The twenty-first century martyr

Extraordinary times deserve extraordinary writing. Elizabeth Breunig rises to the occasion, speaking of the two heroic young men, Riley Howell and Kendrick Castiloo, who died attacking school shooters, saving lives, living up to their moment.

From the Washington Post:

You can determine the excesses of an era by its martyrs. Essential to the story of a martyr is that they did not wish to die but rather chose or accepted death over some unacceptable alternative. The alternative — the thing being selected against — contains the fervor of the age, and it signs its name in the blood of martyrs.

You won’t be sorry if you read the whole thing.

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Flee or stay and defend? Rethinking evacuation from wildfire

News from around the Ojai Valley

Thomas Fire dilemma: Stay or go? Residents, fire officials rethink evacuations

web 2 Firefighters
Photo provided by CAPS Media
Firefighters try to save a house during the Thomas Fire.

 

Kit Stolz, special to the Ojai Valley News
On the night of Dec. 4, 2017, fueled by high winds, the Thomas Fire spread with devastating speed from a canyon in the hills behind Santa Paula, and from a second start atop a ridge in Upper Ojai, destroying hundreds of homes and properties, forever altering the lives of thousands of people, torching 281,893 acres, and killing 70-year-old Virginia Pesola, evacuating from the fire in Wheeler Canyon in Santa Paula.
Pesola’s tragic death was unique among the more than 90,000 people who fled the Thomas Fire in its first 24 hours, but in the aftermath of the massive evacuation, residents and officials alike are questioning both their own actions and those of officials in the face of the fire.
Some residents believe that because they stayed to fight the fire, defying the mandatory evacuation order, they saved their houses. Others who have questioned their own evacuation and fire preparedness, are “hardening” their homes to better prepare for fire and are doubting conventional fire-disaster planning. And Ventura County fire officials, as well, are thinking twice about their procedures in light of the unprecedented speed and ferocity of the Thomas Fire.
These questions of preparedness and response [were] aired in a public discussion sponsored by the Ojai Chautauqua, called: “Not If, But When — Preparing for the Next Wildland Fire,” held March 30, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Matilija Junior High School Auditorium.
The fire start
 web 3 22 Charles Law
Photo by Kit Stolz
Charles Law demonstrates how he fought the Thomas Fire at his house at the base of Anlauf Canyon.
For Charles Law, evacuating was not an option. The fire was upon his property at the base of Anlauf Canyon near Steckel Park before he had time to think of making a choice. He was one of the first to fight the blaze, which began in the canyon directly above his property.
On March 12, Ventura County Fire Department investigators and Cal Fire released a 71-page report, concluding that “power lines owned and operated by Southern California Edison were the cause of the Thomas Fire.” On March 20, they released a 38-page report that the Koenigstein Road Fire that merged with the Thomas Fire hours later, started about 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 4, 2017, when an energized electrical conductor separated between two power poles. That equipment was also owned and operated by Southern California Edison.
“I have no idea when it first started; I just know that when I looked up there, I saw the whole canyon was glowing red,” Law recounted last month in an interview with the Ojai Valley News. “I ran out of the house with my truck keys to get the truck out and back it up to the horse trailer and by the time I was lowering the trailer down on the ball hitch, the flames were already on me.”
Law managed to load his horses and dogs and sent them off with his wife, Christine. A Santa Paula fire crew arrived as he battled to knock back knee-high flames. He said firefighters set backfires and used their tank of water on the truck to wet down the house and property as the fire roared down the canyon.
“I think the firefighters knew what was going to happen,” he said. “It was like a freight train was coming down on us and there was a moment when it seemed like all the air was sucked in and then combusted almost like an explosion. They yelled: ‘Get down! Get down!’ and we laid down and it just blew through like a wall of flames and it was past and they were yelling, ‘OK — everybody up!’ and they were back at it. I was like whoa, dude, this is crazy, man.”
Law worked frantically through the night to save his home, throwing a burning tree limb off his roof, wetting down fires around the house, hauling smoldering hay and rubber mats out of his barn, inhaling smoke so toxic it made him vomit.
“You need to be vigilant, living in this area,” he said. “I don’t let leaves build up. I rake, I blow the leaves off my roof, I work around my little ranch to make sure there’s nothing that will burn close to the house. I understand where I live.”
Law — who grew up in the Santa Paula area and has faced wildfires on his land before — never considered leaving his property during the fire, despite the risks.
Others knew they had no choice. Meghan Belgum, who lived with her husband and two children on a ridgetop ranch on Koenigstein Road, said that although her husband, Josh, did not want to evacuate, they knew they had to flee.
“It did feel like we waited until the last minute,” she said. “It was like Armageddon above us. Everything was burning. It was pure chaos. We all piled into the car with the dog and had the AC on full blast. After we got out of there, we stopped at the Summit (Restaurant). Josh really wanted to go back, but we knew it wasn’t possible.”
Limited options
