Five-years ago, as I sat in a front-row seat to tens of thousands of acres of devastation in California’s central Sierra, I thought it couldn’t get any worse.
I was wrong.
The last four years have seen five of the largest fires in our country’s history. The pace and scale of devastation continue to increase beyond imagination, the smoking gun of decades of mismanagement of our landscapes, the rapidly impending threat of climate change, and exponential levels of urban and suburban sprawl.
For centuries, the rural West has had a deep, personal, and often impassioned relationship with fire. From the Sierra Nevada range to the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Northwest, rural communities have learned the nuances and intricacies of being friend and foe to the realities of the element, learning to live respectfully and courageously on the frontlines of fire.
My first job out of college was working on post-wildfire restoration in the foothills of the central Sierra of California where the Butte Fire had recently decimated 70,000 acres of forested land, burning over 500 homes.
During the week, I spent my days face to face with the multiple layers of economic, social, and environmental damage, driving miles of backroads where only charred chimneys and tire hubs remained and the backyard streams ran opaque from erosion.
On weekends, I would occasionally travel down the mountain to the Bay Area to visit friends, attend folk concerts, and to sip overpriced drinks at coffee shops. Just three hours away, the realities of these spaces and communities seemed worlds apart. The vocabulary of crown fire, dozer line, and defensible space was not the ingrained part of their vocabulary that it had become for their rural neighbors.
But the fire is no longer just a rural phenomenon. Over the past month, two of the largest wildfires in California’s history swept through the Bay Area. So far this year over 3 million acres have burned across California and over 10% of the Oregon population has had to evacuate due to fire threat. As thousands of homes and structures go up in flames daily and millions of residents, urban and rural alike, are forced to evacuate, we are coming face to face with a reality that is no longer relegated to the back forty.
Fire, as with other natural disasters and climate realities, has been creeping into all corners of our landscape for decades. According to research from Headwater Economics, from 2000 to 2013, 127 urban areas have been threatened by wildfire. We are quickly realizing that fire doesn’t follow the imaginary boundaries we place on rural and urban America, nor does our changing climate.
Our 21st-century environmental reality calls for an all-lands approach that doesn’t stop where the backroads turn into a four-lane highway or where our political, social, and economic musings mandate. No longer can anyone or any place be a passive player in the fight for resilient landscapes and communities. It is critical that we not only “build back better,” but that we steward together and in a way that breaks down the artificial boundaries we place on our landscape.
Building resilience within this new demographic and environmental reality demands across-the-board investment to restore our forests and watersheds at a pace and scale that moves faster than the flames. It will take the joining of the hands of policymakers, environmental professionals, foresters, planners, and landowners – the creative collaboration that rural places have been practicing for years.
I believe that there is something to learn from the flowing veins and powerful heartbeat of rural places, from the resilience that remains even amidst a charred landscape, and from the many ways that rural communities have learned to come together to find ways to work collaboratively across boundaries.
Our country is facing a reckoning that lies at the heart of the fires that burn around us. From Covid-19 to social and environmental injustice, our relationship with each other and with place is hitting us from all corners and Zip codes. While fire and the stewardship of our landscapes may just be one piece of it, how we collaborate to address it has veins running throughout all of the confounding crises.
In some ways, we are more connected as a global society today than we have ever been. In other ways, we are more divided than ever. Let us take the realities of climate change, environmental justice, and protecting our future generations and landscapes as an opportunity to bridge divides and learn to care for our landscapes and places together.
Mary Sketch works with the National Rural Assembly at the Center for Rural Strategies. (Rural Strategies also publishes the Daily Yonder.) She holds a master’s degree from Virginia Tech in fish and wildlife conservation and a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Brown University.