The Killing Heat (Part 4)

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Photo courtesy of the National Institute of Mental Health.Photo courtesy of the National Institute of Mental Health.

A recent article from Smithsonian entitled “Are Your Political Beliefs Hardwired?” shared the findings of a recent study at the University of South Carolina, which concluded that the brains of self-identified Democrats and Republicans are wired in different ways. Basically,

the scientists found more neural activity in areas of the brain believed to be linked with broad social connectedness in Democrats (friends, the world at-large) and more activity in areas linked with tight social connectedness in the Republicans (family, country).

Reading this, I was reminded of something I witnessed in Prescott, a largely conservative town that is, nevertheless, home to some genuine pockets of far-left resistance. One such pocket was an activist center known as The Catalyst (portrayed in my novel, Hot Season, as The Black Cat).

Among the many causes The Catalyst supported was the fight for Tibetan independence. One night, some kids from the local high school–girls, judging by the handwriting–took it upon themselves to leave a letter at The Catalyst, as a means of “talking back” to the town’s liberals.

This critique was a poem, the most memorable line of which went something like, “While liberals chant ‘Free Tibet!’ / in the streets are US vets.”

Much of this poem was no more than patriotic cliches, the sort of thing you might find in a pop country song. But that line about Tibet stayed with me, I think because it took me a long time to understand it. Was it really an either/or proposition? Couldn’t I care about both Tibet and the fate of the US veteran?

As the clock ticks on climate change, there has been much talk about what it will take for those within the rigid, conservative bubble of climate denial to accept the facts: the world is warming, the climate is changing, and the results will be catastrophic if we don’t take action now.

I understand where the woman screaming at me on Twitter was coming from. But I’m not sure that my empathizing with her–in in person or in public–would do much to change her position on global warming.

I understand where this patriotic teenager was coming from, but taking care of our own veterans is surely not enough–when our country’s main means of engaging with issues in the world at large is to send our young people off to war.

They say that the sea-change around attitudes toward LGBT individuals occurred in such a short amount of time because so many gay people came out. When the gay rights was no longer an abstract issue, but a personal one, even many very conservative people shifted their views.

Global warming and climate change may be big abstract ideas in the “world at large” for the majority of Americans right now. But “The Beast” is coming for our firefighters; monster storms like Katrina and Sandy are coming for our first responders. The wars associated with climate refugees are coming for the members of our military.

These issues have the potential to become very personal indeed–but only if we keep speaking out about their root causes. Only if we risk being called insensitive, ungrateful for the personal sacrifices that have been made (as those who protest wars are called ungrateful to those who served).

Because maybe, when the fire comes for you or your loved ones, you might begin to question who set it. You might begin to take it personally.

The Killing Heat (Pt. 3)

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Image by DarrenRD via Wikipedia Commons

The irony of The Beast ravaging Fort McMurray–which, at the height of the tar sands boom, was nicknamed “Fort McMoney”–was not lost on climate activists. Elizabeth Kolbert, writing for the New Yorker (in an article entitled “Fort McMurray and the Fires of Climate Change“) noted,

“The town exists to get at the tar sands, and the tar sands produce a particularly carbon-intensive form of fuel.… The more carbon that goes into the atmosphere, the warmer the world will get, and the more likely we are to see devastating fires like the one now raging.”

I was one of the people glued to the trending hashtag on Twitter–one of the many, I’m sure, staring horrified at those images, hand to mouth, hand to heart.

I could not help but remember the Granite Mountain Hotshots, those brave young men burned over, despite having deployed their fire shelters–the Yarnell Hill Fire was just too hot, burning too hard. How much more monstrous was this thing we had unleashed upon Alberta?

Alberta, where I’d spent the better part of my eighth summer with my stepmother’s family, camping in the Canadian Rockies. Those green, rolling hills, those endless forests, those wild roses–up in smoke.

Twitter is the ideal online platform for sweeping pronouncements, as well as for screaming (as our current president daily demonstrates). I was one of those who used #fortmcmurrayfire to point out that these sorts of “freak” wildfires would become the norm if we could not find a way to halt the production of fossil fuels and transition to a clean energy economy–and no sooner had I made this pronouncement than I was screamed at, by a Canadian woman (presumably one who had family members or friends in harm’s way).

Her string of Tweets essentially said, “How dare you try to make this a political issue! People’s lives are at stake! This could be any fire! This could be Slave Lake!” (This last in reference to the largest wildfire to hit Alberta prior to this one, in 2011.)

I understood what this woman was telling me. She was saying that this wasn’t the first big wildfire to hit the province–that this event couldn’t just be blamed on the most recent parts-per-million.

She was saying that during disasters like this, we have to put aside our ideological differences and take care of those people whose lives are being torn apart.

