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Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

We in California are at the vanguard of things to come; climate change brings us years of record-breaking drought, waves of excessive heat and unprecedented fires, and as California Governor Newsome has stated in a 11 September 2020 press conference, “California is America in fast forward.”

I would broaden this warning to encompass the globe. If we are all in the apocalyptic End Times, then the End Times are only just beginning, as on September 10th the U.S. Climate Prediction Center announced a newly-arrived La Niña, a climate pattern that bodes ill across the planet.

Perils must come in three’s, just like bad luck. A pandemic has rolled across our world, engendering economic collapse and the death in the US of more than 200,000 people; the US presidential election is on the horizon, rife with obstacles and threats that may endanger the foundations of American democracy just at the time of a racial justice reckoning. Now, here in California and other western states, we are experiencing the worst fires in memory. More than three million acres are up in smoke and counting, almost 30 major blazes burn in California alone, and front-line firefighters are spread as thin as are front-line COVID-19 medical workers across the US.

Fire season — a concept that was peripheral to me, having lived on the East Coast until moving to the San Francisco Bay Area four years ago. Sure, we had seasons, the traditional four. Sure, there were times of the year when hurricanes would likely form off Africa’s West Coast and end up on the East Coast of the US, felling trees and causing devastating wind damage and storm-surge flooding after much anxious tracking and clenched-jaw anticipation.

On the other hand, fire season is an ongoing condition here in the American West, not a one-off event. But there is something especially insidious about a condition that holds continuous sway over an entire region. With wildfire, you can’t always see in advance the particular pop-up fury that will consume your family and your house, in the way you can see on the radar a named storm churning hundreds of miles distant.

Storm events arrive and then leave, trailing massive destruction and despair, while fire season is a condition that persists like a hovering fog.

Fire season: long-term drought, sustained strong winds and low humidity are combined conditions that make ripe for a disaster that might brew up a fiery coiling column or an implacable wall of flame in a quick minute in nearby woods, or the National Forest, or your backyard. It seems to happen at random, wherever the Fire Witch points her capricious finger. Sometimes there’s blame to allocate, a camper is careless, or a high-tension powerline is left in disrepair by the utility company, but more often, what sparks the fire is just dry-lightning, a force majeure, a bolt from the blue. Fire season is a condition that, here in the Bay Area, lasts from early August until late November, until the winter rains cause the hills to turn a lovely green – a welcome inversion of what I, in the East, had been accustomed to experiencing in the bleak midwinter.

In a way, the fire season and the COVID-19 pandemic are quite similar. Each is just ‘out there’. Each is inescapable for the duration and, unlike many other natural disasters, that duration, the ongoing risk of imminent catastrophe, settles in for a long stay. The relentless concern is that, suddenly, a fire will spin up nearby and crawl close in the night, an errant ember falling in the tall summer-dry grasses that grow everywhere here may land on your roof while you are dreaming of a waterfall. At that point, stark new perils arise, starting with forced evacuations, traffic-snarled or fire-blocked routes of escape, confusion about where to go in the first place, how far to drive, and in which direction.

Here in the East Bay, about 13 miles from San Francisco and ten minutes from Berkeley, it has not come to that; there are massive fires in all directions, but none are very close, at least two to four hours distant. Yet there’s a feeling of being encircled and, even more palpable, the air carries a continuous white veil of falling flakes of ash. It has been like this for a month now, with community warnings of ‘Red Flag Days’ when local conditions are especially ripe, and it will continue until the rainy season begins.

The Air Quality Index pushes far into the danger zone and, in this way, the two conditions, fire season and pandemic, elide: the word in both cases is ‘Do Not Venture Out’. Last week, we experienced Red Flag Days when the air was pumpkin-orange. The sun never shone despite an otherwise cloudless sky, reminiscent of eras when volcanic eruptions darkened skies indefinitely – the prospect of which, as in the case of Pompeii, seems to capture the imagination (that is, scar the psyche) of little children if my six-year-old granddaughter in Oakland is any measure.

