As tough as it always is to narrow the scope of my commentary, I had done the writing before going to church Sunday morning. I planned to tinker with it and submit it in the afternoon, almost in time. But Sunday was not a good day for polishing a manuscript.
We noticed the menacing plume from the South Hill. It was disturbing but hardly surprising, and we reassured my daughter when we stopped at her home. When we arrived at our place, we had driven past the expanding column of smoke and chatted with our neighbors about its trajectory and tried to contact Jerry and Marilynne Mueller, our partners who were visiting her sister-in-law in hospice care. The smoke grew thicker in the relentless wind. Despite our assessment, Lara, 8-months pregnant, her husband working in Florida, was told to evacuate. We suggested she head to Spokane with her four-year-old and her dog. No sense joining us in the path of the fire.
The fires are not out, not even contained, and smoke is everywhere. We have a few items packed, in case, but Lara is back in her home. Muellers returned before the highway was closed. Their earth-sheltered home may be as fire-resistant as any in the county, but a family compound on the river, including a cabin built by their own hands decades ago, is reported destroyed in the Hart Road Fire.
The humidity is almost nonexistent. Fire danger is high in the entire area. Homes have been lost, lives altered, and two connections will inevitably be made. Climate change and war. Neither will be taken seriously enough.
Of course it’s always hot and dry in our summers. We see this much damage from lightening-caused fires. Our conflagrations pale in comparison to those raging in Southern California, or even those so close to us last year. But the extreme weather causing misery across the globe only matches one pattern, the herds of tornadoes and incredible floods in other parts of the country, climate change spurred by the ways humans bully nature. And now our smoke springs into the mix, spewing carbon with no safe place to land. We’re watching a cycle that’s killing our planet and hoping for another price drop for our precious fossil fuels. We argue over the safety of trains freighting frighteningly incendiary fuels through our midst, while it’s the safely delivered cargoes that make us weak and sick, cause the greatest degradation of our air and water, threaten the environment of humanity. We have climate deniers in Congress and climate liars in corporate board rooms, and our resolve to save the earth is wavering.
War? Seriously? What could three little wildfires, now called the Spokane Complex, have to do with war? One might be allowed to wonder if we might have safer electrical transmission methods than wind-whipped, vulnerable lines stretched across miles of crunchy, parched vegetation if the bulk of our research and development dollars was not dedicated to death and destruction.
Nobody has died in this cluster of local fires. Are we getting carried away?
But someone will say, “It looks like a war zone.” There’s a lot of trauma when fires gobble, or even threaten, our cherished possessions. We depend upon courage, perhaps heroism, from ourselves and others in our community. Terror and adrenaline push our physical limits. Fear and anger are to be wrestled and conquered. But this is no war zone. When you emerge from your burning house, no one is waiting to shoot you. Mortar rounds won’t find you as you set your hose and sprinkler. Neither IEDs nor landmines await the wheels bearing your family members and pets away from the inferno.
I would be wrong to trivialize any loss you’ve known by fire, here or far away, sentimental articles or loved ones or material value or precious family or friends. I will never forget hearing in the middle of the night that the offices of PJALS were burning, standing in the parking lot and watching firefighters douse the flames, sifting through charred and soaked documents that had been as dear to me as the earliest crayon drawings of my precocious children. It was not war. No rockets red glare or bombs bursting in air. No second airliner zeroing in to finish us off.
Perhaps these fires are little more than background noise for you. The smoke blows by or enhances your sunset. It’s not a war. The trees will come back, the forest will survive, insurance will help with crops and houses. But don’t ever say “firestorm.” That’s too close to home. My country has been in denial all my life about firestorms. When did you know about firestorms as military weapons?
I was nearly forty when I learned we dropped atomic bombs on Japan to show the Soviet Union what we could do, not because we needed more weight to win the war. A few years later, I learned about Dresden, Germany’s military-free city, when I read Slaughterhouse Five. The only way Vonnegut could tell his story of the shameful allied firebombing was to wrap the truth in fiction. It was only a few months ago that I learned it was common knowledge in Hawaii in 1941 that the Japanese were about to bomb Pearl Harbor. And there are still more dirty little secrets about firestorms the U.S. inflicted upon civilian populations. You know about 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, but do you know about the 30 firebombings after Tokyo, the firestorms U.S. aircraft set in city after city, some burning at temperatures never seen before, burning women and children whose men were away in the emperor’s military. Not every bombing produced that firestorm that burned steel and cement and vaporized human beings, but there was enough heat and death to end the war. Still, we could not end the war without revealing our perfection of the art of war. We could not disappoint the creators of the atomic bomb, the heroes of Los Alamos and Hanford.
If someone doesn’t take your fire too seriously, perhaps they’ve been already burned, scorched by war, singed by the insensitivity of the powerful and haughty. We all need to watch and listen for ways to get over the willingness to burn our enemies by the unit, by the family, by the millions. We need to find generals, presidents and prime ministers who will refuse to kill millions of innocent people. Imagine a president who could say no to war, no to military contractors, no to nuclear weapons, no to the briefcase with the nuclear codes.
It starts with us. Let’s make it simple. No killing. No war. No preparation for war. No new nukes. No refurbished nukes. No first use. No second use. There is no use for nuclear weapons.
We still wonder where this fire will go next. It’s uncontained, and its smoke gauzes our prized view of the north Palouse. Our electricity is on. Our phone works, and we communicate with neighbors without any sense of doom or panic. It’s not war. There’s hope. -RN