by Joan Harvey
When the bobbling, babbling, unhinged conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, warned of a second Civil War starting on the 4th of July, most of us laughed, people marked themselves “Safe,” and we enjoyed the holiday. But one thing we’ve learned in these times is that both the Civil War and WWII are still underway. Not the second Civil War, but a continuation of the first. While both wars seemed to have had clear endings, in reality they continue, but until now mostly buried underground. How could we have been so oblivious? So complacent? I think of Freud and the unconscious, Jung and the shadow. Psycho-history.
Our country is mentally ill.
Politicians, it seems, think the answer is in being led by the nose by the Russian government. Oh, that and arming toddlers.
But America is changing. Across the West on the 4th of July this year fireworks displays were cancelled. Fire danger was too high. Every year is like this now. And every year, we too act mentally ill, behaving as if this year were aberrant. We get through fire season crossing our fingers, a fire season that extends for more months every year. Every year we hope a fire won’t burn too close to us, we hope it won’t force us out, we hope it won’t destroy our homes. Wiser politicians talk of turning to green energy to slow climate change, while the others push for more fossil fuel development. But no one addresses the fact that we’re past the tipping point. Even if we’re able to slow climate change, it’s still too late. Every year we burn. Then the floods come to finish the job.
I look out at snowy peaks, up at fluffy clouds. Bright flowers grow nearby, pines and aspens surround me. But it’s another dry, hot, tinderbox day. If I were sensible I’d cut down all the pines. Trees are the enemy, we are told. We should strip these mountains bare to be more safe. Trees, of course, are a main part of why I live here. Clearly I’m an imbecile like all the others, trying to live in a world that no longer exists.
Last year we received our second mandatory evacuation. In the first one 168 homes were lost. A week ago my brother was forced to evacuate. My young nephew in Santa Barbara was trapped in a house after fire and flood until he was rescued. Every year friends in the hills of California wait anxiously as fires burn below them. 10,000 structures were destroyed or damaged last year in California alone. My partner, on a road trip with his German nephew, has just had to leave Yosemite due to fire. Women working for the little town of Castle Valley in Utah tell me that the last lightning started four fires. On July 26 of this year the National Interagency Fire Center reported 88 large active fires. Friends post photos they’ve taken of flames nearby, of giant plumes of smoke. This is not aberrant. This is normal.
The latest big fire in Colorado, the one from which my brother was evacuated, was started by people at a firing range. Guns are one of the main causes of wildfires, though almost no one realizes this. A 10-year study of fires on U.S. Bureau of Land Management public lands showed shooting as the highest cause of wildfires, 34.1 percent of the time. The next highest percentages were arson at 15 percent, and electrical or birds at 10 percent. Campfires came in at 3.2 percent.
Gun lovers are outraged at the idea that guns can cause fires. “Impossible,” they insist, fake news. As usual, they fear their guns will be taken away. And naturally government officials are unwilling to get into gun debates, and so don’t sufficiently regulate shooting on public lands.
Only a good guy with a gun can put out a fire started by a bad guy with a gun.
If a person had indulged in enough self-destructive habits to cause herself a fatal disease, a doctor would not prescribe more bad habits. And a good doctor wouldn’t just tell the patient to stop her bad habits, but would also give appropriate medicine to extend her life. We would think it insane if she were to spend a fortune defending against a disease that she doesn’t have, while ignoring the medicine that might allow her a few more years. But as America, as a society, that’s exactly what we do.
There is one supertanker equipped for fighting fires in the whole United States.This year it has not been allowed to fly due to a problem in paperwork. The 2018 defense budget is just under $700 billion, $61 billion more this year than last, and that must be spent in 6 months. If the government were to take just $1 billion of that $700 billion for fire fighting it would more than double the current budget, but this seems to occur to no one.
In addition, the President’s plan is to eliminate the Forest Service budget for fire science entirely. The Joint Fire Science Program, started in 1998 in response to the new wave of megafires, has been crucial in helping researchers exchange field knowledge and science about wildfire behavior.There is no other entity in the nation that does what they do. So, naturally, it has been decided that now is the time to cut their funding. Another war we’re fighting against knowledge. Because clearly science is the enemy.
We displace our fears of the danger we ourselves have caused onto external sources: immigrants or foreign powers or an incomprehensible God. Displacement behavior is a term used to describe animal behavior when the animal is confronted with two conflicting drives or desires; for instance to stay or go, cower or fight. Unable to do either, they will instead groom or scratch or drink or eat. We do the same. We don’t leave, nor do we really defend ourselves. We stay more or less frozen, and drink a lot. Until fire displaces us.
With so many fires raging, firefighters on the ground are already occupied and stressed. There aren’t enough for all the fires. We don’t pay them well. The median annual wage for firefighters in the United States in 2016 was $48,030 or $23.09 per hour. Is this really enough for men and women who risk their lives again and again? Meanwhile the Air Force has ordered 90 F-35’s at a unit cost of $96 million, and a program cost of $1.4 trillion, even though evaluation has shown it to be an aircraft with an astounding number of serious flaws, making it so far almost unusable, and much worse to fly than earlier planes.
