Saturday, November 17, 2018

California Fire and Life

(apologies to Don Winslow)

Over the past twenty years or so, California's fire season has expanded from a late-summer nuisance to a nine-month volley of increasingly more catastrophic firestorms. Typically it rains enough between late November and mid-March to keep fire threats down, but our fire season now occupies nearly the entire period of time in between.

Last year saw parts of Santa Rosa, by far the largest city between the San Francisco-Sacramento I-80 corridor and the Oregon border, burned right to the ground. Hundreds of homes and buildings destroyed, thousands of people displaced. The fires disrupted the real estate market for a year, in about a hundred-mile radius, because of the sudden scarcities in an already scarce inventory.

This year has been non-stop all over the state, but especially burdensome in the relatively sparse population areas of Northern California, the region commonly known these days as the State of Jefferson. The Carr Fire engulfed the Redding area for weeks, causing destruction that will take years to recover from. And now the rather poorly-named Camp Fire (named because it originated near Camp Creek Road, not because it was a campfire that got away from the campers) has claimed the entire town of Paradise, and is heading down Highway 99 toward Oroville. Somehow Chico has been spared. Fire crews from all over the country have pitched to help, and the fire is finally getting contained. It's supposed to rain this coming week, which should help finish off the damned thing.

I can tell you firsthand that countless people in the surrounding area are doing things large and small to help the people displaced by this tragedy, whether it's donating pet food or bringing cases of water to the shelters. In a ludicrously political time, it is great to see all that bullshit set aside for once. People are in a horrible situation, and other people are stepping up to help them.

The fire started Thursday morning last week, a little before 7:00 AM. About an hour later, I was in my office, looking out the window, seeing what looked like a ginormous rain cloud covering the entire sky, black and angry. I went outside to get a better look, spoke with a friend who was out there already, who told me what was going on. The cloud persisted all day; we saw the sun maybe fifteen minutes total throughout the day, the air quality worsening by the hour. By Friday afternoon fine ash was coating the cars in the parking lot, looking like a film of light snow flurries, forty miles away from the fire.


Back in the Nineties, when I lived in Mendocino County, the logging industry was starting to leave the region, and with it were (of course) jobs. I made decent money playing clubs on weekends, but we had plenty of downtime during the week, and so we were always on the lookout for day jobs and side money. A friend of a friend tried to recruit me for a logging crew spotting trees and setting chains. Started at fifteen bucks an hour, which in 1993 was as much as a kid with a high-school diploma had a right to expect. It was a tempting offer.

I met a few members of the logging crew at one of the clubs we were playing, hung out and talked with them between sets. Good guys, they would be easy to work with. But I noticed that nearly all of them had stumps here and there, eight-and-a-half fingers, that sort of thing. Setting a chain on an eighty-foot pine sounds simple, but is an unforgiving job, one that will take a fingertip or two if you're not careful.

Or even if you are careful. We're talking about a roughly cylindrical object weighing a ton or so, resting on a sloped hillside. If it moves or rolls a foot while you're setting the chain and it snaps down, the force is enough to break whatever's under it. That's if you're lucky. These guys could drink, but none of them, as far as I could tell, were stupid or inattentive. Things happen regardless.


Paradise is (was) a beautiful town, situated above and past Chico on a high ridge, overlooking a gorgeous canyon. But it's not an affluent area, and the further back up the ridge you go, past Paradise and into Magalia and Concow and Stirling City (not really a city), the sparser and dodgier things get. You will see beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife, but also human dilapidation, abandoned houses and shops, maybe a pot farm or meth lab here or there. People do what they have to in order to get by. Getting ahead is not really on the menu of options.

But it's an area where locals in the valley go to get out of the valley for a day trip, so we all have some sort of connection to the town. My younger brother was born in Feather River Hospital, which was destroyed. Practically everyone has friends or relatives there. The damage is personal to everyone, to some degree.

Insurance companies will come through, and the town will rebuild eventually. But obviously that takes time, and we are heading into the holiday season and winter. Many of the displaced people will not have the resources to stick around until that happens; they will have to pull up stakes and find greener pastures, new jobs, etc. Chico will probably out of the price range of many of them, so they will have to go further and further away.