John McNeil of Ojai, a Ventura County Fire Department division chief, said: “We didn’t have a clear picture of the scale initially. When we saw it from a distance, we upgraded the fire after that initial report, and then brought additional (firefighting) resources. I made my way to Anlauf Canyon and then to the college. We set up an initial command post at Mill Park. We huddled up and put our plan together. While we were huddling, we heard of a second fire start on Koenigstein Road.”
Already, the fire had reached Highway 150 in the Steckel Park area. Because this area between Santa Paula and Ojai has but one windy, two-lane public road in and out, firefighters had limited options.
“Where the wind impacted Highway 150, we had power poles down,” McNeil said. “For public safety, and to preserve (the Fire Department’s) access, we decided to evacuate the area and to close the road. We allowed people to drive out.”
McNeil said he was especially alarmed by the news of the second fire start at the top of Koenigstein Road. “I said I know the area well and I have an idea where that fire is. I said let’s get people out of their homes. We couldn’t have had a worse situation, with 80 percent of our resources going to the first fire start.”
Evacuations ordered
The Ventura County Fire Department, Sheriff’s Department officers, and Search and Rescue unit officials evacuated more than 90,000 people in harm’s way in the first 24 hours of the fire, according to official accounts. However, many residents — especially in Upper Ojai — refused to leave.
Although public-safety officials can pressure residents to leave, they cannot arrest those who refuse. To compel compliance, officials often resort to strong language to make wavering residents aware of the risks. Bill Slaughter, who leads the Upper Ojai Search and Rescue unit and often has been charged with evacuating recalcitrant residents, has developed a method.
“I’ll tell residents that I’m strongly recommending that they leave,” he said. “If they’re still resistant, I’ll ask both the husband and the wife for their phone numbers, and tell them that we need to know in case we need help after the fire telling crews where to look for the remains. It’s usually at that point that the wife begins tugging on her husband’s arm and saying we need to get the hell out of here.”
Peter Deneen, a graduate student who was visiting his parents in Upper Ojai, said sheriff’s deputies drove up their driveway and sternly told them to get out. “Dad and I had stayed behind to wait and see,” Deneen said. “But the fire jumped our property and embers were starting new fires all around us. The thick smoke made breathing and seeing quite difficult. When the deputies pulled in, we didn’t really think there was a choice.”
Hours later, the Deneens learned that their house had been saved by two neighbors, John Hall and Steve Hassien, who had stayed. Hall estimated he refilled his water backpack 50 times from the Deneen’s pool.
Looking back, Deneen — a former Coast Guard officer who worked as a volunteer to house many Upper Ojai residents burned out of their homes — now understands why residents with a safe place to make a stand and experience firefighting stay to fight the fire.
“In a lot of locations in the wildlands-urban interface, according to plan, fire officials are going to be moving ahead of the firefront, evacuating residents,” Deneen said. “If you are in a location where you have reason to believe you will be safe, have a good means of defense and reason to believe that help may not be coming in time, why would you leave?”
Evacuation policy changes
Ventura fire officials, led by retired Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper, developed their “Ready, Set, GO!” fire plan a decade ago after they became convinced that too many residents were staying to fight fires, risking “going down with the house.” They modeled the Ready, Set, GO! plan on the Australian plan developed after the “Black Saturday” fires of 2009 burned more than a million acres and killed an estimated 180 people, forcing a complete overhaul of fire procedures.
“We considered adopting the Australian program, which was called Leave Early or Stay and Defend,” Roper said, “but we realized, as public leaders, we have to provide a message that best serves public safety, so we modified the Australian program into the Ready, Set, GO! program.”
Roper said firefighters call for early evacuations because fires today are behaving as they never have before, due in part to climate change. As an example, he pointed out that in Upper Ojai, the Thomas Fire burned along Lion Creek drainage near Highway 150, destroying properties along the way. Even the large Ranch Fire, which burned through Upper Ojai in 1991, did not touch the drainage or nearby properties.
McNeil said he understands why residents are often reluctant to leave their homes in the face of a fire. “I get it,” he said. “The Ready, Set, GO! philosophy and program have been successful, but because of all the challenges we face today, I think we need to rethink it. Our weed abatement program has value for a majority of our fire situations, but it’s of limited use in a world where a fire like the Thomas Fire is throwing embers a mile ahead of the firefront. It’s still valuable in that it provides a safer environment for firefighters to work in.”
McNeil added that firefighters are rethinking mass evacuations and looking for safe places for residents to evacuate closer to their homes.
“We want to be more realistic and know ahead of time where, with a team effort, we can get to a place where we’re better at surviving a fire, and have this place designated for multiple hazards, such as fires and floods,” he said. “We’re going to be looking for satellite areas instead of sending everyone to the (Ventura County) fairgrounds. We have Summit School as a possible safe space that could sustain us for a while in the Upper Ojai area.”

