Approaching the holidays, phantoms of fairy tales danced through my head in my dreams at night. Though sometimes those dreams turned to horror with the faces of Sonny Purdue and Ryan Zinke attached to crazy meth-addicted hillbilly caricatures, sort of like the characters of Squidbillies. And of course, they were just part of the zany Trump clown car teetering from one crisis to another, spilling blood, hydraulic fluid, and incompetent agency heads all the way down the hill behind the wreckage. I reflected back on the 2018 fire season, still ongoing back in California. Bodies are still being recovered on the devastating Camp Fire outside of Chico that vaporized the entire community of Paradise, along with a couple of smaller neighborhoods just outside Chico. In that context, I suppose when I sneaked into the California incident management team meeting in June, I should not have been surprised with how much the incident commanders were being instructed explicitly with how to deal with fatalities. I suppose you could say it was prophetic, but I would argue that it is simply part of the process of normalizing wildland firefighter fatalities.
Obviously, it’s a little harder to normalize mass civilian casualties, as it’s a bit newer experience, and there are fewer movies dramatizing the same horrors. Of course, Only the Brave leaves you feeling as if it is the duty of those kids to die saving someone’s mere possessions. That’s the mythos, the traditionally-held belief that allows for the heroic interpretation, and there are so very few individuals living up to heroic standards in these times. It’s no wonder firefighters are showered with praise, so long as they are suppressing the fires. In fact, while Only the Brave was the best movie to date that captures what the wildland firefighting job is really like, thanks to an all-star cast, I believe most of the public prefers the Howie Long version portrayed in Firestorm. I mean, who doesn’t want to see their firefighters riding a motorcycle standing up wielding a pulaski?
Back in July, I adjusted my Gonzo journalism badge, as I prepared myself outside the Oakhurst Incident Command Post (ICP) for the Ferguson Fire. The press corps was awaiting the arrival of Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke. I had just been in the bar down the road in Ahwhnee where they were feeling The Fear. The genetic memory of the 1961 Harlow Fire was etched into the old-timers’ memories. With record-breaking high temperatures ongoing and forecasted to continue, many residents expected the worst, especially after having buried one of their own, Braden Varney, a CalFire dozer operator killed in the initial hours of the fire.
When Secretary Zinke arrived at the Ferguson Fire ICP outside of Yosemite National Park, he was already pushing the “active management” dog whistle for unrestrained logging. With Zinke’s fellow appointee over at the EPA, Scott Pruitt, out as that agency head, one would think that Zinke, who arrived at his first day on the job on horseback, would be keeping his head down. Not so, with this crop of zealots. When he walked into the briefing room, he first spied the NOAA shirt worn by the Incident Meteorologist, shook his hand, and said “I’d really like to get the Department of Commerce into the Interior.” He made his way around the room and made similar comments to U.S. Forest Service representatives, believing that agency, as well, should be under his Department of Interior control. It just goes to show with this clown car wrecking crew that the only thing that matters is power, control and the further accumulation of wealth by the few. If it’s good for any of Trump’s zillionaire buddies, It’s OK by him and his administration.
Zinke proceeded to nearly fall asleep during the briefing. At least his sidekick, Rep. Tom McClintock, managed to stay awake. Neither were around at the end of July when the second fatality occurred on the Ferguson Fire, that of Arrowhead Hotshot Foreman, Brian Hughes. Holding a tenuous line on the lower slopes of Heness Ridge, the line was abandoned and lost during the investigation of Hughes’s death. This sent a flaming front toward Yosemite West, a community contiguous to the National Park out on a spur ridge. Not a great place for development, Yosemite West was spared due, in no small part, to the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the Park Service conducting fuel treatments, including prescribed burning and mechanical thinning of small-diameter understory fuels. At the conclusion of the briefing, Zinke, McClintock, and the rest of their entourage filed out of the tent with aspiring park public affairs officials looking good with their gig lines squared and clipboards of talking points and timelines. They were off to a brief official press appearance with the press corps in tow.
Like Pruitt, Zinke is barely holding on to his job under mounting ethics violations. However, also like at the EPA, there is a “no-name” Undersecretary waiting in the wings who may be even more ideologically driven to continue shredding decades of environmental protection in the name of profit. It’s great to have one of these outrageous incendiary old white guys at the helm. They take all the spotlight and arrows, but act like ablative armor, exploding but leaving the tank intact and grinding forward as public attention is drained away by the departure of the most outspoken jackass. I had met Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt on a fire in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in the 90’s. He was engaged and interested, but Zinke–not so much.
