Lessons from the Fires

“Sacred fire, that shapes this land,

Summer teacher, winter friend.

Protect us as we learn anew,

To work, to heal, to live with you.”

This is the chant we sing each summer as part of the fire protection ritual we do on my land in Western Sonoma County.  As the fires rage, as I worry for our land and ache for our neighbors who have lost homes and even lives, I want to honor fire for the great teacher she is. Those of us who live in places where wildfire is a constant summer threat learn some deep lessons—the very lessons we all need to navigate a world where climate change has intensified the dryness and the winds.

Nature is more powerful than we are.  If you doubt it, look at the pictures of the devastated neighborhoods of Santa Rosa, or for that matter, the flattened towns of the Caribbean or the flooded neighborhoods of Houston.  We are part of nature, but we exist within her constraints, and we ignore them to our peril.

The indigenous people of California understood fire.  They regularly burned the land to keep the underbrush down and reduce pests and diseases.  The fires remained low and relatively cool, the forests open and parklike, perfect habitat for game.  But conditions are so different today, and human settlement so much more dense, we find it hard to apply those lessons.

There are many things we can do to reduce the threat of fire—and we do them! Thinning, grazing, keeping a defensible perimeter around our structures, cleaning up, trimming the grass.  But in the end, in a firestorm like we’ve just seen, none of that may avail.  Nature is more powerful than we are.

Possessions are impermanent.  We may enjoy them, even cherish them, but we cannot be defined by them. In fire country we know that they are on loan. If they go, we will mourn, but we will not be surprised. Lives are more important.

We survive by the grace of our neighbors. Our homes are protected by those brave and honorable folks who join the volunteer fire department. They go through hours and hours of training—which also require long hours of driving, and meetings, and more and more trainings. In fire season they are on call day and night, responding also to medical emergencies, and do their best to save homes and lives without judging. We are dependent on their generosity and courage.

Even more than that, we are dependent on our neighbors’ vigilance, their care of their land, their caution with candles and cigarettes, their alertness to report smoke or the glow of fire. We depend on their help in times of emergency, and their company in times of celebration. 

Anyone who thinks they are entirely self-reliant does not live in fire country. Fire does not discriminate—it will not spare you because of your skin color or your prosperity or your affiliation for power, or even because of your virtue. Loss comes to those that deserve better, and luck comes to the undeserving. 

Hope lies in the good will, the courage, skills and selflessness of your neighbors, and the sheer common sense of strangers to guard their cigarette butts. We are all in this together, and the conditions of life here demand that we recognize that truth and help one another.

If the land goes up in flames, there are many possessions I will miss. I will mourn the loss of structures we have built and money we’ve invested. But the greatest loss—once lives are safe—will be the trees we’ve planted, the food forests, the hedgerows of lavender and rosemary, the hours and hours of work gone into the land. We know, when we plant, that everything we do is on sufferance, yet we plant anyway. In that lies our faith—that there is value in the planting, the work, the vision. 

After destruction comes regeneration. 

Redwoods push out new needles; Doug fir seeds sprout. Bees return, and wildflowers bloom. Fire is the destroyer, but also the great renewer.  What comes after will be different, but it may thrive in a new way.

In an impermanent world, I remain grateful for what I have, for each day when the land remains green, for each drop of rain that falls, for the help and stalwart courage of the firefighters and the devotion of the medics, for the friendship of those that surround me. I remain grateful to fire, our comfort in winter, our harsh teacher in these dry and windy autumn days. Despite the worry, the losses, the fear in these lessons, I am grateful to live in a web of relationships forged by fire.

9 comments to Lessons From the Fires

  • Marilyn Lewis

    For those of us in a very different climate (Michigan) this is a very different view and I appreciate your sharing. It gives me a whole new understanding.

  • As a resident of SE Australia, this resonates deeply. David Holmgrens book on this is well worth a read. My comment is that as a ‘custodian’ sometimes one must evacuate in order to survive and to help restore the land after fire. Despite how it sometimes seems important to ‘stay and defend’, ‘stay and die’ may be the more likely outcome. Restoration post-fire is much faster if our custodians survive

  • Chanti

    After a summer of firestorms in Central British Columbia! I so resonate with your insights! Blessings

  • Hi, I live in central Portugal and currently I can hear the sound of helicopters flying overhead, carrying water to nearby fires. This year the extent and fury of the fires in Portugal have been unprecedented and we have evacuated our home several times. I loved your article. I’ve read a lot of scientific and descriptive explanations of the fires recently, but you have managed to capture the emotional component brilliantly. Thanks.

  • Donata McIntosh

    This situation seems almost unimaginable for us here in North Germany, where it has been pouring for WEEKS now, and we looong for some warmth and dryness… If only our different climates could mix!

  • martin

    My house burned down many years ago. I lost so much. I had also built the house so was attached even to the structure. It took me a year to let the loss permeate me. Looking back now it was a huge lesson in impermanence and attachment. The silver lining was that I moved away to the west coast of Canada and that was the best move I ever made.

  • Geph

    I greatly appreciate these blessings..having lived here in Ca in a post flash environment.
    I have personal wands flashfire kiln dried manzanita and madrone…destruction and creation the fire…

  • Mindful Action

    We aren’t separate from all.
    What we do before a fire, affects the likelihood of a fire.
    Starhawk writes for the aftermath of the fires and the chaos their burning power sowed, and to sooth their aching hearts and racing minds. I am taking her message a step further and writing about preparing for the next round of fires – in a proactive and even preventative manner. I call people to be more aware of the little things they do each day, that affect their environment and THE environment. Just because this year there were many raging fires all across the globe, does not mean that we won’t see another wave of these fires again next year. And that’s SOON. Global warming will, it’s a no-longer debated fact, increase the frequency of such fires. What I’m hoping you, the reader will get from this is, an increased resolution to improve the skill of examining your day to day actions and their consequences. Of course, many of us don’t even think about the consequences of our actions, because they add up so slowly.
    Humans are not “helpless” about slowing down the frequency of fires and preventing their occurrences and in fact, have a lot of power over fire as well as over a lot of their fate going into the future. But the most power is found in being PROACTIVE. Rebuilding communities – that’s what you do when it’s too late and the fire was too large.
    Think about how much power a human has to set a fire. Then, think about all a human can do to prevent another fire from happening. Lets take the power we have, into our hands, and start affecting our environment not absentmindedly, but by being more aware of our day to day actions, how they can build up, and what their consequences might be.
    It’s in our hands; it always was.
    It is, and we are, connected.

  • Melanie moondaggerz

    Yes it has been devastating! We in Sonoma county are reeling and regrouping. What would permaculture have us do? What does it look like to take back our power? PGE is responsible perhaps. Look at what happened in San Bruno. The smart meters and the poles on every block they want to put now. I heard someone say on the radio pge is too big to fail. We as a rainbow indigenos people are too big to fail.

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