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“a very strange argument” for global warming

From David Wallace-Wells’ just published The Uninhabitable Earth:

“Over the last few years, as the planet’s own environmental rhythms have seemed to grow more fatalistic, skeptics have found themselves arguing not that climate change isn’t happening, since extreme weather has made that undeniable, but that its causes are unclear — suggesting that the changes we are seeing are the result of natural cycles rather than human activities and interventions. It is a very strange argument; if the planet is warming at a terrifying pace and on a horrifying scale, it should transparently concern us more, rather than less, that the warming is beyond our control, possibly even our comprehension.”

One of the most compelling aspects of The Uninhabitable Earth turns out to be the fact that the text includes no illustrating pictures or graphs or anything of that sort, be it artistic or scientific.

It is worth mentioning that the New York magazine version of story Wallace-Wells first told back in July 2017 did have imaginative (not scientific) graphics, swhich were memorable if controversial among some.

But none of that in this book. Nada. Zilch. Not one image in the entire volume.

So, to honor that essayistic apprach, I think I’ll include some memorable qutoes while reading this — without illustration. [p31, from the introduction, which is called “Cascades.”]

(No “Death by Powerpoint” presentation here.)

Worth Mentioning: for a great podcast version of this, “the biggest stry in the world,” see David Roberts of Vox’s interview of David Wallace-Wells, author of this um terrifying book.

 

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“a permanent loss of normal”: CA climate today

A couple of years ago I worked hard on a story about a hugely important study from Daniel Swain et al on the all-too-likely re-occurence of the Great California Flood. For personal reasons nothing came of my story, but eventually the news did break in a big (Los Angeles Times) and accessible (Science Friday) sort of way, and that’s great.

But from my perspective, the underlying lesson of Swain’s important study (which is actually bolstered by a great deal of other research on how our climate in California is becoming more extreme, both in terms of heat and drought and in terms of rain and snow) is that the “normal” world we have become accustomed to over the decades of our lives…is going away. May be gone already.

This crucial and not-understood fact came out in a compelling conversation between David Wallace-Wells on his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth, and David Roberts, the excellent climate and energy analyst from Vox.

Here’s the back and forth:

Wallace-Wells:      This [our climate] is not a new normal. We’re entering into a long time period where nothing will ever be the same, everything will always be changing. 

Roberts:                 A permanent loss of normal. I think that’s the way to put it. 

And here’s the podcast (with Roberts sitting in for Ezra Klein). My highest rec:

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/vox/the-ezra-klein-show/e/59194732

And here’s the chart version from Swain’s study, written up here on his blog:

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Precipitous insect decline: collapse of nature?

This week a Dutch cartoonist with beauty dramatized a horrifying new study warning of “the collapse of nature.”

Yes, that statement seems extreme, but the art contextualizes it as form of suicide. Or even worse, as a form of ecocide-suicide.

First our species exterminates the insects, and then their decline unravels nature.

The study, freely available from the Biological Conservation journal, warns that this decline “may lead to the extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species over the next few decades.”

The very first genus threatened with extinction, according to the study? “Butterflies.”

This brings to mind the monarch butterfly, perhaps the best-known of all butterflies, the insect with the most astonishing migration in all the world. No matter how many times you’ve heard the story, it’s astonishing. The monarch travels annually from Mexico all the way to the far north. It’s a journey that can at its extremes encompass four or even five generations.

But the news from California is not good. The western population of this spectacular, iconic, and evolutionarily brilliant creature is in freefall. It’s fallen, according to the Xerces Society. from an estimated 1.2 million twenty years ago to approximately 30,000 this year. That’s down about 86%.

For a magazine I’m attempting to localize this story, and I must say I’m getting pushback. A fifth-generation farmer I talked to said he hasn’t seen it in his work. A veteran science writer reports on a methodological complaint about the analysis.This analysis reached its estimate by looking at papers reporting on insect declines, but did not do an overall cross-section study on a location.

