PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

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.

Photo by ASTERISK on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.