First, I’m thinking of all my friends and comrades out here on the West Coast – with all the fires everywhere. I’m hoping folks can stay safe, whether it’s just trying to get by, or being part of the rebellion in the streets. Maybe they’re out in the midst of this hellscape working in healthcare, or firefighting, or in any other capacity that’s bringing them close to this flaming madness!
For the past several months I’ve been up here in the Sierras, safe for the most part, but with fires in all directions (the Creek Fire north of Fresno is the biggest one near me right now). Luckily or unluckily, I’m mostly just getting smoked out, but since I work in a hospital emergency room I can’t really flee unless we get evacuation orders. The town 10 miles south of here did get evacuated and the fires closed off one of the highways that leads in and out of Yosemite, but that fire is contained now, and folks got to return. However, the Creek Fire to the south is blazing up uncontrolled and is threatening Sierra towns all around it. I expect more evacuations soon.
The fires, smoke and blazing heat are overwhelming. It was 110 degrees here the other day and that’s not very unusual. It’s been on average 95-105 here for the last three months with only a few breaks of semi-cooler weather for a day or two. California Fire and Rescue is out everywhere: fire trucks, ambulances, helicopters and National Guard military transport vehicles up and down the roads with sirens blaring. All six senses are being worked up (and worked over). Weeks straight of this is exhausting to say the least, and I’m fortunate cos like I said, I’m relatively safe, for now.
I recently got an opportunity to fly home to Detroit for a few days. An escape for sure, although that’s a whole other set of stresses, considering we’re in the midst of a pandemic. Flying 6-7 hours wearing an N95 mask, goggles, gloves and trying one’s best to “social distance” is not fun. But it was a risk I wanted to take just to be away, even for a short bit, from what was happening in California.
On my flight back last week, I could see smoke and fires starting all the way from the Rockies to the West Coast. It was truly awe-inspiring but in a straight up dreadful kinda way.
So I just got back to the Sierras, worked my long weekend shifts and then, when waking up this past Monday afternoon, I got a message from the couple I’m renting an apartment from (one’s a nurse in Fresno) saying that due to the power demand, high winds and heat, the Cali electrical company PG&E was cutting the town’s power for upwards of thirty hours. And the heat was 111 degrees that day! Maybe a few hours without electricity, but not two days! I thought of staying at the hospital, sleeping on a gurney if need be. But I’ve done that plenty of times before and I said “no thanks” this time around. The closest hotels I could get to were hours away and not any better in terms of air quality around them. So I asked some friends down in the North Bay if I could come stay with them during my days off. They have a nice little house, guest bedroom, A/C and access to good eats (Indian, Burmese, Thai–all takeaway of course) that I can’t get up here in the mountains, so off I went. Plus, beyond wanting me to be safe, they longed for some company as they have been pretty much social distancing and working from home for the last seven months and were starved of socializing and human company.
My drive from the Sierras to The North Bay was wild: red smoky skies, caravans of RV campers parked alongside the road with people who had nowhere to go (many looking pretty rough, gritty, tired and at the ends of their ropes, some just setting up lawn chairs on the freeway turnoffs and rest stops near some dusty patch of nothing and just chilling while ash fell from the sky); farm laborers in the fields still picking produce while temperatures rage and particulate rich smoke clouds just envelop them in already difficult conditions. Some of the scenes are straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It’s also a fact that an already existing state-wide housing crisis and displacement has been exacerbated by thousands of people losing homes in previous fires. Whole towns have been burnt up and people are now forced to live in near nomadic situations.
So getting to my peeps’ place was a nice relief. The North Bay actually had a window of semi-OK air with temps in the low 70’s as opposed to the furnace I’d just driven from only 2.5 hours away. Driving west on Cal State Route 12, I could see to the southwest towards San Francisco and to the northwest of Napa black, smoke-filled skies. I was headed to what seemed like the only blue patch of sky. Still, filling my rearview mirror was a dirty red-brown horizon that seemed to be creeping up behind me.
Wednesday morning, that’s what folks have been seeing in the news: a straight up dystopian, Sci-Fi, life on Mars landscape. The sun never seemed to emerge. Everything, every color, muted under this weird unhealthy red-orange atmospheric glow, the sky accented by dark swirling clouds 3000 feet or so above, street lights still on, and the eerie quiet of no birds singing. At 11am, it seemed like dusk.
I remember standing in the middle of the street, saying to myself, “total eclipse”, but not just an eclipse of the sun, it’s more a sign of the total eco-social-political eclipse.
I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say it’s apocalyptic; it really did have this religious final dawn sensation. It’s fucking unsettling as hell; whole towns burning up or facing that, hundreds of campers and backpackers having to jump into lakes and rivers to escape flames while waiting for helicopter rescue, people choking on air, eyes watering, sinuses affected, and this is just the start of the fire season. As of now, the second week of September, there are thirty some fires raging in California, over two million acres have gone up in flames, over four thousand homes and other structures incinerated. North in Oregon fires are forcing fifty thousand people to flee their homes and communities. And further up in the Eastern Cascades another near half-million acres are on fire. How is there any concept of recovery? There isn’t.
Anyway, I’m still processing this as I’m living in it. I’m back up in the Sierras now, getting smoked again, but I’m safe. We had a person in town going through a mental health crisis the other day. He is alleged to have tried to set a building on fire but passersby saw it happening and put out the fire. But damn, that’s real too, people are freaking the fuck out with those already struggling psychologically and mentally now breaking down. I mean, if a fire was set in this town right now, it’d be catastrophic. And so, in the midst of the fires, we are also worrying about arson. Are people getting the help and resources and aid that they need? The answer is no, they’re not.
Over the last few days there have been growing comparisons of The Bay Area’s Eclipsed Day to scenes from movies like Blade Runner, which opens the story with the collapse of the world’s ecosystems and views of harsh environmental devastation. But we can also see Children of Men, Total Recall, The Road Warrior, and even the 1959 B-Horror space film Angry Red Planet, which was made even more infamous by the punk band, The Misfits, who used the fiery red terrain inhabiting a bat-rat-spider-crab creature on their caustic debut album, Walk Among Us.
All of these Sci-Fi based takes seem to be playing out in real life in the here and now. I grew up immersed in Sci-Fi, horror and alternative music. So much of it is actually rich in its cultural and social analysis criticism. To reduce them to fantasy and escapism misses the point that these genres of fiction and music give us, which is a certain perspective to understanding the terribleness of all this. It’s like reading William Blake and his descriptions of “Dark Satanic Mills” as a way to chronicle the hell emerging out of industrial capitalism and social authoritarianism. What we are currently living in are nothing short of hellish realties. But in some weird way to someone like me, who has spent a lifetime reading and thinking about possible doomsday scenarios that this social order seems intent on racing us towards, this situation isn’t so scary as much as it’s like an affirmation of “Well, I saw this fucking coming”.
But what’s more and not to be forgotten is that in all of these mad tales there are often individuals linking up with others to collectively survive, struggling to create a way out of the danger and the destructive dystopia. Are we gonna be able to survive what’s now our own Angry Red Planet?