For The Atlantic, Ed Yong reports:

For those reasons, it’s hard to take the widely quoted numbers from Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys’s review as gospel. They say that 41 percent of insect species are declining and that global numbers are falling by 2.5 percent a year, but “they’re trying to quantify things that we really can’t quantify at this point,” says Michelle Trautwein from the California Academy of Sciences. “I understand the desire to put numbers to these things to facilitate the conversation, but I would say all of those are built on mountains of unknown facts.”

Still, “our approach shouldn’t be to downplay these findings to console ourselves,” Trautwein adds. “I don’t see real danger in overstating the possible severity of insect decline, but there is real danger in underestimating how bad things really are. These studies aren’t perfect, but we’d be wise to heed this warning now instead of waiting for cleaner studies.”

Hmmm. From a rudimentary windshield survey of driving in California friends and I would say that the sheer number of insects is vastly reduced.

Should we not be alarmed because the perfect study has yet to be published? Maybe I need to find someone in California who is attempting to look at this question.

 

 

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Sisyphus and climate activism: the surprising truth

In December, the scientist who — probably more than any other individual — brought ocean acidification to the attention of the world, Ken Caldeira, gave a named lecture to the huge science conference known as the AGU (officially, the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union). He spoke on the legacy of Carl Sagan, and as transcribed today on his blog, pointed out that during his life Sagan did look at the central question posed by climate change: how long can we expect to enjoy the benefits of this lovely planet? Are we doomed to fatally foul our planetary nest?

Despite his influence and his learning, Caldeira speaks in an unpretentious, calm, and informal manner. He wondered out loud:

How hard is it to destroy modern civilization? — This shows up in the global change discussion a lot. There’s a lot of people who think that global warming is an existential threat to modern civilization. And other people think we’re going to just muddle through. And it’s going to be a cost on society. It will be an existential for some people who lose their livelihood or lose their lives, but as a civilization it’s a challenge but not an existential threat. I tend to be on that side of things.

This was interesting, but not very motivating to me, well versed in climate issues, but weary of their overwhelming heaviness. But in answer to a question, speaking of Carl Sagan, Caldiera quoted a thought from the French existentialist Camus (writing in “The Myth of Sisyphus”) that put this struggle in a more helpful context. He pointed out that to Camus, Sisyphus embodied the absurdity of human life on earth, but also the commitment of humans to the struggle. In the essay Camus focused on that moment after Sisyphus has rolled and pushed and sweated the stone to the summit, only to watch as it again tumbles down the mountain.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me [Camus writes]…. I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. […]

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Caldeira rephrases this message for our time this way:

…we are heavily culturally influenced. Camus, who Sagan was reading, had written about imagining Sisyphus as happy pushing that stone up the hill. And that you wonder about the people who built the Nortre Dame cathedral as a multi-generational project that was aspirational towards some idea of permanence. Are these are sort of serfs working on this thing and just because they need to get money for food or did this gave people meaning to people to lug these stones and build Notre Dame. We can get collective me out of a project that would be positive for all of humanity and that in a way this sort of economics and even evolutionary theory emphasizing self-interest and narrow personal gain ….

I think a lot of us are motivated by approval of our peers, by wanting a feeling of meaning in our lives and so on. And not everything we do is narrowly self-interested. And maybe if in our culture we tried to emphasize more doing things for the public good that maybe more people would start doing things for the public good.

In its think-y way, this example inspires. Of course the struggle seems overwhelming, exhausting, and futile, But seen in a social context, the struggle is what gives our lives meaning. This painting from Sandro Chia, in the Museum of Modern Art, expresses this idea memorably I think:

It’s Sisyphus’s work and he’s accepted it: in Camus’s words, describing his heroism: “His rock is his thing.”

We all have our own rocks. Perhaps today climate stabilizing is our culture’s rock.

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“Radical Distraction” by Saul Bellow

From Saul Bellow, in an essay from 1975, published in Critical Inquiry:

“We are in a state of radical distraction,” he writes in “A World Too Much with Us,” an essay for the journal Critical Inquiry, in 1975, the same year Humboldt’s Gift appears. “I don’t see how we can be blind to the political character of our so-called ‘consumer’ societies. Each of us stands in the middle of things, exposed to the great public noise…All minds are preoccupied with terror, crime, the instability of cities, the future of nations, crumbling empires, foundering currencies, the poisoning of nature…To recite the list is itself unsettling.” (T.S. Eliot could no longer read the daily paper, Bellow writes. “It was too exciting.”)

