Karen Pickett is a member of the Board of Directors of Global Justice Ecology Project. She lives in the redwood country in the Bay Area of California and has been a grassroots activist for over 25 years, working on issues of forest and species preservation, recycling, native rights issues, alliance building between the labor and environmental movements, and activist civil rights.
She is founder and Director of the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters and is a co-founder of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment. She leads workshops and classes on movement building and grassroots organizing, and is the recipient of a number of awards for her work.
By Karen Pickett
GJEP Board Member and Bay Area resident
The North Bay fires in California are not surprising, but they are shocking.
I live in a fire ecology area. I was unable to germinate native bush poppy seeds until I put the seeds on a bed of pine needles and set it afire. These poppies grow near knobcone pines, whose cones do not release their seeds except in the extreme heat of fire. In the understory are manzanitas, whose burls will sprout after all aboveground branches and foliage are gone. I am a few miles south of the conflagration in Northern California, so have suffered mostly smoky air but not flames lapping at my house.
We (modern day humans) haven’t yet learned how to live with fire; how to stay out of the urban-wildlands interface and leave a buffer there—for fires and for wildlife. Nor have we learned how to keep our species’ numbers in balance with an ecology that provides habitat for untold numbers of other species being crowded out to the point of extinction, including mycorrhizal fungi, soil bacteria and other species we haven’t yet met that are vital to life on earth.
In the midst of this horrifying tragedy, we love the heartwarming stories of positivity, and they keep us going in rough times. Acts of human kindness arising from the disaster area—of brave first responders, and people risking life and limb to save a cat or dog. The spin can’t be all negative. It’s not our fault, is it?
There’s no lack of blame to spread around, but it gets tangled. PG&E (the power provider) has a poor maintenance record and has been found at fault before—notably for the deadly inferno resulting from the San Bruno gas line explosion south of San Francisco in 2010. But reports now are referencing power lines along with “weak trees.” Weak trees? The villainizing of trees sounds like the justification used for salvage logging after forestland fires. As well, it’s the weather. We know our Mediterranean climate gives us long dry summers, but 2017 was the hottest on record, as was 2016 before that, and 2015, and it goes on, somersaulting backwards. What does 2018 have in store?
And the victims? I wish the news would quit calling it “wine country.” The Napa Valley is full of wineries, yes, but grapes have replaced the native species, often oak forests, coyote bush and of course the native ecosystem’s denizen species. And of the people who populate the area, the majority are working class, including large numbers of immigrant farm workers who pick the grapes, significant numbers of them undocumented. Needless to say, they don’t have insurance policies that cover their homes, now smoldering ash next to melted cars.
When will we humans grasp that our dominance is not a privilege granted us from some higher power; our privilege is not license to build-build-build wherever and whatever we desire and use enormous amounts of electricity until it short circuits and sparks fly.
What do we do? We don’t see weak trees, climate chaos, and “empty space” in wildlands as barriers to progress as we try to wrestle Mother Nature to the ground. We are humbled, we take off our blinders and see our part in damaging the balance of nature, including climatic cycles and loss of species diversity on the planet. We are to blame and are victims at the same time. And there’s no equal protection or blame under that law.
Will new regulations regarding building materials, zoning restrictions and density save us here in the west? Afraid not. A sudden global awakening about the amount of carbon and methane we’re putting into the atmosphere, along with population reduction, along with respect for wild land, natural processes and other species might make a dent. Then again, evolution happens.
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