Home | About | Donate

What to Do When the World Is on Fire

Originally published at http://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/09/28/what-do-when-world-fire

is it now a reckless decision to leave the concrete insulation the city affords, and live a life in Nature?

Short answer: Yup. Slightly longer answer: Are you insane? Is this a trick question?

The Glass Fire rages at 11,000 acres this morning, just east of Santa Rosa. It could double that acreage in a couple of hours, at the rate things are going. Today is a diablo (offshore) winds day, with record heat and amazingly low relative humidity: a fire-tornado foundry finishing off the rest of the grapes around here. So much for days of wine and roses.

Those days are not coming back. Clearly “life in Nature” cannot mean continual forest sprawl. Not anymore. It’s already gone on too long. Mama sez we’ve already built thousands too many homes in the wildland-urban interface, where they never belonged: three thousand, four thousand… Those are my people getting burnt off of those hills. Some folks north of us are evacuating for the third time this year.

1 Like

Actually, forests do not burn because they are forests; they burn because they get dry. The distinction is important because one thing that happens when you remove forest is that things get dryer, much dryer. We remove forest radically in one place and ban the reduction of any part of it in others. This is why so much is burning.

Anyone who wishes to consider the idea of making the landscape too austere to burn should look at pictures of the Mojave Desert fire of this year, August of 2020, which burned down 20,000 acres in the Joshua National Forest.

Really, google “Joshua National Forest” with or without “fire 2020” and consider a) what it would take get wine country to look like the Mojave Desert and b) whether residents are likely to attempt that seriously. Then consider again: the Mojave Desert burns just fine. I watched 80,000 acres go up outside my window just a couple years ago.

Coleman seems all over the board here, but with ideas that deserve attention. He’s trying to condense what should get a couple hundred pages. But to try again, hopefully a bit differently, fire control has to be done in a way that involves stewardship of the land, or else it cannot be done. And, unless a Sahara is to become fait accompli in California, we have to do it principally by something other than removing forest. We will need more forest.

What we could do, given the insight to do it modestly well, is to tend the land. That does involve residence. No one is suggesting living in the fire as though it would not happen; that is something that people continue to do, and that must be corrected. Santa Rosa and Paradise and all these areas will in fact remain populated as long as the land does not become a man-made desert, and the general climate does not lean that way in the ways that either the Mojave or North Africa do. What Coleman suggests is to stop living in the fire, and instead to tend the land so as to accomplish this.

Of course the dryer Mediterranean climates are big fire zones naturally–in Australia, in California, in South Africa, and elsewhere–because rains come in the winter, but not over a very long and dry summer. People could make the same mistakes as we mostly do in California and have the problems of Detroit or Boston or New Orleans or Appalachia instead if we lived in like climates. But in a Mediterranean climate, where trees are felled, particularly, annual plants thrive, and these tend to have a flush of growth in the spring and to die back by June or July, depending on the year and the location. As they die back, they leave a landscape built of kindling.

If you can smell smoke as you read this, it is probably all familiar. But the following works where people do it:

  • Stop, spread, and sink the water so that deep-rooted perennials can thrive
  • Plant deep-rooted perennials, mostly trees, to hold the soil
  • Plant ignition resistant plants (see a list of burn-resistant California natives at ~ttps://www.laspilitas.com/classes/fire_burn_times.html. Virtually all succulents are also burn-resistant, and these include many stellar crops and landscape items.
  • Manage animals to graze and browse back the fire fuel load.

It is this latter that requires some residency in rural areas that become fire sectors when mismanaged. Grazers and browsers have to be forcibly moved around so that they do not overgraze in one place and denude the landscape, again causing a dominance of shallow-rooted and short-lived and quick-burning annuals.

This will keep getting worse until people move to make it better. That probably means that it gets worse for a significant while, since neither government nor large business will consider the problem outside of its effect on their hegemony.

And these are my people, too, Aleph–family and friends, and beside several fires, in different parts of the state.

Sounds like a bunch of great ideas for a previous planet, maybe. People still stuck up there in the Sierra and Cascade foothills should do the best they can, I suppose, but the worm has now turned and they’re living in the bull’s eye, with not a whole hell of a lot they can do about it once the fire tornados start swooping. “Plant ignition resistant plants” – right, good luck with that, kids!

My brother lost his home of decades in Berry Creek on 9/9 (Admissions Day). Once upon a time, it was such a fantastic place to raise the kids, up there. My sister is evacuated from Oakmont (near Santa Rosa, a much more surburban location) this morning.

Clearly you and Farhad Manjoo as well as NYT urban dwellers agree. But knowing that 91% of the wetlands in CA are gone might change your view, if not knowing the lakes and rivers in CA have been drained for urban sprawl in SO CA for more than 150 years might change your view. Nature was manipulated and the fires are the result, not the fault of people living in trailors in remote areas but of “urban” planners who steal all the water and created a tinder box.

This is still the planet we’re on; I’m not sure where you think we should go. If individuals want to pull out and go to Coos Bay or wherever, I have no criticism to make of that. But we have no option of moving away from these problems collectively.

That being so, it seems sane to respond to them, whatever ridicule might be held forth, and to trust to the good ideas over the bad, insofar as we discern them.

I don’t think you imagine that anyone recommends standing in a fire to plant fire-resistant plants, so that leaves the actual criticism of the good ideas unclear. Yes, it is better if you plant before the fire. But if you did not, all that remains involves planting after. And if you do it foolishly, someone will do it again soon.

I have family in Santa Rosa, not yet evacuated as of last night, and I know Oakmont, though they nor I live there. I have friends within a mile of the Creek Fire, just off that southern line below Shaver Lake, evacuated for weeks now and with the fires blazing. I have acquaintances with properties a hundred yards off the blaze in Santa Cruz and others beside the blaze in Riverside a few weeks ago. I have colleagues in Australia preparing against blazes and floods there.

Insisting on response is not motivated by ignoring the intensity of the problem, but by recognizing it. You point out correctly that it is tragic.

I work with people who have various sorts of ecologically related difficulties, and I hear lots of stories. One could go to Los Angeles and welcome the ocean into the local water systems. One could go to the Midwest and deal with the toxic water and collapsing neighborhoods or to the Southeast for the hurricane season. I know of some very nice areas in Mexico that no longer grow crops, where creeks have ceased to run and the topsoil has blown off–mismanagement, again and again, but again and again nobody knew.

We do agree that this will get worse before it gets better. no? Not many people are working constructively, though there are some. Either way, there’s no bus leaving the planet. I don’t mean to suggest that you imagine there is, but it seems to me that that leaves us with no practical option apart from responding.

The problem isn’t forest management, it is the process of people putting forests into their management system as if they had a reasonable understanding of what they were doing. The forests are self sustaining until they reach this point where they come under our care or what we consider living responsibly.

The real hubris is that we think we can fix this. It would be better to let nature fix itself at it own pace and its own time. Just stop pretending that you didn’t know, I call bullshit on that.

Not a toughie, good buddy: People should live where their living casts the smallest possible footprint, because we’re clearly running out of footprint to go around. Indeed, the forest management discussion is almost always incredibly oblivious to ongoing vaporization of global forests, regardless of management, due to the Climate Catastrophe. Hello?

Where should we live? Where we can live with the smallest footprint. Where do you suppose places like that might be found? (Clue: I think people have looked into it, and I don’t think there’s any controversy.)

Incidentally, from the firemaps it looks like my sister lost her house in Oakmont today.