Caught in the wildfires

The Southern California wildfires of October 2007 will be recollected for their terrifying natural ferocity and unthinkable destruction. What will be little-remembered to the public at large, but not within the communities that suffered, is the camaraderie, the teamwork, the leaders forged from necessity to help their neighbors and protect their land. One of these leaders happens to be undertaking a very unusual task for anyone who displays courage and daring: he’s running for Congress.

Ron Shepston is a Vietnam-era veteran and avionics engineer, who a year ago was simply concerned about providing for his wife and three kids. As a contributor to the largest progressive community blog on the Web, Daily Kos, Ron understood the importance of the 50-state strategy, spreading the Republican cash advantage thin by competing in every state and every Congressional district. In 2006, Democrats fielded candidates in 425 Congressional districts, a record. One of the 10 seats where a Republican ran unopposed was California’s 42nd, held by Gary Miller, who during the campaign was subject to a series of investigations involving shady land deals, tax evasion, and kickbacks. It would be unacceptable to leave Miller unchallenged in 2008.

This was where Ron lived, and he decided to shift from online activist to candidate in the 42nd, propelled by fellow bloggers and the local grassroots. He has been running this long shot campaign in what is generally considered a Republican-leaning district since July. Two weeks ago, it got a little less conventional.

Ron returned home from a Chicago candidate event the same day that Santa Ana winds sparked enormous wildfires throughout Southern California. Flames had blocked the main road leading to his Silverado Canyon home. At that point, the fires in this area of Orange County were small, an afterthought compared to those in Malibu and San Diego. And the winds were pushing them away from the population centers.

But then the winds shifted, jumped Santiago Canyon and headed toward Ron’s community. “We’d been threatened before, but we never had an evacuation,” he said. “There was an old Indian legend that they’d go to Silverado Canyon whenever there was a fire, because it never burned. But the Indians didn’t have to worry about global warming.”

As the flames closed in, and evacuation was recommended, Ron and his family packed up. One of his neighbors, a 37-year retired battalion chief with the Orange County Fire Authority named Mike, had plenty of experience with fighting fires, and with the limited official resources, he thought he could help protect the community if the fire engulfed the canyon. The problem was that his body was beaten from years of service. After escorting his family to safer ground, Ron told Mike he was willing to help. “I’ll be your legs,” he said.

Ignoring a mandatory evacuation, Ron and Mike went to work, setting up hoses, hooking into hydrants, watering down wood structures, and clearing fuel away from danger. They also provided assistance to federal, state and local firefighters about prime lookout spots to view the progress of the fire, and the local terrain. This lasted for 10 days, a non-stop firefighting effort in an attempt to protect the community. “I could hear the roar of the flames on the ridge,” Ron said, “There were flames rising 100 feet.” At one point, Ron and Mike positioned their cars at the bottom of the canyon, in case they needed to make a quick getaway.

While the fire came within a quarter-mile of Silverado Canyon, it thankfully never reached the houses. Residents were finally allowed to return, nearly two weeks after the initial evacuation order. In the aftermath, Shepston and other locals learned a painful lesson about the lack of coordination and resources from Orange County. For years, conservative politicians had defunded the OC Fire Authority, campaigned against Measure D (which would have provided needed equipment to fire departments) by calling firefighters “a well-funded special interest,” re-channeled resources away from firefighting from a statewide public safety sales tax (Prop. 172), and essentially realized antitax activist Grover Norquist’s dream of “drowning government in the bathtub.”

“Everyone I’ve talked to, many of whom are Republicans, see that. The Supervisors fought funding every step of the way. They’re worried about budgets for political reasons and they didn’t fund these crucial resources,” Shepston said. Indeed, his opponent, Congressman Gary Miller, has yet to make any public statement on the wildfires in his own district. This neglect could have a major impact on upcoming elections.

Members of Congress swear to defend the Constitution on their first day in office. Implicit in that oath is a vow to defend “We, the people,” their neighbors, their communities. To Ron Shepston, this was simply second nature. Leadership is often an amorphous quality in politics, measured through speeches or votes. Ron displayed his leadership through deliberate action. “Silverado’s my home, and there’s a lot of history there. I did not want to leave. It’s just what I do, I get involved. I see holes, and I fill them.”

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