Extraordinary Generosity

I have never questioned the assertion that small-town Americans are among the most generous and community spirited people in the world. I’ve seen their kindness in everything from the unanimous warm welcome I received two years ago to the sheer number of hours people pour into making things comfortable for one another. Whether helping a family member at the weekend or serving on every board of trustees there is, the residents of this county are there for one another before the hat has chance to drop.

I wrote an article this morning that pushed my idea of Wyoming generosity to its limits, which was quite an achievement in itself. It has to do with the recent Oil Creek Fire that, unless you are a resident of the Midwest, you have almost certainly heard nothing about. The Oil Creek Fire consumed 62,000 acres, a swathe of land only slightly smaller than the entirety of inner London.

Inner London: estimated population, 3 million (from WikiTravel)

The fire is still burning, albeit under control, only a dozen or so miles away from where I sit and was fought by all manner of fire crews, many of them voluntary.

Incidentally, those firefighters must work in 100-degree weather, wearing heavy protective suits while warming their cockles further on the giant flames ahead of them. They are meanwhile performing the sort of heavy lifting I probably couldn’t manage for more than five minutes were I stood in an ice bath wearing a bikini. (Apologies for that dreadful mental image.)

One of our local firefighters at work; image courtesy of the rather wonderful Katie Allen of Crook County Fire & Emergency

My father-in-law has been one of those firefighters for as long as anyone can remember and to this day jumps to adrenaline-pumped attention each time the call goes out – a little more sneakily these days, because he’s supposed to have retired from the heatstroke.

It was a miracle of human ingenuity that a fire I would be tempted to label “impossibly huge” was brought under control so quickly. It was also testament to the sheer faith locals have in their firefighters that nobody in town seemed to have noticed it was burning. To newcomer me, it was an incredible and terrifying fluke of nature; to the community at large, it was the way of things.

As an example, the residents of a small town the fire threatened to completely consume were evacuated to a nearby city. They promptly wandered home again, serene in the conviction it would never be allowed to reach their doors. They were right.

The firefighters of New York City received the well-deserved status of heroes after the events of 9/11. What I hadn’t before considered is that the same level of heroism can be witnessed on a daily basis, all across America. These men and women don’t fight fires for a living; indeed, I’ve been told that sometimes a sandwich and a cup of coffee is the only reward they get. They do this to serve their communities, often by putting themselves in harm’s way.

Firefighter returning to the line

My favourite depiction of resilience: an unidentified local firefighter shown returning to the line.

Not everyone escaped unscathed from the Oil Creek Fire. This area is comprised largely of huge areas of privately owned ranch land, which meant that some local ranchers lost what must have been devastating portions of their livelihood.

Yesterday, a rancher sent $10,000 dollar cheques to both volunteer services that helped to fight the fire. He wanted to personally thank them for the hard work they did to preserve the wildlife and natural resources in the area and hoped his donation might help them in the future.

I see similarly heartwarming generosity regularly, but this donation stood out to me: the rancher in question lost hundreds of acres of land and a hundred heads of cattle; the firefighters were only able to save his house.

One can barely imagine what a loss it must have been to his family, and yet he felt compelled to make a gesture of thanks to the firefighters who worked tirelessly on his behalf. To me, that speaks of generosity on two levels: that of the man who felt appreciation when he so easily could have felt bitterness, and that of the men and women who stood in the path of a fire to protect their community. The kind of heroism and generosity you read about in the greatest of tales, in a tiny town in Wyoming.

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