My house was built in the 60s in such a way we joke about what kind of acid they must have been on. “It’s never too late to put a foundation under your house,” the building inspector told me. But when I first moved here 12 years ago, I felt so safe. Moving through my house with its views, its light, its colors, its long years of remodeling by my partner who works in construction, felt like moving through a dream. Then came the fires, then came the floods. Then our country turned toward overt fascism. Safety, of course, is always an illusion.
Among the most effective firefighting tools are slurry planes.They don’t stop global warming, but they do save houses, and even whole towns. But in America there is no political will to defend homes from real instead of imaginary threats. To have an Air Force of ready firefighting planes for defense. In fact the complete opposite: each year the President proposes cutting the budget for fire fighting aviation. In 2018 Forest Service contracts for large firefighting helicopters decreased from 34 to 28. In 2018 Forest Service contracts for the number of large air tankers was 13, down from 20 in 2017. More fires, more destruction, less equipment, no backup plan.
Here in the mountains most of us do not witness our children dragged away and locked in cages. But during the recent Lake Christine fire, in which many immigrants had to flee their homes, there was a rumor, fortunately untrue, that ICE would be waiting at the evacuation shelters. Most (though not all) of us are not at risk of being shot by the police for walking or driving while black. Congress so far hasn’t passed the law sentencing people to jail for protesting fascism, though that has been proposed. We are a wealthy country and we still have the resources to recover, unlike much of the world. Fires now rage even above the Arctic Circle. But every day the news is filled with horror stories which disturb us far more than the weather. We wake up stressed and go to sleep stressed. We’re all paralyzed. Fearful. Angry. Thinking often of the terrorized.
We have a chainsaw ready if we have to cut trees.We have a generator so that if the power goes out we can still get water. We have covered the house in steel. When we’re out of town our neighbors send joyous photos of rain and clouds. The county works on publicizing fire bans. We live each year as if next year will be different. We hope next year the temperatures won’t be close to 100 degrees in the high mountains. We hope next year we’ll go back to the regular afternoon rains. We live in denial, holding our breaths. Even with the dryness, the great heat, our stress level is due more to our government than to the weather. But these fires, and the floods that are much worse post-fire, don’t just affect those in the burn area. Everyone’s insurance rates will go up.
Fire is also used by the timber industry as an excuse to log more, which in turn causes more greenhouse gases. Fires give them a reason to log wilderness, even though heavily logged areas and tree plantations often burn at higher severity than intact forests. Naturally, too, this government uses fire as an excuse to eliminate environmental review of logging projects. The usual profit before sanity.
When there is a fire, as with school shootings, everyone offers thoughts and prayers. Then we offer more guns to combat school shootings, more global warming to fight fires, more missile defense instead of fire defense. We increasingly defend ourselves against science, against knowledge, against reality. We don’t want to know the truth. It’s all too frightening. Meanwhile we are trapped in our own heat, the earth surrounded with a life-destroying blanket of our own creation.
We’re a country whose whole system runs on not just magical, but completely deranged thinking.
We watch Fahrenheit 451 on TV. It’s the right time for it, with everything burning, with a head of state who doesn’t read.
In emergencies people cope, make do, help each other. After the Four Mile Fire one friend told us about all his burned books, still lined up as they had been on their shelves, but now turned completely to ash, ghost books, hauntingly beautiful to him. Another friend whose surrounding property and shop buildings burned in that same fire lost his house the following year when it filled with mud. But like most, he rebuilt, studied ways to reroute water, and now even has a moat complete with drawbridge. Other friends made heroic escapes, running through the woods, scratched and singed, and yet others went to extreme measures to save their houses. We’re attached to place. We go on.
The first time I was evacuated I saw a huge plume of smoke from the window and Peter, who’d been evacuated before, talked his way up from town even though the road was already closed. We loaded his pickup with art and photos and clothes and computers. We could see flames on the nearby hills. It was hard to know what to take—the clothes one wears every day, or the special ones that are in some ways more valuable. The things we chose to save were almost random. For the first five days we slept on the floor of Peter’s son’s tiny apartment until his girlfriend got sick of us, and then we moved into the house of a friend away at a yoga workshop. We were joined there by my visiting friend, a stone-deaf Native American who’d been staying with another friend, a Holocaust survivor who’d been in both Auschwitz and Dachau as a boy, and whose house had just burned down. Then the yoga teacher’s stoned 13-year-old son turned up, decided we were harshing his mellow, and threw us out. Luckily just at that point the evacuation ended and we were allowed back to my house, which fortunately had survived. For us it was a funny story; for the people in the 168 houses that were destroyed, not so funny. The Holocaust survivor, of course, took losing his house in stride. “What is a burned house compared to a burned and gassed family?” he said afterwards.
Just one more loss, one more catastrophe.