While increasingly dangerous, California fire season is nothing new. The science of dendrochronology, the analysis of tree-rings and tree age along with chemical analysis of still-existing samples, is used to document fire seasons from pre-historic periods to the modern era. This includes periods before fire suppression was practiced, when fires were simply left to burn themselves out, similar to the archaic and immoral ‘herd immunity’ strategy for pandemics. The more recent fire practice may be why fire in California is always rampant, and it’s a certainty that there were fires raging here during the last century’s pandemics as well.

Along with this scientific history of fire, when it comes to the arrival of both fire and pandemic, it’s informative to note that both perils have come in tandem before. In one form or another, as the saying goes, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” (Mark Twain). I’m thinking here of England’s history, when the Great Fire of London in 1666, complete with singed pigeons falling from window ledges , occurred only one year after the ruinous Bubonic pandemic imperiled that country. England experienced both perils almost simultaneously, just as we are now. Those interested might turn to Samuel Pepys’ personal account of the Great Fire in his Diary along with Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. History rhymes.

One response to all of this historical and scientific analysis could be: so what? We have fire bearing down on us like a bruja‘s hot breath. People are losing their homes, their livelihoods, and their lives, everything. Forget about climate change, close the science and the history books, and just get me the hell out of here!

Al Gore, in his many presentations that grew into the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, set off the climate-change alarm 14 years ago. His film documents how human activity has caused the average temperature of the Earth to rise at a rate that will continue to cause global catastrophe if left unchecked.

We all know how Trump stated, erroneously, that forest fires aren’t prevalent in Finland due to their practice of raking their forests and that Californians, on the other hand, do a god-awful job of raking their forests. And so Californians are scolded–we are lazy rakers of forests (more than half of which are federally-owned); oh, and if we voted differently, who knows, we might get some federal help instead of a lecture.

I take cold comfort that even Trump hasn’t brought himself to the point of calling our regional firestorm a hoax. He has branded climate change as a ‘Democratic Hoax’. So, too, the Mueller investigation of the ties between the president’s campaign and Russia, the impeachment process itself and, in a South Carolina rally at the end of February, even the COVID-19 pandemic. Somehow news footage of refrigerated trucks used as temporary morgues wasn’t probative enough, but video of millions of acres ablaze has been too heavy a lift, even for him. Cutting further against the concept of hoaxes, especially world-wide ones, the Yale University School of The Environment notes on its “Climate Connections” site (10 February 2020) that Australia has, in its winter season, experienced unprecedented wildfires. Lately I’m haunted by Australian artist Tartie’s song about the fires in her country, “Ablaze”.

We are living under constant stress due to conditions beyond our limited power as American citizens. Our lack of control amid COVID-19 is dramatically rendered by Emily St. John Mandel in her 2014 novel, Station Eleven; our lack of control over environmental catastrophe is painfully captured by Kassandra Montag in her 2019 novel, After the Flood. In California it seems that our beautiful environment has turned against us and if we venture to leave our front door, we are apt to inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash, the latter making survival of the former even more difficult. If we turn back in fear we may find that we no longer even have a front door.

Life in the time of Coronavirus and California fire is a seemingly endless tribulation, even for those of us who are not beating back flames or beating a retreat but are merely trying to live and breathe. My dog communicates her confusion as to why her daily walks among the East Bay hills have abruptly ceased, my wife grows tired of picking figs from the tree in our yard that are encased in chalky ash, and our entire home is, likewise, covered in it. Out here in the Golden State, our face masks do double duty. Out here, we are looking for relief from the viral peril, which relief will be a vaccine a long time coming, and we are looking for relief from the fire peril, which will come with the rains in its own sweet time. And then we will be awaiting whatever calamity the whims of the Fire Witch has in store for us in 2021.

The third peril might actually be the worst. The vaccine will surely come because research scientists and public health administrators if left to their empirical devices, are very good at what they do; plague doctors no longer strap on long beaks filled with herbs and hope for the best. November will most probably bring soaking rains rolling in from the Pacific. Still, November will also bring something else: an existential national election which will likely spawn agitation and litigation and even street violence as well as one of two possibilities — either continued gaslighting, climate science denial and erosion of LGBTQ rights and voting rights and other rights and racial justice, along with possible termination of the American Experiment itself. Or, like the rains and the vaccine, we might receive welcome relief so that we may finally, as with smoky ash and viral particles, clear the air.

Let us hope.