The West is burning.
In 1975, Canadian friends picked me up in Seattle to ride with them to Colorado. The driver was Jeff, and Jeff smoked cigarettes. At one point, he tossed the lit butt of a cigarette out his window. It was early September, the end of a long, hot, dry summer. We were in eastern Montana and there was nothing, absolutely nothing to stop a fire in those grasslands.
This was something I knew was dangerous. I had been raised with respect for forest, and by a father who never tossed his cigarette butts. I said something from the back seat of the van. Maybe I said it was dangerous to throw a lit cigarette out the window, maybe I merely yelped and said he shouldn’t do that. I don’t remember what I said. I was thinking at the time about what I knew about fire, and cannot recall my words, What I remember is his irritated response.
“What do you care? You don’t live here,” he said.
Maybe we argued after that. Reasons lined up: I did live there. It is my country, my nation. My father was born in Montana. This sort of reasoning that because it would not be my field that burned I should not care was immoral. I should care. He should care.
The West is burning. The human body count continues the rise.
Pundits, politicians, and ordinary people would like someone or something to blame—errors in forest management, a camp fire, climate change, an unusually dry summer. All of the above? Answers are rarely simple.
Someone always points out that Native peoples set fires (every time, I see it). This doesn’t make setting fires a good practice. Humans in every culture have done foolish and cruel things.
Europeans drove entire herds off cliff faces. The BaMbuti pigmies roast songbirds alive because it makes their flesh more tender. Londoners drank water contaminated with typhus. Stupid.
My point is that what a small population can get away with is not necessarily the answer to our troubles today. One post I read claimed that Fewer trees/acre does not signify. I know from walking in the coast range that trees were once further apart. This was first, pre-logging, “old growth” trees with stumps six feet across. Most Americans will never see old growth trees that massive. And even so, there were forests so dense, a horse and rider could not pass between them. Most forest fires used to be started by lightening strike. Today, most are begun by humans.
The West is burning because we have more forest remaining in the West compared to the East; because climate change is causing forested, moist places to become drier; and because we start fires with cigarettes and electrical sparks and camp fires and good intentions.
“California’s fire record dates back to 1932; of the 10 largest fires since then, nine have occurred since 2000, five since 2010 and two this year alone, including the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest in state history.” Undergrowth, including the low growth after an area has been logged and replanted, allows for a fast-moving fire. The Tillamook Burn of 1933 destroyed 390,000 acres in western Oregon. The next three Tillamook Burns would take over 400,000 additional acres. It was so huge my mother and her sister swam in a warm ocean, and came out covered in soot. That one started from a spark from logging operations. A couple of years ago there was a fire a half mile east of our home in the coast range. That one started from a slash burn that went out of control in high winds.
Fire suppression, which worked for most places, played a part, but climate change, weather, and human beings played critical roles. Well, human beings mostly.
Even “controlled burns” get out of hand, and the research does not entirely support any method currently used to prevent fires, other than not starting them to begin with.
The West is burning and we are looking for someone or something to blame.
I don’t want to write
about California. I don’t want to look.
Did you know there were two new litters
of mountain lions in the Santa Monica mountains?
A mama can only carry one at a time. I don’t know
why that’s the thing that breaks me. It’s the world
that breaks me. We’ve broken the world.
Just past the tweet that tells me about the kittens
is a thread about Romeo and Juliet,
the Claire and Leo movie version,
and that is what I click through. How I loved that movie,
the fish tank, the kissing. I wanted to live
in a world like that, a world like this world
except slant. Better lighting, better language.
How you can understand it best
by not listening too closely. I think too much.
All the fish in that tank scooped probably from the sea;
how the sea is failing. I wanted to love someone
until they would die for me. I wanted to be the one
they would choose to carry out of the burning world.
When the fish stocks fail, when the Amazon tips
past the point for which it can compensate
with the meager reforestation it is allowed—
there should be nicer language for this in a poem,
I’m sorry. I just keep thinking of Juliet, who thought the sea
was infinite and so a good metaphor for love.
But we’re determined to find the bottom
of any bounty. They thought this continent
was boundless, too, and scraped it clean
to prove themselves its better. They.
Did you see that storm of smoke,
utterly apocalyptic, over the highway?
It makes a person say God. God, lift me
by the scruff. Or the throat, maybe.
All of us, maybe. Shake hard.
Be rough with love.
—from Poets Respond
November 15, 2018
Caitlin Gildrien: “A friend who is a science writer tweeted about the mountain lion kittens, and though of course the costs of these fires are deep and broad for humans and for the rest of the environment, that fact really shook me—as did the way that Twitter shoves the somber and heartbreaking up against the trivial as though they are equally weighted. I was born in California, though I live across the country now, and it’s been increasingly painful each year to watch the fires become more uncontrollable. It’s one of the many reasons I fear for our future.”
Reprinted without permission. It made me cry.