Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

Andrew Adams, with art by Sarah Allen

In early June I was on a plane flying west from Boston to LA to visit a friend I had not seen in over a year, only to face on arrival the same sullen weather that had sedated New England for the past six months. After a day or two the air warmed and the fog began to burn off, although the lingering overcast was still enough to obscure the sun and pull me back into a vitamin-D deficient sense of despair.   

In a city as sprawling, car-obsessed and prone to natural disasters as Los Angeles, I assumed that this thick gray matter was nothing more than a mixture of car exhaust and the smoldering remnants of some nearby fire. Imagine my surprise when I learned that this early-summer phenomenon was completely normal, expected and even welcomed by the ordinarily sun-drenched denizens of Southern California.  

My run in with “June Gloom” was not the result of a wildfire pouring down the hills and canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains, but of a seasonal combination of strong westerly winds and cool ocean temperatures blowing a thick cloud of condensation inland from the Pacific.  

As I drove up the coast towards Santa Cruz, I left behind the clouds and the smog and was finally greeted by the brilliance of the California sun. Later that week, as I boarded my flight back to what was already shaping up to be a dreary summer in the Northeast, I wished the weather on the West Coast would follow me home. 

Waking up later that month to fire-red skies over Massachusetts – over 3,000 miles away – was not exactly what I had in mind.   

Throughout much of this past summer, as several massive wildfires burned simultaneously throughout the West Coast of the United States and Canada, toxic air was carried thousands of miles across continental North America. In Boston and New York, the smoke blocked the sun and sent AQI levels above 150, (well over the recommended exposure levels as set by the World Health Organization), in what is rapidly becoming a recurring trend as climate change exacerbates existing weather patterns and refuses to locally confine the effects of far-away disasters.  

While California is naturally drought-stricken and fire-prone, the climate crisis has left the state drier for longer periods of time and ensured that wildfires have more fuel to burn quicker and spread faster. Therefore, the effects of fire can spread far beyond the borders of the Golden State.   

Eastern North America blanketed in smoke was not the only example of extreme weather patterns subjecting people to new and unstable climate realities. In the past year alone, I am reminded of record-breaking winter storms which devastated the Texas power grid in February, a deadly heatwave which settled over the normally temperate Pacific Northwest for much of June and July, and rainfall–recorded for the first time ever this past month–over Greenland’s ice sheet.  

In short, the climate crisis is not only making our weather worse, but subjecting us to new weather events rarely–if ever–faced in our individual locales.  

When confronted with the extremes posed by globalized weather patterns, it is easy to imagine that large-scale, global approaches to tackling the climate crisis can be uniformly implemented. Given that we know most carbon emissions are produced by a few corporations (both private and state-owned), and that capitalist overextraction of resources by corporations is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, governments and corporations must indeed be held to account for their failures. At the same time, a strategy of localizing control over land management and returning stewardship rights to the indigenous communities provides a blueprint for a more sustainable way forward.  

In California, this might just mean letting the state go up in flames.  

For centuries, California’s indigenous peoples conducted routine ceremonial burns in order to clear the dry underbrush that would otherwise accumulate and feed uncontrollable wildfires. In the process, old growth woodlands were spared, and new plant growth encouraged.  

However, the colonization of modern-day California and the forced removal and criminalization of indigenous peoples and practices reduced ceremonial burnings to a crime akin to arson. The 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians formally banned the practice, and the federal government’s approach to fire management became one of vigorous suppression.  

Recently, the practice is gaining renewed acceptance in California, with groups such as the Indigenous People’s Burn Network (a coalition of Karuk, Hupa, and Yurok people) working to reassert their right to practice ceremonial burns as a means of safeguarding cultural practices and protecting the land from the effects of climate change.  

While bureaucratic red tape and a culture of fear surrounding fires in the Western U.S. has prevented widespread implementation of controlled or ceremonial burns, the U.S. Forest Service has begun forging partnerships with tribal leaders to promote the practice. This represents a step forward, but indigenous leaders are not looking for permission from a distant federal government to do what they have known to be effective for centuries. “The goal”, according to Margo Robbins, president of the Cultural Fire Management Council “…is to get back to the traditional burning, where the average person can go out and burn their gathering spot or burn around their home to keep their home safe”. 

To save California from its ever-worsening wildfire seasons, we may have to get comfortable burning it down.

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