The Ultimate Test of Values

Two Weekends of Fires

Last weekend, there was a collision in one of the truck tunnels here in Southern California. The accident caused a pile-up of approximately 30 vehicles in the tunnel as a ball of fire rolled through and engulfed everything in its path. As I listened to the reportage (and as all of us waited to learn whether the 12-year-old girl would find her father alive) I remembered the fire my law school classmates told me about that happened in the Orinda tunnel in 1989.


It was probably the fall of 1991 when the Oakland Hills fire occurred. A phone call from home was a surprise that Sunday afternoon. Family wanted to know if I was okay. There was a report of a fire in the Oakland hills, it was being shown on the news in Southern California. Yet there was no mention of it on Bay Area news anywhere. I pooh-poohed the call and went about the things I was doing. But things changed quickly. By that night, I had the trunk of my car packed in case notice reached my neighborhood (that was destined to be one mile from the evacuation border) that we needed to leave. The grab and go gear waited for me on the occasional table next to the door. The essentials that just could not be left behind were my law books, class notes, and computer floppies with more class notes and outlines.

That was 16 years ago, so I don’t remember with precision how it went but one of my church members and I talked. She lived even closer to the evacuation zone and she was in even more of a state of shock than was I. I talked her down and had her focus on what to get ready in case she had to go quickly. We survived without having to evacuate.


But the following week, it seemed important to go to church. To do that meant driving along the freeway and past the deluxe apartment complex set in a rustic, alpine setting where I almost moved but changed my mind at the last minute. It would have been ideal not only because of the appointments and setting but also because it literally sat just off the freeway entrance and exit. However, when I reached that stretch of the freeway the week after the fire, I nearly froze in tears and fright. The entire 10 acres was leveled and black. There was absolutely no hint of where the buildings had once stood. No bulldozers had been to the site as yet. The people who had lived there were now homeless.

There were a lot of people who wandered about the Bay Area in shock around that time and for many months thereafter. That was when cell phones became popular and their size began to shrink.

Decisions About Modifications

A consequence of both tunnel catastrophes, especially in light of a near repeat of the Orinda tragedy, is that a decision was made to no longer use tunnels as thoroughfares. Instead, overpasses, bridges and other traffic conduits will have open spaces so that a fireball does not get trapped in an enclosed space thereby engulfing everything in it. It will not spread as easily and containing the flames will be more manageable. Additionally, there will be less likelihood of exploding concrete, as is the case when it’s overheated, that then becomes structurally impaired. This then saves the State money on road repair and necessary replacement.

Weekend Two of Fires

But I mention the Oakland Hills fire particularly because of some of the reportage of the ten fires that are blazing here in Southern California today. One reporter has just excused himself from any further coverage. The area has been ordered evacuated and he says there is mass chaos with people trying to get out fast. Earlier, it seemed that another reporter was trying so valiantly to stay with the story that he was putting himself in the way of danger. Get out of there! Be careful! Don’t go after heroics for the sake of a story. You won’t get an award for this one. Not this one. I thought to myself, wishing he could hear me.

Home and Family or Work

Before that turn of events, however, one of the reporters in the studio has spoken two times about her husband sending information to the studio about the fire in their neighborhood. Additionally, both she and her co-anchor have mentioned that when she awoke this morning, the fire had started.

Therein is the ethical challenge of a lifetime. There is a fire in your neighborhood and threatens the safety of your home and family. Today is a work day. Your job is to tell the rest of the world about the news without overstating — just the facts, just the news. Can you do that? Additionally, you need to make a choice, a very difficult choice. Do you stay with your home and family and sit (as I did in Oakland) and wait to learn what will happen, if anything? Or do you go to work and deliver the information that the public at large needs in order to properly handle their lives?

If A, Then; If B, Then

In the course of the several hours of listening to the reportage, I as a listener have learned that there was one fatality due to one of the fires. I have learned that one of the fires was contained at 35 acres (roughly three or four blocks) while another has consumed 1200 acres and 500 homes are threatened. I have learned that the schools in San Diego will be closed tomorrow for safety purposes. I have learned that those who are evacuated will be given instructions on where to go. Otherwise, there is one specific site that is already receiving evacuees. In other words, because the reporters are there and doing their jobs, I am as aware as I possibly can be about the situation. And if I were one of those affected by one of these ten blazes, I have some idea of what to do.

Further, the reporters are attempting to turn in their stories via cell phones but cannot. Fire and smoke are interferring with wi-fi signals of all type. Thus, going to my hot spot will be an act of futility. This is also probably why I cannot escape the news and tune to my favorite classical music station on the FM band. There’s too much interference.

Making Choices

We are constantly faced with choices as we do things in Life. Choose Option A and things will go one way. Choose Option B and things will go another. But which is the right choice? Neither is immoral but it comes down to determining which option, under the circumstances, is the better choice.

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