Colorado, Kenya, and the fire this time

The Waldo Canyon fire burning near the U.S. Air Force Academy’s airfield in Colorado Springs. Photo by U.S. Air Force, via Flickr.

The dry air crackles with heat as temperatures climb to record highs for the fifth day in two weeks. The land seems poised for devastation. The unrelenting force of the wildfires spreads from village to village, causing the population to flee in search of shelter in safer parts. The people seem overwhelmed by the intensity of the destruction, with technology unable to protect them from the seemingly out-of-control forces of nature; some say it looks like Armageddon on the horizon. With winds spinning the fire at close-to-hurricane speed, and fire spreading to populated areas recently “developed” for real estate gains, it is difficult to see how this situation will be contained. Which direction will the wind blow tomorrow?

I’m writing, of course, not about some distant region in East Africa, but of Colorado Springs, Colorado. When a July 2012 map of the Southwest United States was posted showing major catastrophic outbreaks of wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and parts of California, a friend of mine wrote, “Wow, God must really be mad at that part of the country!” The remark would have been thoroughly inappropriate and scandalous were it not for the fact that so many organizations of the religious right which relocated to this region beginning in the 1980s — from Focus on the Family to Cowboys for Christ — suggested or implied that the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., were a geographically-explainable Sodom and Gomorrah-type retribution for liberalism, inter-racial mixing and open support for LGBT movements on the East Coast.

For me, the initial response was all in the family: My partner’s grandparents and extended network of aunts and uncles were settlers in Colorado, helping to found the small mountain town of Cascade, which was one of the first major casualties of the 2012 Waldo wildfire. Even as we dealt with evacuations and storing valuables in sub-basements, watching hourly reports on where and how fast the blaze was spreading as ash and embers fell from the sky, a certain reassurance spread throughout even the most open-minded progressive elements of the tight-knit communities: This is all a natural part of the life cycle of forests. Though increased information about the role of fires in the regrowth of forests has been part of a positive trend of greater consciousness about the environment, it has allowed — in this circumstance — for a potentially dangerous myth about the current crisis to develop: Between human ingenuity and the ways in which trees regenerate, some say, there is no cause for concern and no need to take action.

This view is easily refuted by even the most basic glances at contemporary research. A recent study by specialists, combining an unprecedented look at hundreds of years of tree ring and fire scar data, suggests that today’s “mega fires” are “truly unusual.” Looking at 1,500 years of climate and fire patterns, the evidence points not only to climate change as a long-term cause of the conditions facing the Southwestern states, but also widespread and recent economic decisions caught up in the ways in which real estate profiteers have pushed new housing developments (and their related activities) into areas which endanger both forests and homes.

“The U.S. would not be experiencing massive large-canopy-killing crown fires today if human activities had not begun to suppress the low-severity surface fires that were so common more than a century ago,” said study co-author Christopher Roos, an assistant professor in Anthropology at Southern Methodist University. It was those surface fires of decades and centuries past which were part of a healthy ecosystem allowing for a pattern of tree regeneration. That is not the case with the current wave of wildfires.

Colorado native Julia Olson, executive director of the Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust, noted that, “in all of the reporting of the Colorado fires, the media [failed] to mention climate change or carbon dioxide emissions as a culprit.” She urges us to

get honest: We are heating our planet, our nation, our communities … We will see more and more devastating wildfires that feed off of heat and drought and dying forest. We can keep trying to put out individual fires, but until we address the underlying coals of a heating nation, we won’t stop the inferno.

The recent June 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil, which Looting Africa author Patrick Bond reported was more about treating nature as a series of “fee-for-use capital products” than a space for positive change, was a disappointment for those hoping for progressive policy improvements. Olson implores that “it is time the United States government and our state governments took our life, liberty and property seriously and developed a national climate recovery plan.”

Such a plan would go beyond simply placating some powers that be in New Mexico, whose June fires were the worst in state history, or in Colorado, where the state’s two most destructive fires in recorded history just took place. It must also mean addressing the structural issues involved in the connections between environmental and economic issues. That would require, for example, shining some light and providing some support for the Native American peoples of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, where the worst fire in that state’s history has consumed over one quarter of traditional tribal lands.

Tribal member Erica Littlewolf noted:

It is political, economical and race-based as to why we are not receiving aid or assistance with this fire. In my opinion, this fire got so big because the State of Montana didn’t respond. All you systems thinkers can put it into place, much like the Hurricane Katrina situation.

Littlewolf, a staff person for the Mennonite Central States Indigenous Vision Center, also noted that state-by-state fire statistics which have been publicized across the country refer to the number of houses which have been destroyed. But on reservations, one house can typically mean a base for almost 15 people, more than the average of four living in non-reservation homes. The vast number of people affected is just one way in which environmental racism burns the landscape as surely as the flames.

