Fire in America

This is a compilation of voices from the fire zone of California, Oregon and Washington. Normally, these posts are written by guest authors, but this is a compilation of social media shares, with commentary. It’s important that we capture the extremity and emotion of the experience of these gargantuan fires, and to do this swiftly. Permission for quotes has been given, and the social media images have been shared by thousands. Why are we including forest fires in a collection about extreme weather? Because these fires are worsened by combinations of prolonged heat, lack of rain weakening the trees, and winds that spread fires. Also, extreme fires affect the weather — creating their own wind patterns, polluting the air, and creating emissions that worsen global warming. There are now ash clouds previously only seen with volcanic eruptions. See this explainer from Carbon Brief and this UN report.

More about the situation

First it’s important to know that fires are not only on the West Coast. For example, the Arctic forests and peatlands are burning at unprecedented rates. And see how the most dense locations of fires are in South America and Africa.

Data for 12th September 2020 on https://firms.modaps.eosdis.nasa.gov/

To the US, and its apocalyptic orange skies. Large fires broke out first in California and by 23rd August, nearly a million acres had burned and Trump had declared a state of emergency. By now, September 12th, there are 133 fires, 500,000 Oregonians have been evacuated, and over 3.1 million acres burned in California alone. See this live map for info. These fires (and drought) are significant because the West contributes hugely to the US economy and to global food production, and because agricultural and urban areas are so threatened.

Air quality map — Purple Air

This map (left) shows air quality with a yellow/50 rating being ‘breathable’. Clare Dubois of Tree Sisters, who shared this said their rating was 650, off the scale.

This article gives a historical perspective, explaining how 100 years of fire suppression, urban sprawl and climate breakdown are all contributing factors to the size and risks of these fires. Homes are highly combustible and whole towns can be destroyed.

In addition, the political conditions are extremely tense with Trump’s reversals of climate & environmental policies, armed police and independent militias threatening BLM protesters, and the badly mis-managed Covid-19 pandemic reducing rescue forces and health resilience in the face of these fires. “I can’t breathe” has taken on triple meaning.

A scroll through social media posts fall into several themes:

  • praising first responders
  • data and warnings about fire locations, risks and damage
  • arguments about whether climate change causes/worsens fires
  • insights from ecologists and forest experts
  • images and film of the fires, skies or after-impacts
  • first hand or reported accounts of escape, rescue and damage
  • prayers, and emotional and spiritual expressions of terror, loss, love and hope.

In this latter category, some, like this anonymous quote below, are being widely shared.

Some accounts are from people nearby, maybe not directly in the heart of trouble. For example, Mike Murawski (known for #MuseumsAreNotNeutral) shared, with permission to share here:

It’s certainly been a long & tumultuous week, beginning with a wind storm (& power outage for us) and then these terrible wildfires breaking out across Oregon. While we’re safe & not in direct danger from the fires, it’s unsettling that the evacuation zones (level 1–3) made it to within 10 miles of our home. Right now, it’s the dense smoke that is most hazardous (keeping us inside these past couple days).

My heart sinks to think about the lives that have been lost due to these fires, which have destroyed many communities & towns in Oregon. I’m grateful we’ve stayed safe. Keeping all those affected by this in my thoughts. And I’m hoping for colder & wetter onshore airflow to help those working to contain the fires, prevent further disaster & protect threatened communities.

Stay safe everyone!

Beka Economopoulos, co-founder of The Natural History Museum (an activist museum on climate, ecology & justice).

Today felt especially real, the smokey air burning our eyes, casting an eerie yellow indoors and out. Everything is still. The calm before the storm.

The kids get it. While most others have been sleepwalking into an increasingly grim future, proverbial lobsters in a pot, 2020 implores us to wake up to the disasters bubbling over, the excess of our hubris covering the globe with microscopic particles of smoke, of virus, of waters raining down and rising up.

And now we must be the storm we’ve been waiting for — leveling the fetid systems that are rotten to the core, that always were. They sought to enclose, extract, exploit and extinguish but the spirit can’t be contained, it pushes up through the cracks in the sidewalk; it rears its many hydra heads in the streets of Minneapolis and Rochester and Portland and Albuquerque, it topples statues and speaks truth to power, conjuring figures from the past that press on our windowpanes, an orange red presence reminding us the apocalypse happened long ago; we remember forward now and we’re alive and we are everywhere.

Insights from those who understand the forests and climate impacts are important voices. Mike Davis writes about the loss of millions of ancient trees and ecosystems here, and concludes:

Fire in the Anthropocene has become the physical equivalent of endless nuclear war. In the aftermath of Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in early 2009, Australian scientists calculated that their released energy equaled the explosion of 1,500 Hiroshima-sized bombs. The current firestorms in the Pacific states are many times larger, and we should compare their destructive power to the mega-tonnage of hundreds of hydrogen bombs.

A new, profoundly sinister nature is rapidly emerging from our fire rubble at the expense of landscapes we once considered sacred. Our imaginations can barely encompass the speed or scale of the catastrophe. Gone California, gone.

Clare Dubois has posted regularly and with raw emotion, as a deep lover of trees. This is an extract from her Facebook post on 9th September (permission to share):

Mark sobbed in the car next to me. I sat driving for hours in ever increasing shock, until we hit the smoke and the burning trees in the sky became too thick to see the clearcut forest scars in every view.

