Facing down the flames of COVID-19 together

Reporter Bill Gephardt on the fire lines in the hills above Malibu, Nov., 1993. Photo courtesy: KCAL

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, April 12, 2020 (Gephardt Daily) — Things sure are different, aren’t they?

I’ve had ongoing conversations with businesses and advertisers about how we are all in this COVID-19 emergency together.  Without fail, we wind up talking about how different the world has become in just a couple weeks.

Every morning for the years I’ve been on this planet, before I open my eyes, I orient myself to the world: the day of the week; the things I have to do today; the issues from yesterday that I have to continue to try to solve today, and on and on.

But now, right in the middle of the morning mental survey, I stop and think, “Wait. It’s the coronavirus time. I can’t leave the house to go see people or get stuff done.” It becomes a whole re-orientation process.

I’ve discussed this with many small-business people. It’s not just a few of us becoming disconnected with our business routines: it’s the whole world that’s out of kilter.  It simply reinforces we truly are in this together, and we have to work together until this common enemy is gone.

The strangest thing happened to me as a TV reporter when I was in Los Angeles covering the devastating Malibu wildfires. I was positioned with a photographer on top of a one-acre hill by an abandoned home. We got there up a mile-long driveway, which took us up switchbacks along a mountainside. We were there alone with a 4-man crew in a pumper from a fire department. Our vantage point to watch the fire approach miles down below was perfect. I reported live for several hours as I watched the fire consume one small, secluded neighborhood after another.

But all of the sudden, the fire surrounded all of us. There was no escape down the mile-long driveway. As the wind-driven smoke and flames got closer and closer, the fire crew desperately began lighting back-fires in the hope we wouldn’t be incinerated.

That’s when the strangest thing happened: Out of the brush came rattlesnakes, rats, mice, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, and other wildlife. I looked down at my feet while breathing through some wet towels I brought to filter the smoke. There was a rattlesnake, and a rat, and a mouse. A few feet away was a raccoon and a possum. 25 feet away was a fox and a couple coyotes.

Now, normally, I would flee from the snake, and kick the rat, and hide from the coyote.  Normally, the snake would try to eat the mouse as the mouse would try to flee.  It’s prey and predator: the instinct in humans and other animals. But this time, we all just stood there, looking around, choking on the smoke, and trying to stay away from the flames. It was like an unspoken truce or something, as we all faced a common enemy:  the brush fire.

The firefighters were successful. The backfires they set burned down to the main brush fire, extinguishing it. As the heavy smoke began to dissipate, one by one, the animals left: the snake slithered underground somewhere, and the coyote and foxes were suddenly gone, and I don’t know where the rats and mice went.

But the drama was over. The common enemy was gone. We all cooperated and suspended our competition for a little while. Soon we would be back to it.

Later, I talked to a park naturalist about that, and he said that is common behavior in animals that face fires, floods, and other devastation.

Sometimes I wonder in this whole COVID-19 emergency if we humans could, or are, going to do the same thing as those critters on the hill? Once this threat is extinguished will we merely skitter along our separate paths and return to business as usual, or will we seize upon the spirit of cooperation that brings us together now?

One thing is for certain, I can’t wait to get off this hill.

–Bill Gephardt


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