This doesn't even touch on the human cost, dozens dead so far, over one thousand missing, beloved pets and family heirlooms lost, the stress and anguish that comes with losing everything you've spent your life building in a matter of minutes, to random circumstances.


Several months after the job offer for the logging crew (which I politely turned down, of course), we had a two-week gig up in Coos Bay, Oregon, several hours drive up Highway 101. The drive is scenic and the highway is safe and well-maintained, and goes through old lumber company towns such as Scotia. Imagine:  scarcely a hundred years ago families and communities lived and worked in these towns where everything, all the stores and services and housing, was owned by the one company. People were paid in company scrip, which could only be used at the company businesses in the company town.

This is how the West was won:  not by Gary Cooper gunslingers setting the bad guys straight outside the saloon in some jerkwater desert town, but by the 19th and 20th century tycoons -- Rockefeller, Hearst, Vanderbilt, men who built fortunes in railroads and mines and oil, using other men to extract those resources, and still other men to force the workers to do the tycoons' bidding. Anywhere west of the Rockies where you see an old mining or logging town, you see a place built on indentured servitude and economic chicanery and violence. Balzac was not exaggerating when he postulated that behind every great fortune was a great crime, or countless smaller crimes.

Explaining the concepts of scrip and company towns to most modern Americans of any age is about like explaining rotary-dial phones and black-and-white television to a millennial. They find it hard to believe, and yet you know goddamned well that right now Jeff Bezos is trying to figure out a way to bring those ideas back, if in a more culturally palatable way. He wouldn't need Pinkertons to enforce anything or prevent unionization or whatever. Plenty of people will volunteer and support such an arrangement. People like to pontificate about trading liberty for security, but most people have always done that to some degree. We've been heading full-tilt into an era where workers either have a college degree or they don't, and their career paths will be set for them accordingly.

Anyway, heading up 101 through these old logging towns, with then-current (but again, starting to wane) logging companies still in operation in Humboldt and adjacent counties, you would occasionally see a clear-cut range of hills, looking like nothing more than a bald man with a fresh set of hair plugs. This was during the rainy season, and you could already see where some of the terrain surrounding these groves of stumps was beginning to erode. But the families of the men who cut these trees would drive past these same areas, and see their house payment or their car. Even though they were a couple generations removed from being paid in company scrip, these were still the best jobs in these areas.


People in this region sneer at ideas and phrases such as biodiversity and environmental health, but that doesn't render those ideas untrue. What you see these days with West Virginia coal miners and their dying industry is essentially what happened here in the 1990s, and while many of the displaced loggers have died since or had to move on, the bitterness remains. People in those industries made good money for the area, and had nothing to fall back on when the industry moved on.

There is a sentiment, right or wrong, that the environmentalists went overboard, and that trees, like deer, need to be culled every now and then as part of nature's cycle of renewal, to prevent crowding and disease and overabundance. There is some truth to this, even if no one has really proposed much in the way of solutions. Simply reinstating previous logging standards might help short-term, but there is an environmental impact if it isn't managed well. Free-market orthodoxy can't accept the idea that companies will push as far as they can, and leave someone else to clean up the mess and absorb the health side effects. The hazards from coal ash back in WV are a naturally foreseeable consequence of that. Balance is essential, but no one does "balance" anymore.

And so when these fires, ever larger and more destructive, spring up in this region, there is a reflexive assumption that at the very least, the fire was made more destructive by the lack of management -- that is, thinning of vegetation -- in the afflicted area. As you might imagine, this oversimplified assertion gains traction in the epistemic outhouse of conservatard opinion-mongering, and so has reached the comically orange ears of the doddering mutant that pollutes the White House.

Last weekend it was in France to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the armistice of the Great War (the greatest war, believe me), and so, since reading is out of the question, having nothing at all to do on the flight over but twiddle and tweet its tiny, tiny thumbs, it decreed that California's forest mismanagement was entirely to blame for the catastrophic scale of these wildfires. Of course, like everything it believes, that is some industrial-grade bullshit, not that that means anything anymore. Perhaps a map showing, for one, how much of the forest land in California is actually under federal purview, might be helpful, but probably not.

(And of course, it opted to skip both the centennial commemoration in France and the usual annual ceremony at Arlington, a mere two-and-a-half miles as the golf cart flies, preferring instead to sulk and shitpost about how unfair everything and everyone are, so unfair. Tell me again, o conservatard thought leaders, how much it appreciates the sacred troops. You can fool yourselves, but we all see what the deal really is, and there ain't no fuckin' art to it.)

But the threat to withhold funds is worth considering, provided we here in the Golden State can take that to its logical conclusion. Every state has its good points and bad points, and California is no exception. But other states don't have one in eight Americans residing in them; other states aren't the fifth-largest economy on the planet. For every dollar we send to the federal gubmint, we get about eighty cents back.

So tell ya what, fatboy -- you can keep the federal forest funds that you think are going to waste (narrator:  they aren't), and we'll recoup that twenty cents on the dollar we've been losing so that dipshit southern taker states can continue fucking their cousins. How's that sound?

In the meantime, an entire town is destroyed, seven thousand homes burned to the ground, and all the inhabitants scattered to the winds, driving through filthy air to find a hotel room and figure out how to rebuild their lives. As mentioned, people of all political persuasions have set aside their differences and pulled together to help each other. The last thing anyone needs is that mendacious cocksucker bloviating about something he knows nothing about.


Last Monday morning, while it sulked in its room shitposting its betters (which includes just about anyone), neglecting its basic job duties, I was preparing my lunch for the coming work week, roasting some chicken thighs and cooking a quinoa-brown rice mix. I was shredding the chicken and waiting for the grain to cool down to measure out everything in plastic containers, when my wife frantically ducked her head into the kitchen to tell me she just saw a couple of trucks from the fire department run the stop sign and head around the corner and up the road.

Although we can literally see Interstate 5 from our backyard, we are in a decidedly rural area. There are a couple of housing subdivisions nearby, but most of the other properties in this area are at least two or three acres in size. The roads are one-and-a-half lanes wide and poorly maintained, beat to hell because truckers use them as a turnaround to get back to the freeway.

There are only four or five towns in the county, mostly unincorporated, and everything outside the towns is under the jurisdiction of the county, which is underfunded in the best of economic times, and uninterested regardless in poking its nose into people's business when it comes to maintaining their properties. It is not unusual to see home add-ons and garages converted to living areas, without permits. More problematic is that many of the lots are not mowed or maintained, and so are overgrown with dried grass and vegetation.

After my wife's alert, we all went into fire drill mode, and had the valuables and papers out on the living room floor, ready to load into the vehicle for a hasty escape, in about four minutes. I could see the plume of smoke nearby, close enough to walk, but not right in our yard (yet). "Hang on a minute," I said. "Let me walk down there and get eyes on this. I'll be right back."

About five hundred yards up the road was the home in question -- or, more precisely, the dry, unmowed field surrounding the house. The volunteer fire department is excellent here, and they already had the fire out, with just the field burned down, and the fence bordering the property next door singed in parts. Apparently two workers were working on the fence with a radial grinder which, as anyone who's used one knows, throw rooster-tails of sparks up to twenty feet. To do something like that under the current circumstances, with a catastrophic fire barely a half-hour away, and humidity under ten percent for most of the past month, is criminally stupid. It begs for the return of the days of vigilante justice.

But the main thing was that the fire was out, and we were safe for now. Walking back, I noted the three properties on my side of the road, between my house and the burned field. All three had overgrown dry fields, and the one nearest my house has a row of about fifty eucalyptus trees, which proliferate around here and go up like Roman candles when ablaze.

We were safe. For now. The feeling that someday, next week, next year, our luck would run out, is inescapable. The summers are longer and hotter and drier every year, and the valley is subject to sporadic bursts of high, warm winds (hence the eucalyptus tree groves, planted as windbreaks). This is not the first or the worst fire scare we've had out here, just in the past ten years. We've been lucky, and every day lately has been a constant reminder of how catastrophically unlucky it get can get.


Global warming is a real thing, folks. People can dick around with debating the degree to which it is caused or affected by human activity, but the bottom line is that it's happening. Just as Florida is going to be largely underwater by the end of the century, so too will some parts of California continue to worsen. The Central Valley is one of those parts. Between the fire-polluted air and the increasingly hot weather, it was just about impossible to go outside for any length of time this past summer. On the weekends, we'd get our shopping and eating breakfast out done early, try to get back home before noon, before the heat takes over and the "smaze" (smog/haze) sets in, before the sky turns orange and you feel your sinuses pulsating from the particulates taking up residence.

As I've mentioned many times before, our incredible adaptability as a species is both a blessing and a curse. Humans can figure out ways to survive just about anything -- deprivation, war, famine, economic collapse, murder, genocide, macro-climatic patterns. But mere survival is not the same as living. The cost of not changing is greater than the cost of changing, which ordinarily would result in a massive number of people recognizing things for what they are, and acting accordingly.

We have collectively chosen not to act accordingly. It would be simple to place the blame squarely on the padded shoulders of Preznit Tide Pod Challenge, whose hair-helmet and raccoon-eyed spray-tan render him most like, let's say, a weasel trying to fuck a pumpkin. That sounds about right. Certainly his idiot jabber on the subject hasn't helped matters.

It's in Paradise right now, in fact, so of course the local media monkeys are all over it like a fresh turd in the middle of the room. I caught a minute of it, as the entourage touched down at Chico Airport and the motorcade headed out through the industrial park that surrounds the airstrip. Several hundred supporters thronged the blocks as a line of black Suburbans with blackout windows passed through, impossible to tell which one was the one. No matter, as cultists draw sustenance and nourishment just from mere proximity.

One brain surgeon carried a flagpole with two flags, the flag of the United States of America, and a custom-made Clownstick maga-flag, basically the standard bumper-sticker tee-shirt design you've seen since the start of this mess. Go ahead and guess which flag was on top.

But again, Clownstick is the symptom, not the disease. The Koch Brothers, and all their unapologetic pollutant cronies, are the disease. Old, greedy bastards who don't give a fuck about anything but their precious money, and won't be around much linger anyway, are the problem. They would rather spend their pelf propping up "think tanks" and propaganda outlets that promote their sick view of the world, than spend the same or less to switch over to renewable, non-polluting energy. (Yes, even nuclear.)

I quit drinking some time ago; being on the back nine of life means that the fun of knocking back a few is mitigated quite a bit by how your body feels in the morning. Diminishing returns and all. No big event or problem or anything, it just stopped being fun. A beer or a glass of wine here and there, that's about it anymore.

I'll tell you this right now, though -- when the day comes that the Koch Brothers finally depart this vale of tears, I will smile and laugh and probably pump a fist in exuberance. Sheldon Adelson, same thing. There are a few others that fall into that category. I don't typically celebrate the deaths of others, but for those fuckers, exceptions will be made. These people have ruined the country, there's no other way to put it. All for a few more tax cuts, even though they pocket millions of dollars every goddamned day.

But it's King Shit of Turd Hill, when that fat fuck finally bites it, probably sitting on his mattress in a mayonnaise-stained robe, surrounded by old-man pee-dribble stains and half-furled cheeseburger wrappers, I will be celebrating hard. I'm thinking a Costco handle of Ketel One, a case of Sierra Nevada Torpedo Ale, and a four-day weekend. It's not just the sheer disregard for empirical data, it's the complete lack of common decency, it's the inability to refrain from being an asshole for just one day.

We'll rebuild and move forward, slowly but surely. People are more resilient than they know sometimes, as long as they keep persisting. That can feel impossible when you lose everything in an instant -- or even when you see it taken away from you, gradually, inexorably. But it's also those times when we're reminded of what's actually important.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. A thoughtful & enjoyable post.