And she was right, of course.

But I wish I could have found a way that day to tell her–in 140 characters or less–that this wasn’t just a political issue for me.



The Killing Heat (pt.2)

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NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. 

In the upper Midwest, where I grew up, May and June are welcome months. No matter how capricious the spring has been, warmer weather has come. By Memorial Day, even the most cautious have exchanged their boots for sandals; by the summer solstice, there will be lazy weekends at the lake and barbecues. It is a time to celebrate the long days, the warm nights, before the muggy heat has become overfamiliar.

But in Prescott, Arizona, May and June constitute the season of peril: hot season. Often, there has been minimal precipitation since February, and temperatures are flirting with triple digits. The National Forest is as dry as a tinderbox, the pine needles crisp underfoot. Most days around noon, some clouds roll in, marking the monsoon rains to come.

But before those clouds bring rain, they will bring lightning and high winds.

It was just a such a combination that whipped the Yarnell Hill Fire into the conflagration responsible for the greatest loss of life on the part of US first responders since 9/11. Just such a combination that was responsible for the Fort McMurray Fire in Alberta, Canada, last year.

After sweeping through this community of 60, ooo, that fire destroyed around 2,400 homes and buildings. Another 2,000 residents in three communities were displaced, and the blaze continued to spread across northern Alberta and into Saskatchewan, eating up forests and ultimately impacting Athabasca oil sands operations. It was the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

This fire was so extreme that it produced its own pyrocumulus clouds–which is to say, it was large enough to create its own weather. Largely, wind and lightning.

The Fort McMurray fire took 1,500,000 acres before it was declared under control on July 5, 2016–but the fire they call “The Beast” burned so hard (at its hottest point, around 1,000 Celsius) that it sent heat deep into the ground, as well as into the peat, the moss, and the duff, where it has burned right through the northern boreal winter.

In all likelihood, it is burning there still.

There were many contributing causes behind this wildfire. There were record-setting temperatures in Fort McMurray, around 91 degrees Fahrenheit at the beginning of May (which, obviously, is not normal for northern Canada). The natural weather cycle known as El Nino was a factor, but so was the lack of humidity, the record-low levels of snowpack, and the flattening winds.

Which is to say, climate change.

The Killing Heat (pt. 1)

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Image via Walt Anderson:

This week I’ll be posting each day from an essay-in-progress for the Week of Climate Action, in support of a global response to climate change. More info at People’s Climate Movement. 

On June 30th, 2013, I was in Los Angeles with my brother and sister when I heard the news: 19 of the Granite Mountain Hotshots–the elite wildlands firefighting crew based out of Prescott, Arizona–had lost their lives in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

I had lived in Prescott for 14 years (though I’d recently moved to Oregon); my brother and sister both graduated from Prescott High. And all three of us had a connection to one of the fallen, Robert Caldwell.

Caldwell was just 23 years old when he passed. Both my brother and sister had gone to school with him; they remembered the great parties he’d thrown, what a kind and generous person he was.

When my sister turned to me that day and spoke his name—had I known him?—I felt the bottom drop out of my gut.

One of the strangest features of Facebook, to my mind, is the way it allows us to share the personal lives of others at a distance. It had been years since I’d seen Claire, an old friend from Prescott, but I knew the story of her life in the years that had elapsed–as she may, in fact, know mine.

When I first met Claire, she had just rolled in off of some type of tour–say, String Cheese–and was wearing both face paint and fairy wings. I was sitting at a coffee shop with my boyfriend at the time, I remember, and immediately I loved her laugh, her smile, the way she just obviously did not give a flying fuck what anyone thought of her; like me, this girl was a free spirit.

My ex later confided that our friend Joe gotten back together with her–despite some difficulties in the relationship, that boy was crazy about her.

Five or six years later, neither Claire nor I were quite so young and free, having endured both heartbreak and financial hardship. Claire had gone through a divorce and was waiting tables, I understood, to support herself and her son, when at last that wild girl with the infectious laugh caught a break and met the man of her dreams.

His name was Robert Caldwell. They’d been married less than two years.

I’d seen their wedding pictures: Robert in his handlebar moustache, looking like an Arizona lawman of the old school; Claire in her fairytale gown, off the shoulder, her tattoos resplendent alongside her perfect blond curls; and her five-year-old boy in his handsome suit. All three of them looked at each other that day like they couldn’t believe their luck.

I managed to hold it together in L.A. But on my way back home to Oregon, when I saw Claire’s tearful face on the news in the airport, I found myself openly weeping for her. For the loss of her young husband, the step-father of her boy. For the loss of that great true love.

And somehow, this grief opened a door inside me. Beyond statistics, beyond politics, beyond the things I thought I knew, I began to feel the truth.

The truth of the fire to come.