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As the World Burns

May 28, 2012

Two days ago my father was evacuated from the town of Mogollon NM due to a fire raging over 100,000 acres of the Gila Wilderness. It’s still touch-and-go on whether the town will survive – the fire is close but firefighters are doing everything they can to save it, including strapping sprinkler systems to buildings and hauling in water reserves.

They’re thinking of setting backfires on three sides of the town in an attempt to create firebreaks – literally fighting fire with fire. This is risky and much could go wrong; they could well burn down the town while trying to save it.

One family has refused to leave.

There is a school of thought which places blame for the severity of recent wildfires on firefighting policy itself. It goes like this: if lightning-caused fires were allowed to burn naturally, as they have for thousands of years, the forests would regulate themselves. But humans have begun putting out wildfires as quickly as possible, leading to a situation where there’s an overabundance of fuelwood in the forests. So when a fire gets past the incubatory stage, it often becomes larger than humans can keep under control.

Whether humans should have intervened in the first place is a philosophical question. How we deal with the results is a logistical one. Today I am very glad the fire crew is on site and willing to risk their lives to save a town with a population of 17 full-time residents.

For some reason it reminds me of a camping trip I took back in 1994 when a friend and I visited the Painted Desert of Arizona. The extremely friendly girl in the Ranger Station told us we could camp anywhere – as long as we were two miles away from the trailhead, and out of view. She asked if we had a boat, which added to the oddness. Then she warned us that the park closed at 7:30, so we had better make sure we wanted to stay by then; we’d be locked in until the morning.

We hiked into the desert and pitched our tent behind a suitable hill. As it was getting dark we climbed to the top of the hill. There was nothing to see but desert in every direction – except for one dim light on another hill, miles away: the Ranger Station. The gate to civilization. We were locked in.

The strangeness of these times seems to reach out and touch everyone. The country is divided along any number of ideological lines – but united by the concept of 99%. We can clone animals and genetically modify our food – but have no idea of the long-term effects. The world is being ravished by tsunamis, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, oil spills, and an occasional nuclear meltdown – but climate change is still a ‘theory.’ We’re so deeply immersed in information it’s impossible to believe it all. How do we tell what’s true?

Sometimes it takes a disaster. But sometimes that’s not enough. You can’t create #Occupy Nature signs and stage a sit-in when the world is burning. Well, maybe you can. Who’s forgotten Harry Randall Truman, who refused to leave his lodge on Mt. St. Helens? What more can we do to heal this world than stand up for our beliefs?

I wish I had more answers than questions, but I’m no guru. I’m just a normal guy who isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions. This week disaster has touched me through my father, and it’s enough. So I’m asking. Seventeen people are easy to house in an emergency – but what if it were seventeen million? What if the entire population of Southern California were forced to evacuate – where would they go? Would you take them in? Would you take anybody in, or only people who matched your ethnical and economic and ideological demographics?

Maybe that’s a petty question. I’d like to think humanity would show its brighter side under duress. But ultimately humanity isn’t humanity; it’s a collection of individuals who respond and react in individual ways. Some folks will open their doors while others will bar them. Some are already stockpiling weaponry against an SHTF event (google it) while others are creating intentional communities in the hope of working together before and after it.

And, of course, some folk refuse to think about it at all. As Vice President Raymond Becker said in the movie The Day After Tomorrow, “our economy is every bit as fragile as the environment. Perhaps you should keep that in mind before making sensationalist claims.”

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