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Afterburn

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | CC BY 2.0

On December 22nd the skies over Southern California lit up with the afterburn of a Space-X rocket, launched from Vandenberg Air Force base, a few miles north of Point Conception – its spent hydrocarbons leaving an ethereal plume that flared across the western sky. The event was reflexively echoed, in real time, by social media. Below, deep in the Sespe Wilderness, the Thomas fire still raged.

The Falcon 9 rocket was sent on its way (across a lonely headland that once served the local Purisimeño Chumash Indians as the threshold of the Western Land of the Dead, from which they projected the souls of their departed) to launch ten Iridium ‘Next’ communications satellites. They are part of a second-generation constellation of sixty-six telecommunications satellites planned to be fully operational by the end of next year.

Somewhere, in this confluence of signs lay indications of the Anthropocene. The enigma of the epoch was made explicit both in this kerosene fueled apparition in the late evening sky and in the burning of over 275,000 acres of Southern California landscape in the month of December.

While many of the leaders of our federal government continue to deny climate reality, the American military machine, sheltered behind this opera bouffe façade, are fully cognizant that global warming de-stabilizes vulnerable populations, political regimes and drives the refugee crisis. The Washington think-tank CNA (Center for Naval Analysis) in a recent report, succinctly states that “climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States”. Left unsaid is that the rolling acts of weather terrorism across the United States in 2017, which included Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria as well as the massive forest fires in Northern and Southern California indicate the vulnerabilities of this country to internal instability: the climate-driven economic, social, and existential anxieties which, magnified in the crucible of social media, may lead towards imminent political fracture. The real threat to our polity is from within.

Trumpist notions of maintaining internal security by pursuing border walls, anti-immigrant policing and aggressive anti-terrorist militarism are powerless against the threats imposed by climate change. California’s megafires occurred in lands long accustomed to seasonal wildfires, but global warming, manifested in marginal increases in average temperatures, an extension of the summer fuel dehydration season, the increased occurrence of winter drought conditions and the extraordinary prolongation of fall’s off-shore winds, supercharges these events into acts of extreme, highly prejudicial terror.

As a survivor of the Upper Ojai firestorm, one of the two generative events that sparked the largest wildfire in California’s history, I have experienced firsthand the kind of weather terrorism that now threatens the credibility of national, provincial and local governments to protect their citizens.

The small country town of Ojai, at the green unburned center of California’s Thomas Fire, is festooned with signs in the windows of businesses and residences thanking Firefighters and First Responders for saving their community, suggesting great faith in the power of municipal, state and national authorities to protect them. Agencies from all levels of government were indeed arrayed against the fire on their behalf.

However, the feel-good narrative of the lower valley, Ojai’s commercial and tourist heart, which was saved by strategic back-burning and fuel reduction on its perimeter combined with favorable winds, the flanking of comparatively fire-resistant irrigated citrus and avocado fields  and topographical serendipity, contrasts with the grim realities of Upper Ojai’s firestorm where twenty percent of the residences were destroyed, and which went largely unchallenged on Monday night, December 4th, and into Tuesday morning.

At the heart of the fire initiated by an exploding pole-top transformer in the upper valley, four local Ventura County Fire crews and a fifth volunteer brigade from the nearby city of Fillmore, sheltered in place at the top of our road trapped by the great dragon’s breath of fire that raced down the fuel rich drainages on their way to Sisar Creek which runs along State Route 150. After this first wave of the firestorm moved on to the northern flank of Sulphur Mountain ridge to meet up with the other leg of the fire that had started further east and an hour before, the crews retreated to the lower valley choosing not to defend the residential streets running off SR 150 where most of the upper valley’s dwellings are situated. Lack of specific wildland fire training (ensure your line of retreat!) together with a conservative command structure may have contributed to the impotence of their response.

Once the command structure was able to regroup and call in resources from all over the Western States there was a massive response beyond the Ojai Valley where Santa Paula, Ventura, Montecito and Santa Barbara were all saved from overwhelming residential losses. Miraculously, there was no loss of civilian life; sadly, one professional fire technician died in fighting the flames that consumed the Condor Sanctuary, deep in the Los Padres National Forest.

In the eulogizing of our public safety personnel, it is little understood that they are abetted by huge influxes of inmate-labor on the fire-line – where the latter are involved in the most hazardous, health and life-threatening roles in wild-fire suppression, while the better equipped, better trained and infinitely better paid professionals provide command, back-up and communications well behind the front lines. A highly-placed source in the fire-fighting community estimates the involvement of prisoner firefighters at 80% of the boots on the ground in fighting the Thomas Fire.

Ironically, the prison-industrial complex absorbs vast gobs of state resources while other local agencies are starved of funds resulting in this strange hybridization of public services – where prison-labor eliminates paid-work (exacerbating the very social conditions that swell the prison population) and reduces both the professionalism and the morale of the fire-fighting force.

Media reflexivity, political instability driven by wealth disparity, weather terrorism and the expansion of public service (and corporate) utilization of inmate-labor represent an incendiary stew of contemporary derangements – home-grown ingredients that may eventually explode, like an improvised fertilizer bomb, into the heart of this country’s social order.

The fuse for such a device could likely be ignited by a massive loss of life in a weather terrorism event. By coincidence, on Christmas day, we four fire survivors (my wife, our younger son Griffin and neighbor Betty) on day twenty-one of our hegira, found ourselves in a likely location for just such a scenario. We had been invited to a dinner in Topanga, a bohemian suburb north of Los Angeles, deep in the Wildland-Urban-Interface.

When I turned the corner of our house at 7:15 pm, on that first night of the Thomas fire, to close the north facing fire doors, I saw a wall of flame engulfing the back of our property – the dark and customarily brooding landforms had become vividly alive in a moment of supreme, non-human animation. Those moments stay in one’s thoughts: ever after, the lizard brain is stamped with an immanent existentialism.

Driving in Topanga, from one canyon side to the other, from one set of friends to the other, we were all hyper-aware of the extreme perilousness of the exit routes, the ad hoc, highly flammable building styles in evidence, and the total lack of defensible space amidst the chaos of antic residential development. The community exists for now, harboring a very heterogeneous population, but it is heavily mortgaged to the next act of weather terrorism perpetrated by the non-human actors that have once more arisen amongst us, after the brief interregnum of modernity, when we foolishly thought them tamed.

FEMA may be irretrievably dysfunctional, insurance companies may go broke, fire departments are demoralized and their personnel under-trained, and the Golden State may largely rely for control of these pyromaniacal step-children of global warming – for the fire next time – on their vast prison population of over 100,000 inmates. It is the extreme contingency of such preparedness, or the lack thereof, that speaks to the fragile nature of our social compact.

We had believed that our taxes ensured some level of personal safety – some, like the lucky residents of the Ojai Valley, still believe it.

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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