He complained that “radical environmentalists” would “rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods.”
A dispute over forestry management that cropped up following the devastating wildfires in California hasn’t been settled for good, [Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat] Roberts said. He added that the forestry title still might be jettisoned from the farm bill and passed as standalone legislation.“That’s still — I’m not saying it’s open — but it’s subject to more discussion,” Roberts said. “That would be the one that would be the outlier right now. I think everything else is sort of tied down.”
“As of Dec. 1, it appeared the environmental rollbacks weren’t in the final draft, but the farm bill is still expected to address wildfire prevention.”
“It begs the question: If your house is on fire, are you going to call the smallest, slowest fire truck?…It’s very hard to watch property burn and lives lost, and we can’t get in and help.”
“…its pressurized tank system atomizes the water when it’s released, rather than just dumping it like a bucket. It doesn’t break down tree limbs, it won’t crush cars or buildings, and a firefighter or a stranded resident who happens to be under a big dump of water from the aircraft will be fine. You’ll get wet, but he won’t be killed.“
Apparently the atomizing feature didn’t work so well. Of course, firefighters – both on the ground and in aerial supervision – were blamed. No questions asked about the rationale for using the VLAT or its efficacy – this is just more billionaires supporting billionaires, rewriting laws and policy to benefit the 1%. There are so many times in the wildland firefighting environment that fixed wind retardant cannot be used, like at night, in high winds or smoky conditions. Add to that the poor maneuverability of the 747 and it becomes clearer to see that it isn’t just “red tape” keeping the VLATs at arms distance, but genuine performance and safety concerns.
I was hoping the wildland fire arena would not be a place for the lunacy of the extreme conspiracy consumers, but that was not to be. As I “blazed” across the Northern California landscape, I was amazed at the degree to which many Americans engaging in discussion about the fires online were truly idiotic, with many comments just rude to incredibly insensitive, especially to the victims of home loss. I remembered back in 2000 during the Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico that burned many homes in Los Alamos. I had my PC and was vaguely aware of chatrooms and was amazed by rumors that somehow the National Park Service and Dept. of Energy were somehow in cahoots to burn up low-grade nuclear waste. It was absurd because knowing federal agencies, they are far too bound up in excessive bureaucracy and prone to leaks for any good secret to go untold.
As the further dumbing-down of our nation has proceeded, furthering our resemblance to an Idiocracy, even more and more whackadoodle notions are held by our fellow Americans as “fact.” With the California wildfires, there was plenty of flyover state vitriol, “Them libtards oughta round up all the illegals and make them fight fire.” But the crown jewel is the intersection of the QAnon conspiracy theory (Listen up, all you “patriots”) with the wildfires. It’s bad enough that this chap could drone on and on next to an oak tree, burning as they often do from the inside, and claim it was some convincing evidence of the use of Directed Energy Weapons (DEW if you’re an insider). It is odd to have an important issue like fires taken up by the truly twisted within the saga of the “insider” with Q clearance giving encouragement through cryptic gibberish to fellow “patriots.”
There’s also evidence that DEWs are becoming part of the cosmology of the QAnon crowd
There was a guy in our office that always said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Some have suggested the DEWs and subsequent fires are paving the way for California’s new high-speed rail line. The accused arsonist from this year’s Clark Fire was promoting these conspiracy theories. Think Pizzagate and Michael Flynn’s son here.
Clark texted a local firefighter in the days before the blaze began, allegedly threatening that the region would “burn just like we planned.”
This stuff just couldn’t get any worse, until it did.
I knew wildfire had hit the mainstream when I saw Trump humiliated during the monologue on multiple late-night comedy programs in one night. Oh yes, there is collusion going on, especially among the writers for political satirists – they’re the worst. But don’t worry patriots, media and those hateful late-night hosts are all enemies of the people. Stick to the plan… Oops, sorry, I was just channeling QAnon… I would go into the whole Finnish “raking of the understory” gaffe, but I don’t have to. It’s already part of the pop culture narrative, forever emblazoned. I would point out that the “from mouths of babes” factor applies to our leader, too, being obviously short on understanding of the specifics. He seemed almost to be trying to walk back his previous ignorance, in pointing out that the important work was “on the forest floor.” So true. Meaning that removal of relatively fire-resistant mature green trees (e.g. merchantable) and standing dead snags (aka “salvage logging”), especially that far from homes, don’t need expedited environmental review.