Via a review by Tom Jokinen, of a biography of Bellow by Zachary Leader.

Pic from the NYTimes review, showing Bellow on the subway in that same year of 1975.

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Performative Cruelty in the Presidency

The best essay on our very stable genius from last year, it is clear to me now, came from The Atlantic and Adam Serwer: The Cruelty is the Point.

Let me quote the “nut graph” as they say in journalism, the simplest possible outline of the argument to be made in the piece.

The cruelty of the Trump administration’s policies, and the ritual rhetorical flaying of his targets before his supporters, are intimately connected. As Lili Loofbourow wrote of the Kavanaugh incident in Slate, adolescent male cruelty toward women is a bonding mechanism, a vehicle for intimacy through contempt. The white men in the lynching photos are smiling not merely because of what they have done, but because they have done it together.

We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era.

By way of contrast to this depiction, the neo-conservative right in the person of Michael Gerson today calls Trump a fraud. 

Seems a bit late doesn’t it? But nevermind, we appreciate the negativity from a Republican on Trump.

Far more insightfully and powerfully, it seems to me, Slate’s science editor today hears the “cruel laughter” in Trump’s tweet about the worst cold freeze to hit the Midwest in a generation.

The sad thing about this tweet isn’t even the deliberate misrepresentation of facts. That’s par for the course from the only world leader who doesn’t accept the science on climate change. It’s the tone of it that grates—the taunt inherent to “please come back fast, we need you!” In the midst of constant chaos and tragedy and stupidity, it is easy to forget that one of the greatest costs of the Trump presidency is the opportunity cost—the loss of these four years in which we could have been taking action on one of the most serious threats facing humanity and instead walked backward. This tweet is frustrating not only because it’s wrong—it’s frustrating because it is cruel. People are already dying from global warming. The longer we wait, the worse it will get. But to the president, it’s just a punchline.

They call it performative cruelty.

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Don’t Push Me Because I’m Close to the Edge: 2019

A generation ago Grandmaster Flash had a huge hit with The Message, with a chorus that went like this:

Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under

That was 1982, twenty-seven years ago, but it’s still true. According to a national survey last year conducted by the reputable Harris Poll, nearly four-fifths of wage earners in the self-declared “greatest country on earth” live paycheck to paycheck, with no real savings. As Ted Rall notes, barely keeping his sense of humor. He draws:

Most stories reporting on this finding focus on the personal responsibility of wage-earners not to blow their desperately hard-earned money. USA Today wondered: Are Americans Responsible with Their Paychecks? as if it’s the fault of the underpaid and barely insured that they’re one or two steps from the street.

This blog focuses mostly on climate and culture, but really it’s understandable that people don’t think much about either — who has time for a future crisis, living one or two weeks from a personal crisis?

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A wild perspective on the government shutdown

 

My name is Randy, and I’m the raccoon resident of the dumpster enclosure at Yellowstone National Park’s Bridge Bay Campground. The park rangers refer to me as a “nuisance raccoon.” I’ve lost my fear of humans and ability to forage for natural food like fruits and nuts, the stuff that non-nuisance raccoons eat. Imagine trying to eat raw acorns after tasting the flavor-explosion of Jacked Ranch-Dipped Hot Wing Doritos — inconceivable.

As a trash-eating raccoon, the government shutdown has been the best three weeks of my life, and I urge the President to think long and hard about the effects of the shutdown on me, Randy Raccoon the Dumpster Terror of Yellowstone, and not worry about the rest of the American people.

Bridge Bay is Yellowstone’s largest campground with hundreds of campsites, so on the shutdown’s first day the filth of humanity started to pile up outsidethe animal-proof trash containers. It was a cornucopia of Carrot Cake Clif Bars, the constituent ingredients for s’mores, and a fully-loaded diaper, all marinating in stale PBR. After a couple ranger-free days, the pristine park turned into a Golden Corral buffet of trash for scavenging vermin like me. On day 7, I found half a Chicken Chalupa and a human shit pile (coincidence?) steps away from majestic Old Faithful!

I would have thought the government would close the parks if the rangers couldn’t be there, since they obviously are the only thing preventing total chaos. Tourists are dumb. They risk death trying to take selfies with 2,000 pound buffalo, which are basically sentient battering rams. But I’m just a raccoon who’s eaten a used condom and a wrapped Snickers bar, what do I know?

From a friend of a daughter, writing for The Belladonna. From personal experience, I must say raccoons are some gnarly beasts, and not to be messed with. Here’s the rest of the piece.

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