Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Comments on "Another Man and a Boy to Admire"

I recently posted about "Another Man and a Boy to Admire." The post related to a tragic story about a young man and his father, who were burned and killed, respectively, by one of the San Diego fires. To understand what follows in today's post, please read the original post, then read the (following) comments that arose in response:

Anonymous said...
"I'm sorry, but someone who ignores a fire fighter's order to heed a previously issued evacuation order and instead drives after the fire truck and gets himself killed and his son seriously injured is no one to admire.

Part of the difficulty in fighting the recent wildfires in San Diego (a small part, but it was significant) were people like this guy who did not evacuate and forced firefighters to move into dangerous areas to try to protect human life instead of working where they were most likely to be able to get the flames under control. They endangered themselves, the firefighters trying to protect us all, and the property of others that burned due to the diversion of firefighting resources."

Anonymous said...
"Oh, and the Varshocks also apparently lied to the firefighters telling them the best place to turn around was their yard (where there was not room to turn around the fire truck) in an attempt to get the firefighters to come to their house (where three firefighters and the 15 year old were badly burned and elder Varshock died)."

Anonymous said...

"I just ran across these comments on the Internet, and I feel sorry for the family to be so maligned by other's anonymous comments. I know this family well - unless you are sure of what you are saying, please don't make assumptions about what happened. Very few people do know the circumstances. You cannot believe everything you read in the paper. The family lived out there, fighting many fires for many years! This fire was different."

Paul Auerbach, M.D. said...
"This is an important series of comments, because the point is raised about personal responsibility, and how we react emotionally to situations in which there are often different ways to view the same situation. I'm going to elevate this discussion to a post."

And now, this is that post. The comments above evoke dialogue that raises a number of issues, not the least of which relates to the emotions generated by a tale of extremely unfortunate circumstances. I have to deal with these sorts of emotion often as a physician in the emergency department, where persons present with illnesses and injuries that are caused by a mixture of events, natural history, genetics, bad luck, and/or poor judgment. It's not uncommon to come away from a patient feeling that their actions in part or entirely led to their misfortune. But when that happens, I make my best effort to not become judgmental, because I can easily recall making bad decisions, and either living with the consequences or being lucky to have not been trapped by the error of my ways.

Behavior, risk, and liability are frequent topics of discussion in wilderness medicine. Beyond the issues of risk and fault, there are considerations of response. Rescues put the rescuers at risk. It is not trivial to have to jump into heavy seas, maneuver a helicopter at high altitude in poor visibility and high winds, or race into a burning forest to extract a victim surrounded by flames. It can become very difficult emotionally if the person at the bottom of the ravine wasn't wearing a safety harness, if the man overboard neglected to wear his lifejacket, or if the comatose human dangling from a rock face didn't feel his helmet was necessary.

But who among us is perfect? We all make mistakes, and sometimes they are costly for us and for the people who consider it their duty to bail us out. If I refused to help all of the persons who had a hand in creating or worsening their illnesses, I wouldn't be assisting half the people who need me. Should I let nature take its course when an intoxicated college student handles a rattlesnake and is bitten on the hand? Should I turn off the oxygen when I discover that the man burned in an explosion was intoxicated when he attempted to light his camp stove? Should I walk away from the woman who ignored the "stay out" sign and plunged into a scalding thermal pool? Of course not. I may not always be happy about it, but my duty (and calling) is to attempt to rescue, attempt to save, and attempt to heal.

The first set of comments from "Anonymous" misinterpret why I chose to admire the boy who was burned, and the firefighter who was involved in a rescue. Whether or not the burn victim didn't evacuate properly is not why I decided to hold him in admiration. I decided to do that because of the way he was portrayed by those who know him, and because of his spirit after he was injured. For the foreseeable future, life will not be easy for him, and he will benefit from support. As far as the firefighter goes, selfless behavior such as his gets my vote every time. Volunteer or paid, persons who put their lives on the line to help others are true heroes.

But there is a very reasonable point made by "Anonymous," if I understand his criticism correctly. If indeed a person decides to ignore a danger warning and puts himself and others at risk, that kind of decision may be more than foolhardy - it can be cruel and unfair. The fact of the matter is that professional rescuers, good Samaritans, and anyone who considers it his or her duty to rescue first and ask questions later is vulnerable to responding to what might be a situation that could have been avoided. We carry responsibility for most of our actions. Human nature being what it is, some of our decisions will be judged selfish or incorrect. Some of these decisions will get us into the kind of trouble that requires assistance. All I can say about that is that for persons in any kind of service business, it comes with the territory. That doesn't make it right - it just is what it is. Hence, education and injury prevention programs are incredibly important.

I don't know how to respond to the second comment from "Anonymous," in which he essentially says that a conscious effort was made to dupe the firefighters for the purpose of having them focus on a particular rescue. I would like to think that this was not the intent of the victims, and that the firefighters were sufficiently well trained to make the best decisions available to them at the time. But I was not there, so can only comment (like most people) on what is reported to me.

The process here is good. Readers should feel free to (respectfully) speak their mind, and we should be willing to talk through the difficult issues. The bottom line is that this blog exists to provide useful information, and your comments should be intended to enhance that effort.

My take away from all of this is that every action has a consequence, even if it is not readily apparent. It is suspected that arson may have played a role in one or more of the San Diego fires. That is heinous and will result in punishment for any identified perpetrators. People who did not evacuate by choice made decisions to accept the risks in exchange for what might have been gained by remaining in the path of the fire. To the extent that remaining in harm's way was responsible for putting others in jeopardy, the responsibility for adverse events is fairly shared. But that fact does not make me have any less compassion for the victims, and it doesn't diminish the bravery and heroism demonstrated by many during and after the fires.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.