We become the smoke we once fled

The Kincade Fires of Sonoma County have, at last, been vanquished. But their destructive taint remains on the land, in our hearts and within our storyscapes, never to be erased.

Yesterday, the anniversary of the Camp Fire (the deadliest and most destructive of California’s wildfires, so far) Paradise residents gathered for a memorial service unveiling a Phoenix sculpture created from their keys: to homes, garages, sheds, mailboxes, vehicles, that were incinerated.

And we are not yet out of fire season in California, because the rains have not come.

My tiny home has been evacuated twice: in 2017 for the Pilot Fire (part of the Tubbs Fire complex in Sonoma), in 2018 for the Mendocino Complex Fires.

If I’d returned to live where I used to live, where I’d like to live, I would have been evacuated again this year, for the third time in three years.

I am a scientist who has taught the sources and solutions to climate change for over two decades. I strive to live a zero-carbon footprint and a zero-waste lifestyle, because I am keenly aware of the impact of every consumptive choice I make, every day.

We have created this insane distortion. Yes, us. One out of every four carbon atoms in our atmosphere was emitted since the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuels, food waste, overdevelopment.

And even with all my knowledge and pro-active choices, I do not hold my head high. Instead, I weep.

Because, as a scientist, I am also aware of how unrealistic our climate change projections were: we underestimated how rapidly our polar ice and glaciers would melt, how quickly we would loose permafrost in the Arctic Circle, how acidic and overheated our oceans would become.

We knew, and predicted, devastating wildfires, floods, droughts, species loss. Yet we did not expect them to occur so drastically before 2020.

And we did not anticipate becoming climate refugees ourselves.

I am so damn sick of “being the change” that I do not see in this world. In protest, from the depths of my frustration and fury at those who profit from maintaining climate change ignorance and inaction, I write.

A sliver of text excerpted from one of my longer unpublished essays is contained in the Reader’s Notes of Ruminate magazine’s 53rd edition on Shelter. (How apt a title, especially for Californians, where the homelessness crisis dominates our news.)

The longer version of the essay begins with:

Until/while/after we evacuated, we endured no power, no phone lines, no WiFi, no Internet, no potable water, no showers, and, worst of all, no idea of what the *bleep* was going on, or where/why/for how long. We fled to the coast, where it snowed ash. We hauled our horses, alpacas, and emus to the corners of fairground lots and searched for pet-friendly accommodations.

I see this happening, in various guises, again and again and again.

During the Kincade Fires, hundreds of thousands evacuated and were left without electricity or cellphone service. In my co-working space in Pt. Richmond, we hosted a colleague from San Rafael so he could get work done. It is impossible to state how heartbreaking this drill has become.

Heartbreaking, because it is preventable. We know what we must do. We choose not to, because we prioritize fleeting desires and status-seeking trinkets.

In my essay I conclude with these words:

We survivors of firestorms, floods, hurricanes, droughts, rising seas, we are climate refugees. Some of us, like prototypical refugees, relocate to blue tarps. Others, like me, live in our vehicles, poised for take off, prepped for the inevitable. Our transience, our disconnectedness has reconfigured beloved certitudes into question marks: from solids into liquid tears into gas.

We become the smoke we once fled. We reek of what we once called home.

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