After the Inferno, Again
It was still dark when I woke to an urgent knocking on the front door and someone calling out. I made my way down the dim hall tugging on my robe and found my neighbor on the porch. There’s a fire, she said. You must be ready to evacuate.
Behind her the Northern California sky glowed, not with sunrise but a reddish smoke, and the air was a pale flutter of ash already accumulating on the doorstep and the car like dirty snow. I started packing.
A mere spark probably started the blaze. Fanned by the Diablo wind, the fire raced west over 27 miles of the Mayacamas Mountains, down the canyons, jumping a six-lane freeway, burning a trailer park, a Kmart shopping center, and the densely populated area of Coffey Park where 1,500 homes burned to the ground overnight. My own small town, just four miles west, was spared when the wind changed. By morning, ashes had spread clear to the coast. For days you would find pieces of scorched paper out in the yard, a partially burned photograph, a scrap of burned clothing.
The Tubbs Fire that roared down on Coffey Park in October 2017 burned simultaneously with the Glen Ellen Fire and the Atlas Peak Fire in Napa. We now see more and more such fires merging, with blazes so massive they make their own weather, clouds of smoke sometimes billowing five miles high. Global Forest Watch (globalforestwatch.org) keeps a map showing the hundreds of fires burning over the earth at a given time, many in places where wildfire is historically rare – Siberia and Scandinavia. Visible from space, fires hug the planet in long plumes of smoke by day and long red ruffles at night. New research tells us hotter drier air, not drought, is the most significant factor in the frequency and intensity of wildfire. Desiccated biomass is highly flammable even over moist soil.
My car remained packed for two weeks as the fires burned in an irregular semi-circle north, east and southeast. Of those who were burned out, the lucky ones stayed with friends or family. Though hotels offered huge discounts, few of the displaced could afford to stay long. Fire refugees struggled in makeshift shelters until the rains came and mud flowed in. Many joined an already significant homeless population. Where did they go? We have no official accommodation for such numbers of people.
“Fire a Colossus Now”
The magic words resilience and Sonoma Strong appear now on bumper stickers and posters. They have a hollow ring to my ear. In 2015, while the Valley Fire raged in Lake County, my partner’s brother, Justin, texted, Up here in WalMart parking lot evacuee food line & crowd of displaced people … fire a colossus now … Red flag wind. Firefighters from New Zealand. Two years later the Tubbs Fire burned Coffey Park. Then last November the two worst fires on record in California erupted, the second of which, the now-infamous Camp Fire, reached Paradise in under three hours to incinerate the entire town. People died fleeing the inferno in their cars.
Paradise. The irony is not lost on us, or on people in San Francisco where the fire’s smoke and ash blanketed the Golden City, and residents warned against outside exercise wore masks on the street. At the same time, expensive Malibu homes were going up in smoke. Money cannot protect us from climate disruption. The unimaginable has now become the expected, and as Gov. Jerry Brown said, the new normal is going to be expensive. Already, one insurance company has declared bankruptcy.
Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Colorado, and British Columbia are enduring bigger, more frequent fires, too. Last fall, I got off the plane in Seattle to temperatures in the 90s and the highest air pollution on the globe that day – smoke from fires burning in Canada and Eastern Washington. As the global temperature goes up, California has seen its hottest weather on record the past three years. Fire season now begins earlier and persists longer. It’s easier these days to imagine what it must be like in places that once seemed impossibly distant – Bangladesh where seawater is turning the rivers brackish, Intuit villages where the ice is melting.
Meeting Climate Crisis at Scale
I can drive a zero emissions car, eat organic, and buy local (all privileged responses, it should be noted), but my personal choices are no longer enough. We must address the climate crisis at speed and scale with institutional change. As Bill McKibben and others warn, nothing less will be enough.
Yet somehow denial persists. Denial is an unconscious strategy to avoid feeling helpless, but it drains the imagination of energy. Acknowledging the crisis, we can begin to identify and amplify sources of hope that enable creative action. And every time we take action, our spirit is strengthened. According to political scientist Erica Chenoweth’s research, the committed participation of just 3.5 percent of the population can create cultural shift. I want to be part of that 3.5 percent.1
For each of us the sources of hope may be different. My own awakes when I have drunk deep from the well of silence. It blooms when I spend time among the trees or in the wildness of a walk along the coast. These feed my soul and give it the rest out of which my poems come, out of which I craft these words, out of which I rediscover the stark beauty of the winter garden and the nourishment of love.
And let’s remember the way geese fly. The lead goose wedges open the air, reducing resistance for the others. They honk in support of one another. And when the lead goose gets tired, that goose falls to the rear to rest, letting the next take a turn in front. That means community. That means action.
Poet Elizabeth Herron writes on art and ecology, the role of art in society, and the importance of natural systems and biodiversity for the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the planet. See elizabethherron.net.
1 Erica Chenoweth, “My Talk at TEDxBoulder: Civil Resistance and the 3.5% Rule,” rationalinsurgent.com.