It is more than just irony that some lessons for how we can create such forward-looking institutional plans that address issues of race and class alongside of environmental concerns might come from East Africa and other regions, which have consistently confronted the kind of rapid, unequal development that intensifies disaster-prone conditions in fragile ecosystems. Wangari Maathai’s women-led Green Belt Movement, which has planted over 40 million trees in Kenya, may not provide practical solutions — individual tree-planting in the Red River region of the U.S. is probably not the most effective method of change. But the Green Belt Movement of Maathai’s conception has meant so much more than individual acts of reforestation.

It has meant the training of tens of thousands of women (and some men) in forestry, food processing, bee-keeping, and sustainable uses of firewood and fuel. It created a massive consciousness-raising effort, known as Community Empowerment and Education, which grew based on its creative links between issues of environmentalism, women’s rights, indigenous African values, grassroots democracy and local economics. This work led Green Belt to the political arena, as it pressed to hold national elected officials accountable to the needs of local communities, joined campaigns for the release of political prisoners, worked against unsustainable urban growth and extended their work internationally — especially supporting efforts to invigorate the Congo River Basin Ecosystem, understood to be “the world’s second lung” after the Amazon.

These connections and campaigns should provide some vital lessons to climate change activists in the United States, including those in the Southwest who feel that there is nothing they need do given the “natural process of things.” For one, if we are to recognize and adapt to the long-term nature of current climate trends, we have to do so in ways which don’t rely solely on short-term reactive, emergency-based and fiscally expensive “fire-fighting” methods. We have to adapt by changing the way real estate developers in fact under-develop sustainable community-based solutions for anyone other than the super-rich. In addition, if we are to resist the status quo environment-as-commodity agenda, we have much to learn from the mass organizing and strategic links between radical and reformist efforts for which the Green Belt Movement has become known. In fact, perhaps Green Belt’s greatest lesson for U.S. activists is that a combination of both resistance and empowering adaptation is probably needed in gaining widespread support for more than the most minimal “green-washing” efforts within the United States.

“My concern is that we’re witnessing a destabilization,” noted alternative agriculture and energy systems specialist Emily Wright. In her estimate, though the fires themselves are now out, “this is just the beginning … If we experience season after season of shifting climate patterns, what will become of locally adapted plants that have trouble re-growing?”

Because fires on the scale of those which swept through the Southwest prevent the soil from accepting rain water, summer showers and monsoons create flash flood conditions and risk turning mountain roads into mudslides. Fertile top soil is lost, and the entire landscape of a region can change. The potential for these enormous changes is exacerbated by the cycle created by global warming, from increased pine mountain beetle epidemics killing younger trees, to greater carbon gases released into the atmosphere and faster snow melt. The National Resources Conservation Service, for example, noted that the “snowpack” in Colorado in 2012 was the lowest since records of snow fall have been maintained.

“The extreme patterns are unpredictable,” stated Wright, who serves as a sustainability coordinator at one of Colorado Springs’ main private colleges. “Some people can move north, but many communities that have a direct dependency on the land they inhabit — including all those who feel that the land is part of their livelihood and their very existence.” These “most vulnerable,” in Wright’s view, are the most in need of support but the least likely to get it.

Longtime Colorado community activist Bill Starr, whose great-grandfather was the founder of Cascade and a mayor of the Springs, put it more bluntly:

If we fund a city park, it is available for anybody to use. But instead we spend millions of dollars defending gated communities which have been built in places they don’t environmentally belong. We don’t have to allow rich people to have their private nature parks, to build extra utilities for them, to offer them tax incentives … all to cater to unsustainable ideas about transportation and water. One solution for future wildfires is not to prepare for millions of dollars of public resources spent to protect the privileged, but instead to connect those with wealth to the communities in which the majority of people live. Maybe we’d understand eco-systems better if we lived and worked like those indigenous to this land, or those who live in arid climates elsewhere in the world: tear down the fences and make everyone migrate on a seasonal basis!

In thinking about potential solutions, Emily Wright says she felt “between the lynch mob and the flames” — with many looking for someone to blame, but no easy answers to be found:

The best solutions always come on the local level … and we can figure out exactly how much land or how many solar panels are needed to replace the coal-fired power plant downtown near where I live. But the first step must be to take some responsibility, and that responsibility rests on all of us.

The basic consciousness which will enable and empower people to accept that even small, local actions can help begin widespread change is as needed in the United States as it is in Africa. Writing about the losses of fertile land due to climate change in Kenya, Wangari Maathai suggested that “losing topsoil should be considered analogous to losing territory to an invading enemy. And indeed, if any country were so threatened, it would mobilize all available resources, including a heavily armed military, to protect the priceless land.”

Today, the world must head Wangari’s warning as the war against the planet intensifies. There may be many ways to resist and respond to this war against nature, but at very least we must prepare for (and must not take for granted) the fire next time.

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