The downside of wilderness living

June 9, 2023

Adirondack residents were struck and saddened to learn of the recent fire which consumed the historic Big Moose Inn ( Fortunately, there were no injuries from this terrible event.

big moose fieThis story is a reminder about  an unavoidable feature of wilderness living, which we sometimes forget until events such as this.  Although this was a “modern” hotel, it was located deep in the woods.  The nearest settlement of any size is Old Forge, about a half hour’s drive away.  If a fire such as this were to occur in downtown Syracuse, a large professional fire department would have been on scene within minutes.  Big Moose and environs are served by well-trained and dedicated volunteer fire departments, such as Old Forge.  Not only are these departments physically far distant, they are not staffed round-the-clock; simply mobilizing the volunteers scattered throughout the Adirondacks, in the wee hours of a weekend, takes valuable time.  It is hardly surprising that an old wooden building would be fully consumed before a significant fire fighting presence could be on site.

If there had been injuries, the situation would have been far worse.  The scarcity of EMS services in these remote areas has been well-documented.  The Big Moose Ambulance Company shut down last year, citing lack of staff.  While Old Forge continues to operate a volunteer ambulance company, they, too, have had difficulty maintaining fully trained staffing.  The nearest trauma/burn center is in Syracuse, a two hour drive from Big Moose.  A significant number of seriously injured patients from this fire would have massively overloaded capacity, likely resulting in worse outcomes than would have been the case in an urban area.

What is the answer?  Sparsely populated areas with severely limited tax bases will never be able to be served by professional fire/EMS services with response times of a few minutes.  The decision to live or recreate in an area such as the Adirondacks needs to be made with awareness that many health and safety services which are routine in urban areas are simply unavailable in any reasonable time frame.  This is an unavoidable “cost” of wilderness living.  For most of us, however, this “cost” is well-covered by the “benefit.”  Experiencing a sudden cardiac arrest while walking in an urban downtown could potentially be survivable.  Experiencing the same thing while hiking on a remote mountain would not be survivable.  On the other hand, a life of hiking up mountains may well make one less likely to have a cardiac arrest in the first place!

his conundrum reminds me of the legal concept of “inherent risk”, often invoked in wilderness risk management.  “Inherent risks” are considered so integral to the activity itself that if they were to be removed the activity would be compromised.  Falls from height or encounters with grizzlies are “inherent risks” of rock climbing and Alaskan trekking, respectively.    While these risks may be mitigated by good practices, neither could be eliminated; the choice to take part in the activity simply requires that one accept these “inherent risks.”   Living in remote communities carries the “inherent risks” of unavailability of rapid professional fire/EMS responses.  It is a risk I am willing to take.