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Thoughts on a World on Fire

When people ask me about the record heat we experienced here in the Pacific Northwest this summer, I find I want to talk to them about last year’s wildfires like they’re the same thing. If you talk to locals in general, you’ll find the same thing happens with them too. Because really, after the horrors of what we’ve witnessed from the natural world in the last year, heat or fire, it’s an unimportant nuance. We all know they are symptoms of something larger, an unfamiliar and persistent dryness in rain country, endless years of drought, climate change, consequence.

The night the fires started my husband and I were woken up by the sound of the ashy wind against our window. When we opened it to see what was happening so much smoke filled our room we thought the tree in the back yard was on fire. We got up two hours later, just before 4 am. By then, news of the fires some 50 miles away had made its way to social media. As people scrambled to escape it gulped in land in thirsty ten-mile chunks, closing in towards us fast. That first fierce burn slowed after the first day, but we wouldn’t leave our home for close to two weeks as we waited out the worst air quality in the world. No one knew what to do. The community scrambled to create makeshift air filters out of fans and purge their houses of toxins. Some advice was better than others. Few people took action to protect property from urban fire, even though we found quarter-sized chunks of embers on our front lawn.

Recently burnt forest on a hillside

In the days before the heat, I sat in the cool shade of my garden with a visiting scholar who had come to write about the fires, recovery, and hard hope. We spoke after he had spent several days interviewing stakeholders upriver, attending planning meetings for the recovery zone, and talking with resident forest service scientists. He told me he heard stories of fear, of confusion, and of determination. I told him the burn zone was prettier before the salvage clear cutting. He told me that of all the people he heard from, I was the only one asking if we should be rebuilding. If we should be trying to return to how we were inhabiting and using that land.

When the heat came this year, people died and we knew they would. For days leading up to the highs of 111, 116, 118, my 74-year-old mother fretted about the power grid, convinced it would be overwhelmed and she would lose power. I told her she would be ok. I reminded her we had talked about getting a generator after the ice storms in the winter. She resisted. She fretted. Two days later, the power went out.

When the smoke came and the evacuation zones crept toward my parents’ house, it scared them into action and my sister broke the quarantine bubble to come for them. When the heat came, knowing that my sister didn’t have air conditioning, they played scrabble as the heat crept in through the cracks. In fairness, my mother has lived in Portland for most of her life and stoicism paired with scrabble or a jigsaw puzzle has seen her through many a freezing storm. But heat is different and she is old (sorry mom) and its not just the infrastructure that is unprepared for these things, its us.

These events, these consequences, they do not happen in the abstract. They are real and they are personal. Our response needs to be too. The new normal, the reality of climate change, it’s going to require a new skills-set, one that involves go bags and masks and evacuation routes and safety check-ins, bottled water, and sheltering in place. Survival skills. But survival isn’t the goal. Thriving is the goal. For that, we have to fight. And if the consequences are personal, the fight should be too. Like our go bags, we all need a personal plan for how we will contribute to that fight in our own lives based on our own unique and valid relationships to the environment. The signals are clear, the time for action is now.


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