Wildfires and The Dignity of Risk

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Recently, wildfires crept up to the edge of my town and started to nibble at the edges. Government services did a wonderful job of keeping people safe. Thousands of professional firefighters and support personnel came from all over the country, most visibly the C130 fleet operated by the Air National Guard. The fire was quickly contained with no deaths among the professional staff and only two civilian deaths—most likely people who did not obey the evacuation order.

During this time, most of us civilians could only wait and watch. We did what we could: donated food and clothing, labeled food at Care and Share, brought bottled water to dump sites, housed evacuees. Tellingly, there was room in the emergency shelters even with 30,000 people evacuated; people generally were invited to stay with friends or family until their homes were safe.

Some of us wished we could do more. Early in the blaze, before resources started to arrive, there were not enough people to get early containment. Conditions had much to do with this, also, as the firefighters had to retreat before firelines moving at wind-speed, between 40 and 60 miles per hour.

To get to the front, anywhere near danger, one needed to have all the right certifications. Responsible government refused to put unqualified people in harm’s way. That sounds like a good thing, and the fact that nobody died fighting this incredibly dangerous fire proves it right.

During the fire, our mayor suggested people who wanted to help should go out to dinner in the affected region once the evacuations were lifted, go shopping at businesses that had to close. This was an eerie reflection of President Bush saying the best thing we could do to thwart terrorism would be to go shopping.

And I started to think about life in a country that asks nothing more of me than that I go shopping.

Should I be kept from taking up a shovel and digging trenches in front of the fire? What if I die? Isn’t it my right to die defending something I love? Perhaps my right to take up this defense ends where it makes the situation more dangerous for the professional rescuers. But what if 10,000 citizens showed up, shovels in hand, ready to dig fire lines? Should they be turned away?

Working with adults of disability, one of the hardest of their rights to convey is the dignity of risk. People have the right to screw up, to do dangerous things, to face the consequences of their actions, just so long as they can demonstrate understanding of those consequences ahead of time. Paraprofessionals in the field of developmental disabilities do not distill this right from literature but from practice and regulation. For those of us working under the metanarratives of theory and academic standards, we might read Van Kaam (1966) and see how careful he is to delineate the rights of the client in therapy, how carefully he suggests we treat our own power.

People die skiing all the time, crashing into trees and suffering head injuries. For now, there are no regulations or permits or licenses. You can go down any slope you want. You can risk it all. A person of disability too often does not have this right, because she or he cannot defend it against people acting in the presumed best interest of the client.

Perhaps it is right to keep me from trying to dig fire trenches in the heat under conditions I don’t understand and can’t be prepared for. I can’t give informed consent to the risk at hand, because I don’t have the training to understand the risk. But there was a time when Americans were asked to risk everything, to die for freedom. How much more meaningful is a freedom you might be asked to die for than a comfortable life, swaddled in regulations, with only the mildest risks allowed?

Van Kaam, A. (1966). The art of existential counseling: A new perspective in Psychotherapy. Wilkes-Barre: Dimension Books.

— Jason Dias

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