Alas, public interest quickly moved beyond rake jokes. No, seriously, it was like our president couldn’t shake the memory of some good blow and Stormy back in the hot tub as he was there in front of the cameras trying to be presidential. “Pleasure…Paradise…,whatever, all those stripper names run together after awhile.” It looked like Gov. Jerry Brown could have just about smacked him on the kisser. In accustomed style, Trump first offended all the firefighters and victims of the most deadly fire in California history…the most deadly in America, unless you go back to the early 20th Century…via tweet, no less. Stating it was lack of “active management” and threatening to withhold future funding, presumably for California’s Federal land management agencies, his reaction just didn’t instill the kind of compassion called for in the moment. Neither did he utter words to give strength or encourage those just lost everything, the kind you might hope for from the leader of the free world.
We have finally had our Black Saturday, where scores of fleeing civilians were trapped in their vehicles, burned alive either in their cars or out in the open where they flee when the traffic on narrow smoke-filled roads comes to a standstill. When that happened in Australia in 2009 it immediately reminded me of “The Highway of Death” twenty-seven years ago, when a large number of Iraqis attempted to flee from Kuwait back to Iraq. Coalition air power rained death on the road, crowded with vehicles. As effective as cluster munitions, the Camp Fire also caught folks on the only narrow road from Paradise down to Chico. Age played a factor here, as well. Of the 85 known dead, 46 have been identified. Of those 46 only three were under 50 years of age, most were in their 60’s and older. Many of these were almost certainly from cardiac arrest well ahead of the flames, but forensic experts trying to identify the remains note the difficulty of the job at hand.
Everything looks the same when it is destroyed by fire
So now in California, Australia, Greece, Portugul – throughout the Mediterranean regions having long hot, dry summers with fire-adapted vegetation – we have scores of civilians perishing by flames. Odd that we have no other words than “civilian” and “combatant” in these disaster zones. It just goes to show how deep the inadequate military metaphors penetrate in a militarized society like our own. In this case, the combatants are wildland firefighters, and we are killing them at a good clip, as well, as the risk increases. Who are the “combatants” in the hurricane debris field? Emergency First Responders writ large, I suppose. Even the utility workers get props on the makeshift billboards and homemade “thank you” placards that inevitably spring up, nowadays.
These citizens died fleeing as climate refugees. Let’s call them what they are. Of course, I understand that there are other factors, not least of which is lacking the cojones to conduct larger, more frequent prescribed fires. Apologies to the ladies, especially any female Burn Bosses, who might be offended. I use the word to drive home the point – We lacked the courage. Was it because there wasn’t enough associated glory and adoration associated with that hard work? Will we also lack the courage to do something to change our current drive toward climate catastrophe? At the recent G20 summit our leader says, “Get me outta here,” when he has to stand with other intelligent, powerful world leaders who are unified in their commitment to act. Our inaction, lack of leadership, and shedding of allies and trading partners is the mark of late-stage empire in decline. One observer said Trump’s behavior…
corresponds to the publicly arrogant and privately insecure temperament of a world-class narcissist.
I was in a funk. Fire season was over, perhaps. One never knows these days. I trudged down the cold, wet path to the mailbox. In it, I found the key to my despair. My next big job from FUSEE had come in the mail. I would be going to the British Isles on assignment to cover the international Climate Change and Consciousness Conference at the venerable Findhorn community in Scotland. FUSEE doesn’t plan to do nothing in the face of the climate chaos. They’ll be there representing wildland firefighters from all over the world along with artists, scientists, indigenous First Nations people, educators, EMS/Disaster specialists, and spiritual leaders. The conference will have a focus on the youth set to inherit this planet. Representatives from the landmark court case Juliana v. U.S.A. will be there, and there is a conference focus on youth from the Global South. What they all plan to do up in the foggy Scottish moors is a mystery. Perhaps they’ll sing, perhaps dance, but together they represent the unprecedented intersectionality of a crisis that threatens civilization, even more than a isolationist America. For sure, there will be awareness- and consciousness-raising and I’ll be there to help kick-start the process of adaptation. That’s just what we humans do. I’ll be there along with FUSEE bringing a blow-by-blow live blogging the event. In addition, I’ll travel around the damp early spring in both Ireland and Scotland bringing you the perspective of those facing their own populist upheaval. Hopefully, I won’t face bunkers and barbed wire on the Northern Ireland border, representing the crumbling global order. Maybe I’ll see you there or on the next fire, if not stay Gonzo!