Abigail McKenna

2023-2024 Live Deliberately Essay Contest

Abigail McKenna, 16

Honorable Mention, 14-16 Age Group

Clarksville, Tennessee

Fire in the Mountains

With just a barbeque lighter and a can of WD-40, Brandon McGlover set over 13,000 acres of California wilderness ablaze; burning down multiple residencies and forcing 7,000 people to evacuate in the process. Among those 7,000 were a few hundred girlscouts at sleepaway camps throughout the area. I was one of them, spending my week at a camp nestled in the burning San Jacinto Mountains. Despite being only 11, I was among some of the oldest campers there. We found out at about 10 p.m., with the smoke already beginning to permeate the air. For two hours we waited, knowing the land around us was on fire, knowing how fast a fire of that size can change directions and engulf entire towns. It was terrifying, but I was able to learn from it.

This wasn’t the first fire to threaten my safety, wasn’t the first I had to evacuate from. My entire life I was overwhelmed with information on wildfire prevention, all the ways people can make a mistake that takes lives and destroys entire ecosystems. The butt of a cigarette, idly flicked from the window of a car, was enough to set fields alight. We were reminded over and over how easily we could destroy such fragile parts of nature, how sensitive the arid state was to our hands. But I never really understood it. Not until I was in the middle of nowhere, trying to distract the younger girls as we waited two hours for the charter buses to arrive. Not until the air was filled with smoke and the stars were blotted out by darkness. I understood, then, that the land wasn’t as much fragile as it was volatile and vengeful. When we hurt it, whether on purpose or not, it will hurt us back. And now we were paying the consequence.

We tried to distract the younger girls with a glow in the dark themed party, thrown together last minute with glow sticks and streamers. In reality, most of them were too tired to question anything. Including my little sister, who quickly curled up on the floor and fell asleep. We danced and sang and ate unhealthy amounts of candy while the world around us crumbled. It was so frustrating, to have done everything right and to still get caught in the middle. But that was our plight, and we had to live with it. For two hours we waited—impatiently—for the buses. And all the while the sky got darker, the stars disappearing. By the time we headed to the parking lot, not a star was visible in the sky. The smoke was thick, coating my throat in its woodsy odor. Even with handkerchiefs wrapped around our mouths and noses the smoke still seeped through. Then it was another two hours back home, two hours in the back of a greyhound in the middle of the night. Most of the girls around me slept. I could not.

In the aftermath, the camp survived (thankfully) and nobody was directly killed by the fire. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t cause incredible harm. Thousands of acres burned to the ground, homes leveled, people traumatized. All at the hands of one man. His reckless decisions ruined an uncountable number of lives, absolutely decimating the homes of wildlife. But I learned a lesson that continues to follow me to this day, and that I hope to apply to my life in the future. I learned just how large of an impact humans have on the nature around us. That we are intertwined with it, wrapped together with so many threads it would be impossible to pull apart. And—most importantly—I learned that when we mess with nature, it’ll come back to bite us. And hard.