires comes, burning down our homes and families, we look up and say, “How did this happen?” The story of Jeremiah plays itself out in every generation.
There are many phrases in Jewish literature reminding us of the importance to spend our time in this world preparing a beautiful place for ourselves in the next world; and here are a few: “This world is compared to the dry land, and the next world to the sea” (all you have on the ship at sea is what you filled it with while on dry land), “this world is like the corridor, and the next world like a ballroom, prepare yourself in the corridor for the ballroom,” “whoever prepares on Erev Shabbos will eat on Shabbos (on Shabbos you can’t cook, so you will only be able to eat on Shabbos what you cooked Friday),” and “Today to do, tomorrow to reap the rewards.” All of these phrases are telling us that spiritual work is always going to be more difficult in the here and now, but the rewards are enormous in the World to Come.
But it is not only in the World to Come where you see those rewards. You clean up your 100-foot “defensible space” in 2017, and you have a house and car in 2018, and all your neighbors who heard the same reports but ignored them and let the fuel pile up in their gutters and yards, they have burned out husks. It not like they weren’t made aware of the risks, they just ignored the risks because it was more comfortable to spend their Sunday afternoon drinking beer and watching the game.
Those who invest the time and effort to better themselves today, to expend the energy necessary to be a better parent, a better spouse, a better Jew, find themselves years later living lives that are rich in family, marriage and spiritual serenity. Those who listen to Jeremiah in his first book, the book of Jeremiah, never reach the book of Lamentations. Those who invest today, eat tomorrow.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha our forefather Yaakov passes from this world. Before his passing, Yaakov calls his children together and blesses them. At the end of the blessings, the Torah summarizes the event with the following verse, “And this is what their father spoke to them and he blessed them, he blessed each according to their blessing.” (Gen. 49:28).
On the surface this verse is troubling, why did he bless them according to their blessings? Shouldn’t he have blessed them according to what they were lacking? If one of the tribes was already blessed with a particular attribute, shouldn’t that be the one area in which he doesn’t need a blessing?
The answer to this puzzle contains a gem that will teach us an important lesson about human development. We all have certain natural qualities. Some of us are soft, some super intelligent, some have leadership qualities, some academic prowess, but everyone has some quality in which they shine. Many people think that since they have that quality naturally, they should ignore it, and focus on acquiring skill they don’t yet have. But the truth is that through focusing on their natural strength and developing it they can accomplish whatever they need.
This doesn’t mean that I can expect to breeze through college by being kind, rather, it means that if I find my natural tendency is to be very kind and warm, I should probably look for a job in the caring professions, while if I find myself to be analytical I should try to become an analyst or a lawyer, etc. When dealing with interpersonal problems, if I am the kind type I should use my kindness as a strength and find a way to draw myself away of the dissonance, whereas if I am analytical, I should sit back and tackle the problem as an equation, determining how to best go about solving it. (Sometimes the kind thing to do is to pull back and let someone else learn the hard way, and sometime the analysis will determine that an extra dose of caring and emotion is called for. The focus here is how a person arrives at the conclusion)
This is the meaning of Yaakov’s blessings. Yaakov was able to see each of his children’s strengths and to bless it, to ask G-d that it be brought out even more. He showed his children that he felt that it was that particular trait that they should focus upon. And this is how we should interact with our children. We should find their strengths and encourage their growth. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone is created to be a doctor, a rabbi, or a lawyer. Parents need to be in tune with that reality while raising their progeny, and college students need to be in tune with it when picking careers. If we stop trying to shoehorn children into what we think is best for them, but instead focus on their strengths and develop them, we will have a truly blessed world!
This parsha begins at the end of the life of Yaakov. It discusses the last things that Yaakov did before passing from this world. First, Yaakov asked Yosef to ensure that he would be buried in Israel. He asked Yosef, and not the other brothers, because he understood that Yosef was the only one with the power to guarantee it, as Yosef was the viceroy of Egypt. Yosef readily agreed.
Soon after that encounter, Yosef got a message that his father was ill, so he immediately hurried to his father’s bedside with his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. When they arrived, Yaakov gave Yosef’s sons the status of tribes, thus equating them with their uncles, the rest of Yaakov’s children. This meant that they would each have a separate share in the distribution of Israel, would camp in the desert as two distinct tribes, and would have their own tribal flags. This was an enormous honor not accorded to any other of Yaakov’s grandchildren.
After that, Yosef brought his sons forward to be blessed by his father. Yosef purposely put Menasheh on the left which would be Yaakov’s right, because he was the older brother and the right hand is considered the choice hand. However, Yaakov switched his hands and placed his right on the head of Ephraim. When Yosef tried to switch them back, Yaakov told him that he did this purposely, because the younger brother Ephraim would produce greater people, most notably Joshua who would lead the Jews into Israel after Moses’ death.
Yaakov then blessed them with the following blessing, “Through you shall [the People of] Israel bless saying; ‘May El-him make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.’” (Gen. 48:20). To this day, when parents bless their children on Friday night, as is the custom in many homes, they say that exact formula: “May El-him make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.”
After that, Yaakov called in the rest of his children and blessed all of them, except three, whom he reprimanded. Those chastised were Reuven for moving his father’s bed to his mother’s tent without consulting his father, and Shimon and Levi for destroying the entire city of Shechem after their sister had been kidnapped and violated by the city’s prince. After blessing his sons, Yaakov them to bury him in Me’aras Hamachpela, the same place that Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sara, and Yitzchak and Rivka were buried. After his final request he pulled himself onto the bed and joined his people in heaven.
The entire Egypt mourned the passing of Yaakov, as the famine stopped when he moved there. Pharaoh gave Yosef permission to leave, and the twelve brothers all traveled to Israel to bury their father in the Me’aras Hamachpela. When they came back, the brothers were concerned that now that their father was not there Yosef might try to take revenge on them for the time they sold him. However, he reassured them that he bore them no ill will; rather he understood that G-d sent him down to Egypt to sustain his people through the years of famine.
Yosef was the first of the twelve tribes to die. However, even he lived to the ripe old age of 110 and was able to see three generations of progeny (that means he helped raise his great grandchildren). Before he died he asked the Jewish people that when G-d takes them out of Egypt they bring his bones with them to be buried in Israel. And with that the book of Genesis concludes!!
Quote of the week: Charity looks at the need, not at the cause. – Samuel Fremont
Random Fact of the Week: Astronauts get taller when they are in space.
Funny Line of the Week: Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but check when you say the paint is wet?
Have a Top Shelf Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham