Speak Up

DB Ryen

There was a forest fire rushing towards us, but I was told everything was fine. Do I just accept it? Or should I have the courage to speak up?

[Keywords: communication, warning, ominous, faith, Christianity, Bible]

Length: Medium, 1764 words

On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen. All the day and all the night they shall never be silent. 

Isaiah 62:6

“Um, that column of smoke looks pretty big. Should we get out of here?”

It was mid-August, on a day so hot you couldn’t stand in the sun without sweating. We were out in the Canadian wilderness fighting a forest fire, in the middle of an endless spruce forest, which partially shaded us from the oppressive heat. 

The fire we were working on was smoldering along the ground, with minimal open flame. The day before, three Parattackers had jumped out of a plane and parachuted down. On the ground, they established a pumpsite at a nearby creek and laid out a hose around the perimeter. By the time my five-man crew was flown in by helicopter the next day, the fire was half-contained. We were there to assist the mop-up, making sure every hot spot was entirely extinguished before we moved onto another target. 

There were plenty to choose from. 

In the last week a dry lightning storm had rolled through the area, sparking dozens of fires. As we flew in that morning, I looked out from the front seat of the helicopter and saw trickles of smoke all over the horizon. There were little fires everywhere, all smoldering away like ours. But the day was still young, and the heat of the day would soon change the situation drastically. 

Upon landing, I mentioned my observation about other fires all around us to the lead Parattacker. He assured me the Fire Center was keeping close tabs on the area. However, in the few hours since landing, the trickle in the distance had turned into a steady stream of dark gray smoke. Again, I raised my concerns. 

“Uh, we should be fine,” he said with less conviction. “They’ve got a bird-dog up there. I’m sure they’ll pull us out if things get too hot.”

We learned later that the spotter plane ("bird-dog") was actually miles away from us, following the trail of the lightning storm. Unbeknownst to us, we were alone out there. But regardless, we kept a careful eye on the sky.

Safety is paramount to the BC Wildfire Service, which does everything it can to ensure its firefighters are prepared for (and protected from) emergencies. In boot camp, we repeatedly drilled deploying our fire shelters - little aluminum tents that shielded us from radiant heat - in the event our terrain got burned over. And every time a crew is deployed, there are always two escape routes away from any given fire, leading to designated safety zones. In our case, the first safety was a little clearing by the creek the hose system was pumping out of. That’s where we landed in the morning, and where the parachutes and other gear were stashed. The other was down a survey line three hundred yards away - a wide swath of land stretching in both directions farther than the eye can see - plenty of room for a helicopter to land and whisk us away.

Back to the hoses. The eight of us - three Parattackers and my five-man support crew - methodically sprayed down the burning forest floor, making short work of the three-hectare lightning fire. However, half an hour later, the black column in the distance was even bigger.

And closer. 

“That thing doesn’t look so far away any more. We should think about getting out of here.”

This time the Parattacker couldn’t deny it seemed to be bearing down on us. “I’ll check in with Headquarters.”

I overheard the radio conversation and was not reassured. The Fire Center had no idea about any other fires escalating. They agreed to send a helicopter to check it out.

We held a meeting to brief the rest of the crew and make a plan. The other Parattackers were sent down to the makeshift helipad to gather up the parachutes (the most valuable equipment on the fireline) and demobilize the pump in case we had to evacuate. The rest of us would stay put to await the assessment from the helicopter. 

Fifteen minutes later, we heard the faint thumping of rotor blades. Our radios crackled to life, “Para Five, this is Tango Sierra Oscar. The whole area is going up in flames. I’ve gotta get you boys out of there ASAP.

The Parattacker responded, “Roger that, Sierra Oscar. You’ll find two crew members at the staging area. The rest of us will be waiting for you straight west on the cutline.”

No time to lose, we were gone. The smoke in the distance was getting closer by the minute. The gray plumes were now a torrent of black racing skyward. It was starting to block out the sun, turning the whole forest an eerie reddish-orange. We picked up the pace. The Bell 412 helicopter screamed overhead, barely clearing the treetops. We heard it throttle down briefly around the creek before roaring back into the air. The secondary landing pad was just ahead. 

I looked back to ensure all my crew members were still behind me. Counting four orange hard hats, I saw a wall of black smoke about a quarter mile away, and moving toward us faster than we could hike away.

We instinctively ducked our heads as the helicopter flew back over us, flared its rotors sharply, and set down. The skids had barely touched the ground when the pilot frantically waved us over.

Crouching low, we hustled to the sliding doors and piled in. Putting on a headset, I heard the pilot’s voice, “... and don’t worry about your seatbelts. Just get the doors closed…”

Before we knew it, the whole craft was airborne again. The two other Parattackers were strapped in tight, wide-eyed, with rolled up chutes at their feet. We learned later that they’d barely escaped from the creek site. By the time the helicopter landed, the wall of flame was nearly upon them, so close they could feel the heat on their faces. Trees exploded as their sap boiled and blew them apart. Less than a minute after taking off, the creek site was ablaze. The pump, hoses, and other equipment were incinerated.

As soon as we were all safely above the forest canopy, I finally saw the danger we’d been in. Our smoldering, half-out wildfire was quickly overtaken by the inferno that had been racing toward us. As I looked around, other black columns of smoke revealed a dozen other wildfires, each expanding exponentially and consuming anything in their path. If we’d called in the helicopter even ten minutes later, we may not have made it out at all. 

My concerns had been completely valid - we were in danger, despite what the Parattacker had said. What’s more, the Fire Center wasn’t looking out for us. We’d been entirely on our own as the whole world caught on fire.

I’m sure glad I spoke up.

*   *   *

Communication breakdown can be deadly. Just look at the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 1986. A simple O-ring failure in the rocket’s coupling led to liquid oxygen catching fire 73 seconds after take-off. The rockets exploded, sending the rest of the shuttle hurtling uncontrollably back toward earth. There were no survivors. Technicians had had concerns about the safety of the O-rings, since they hadn’t been tested for the conditions they would later operate in. Tragically, their concerns didn’t reach the appropriate channels, or weren't heeded, and seven astronauts died that infamous day in late January. 

And yet, even when the right message is spoken, sometimes it comes from the wrong voices. George Floyd died on the streets of Minneapolis as a police officer knelt on his neck. Bystanders repeatedly warned that he couldn't breathe, but the three other officers present didn’t say a word to their colleague. If one of the other officers had simply spoken up when they saw a man struggling to breathe, perhaps Floyd would still be alive today. Their decision to remain silent for over nine minutes led to a man dying of asphyxiation. 

Speaking up is never easy. Sometimes it takes enormous courage to raise a red flag. Harvey Weinstein abused countless women, most of which remained silent for years. However, one brave soul eventually shared her story, despite the pain, which unleashed a tidal wave of similar accusations. The strength of that first woman empowered many others to do likewise, leading to Weinstein's arrest and conviction. He is now in jail, as he should be. 

Those who hear the reports of those who manage to speak up must also have the courage to pass them up the chain. The Titanic received four separate warnings about icebergs in her path. However, these messages never left the Titanic’s radio room. Hours later, she had sunk, with half of the souls on board perished in the North Atlantic.

In the Bible, Old Testament prophets were responsible for delivering warnings they received from God. If they kept silent, the guilt of sin would’ve fallen on the prophet’s head, in addition to the people.

You, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. (Ez 33:7-9)

The prophet Elisha repeatedly saved Israel's army by warning them whenever the Syrians were waiting in ambush (2 Kings 6:8-12). Jonah wanted to keep quiet about the message of repentance he was supposed to  deliver to Nineveh, but a few days inside a fish changed his mind. The whole city later repented and was saved from calamity (Jonah 3).

History is full of tragic warnings undelivered or unheeded. It’s our responsibility to speak up when we see something bad happening, because to keep silent is to be an accomplice in any subsequent tragedy. As the crew leader, I was responsible for the other four firefighters in my squad. So when I saw danger on the horizon, I had a duty to speak up to my superior. It took until the third time until my words were finally heeded and a helicopter was sent our way, and not a moment too soon. Scary as it may be, our words may very well mean the difference between life and death.

© D. B. Ryen Incorporated, October 2023.  

All biblical references taken from The ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2008.