One Way Out
Life or Death
Don’t Stop Running
Safety is Around the Next Bend
– Brian Tagavak, Navajo Scout Crewmember, On escaping the Dude Fire (1990)
Christmas turkey in Australia this year was served smoked, if not charred. In the final days of 2019 the increasingly familiar eerie visions of a day sky turned to night with embers flying in all directions were dished up on the people of New South Wales and Victoria, Australia. Sirens sounded out and residents were told to flee to the water…to the beaches. Many huddled together in small groups out in the sand, others staged a Dunkirk-style apocalyptic retreat under red skies onto the water in boats.
Even now, thousands who were trapped on the beaches or otherwise cut off are being evacuated by military ships and helicopters. They were lucky. There was a wide beach with sand. Last July, over a hundred were killed when a wildfire tore through a Greek seaside community east of Athens. Twenty-six, many children, died huddled together just meters from the ocean, cut off from the ocean by cliffs. Others dove from the sea cliffs, only to be lost at sea. Then, of course, in the interim, between these two episodes of running for one’s life to the sea, we had the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. There, with no ocean for respite, 150 survivors had to ride it out in a parking lot, surrounded by burning cars and homes. They fared better there than the 86 that perished. As in California, the way things are going in Australia, the final death toll will not be known for well into the winter months, when the grim business of the cadaver dogs is finally done.
We are running away from the flames, just as we are running away from solutions to the climate crisis. Vested interests are actively working to make it seem too big and too overwhelming for the average citizen, when it is you and I, our children and future generations who will be most impacted.
You have to ask: Has there ever been a fire event of 1.65 million hectares that’s burnt a large area of what is generally considered fire-proof vegetation, and also occurred simultaneously with fires in other regions of Australia and California? What is happening is extraordinary. It would be difficult to say there wasn’t a climate change dimension. We couldn’t have imagined the scale of the current event before it happened. We would have been told it was hyperbole.
In the midst of an unprecedented drought and fire crisis in Australia, the climate denialist PM, Scott Morrison, took his family to Hawaii for a nice vacation. This is the plan BTW for those blessed with material wealth. Their intent is to simply move themselves and their loved ones out of harms way.
To hell with the billions lacking that ability. Morrison apologized after his office originally denied that he was in Hawaii, but his Katrina moment with destiny had already come and gone. Meanwhile in the U.S.A. our own Denier-in-Chief had a nice time with his family at Mar-a-Lago to the tune of an estimated $3.4 million in cost to American taxpayers. Judging by his tweets he was more concerned about the impeachment proceedings than climate chaos. The disappointment of COP25 with the obvious foot-dragging by wealthy nations makes it clear that, for some, the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in the developing world is a small cost to pay for retaining lifestyle and privilege over the short term.
“World leaders have a clear choice: stand by the blockers of progress such as the United States and Brazil that prioritize the profits of the fossil fuel polluters and big agribusiness over the well-being of their citizens, or listen to the voices of their people; the scientific community; and youth, indigenous, labor, business, environmental, social justice, faith and other leaders working hard to create a better world for current and future generations,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s time to choose.”
It’s not a matter of too much fire, a sentiment that threatens to supercharge the already destructive “war on fire” mentality that is so pervasive in our American culture that is always seeking an enemy to be fought. It is fire seasons that are longer and hotter, fuels that are drier, and fires burning where they never belonged, like in the Arctic and slash-and-burn operations around the tropics, especially in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, where a national leader is spurring the fires on through his words of encouragement to farmers, loggers and ranchers, all seeking access to the fertile soil beneath the rainforest canopy, at the expense of the indigenous people there. The indigenous, who have been on these flammable landscapes for thousands of years more than the colonialists that replaced them, have offered us solutions, but they are rarely heeded, as they usually involve burning more and excluding fire less. Even Bloomberg News, not normally known for its environmental reporting picked up this piece on the traditional practice of burning at night by the indigenous people of Australia. During my tenure as a land manager, when we proposed burning at night under more favorable conditions, I would hear either a) it’s too expensive to pay overtime, or b) the smoke will go downslope impacting communities.
So, we have run out onto the landing, exiting Walkmore Canyon with the Dude Fire nipping on our heels. The Navajo Scouts dropped their tools and their hardhats flew off their heads, as they ran for their lives. At that moment the Perryville prison crew was deploying their shelters behind them, still in the canyon. Six would perish. This time, however, the Alpine Hotshot Crew (my old crew) buggies are not there to complete our escape. There is no other planet to which we can flee. We must turn and face the threat head on. As it turns out, it’s not flame impingement and superheated gases that threaten us, so we can forget about sheltering up. It’s plain, homegrown human greed. It is the fossil fuel industry, and it is the many Americans that cannot imagine a more fair and just system than the mere accumulation of capital. It is really just a handful of people, like the 10% that own half of all publicly traded firms on the stock market. We have the numbers, and as Greta says, change is coming, whether you like it or not. That change starts with understanding humanity to be a part of nature, rather than apart from it. “It is the dark histories of race, subjugation and violent appropriation that must be reconciled before we can begin the work of repairing the planet.” This is why we have a climate justice movement, rather than just a climate, or just an environmental movement. We just have to stop running and turn together as one. Our fire of passion to preserve human and animal dignity and diversity, founded in love and laughter, will surely be the backburn, set in the nick of time, that meets and extinguishes the fires of greed, fear and hatred.