We Are The People Of The Fire

Wildfires are old news. They’ve been old news for as long as humans have told stories about wildfires and tried to tame them, along with almost everything else that was wild. As soon as there was private property and then cities like Athens, Rome and Damascus, fire was regarded with fear. It was turned into a foe that had to be destroyed. Much of the reporting about wildfires in California, the western states of the U.S. and all around the world, has portrayed fire as a dark and an evil force. 

At The Press Democrat, the executive editor, Catherine Barnett, described last October’s wildfires in Sonoma as monsters that came “out of nowhere,” “without warning” and in the “dead of night.” Ooh ooh, spooky. With language like that, you’d think that Barnett was trying to frighten readers and drive them into the arms of insurance agents who would sell them more fire insurance—or decline to insure because they were in fire-prone areas.

The Press Democrat treats its readers as children. It dumbs down almost every story it prints, including the stories it ran about wildfires. The word “hope” appeared in headlines again and again as though hope had some kind of magical power that could bring back homes that were burned down. “Hope among the ruins” was one of many. Where were words like “wisdom,” “courage” and “intelligence”? Not in headlines in the PD. Hope is a four-letter word. Wisdom, courage and intelligence are too long.

The PD’s reporting of the firestorms in Sonoma tended to say that “our fires are bigger than your fires and we deal with our fires better than you deal with your fires.” The Sonoma wildfires of 2017 are no longer on record as the biggest fires in the state. That dubious honor now belongs to Mendocino. Local coverage of wildfires can be illuminating, like the stories about the men who dig holes in the ground and survive in the earth. That’s cool.

Some of the best stories were never written down, until now. I heard them from a farmer I call “T” who worked at a vineyard and also grew his own marijuana. Fires surrounded both grapes and weed. He backpacked in, saved both crops, stored them safely and then backpacked out. When he returned they were both safe and sound. That’s the kind of heroism that ought to be heralded.

The stories in the PD were often about cats, cats that were lost and cats that were found, cats that were reunited with their owners, and owners reunited with their pets. Then, too, any of the stories I read were about the loss of revenue at bars and restaurants. I fell for them. I did my part. After the fires of October 2017 were extinguished I went out to eat and drink and found that restaurants were packed with locals who were eating and drinking and doing their best to boost the local economy. Local reporting, PD reporting, was often about lost business, lost property and the need to recoup and rebuild. John Kunde of Kunde Family Winery was quoted in Sonoma magazine as saying that if he had to send out one message it would be, “Sonoma remains open for biz.” Fire bad for business! Or is it? What about all the rebuilding that will go on for years, keep workers working and the construction industry booming. 

The best stories that I read about the wildfires in Sonoma were not from here. Some of them were from England, where The London Review of Books published an article entitled “El Diablo in Wine Country” by Los Angelino Mike Davis who concluded that in a “society based on real-estate capitalism” there was doom and gloom ahead and that “our children and theirs, will continue to face the flames.” 

But one didn’t have to go to London to read thorough stories about California’s fires. An article entitled “Sonoma’s Burning Problem” published in the Fall 2018 issue of Alta magazine, which is owned by William Randolph Hearst III, says that there are “few curbs on development” in Sonoma County, not even after wildfires. There’s also a quotation from Julie Combs who serves on the Santa Rosa City Council, who said—after the approval of a project to build hundreds of houses near Fountaingrove—“We’re giving up the ability to prevent high density housing in a fire hazard area.” 

In the same article, there’s also a comment from Peter Parkinson who ran the Sonoma County Planning Department from 2000 to 2013 and who said, he “couldn’t recall a time when county officials rejected a development on the basis of wildfire risk.”

The New York Review of Books had a review/essay entitled “California Burning” by William Finnegan in the August 16, 2018 edition. Here are some highlights.

1. Fire season lasts 78 days longer today, nationally, than it did in 1970.

2. The size, frequency and intensity of fires have increased.

3. The immediate suppression of wildfire, which was touted for decades as the solution, has created huge amounts of fuel for wildfires. But the stop-it-now philosophy gets the most funding.

4. Tree-killing insects multiply in droughts and dead trees feed fires. California has an estimated 100,000,000 dead trees.

5. Invasive species like cheatgrass that is highly flammable also contribute to more frequent, hotter and faster moving fires.

6. Most wild fires are caused by people: at campfires, with chainsaws, smoking cigarettes and by electrical power lines. No surprise there.

7. Over the last half-century, the US tried to eliminate fires from forests and instead filled those same forests with homes which added to the wildland-urban interface (WUI) which in turn contributed to the boom in wildfires. Ten million Americans live in the WUI and the numbers are growing.

I also read a thought-provoking article by poet and ecologist Gary Snyder that’s collected in a big fat beautiful book entitled Wild Fires: A Century of Failed Forest Policy published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology 12 years ago in 2006. That book predicted the wildfires we’ve had in California over the last decade. Snyder, who lives in the Sierras surrounded by trees, and who has always created “defensible space,” want humans to see fire as a friend not a foe, in much the same way that Native Americans have seen it for centuries, if not more.

Snyder writes, “It sickens one to see whatever clueless administration that is passing through, use fear of fire to warp public policy in favor of more exploitation, more industry and more restrictive law. It is an exact parallel of the use of ‘terrorism’ to warp American values and circumvent our Constitution to justify aggressive foreign policy and to promote again the sick fantasy of a global American empire.” Right on Gary!

This past year there have been wildfires in Norway, Sweden, Greece, Portugal, and in large swaths of Africa. We are not alone. The world is on fire. We are the people of the fire.

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