Stranded fuel barge a reminder of horrifying potentialToward the end of his life, Leonardo de Vinci was obsessed with visions of violently churning waves in which the underlying pulsing cycles of the ocean and the air are nonetheless discernible, form emerging from within chaos.

Last weekend's storm here would have brought a delighted smile to Leonardo's lips, and a tiny icy shiver to his spine.

After the winter that never was, the Northwest coast has rediscovered its inner child - a misbehaved, disobedient and thoroughly inconvenient child, but rather entertaining for all that.

Entertaining, that is, if you don't have to be out working in the horizontal rain. For more men and women than usual, this storm was a genuine test of strength and nerves, having driven the fuel barge Millicoma into the rocks at Cape Disappointment.

With each passing generation, the number of shipwrecks on this infamous coast declines by an order of magnitude. In olden days, a brutal winter might bring a dozen such disasters from Tillamook Head north to Cape Shoalwater. Now, thankfully, infinitely improved navigational instruments and reliable engines nearly always bring ships and their crews and cargoes safely into port - some years pass without a serious incident.

But some things don't change. Now, like a century ago, a shipwreck brings out the best in all those who deeply care about maritime traditions and the sublime beauty of our jagged cliffs and endless beaches. Responding to this wreck were hundreds of public and private specialists, who put comfort aside to rush to what might have been a environmental calamity.

Carrying only its own 5,000 gallons of diesel and not the far greater load of fuel that is its stock in trade, the Millicoma is merely a taste of the truly horrifying destruction that could descend on Pacific and Clatsop counties if a loaded fuel barge or tanker wrecks here.

However gratifying the response to this wreck, it amounts to nothing but practice for "the real thing," a massive oil spill that might doom tourism, clamming and crabbing. We need to be completely awake to the possibility of such a cataclysm, and never relent in pushing for better safety at sea and effective spill mitigation on shore.

As Leonardo well understood, a sense of danger is the canvas on which true art and meaningful life is painted. We're lucky to live comfortably on a dangerous coast. But its beauty is fragile, and our responsibility is great.

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