California is Burning.
I lived through 911, watching it all unfold from my rooftop in Brooklyn. I moved through the next few weeks in a haze, breathing in the smoke and ashes of buildings and humans as it landed on our windowsills just across the river.
I don’t remember this much tragedy as a child. I will be 45 soon, and the only tragedies I really remember happened in my own home. My mother lived through the race riots in Detroit. Me? I can remember the Tigers winning the World Series at some point, and the Gulf War happened while I was wrapping up high school.
I know that my life was insular. I’m aware, too, that the internet has brought us all the tragedy all at once that we’d previously missed out on. What is also perfectly clear is that we are witness to more tragedy not just because of the internet, but because more tragedy is happening, anyway.
This is not new news.
In California, “wildfire season” is now an actual season that spans most of our summer. Where I live, we are surrounded by fires right now. If my world didn’t smell like a bonfire, I’d wonder if I weren’t living in some sort of extended twilight; the colors are different now, the air full of haze.
This smokiness has everyone feeling disconnected, as if we’ve got to lower ourselves a few inches back down into our bodies so that we can connect to our brains again and think properly.
They arrived in two old sedans, one towing a trailer and with three large dogs in the back seat, the other with four people, one of whom was pregnant and holding an aquarium in her lap with two small tortoises in it. It was 6pm and they’d been driving since 11am after being evacuated from their small town just an hour south of us, and they’d spent the entire day trying to find accommodations — stopping, checking in, being refused, getting back in the car, continuing on. They were tired and hot, and they had to leave behind two goats, some cats and a flock of chickens.
Our community came together to help. People delivered food. Others called in and paid for their stay, and someone else put me in touch with a pop-up organization calling themselves “Cowboy 911” — which is, as you may have surmised, a group of cowboys, horse people and the like — people used to dealing with livestock and with the means and land to load them up and get them out of harm’s way. I put a post on their Facebook page, and within hours, a woman had hitched up her trailer and headed out there to get the goats, meeting up with another lady who took the chickens. When they arrived, another family member had shown up to get the cats.
A few hours later, my phone started bleeting with pictures of the family’s animals, safe and happy. I started up a text exchange with the lady with the horse trailer, who, as soon as she’d heard, had dropped everything to head out there.
“How do you know these people?” she asked me, and I told her I really didn’t — I took them in at the campground where I worked was concerned for their welfare. They were older and had numerous health issues and a shortage of cash. “I’m a bleeding heart,” I told her, “one of those weird hippie chicks from the mountain.”
“And I’m just a country girl from Cottonwood,” she replied, and we laughed, because this was an unlikely conversation that would probably never have happened if it weren’t for a monstrous natural disaster that is forcing everyone to put aside their differences for a moment in the common interest of staying alive.
You see, this country girl comes from Trump country. The Carr Fire is burning up a huge swatch of ultra-conservative California. Redding and the surrounding area of Shasta county are home to a megachurch that thinks gay people can benefit from conversion therapy. People vote conservative, drive expensive cars and big trucks, live on lots of hot, open land, and have regular conversations with “brand inspectors”. It’s not the California most people ever think of, but it’s a part of California that does, indeed, exist, and right now, they’re all talking and laughing with a tattooed, queer woman raising a little girl with her lesbian wife in an area known, anymore, for all the new agers and hippies it attracts an hour north. And we’re all grateful for each other.
What’s more apparent than anything in all of this is what was just as apparent as ever back when 911 happened: people can forget a lot of bullshit for a minute when the urgency of something like a massive, fast-moving and unpredictable wildfire hits. Unfortunately it doesn’t take too long until all the flag-waving returns and people, once again, forget the reasons we’re in these situations. Without accepting these reasons, we can’t fix them, and I’m not sure whether that will ever happen.
I want, so badly, to dig up the kind of hope that convinces me we’ll eventually meet in a middle somewhere — for the moment I’m not actually discussing the man-made environmental issues that have caused “wildfire season” to become our new normal but I know that, soon enough, I’ll start focusing on all that again. I am a radical activist, after all.
I’ll want to know why, after this, that government representatives lobbying for heavy resource extraction aren’t held in contempt. I’ll want to know why those who have more than they’ll ever possibly need won’t share. I’ll want to know why anyone would judge my family when we’re simply full of love and doing our best to be a positive presence in the world. I’ll want to know why anyone would have issues with people in need when just a short time before, we were united, helping each other out.
I’m tired of tragedy being the thing that brings us all together. Like everything else that’s brought us here, it’s completely unsustainable.
Dori Mondon-Freeman lives in far northern California with her wife, daughter, two old rescue dogs and a big Maine Coon cat. Writes for food, welcomes intelligent discourse. Read more here: