Reflections as California Burns
California is on fire. My home, the place I cherish more than any other, is smothered in toxic smoke while flames canvass the plains and hills and mountains. Santa Rosa is home to over a hundred thousand people and is half leveled. Glen Ellen, a small town to the east where I would walk and wonder in the forests is incinerated. A friend sat in her doctor’s office in Los Angeles and looked out the window to see a fire start in the distance. My parents can smell and see the smoke from the Willits fire as it burns in on the other side of a mountain range.
What follows confronts these facts but takes into account the broader situation and speaks to this seemingly distant world that cannot be ignored. Puerto Rico is largely without water. Houston is largely underwater. The gongs of war beat across the globe and we know, as all know at some point in time, that the wars to come will deafen the wars that have passed. Some wars have not passed but have been hidden and renamed. I think of Charlottesville and Ferguson. I think of Standing Rock and Alcatraz. Is it ironic that these fires started on so-called Columbus Day, a day that would be ironic if it wasn’t so disgusting and shameful?
Our world is complicated and terrifying. As a thirty-one year-old, I did not make this world but am forced to confront it. The lot of my generation appears to be two-fold: to be the last born without computers as well as the first born without a future. We have crossed a threshold and I can see this though they burn, my eyes do, because smoke obscures the sun.
This is the new normal
Fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, drought, famine, and war: this is our world and our life. This is now normal. To be fair, much of this is known and ongoing for many people, but it is finally touching those who thought themselves insulated from crisis. No longer. Crisis is constant.
Historically, safety and security are ideals of civilization and largely illusions. Temporary at best, we sacrificed so much for these ideals and legislated them as god-given gifts when they are nothing other than wishful thinking premised on the brutality and oppression of others. Throughout civilized history, in order for one person to feel safe and secure they had to kill or brutalize another. The latter act was ignored and repressed while the former desire was glorified as universal. The current world changes all this as it denies even the thought of safety and security.
We must accept this as fact. We cannot stop the melting permafrost, nor the rising seas, nor the increasing heat. We cannot stop the movement of millions if not billions of people that will have to evacuate their lands in the next hundred years. This does not mean we must be fatalistic and retreat, but it does demand honesty and courage. Honesty demands courage in and of itself. We must say to ourselves and to our people: what is done cannot be undone. What, then, can we do?
People, not things
Notice how those who flee the fires are called evacuees but those who flee conflict in the global south are called migrants, illegals, and aliens? All are people and no person is alien. I know at least ten people who lost their homes and possessions in the fire yesterday. Through friends of friends, I know around fifty. When the fires broke out in the early morning and expanded through the dark, firefighters and emergency officials had to prioritize evacuation over preservation. Get everyone to safety, then worry about the houses and things. This is a simple decision and one that we all can agree with: I would want someone to save me and my loved ones before my stuff. Yet this simple decision is not followed through to everyday life. We spend inordinate amounts of time collecting things and fretting over newer versions of things while people languish and suffer. We say to ourselves “someone will help them” or believe that institutions and governments are mandated to do so, when these very structures are operated by people who are largely concerned with themselves and their things. Monies are things. Machines are things.
But we are more like trees than like machines. Tress bear the scars of history and bend in the wind, shaping their growing to the world that confronts them. In essence, tress are nothing other than life reaching. Machines are dead, though they be infused with the energy of life. I can take a machine with me but I cannot take a tree. I can use a machine but cannot use a tree, not really. Why do we populate our world with machines at the expense of trees? This is not meant to be a hippy environmentalist bong rip but a serious question. The answer is that we are afraid and ashamed of ourselves, and so we do not want things that remind us of ourselves. We want fantasy and escape.
Yet, following up on the previous section, we cannot escape this world. Likewise, machines will not save us from this crisis. Elon Musk will not save Puerto Rico with his proposal, instead he will aid in the privatization of a public good. Body cameras and non-lethal weapons will not save us from police brutality, instead they complicate and conceal a rotten edifice. The reason machines cannot save us is that they cannot will. By will I don’t mean a document but rather the ability of people to make decisions and have integrity. Things cannot will, but people can. And when people will and will strongly, we become ourselves—we have power. It is not things that saved my friends in Santa Rosa but people. To be sure, things helped, but people would have done so with or without them. Things cannot hold me, cannot console me when I am panicked or sorrowful, cannot make me feel loved.
Panic is inseparable from fear. In fact, panic is a form of fear defined as sudden and overwhelming, with or without cause, that produces hysterical or irrational behavior. The etymological root traces back to ancient Greek and panikon, literally “referring to Pan.” For ancient Greeks, Pan was the god of the shepherds and flocks, forests and dells, the half-man half-goat often portrayed with a flute. His power over woodland creatures allowed him to create terror with a simple shout and the creatures would stampede. Interestingly, he was also the god of impromptus, a free form composition inspired by the spirit of the moment; this piece is somewhat of a literary impromptu.
Panic comes at a person many ways. For me it came when we crossed over the crest of the ridge and I saw a familiar view. Only this morning, in the cold dark of night when I would normally be sleeping, I looked out at a hellscape. Other than the steady stream of headlights fleeing the scene, the only light was that of fire. In a glowing patchwork it blanketed the eastern hills. I felt the panic in me then. My response was to rationalize it, to concentrate on the route we were taking to get into Santa Rosa. When all the roads were blocked and it became clear that we were not going to get in, I wondered what would happen if the fire came to this place I was standing. The intersection was being managed by a police officer, with a line of cars stretching back to the burning hillsides. I noticed how orderly people were behaving, how only a few acted brashly but most followed the guidance of the authority figure and the traffic flowed relatively smoothly. If the fire were closer, we would morph into a herd in the forest; hearing Pan’s cry we would all accelerate at top speed away from the threat. Many would fall and be trampled. In times of crisis, everything depends upon that thin line between managed emotions and panic.
This thin line cannot be underestimated, but it can be used and manipulated. Disaster capitalism manipulates panic for profit. It takes people’s fears and provides them with things they need to survive, but at an inflated cost as high as the panicked person will bear. Lines for gas stations in my area (many evacuees were sent west from Santa Rosa) stretched fifteen to twenty cars deep. Hotel room rates soared in a matter of hours. I recalled the scenes from Katrina and Harvey. The master plays a dangerous game when he tries to milk the subjugated for everything while also pacifying them in the face of their own slavery. This has always been his game but it becomes clearest when the times are most dire.
If this is the new normal, if we must confront panic and will ourselves through, then we must help ourselves by preparing. We must have a series of plans at all times. What follows is an impromptu sketch of what it might look like, from small to large.
Who will I need to contact in the case of an emergency, disaster, or situation where I must evacuate my home? These numbers should be on a list, preferably laminated, and in an easily accessible place. They should also be logically organized, so if the power goes out in the middle of moving down the list the most important numbers are accessed first. Below the contact numbers should be a series of safe destinations radiating outward from home in accordance with time/gas needed to get there. These people should know that they are a safe place for me and if I am a safe place for others I should be prepared to house them as well. I should have at least two route options in different directions. It is clear that these options may not be available; for example, a fire may have closed a highway that was needed for one option and the other option may be clogged with traffic. But having them means I know where I have to go and can negotiate the conditions as necessary.
As to the things I need:
On person: I have on my person at all times: a knife, watch, handkerchief, wallet with cash, phone, and keys with small, thin multitool.
Backpack: My backpack should have a trauma kit, larger multitool, water bottle (with water!), pen and paper, laptop, and related supplies (flash drive, phone charger, power cord). I have asthma so I also carry an inhaler and this can be extended to any medical condition—carry your emergency meds. Obviously I carry other things in my backpack, but these are necessities to have at all times.
In car: My car should contain a bug-out bag, go-bag, or whatever you want to call a bag that has enough medical and emergency supplies to last seventy-two hours. This bag does not contain my personal items but simple life-saving equipment. If I have a partner, the bag should be able to sustain two people for said time; if I have children, three people and so forth. My car should always have at least a quarter tank of gas, if not a half tank.
In house: My house should have a duffel bag ready to be loaded with personal supplies. Personal supplies mean extra toiletries, clothes, towels, a select group of meaningful objects, and important information items (passport, etc). These personal supplies should be on a list and this list should be in a designated place, preferably next to the above-mentioned contacts. If an emergency situation unfolds or an evacuation notice is issued, I should be able to consult this list and assemble everything in under five minutes. I should then secure my home by closing all windows and blinds, turning off water and gas, and locking up. The whole process should take less than ten minutes.
Now, assuming my car is at home I know I have my backpack, go-bag, and duffel with all my stuff. I know my house is secure. I know where I am going and how I am going to get there, and I know that the important people in my life know what I’m doing and where I’ll be. In short, I can evacuate without panic.
To be fair and in complete disclosure, I have in no way, shape, or form, done all these things. In fact, writing this down is probably a form of coping with the total disaster that is striking my friends and family. This said, I think it’s on point and I intend to follow through on it as soon as possible. As it stands now, I need to conserve my car’s fuel and the air outside is too toxic for me to do anything strenuous without endangering my already fragile lungs, so I have to shelter in place. I am fortunate enough to have electricity and water. I am fortunate enough to have a home and my loved ones.
Perhaps the goal for us as a people should be to construct a society in which fortune is not the deciding factor in our livelihoods.