Yesterday was like Armageddon here. Like apocalypse. So dark inside we couldn’t see at 3pm in the afternoon. But we could breathe for a day as the smoke stayed high and even see the stars for a night while the Bay Area vanished under thick smoke.

Monday, 80 new fires started in Washington state. More land burned in a single day than in a usual fire season up there. Today, whole towns in southern Oregon are in flames.

And yet we are still hell bent on destroying the existing forests upon which our existence depends. Upon which cooling and hydrology depends. Instead the climate change that we are causing sees them raining down like ash. And what do we do? Continue on as normal….the insanity of normal.

I don’t know what to do. The juggernaut of destruction is so strong, so total, so frightening to me, and I feel so helpless in this moment. The winds that made them cut our power these last two days kicked up the huge fire complexes north of us. Folks who felt safe — are unsafe again. Literally thousands of people are losing homes. And yet STILL our world refuses to acknowledge climate emergency…

I just have no words. I’ll get back up again, but right now it’s too much. Just too much.

Do also read Clare’s amazing blogpost after surviving the fire season last year, The Mirror Held When Power Cuts. Power was cut as a fire prevention measure, and also fires themselves damage power supplies. Clare’s experience shows how poverty and corporate control makes it very difficult to access renewable energy in the US, hard during these long days without power. Although she can’t afford solar power, she also acknowledges her privilege:

Normalcy is abnormal. Our privilege is a stolen gift, taken without gratitude or awareness and for what? What do we do with our privilege whilst it causes our world to burn and species billions of years in creation, to vanish for ever in their hundreds every week, or every day?

What do we do with our privilege? Except expect it to be afforded to us indefinitely, even though we live on a finite planet that has almost lost the capacity to hold herself together.

When I think of how much I love this world and how hard I work for her, and then still, I feel that insidious addiction to energy consumption quietly humming through my veins…I have flicked on switches and bawled my eyes out.

Beverly Naidus, socially-engaged artists and educator, shared with us her poem:

The Color of Sickness (September 12, 2020)
by Beverly Naidus (Tacoma, WA, unceded and occupied Puyallup land)

It’s the color of sickness
The air weighs heavy with its own hidden pulse.
An algorithm does not drive this energy;
but there's straightforward science
Underneath this thick smoke.

The boiling pot of this moment
has frayed and burnt edges,
It is filled with a dread that everything will evaporate.
Is the ashy void filled
with an echoing chorus of "nooooooo?"
Or perhaps there’s a slate wiped clean
And we can hear the buzz of bacteria
joyfully mating in new ways.

Maybe the magic of quantum physics
will evolve the worst aspects of this species,
into beings less prone to ignorance and cruelty,
Such phenomena are beyond my field of vision
(especially given how hazy it is),
But I’m open to new plot lines
that don’t include extinction (I know that is a stretch).

Milky skies envelop us daily,
shifting from white to yellow
A vibrating orange-red globe at sunset,
so I focus on mythic tales
told to me in more buoyant times.
Tales about circles,
About the seeds that germinate
in the heat of the fires,
stories of rebirth.

It’s calming in the claustrophobia.
Sparks that can keep my creative passion smoldering and my continuing activism ripe
while I gaze with both dread and longing
into the thick, white air.

And this digital artwork

“Created in 2001, in response to a personal healing crisis, this digital painting seems to speak to this apocalyptic moment where we are leaping over fires trying to trust that there will be grounding on the other side. And trying to leap with a joyfulness that sometimes seems out of sync with this moment, and at the same time, very necessary to leap well.” Beverly Naidus

And here is emotional and dedicated testimony from firefighter Joshua Duran (shared 12K times on Facebook and elsewhere online):

I’m a wildland firefighter and just came back from 60 days of service. I will dispatch tomorrow for another 30 days.

I usually have a bold tolerance to wildfires. When I see flame, I run towards it. We brave men and women, after awhile become addicted.. Addicted to the fight.. And the honor that comes along with it.. I never usually get scared.. But after today, watching the rogue valley literally burn to the ground.. I’m scared of what’s to come.. I’m scared to sleep because many of my friends may not be okay.. I’m scared to go because there is no feeling more hopeless then knowing the place you call home is being destroyed and you are being dispatched elsewhere.. If you are my friend, please wish me well on my journey this summer. I fought California’s FIRST OFFICIAL wildfire of the season in February. And I hope to fight the last!! I won’t quit until every fire is out, frayed or not. I will not fret. Not ever.

This is very difficult content to share, but we believe it’s important that these experiences should be heard. There is evidence that the best ways to deal with the emotions around this issue include direct activism and taking steps to live differently.

Read this Op-ed by Peter Kalmus and Natasha Stavros, about the knock-on effects of these fires, and what the future holds in store. They conclude:

Each one of us can contribute by adding our strength to this movement. As humans on the only place in the universe known to have life, we should think of this task as one of cosmic importance.

Update in Feb 2021: Here’s a retrospective piece, ‘313,100 Acres’ by student journalist Nadia Leigh Hewitson.

If you would like your voice to be added here, please get in touch on climatemuseumuk@gmail.com

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