Illustration of a burning forest

Dialogue

A Burning Testament to Climate Collapse

Illustration by Sally Deng

By Terry Tempest Williams

In Fall 2021, Harvard Divinity School writer-in-residence and noted conservationist Terry Tempest Williams hosted a series of 10 discussions, “Weather Reports: The Climate of Now.” Williams interviewed writers, poets, researchers, filmmakers, and activists on the front lines of the climate crisis. These dialogues emerged from some of those discussions. 

Terry Tempest Williams: The world is on fire. Tonight, as we gather, giant sequoias have been lovingly wrapped and swaddled by firefighters and flame retardant foil in an effort to protect these ancient trees from three wildfires that are raging through Giant Sequoia National Monument in Sequoia National Forest and Kings Canyon National Forest in central California.

The American Southwest is in megadrought. And in the town of Moab, conversations are no longer about drilling for oil, but drilling for water. In July, a flash flood roared through town. Pack Creek was running black from the La Sal Mountains like a river from Hades.

The American West is choked in smoke. The Northwest underwent a great heat wave, with billions of intertidal species dead. And the Northeast has been flooding. We all have our stories. The Washington Post reported recently that nearly one in three Americans experienced a weather disaster this summer. Climate collapse is not about the future. It’s right here, right now.

Welcome to a conversation with the remarkable British filmmaker Lucy Walker, discussing her epic film, Bring Your Own Brigade, on the California fires in 2018. [The film’s title refers to the private, subscriber-only fire companies that were standard practice in nineteenth-century California.]

Lucy Walker is an Emmy-winning, two-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker, known for her character-driven nonfiction that delivers emotional storytelling on the screen. Her films and awards are many. But what I respect and admire most about Lucy Walker is she does not look away from all that is breaking our hearts. She allows us to be transformed by change, even grief. And in so doing, she shows us, again and again, how the human spirit can and does rise from ashes.

Lucy, welcome. What I’d love to know first is: What’s the weather report from your home in Venice Beach, California?

Lucy Walker: Thank you so much. Yes, Venice Beach, California. It’s September. It’s pretty mellow. I live fairly close to the water. Here we are protected from the heat that everyone has inland, but there is this uneasy feeling of the fall season, because it hasn’t rained in a very long time. And the seasonal winds are going to start to pick up.

I don’t live in a place that could burn. I literally know too much to live in those places, because I’m afraid. And that was my impetus for making this film. I live in the flats close to the water and not in the Wildland Urban Interface—those beautiful areas with a lot of fuel, and hills, and canyons, and wind tunnels. Supposedly, the fires could never burn through into Venice Beach. So, I choose to live here, based on that.

TTW: I’m curious about your relationship to fire before you made the film.

LW: I included my journey in the film, which I’ve never done before. I did that because I found it to be relevant. I found my own journey, as a European to California, to be absolutely apropos, because, of course, it was the European settlers into California that suppressed the Indigenous relationship with the landscape, including the technologies of working with fire.

I found my own journey, as a European to California, to be absolutely apropos, because, of course, it was the European settlers into California that suppressed the Indigenous relationship with the landscape, including the technologies of working with fire.

The settlers from northern Europe banned Native burning practices. They had a relationship with fire that was based on northern Europe’s landscape, which is basically wet and cold all the time. So I see our current relationship with western fires as something that has gone wrong, something that shouldn’t be happening.

Of course, we have our public fire brigade system, which is a lovely communal thing. We can all dial 911. In the old days of private insurance, you had to belong to a private club. Then that brigade would come to your home, should it burn. That’s happening again: a strand of the film examines that return to private firefighters, who now come and protect your home in a place like Malibu—if you’re rich enough to afford them.

The film begins inside, in the most horrifying way, with these deadly fires that were caused by the same wind event and caused death and destruction in both Paradise [a conservative, rural town in northern California] and Malibu. In Paradise, for example, the 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people, destroyed 18,000 structures. It was the most costly disaster of that year.

During the rebuilding of Paradise, the town council brought up efforts to make the homes more fire safe, because the fire is going to come back. This place burns all the time. And yet, the people don’t want initiatives, even ones that are free. We’re so quirky; we want to be individual.

TTW: And in the name of freedom! I mean, for me, that was the most horrific aspect in the film, more than the fires, because, so often, we hear the refrain: What’s it going to take? And if you have lost 80-plus neighbors, if you’ve lost everything, as so many of the people that you followed did in the town of Paradise, and yet, you can’t even vote for a five-foot barrier around your house—what is it going to take?

LW: That’s right. That’s exactly right. And it’s not just about losing people. It’s how they were lost. If you think about the Christian imagination, they were trying to come up with the worst punishment imaginable. What’s the absolutely most intense, awful thing you could inflict on people to scare them into right Christian behavior? They came up with hell. We came up with burning fire pits, being burned alive in flames. And this is literally, literally, what we’ve created for ourselves with these fires.

TTW: So how do we work with this? What did you learn?

LW: I learned a lot. And again, just to emphasize, it is climate change. Climate change is making things worse.

We’re pouring into these wildlands, because they’re affordable and beautiful, and California has such a terrible housing crisis. Yet we haven’t solved how not to have these homes burn.

Earlier, I mentioned the Wildland Urban interface (WUI). In fact, since the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, thousands more people have moved into the WUI. We’re pouring into these wildlands, because they’re affordable and beautiful, and California has such a terrible housing crisis. Yet we haven’t solved how not to have these homes burn. The insurance companies have picked up that these places do burn, and they’re so rapidly withdrawing insurance coverage from these areas that California had to put a moratorium on customers being dropped.

I think that’s going to be a braking mechanism on this, because, of course, what’s going to happen when people can no longer afford to insure their homes in the current climate? They’re just going to keep living there. And then who’s going to pay when they become homeless, which is what we’re already seeing with these fires? There’s a huge economic catastrophe that we’re storing up.

After the Camp Fire, President Trump went to Paradise, called it “Pleasure,” and called for more logging as a solution to the fires. A lot of people locally were swayed by this. Yes, more logging. That sounds great for industry, great for everyone.

However, when you actually get into the weeds, quite literally, on all this stuff, you learn that the wheels of the logging trucks spread invasive plant species, which are highly flammable, way more flammable than the native species. So something like cheatgrass is a real fire problem, right there.

The young tree plantations created by the logging industry are unbelievably flammable. Contrast that with the natural forest, which you might think might be more flammable, with all the dead trees and stuff, because they look like things you might put in the fireplace. But, no, actually, they work as sinks. The natural forest, with all the different mixed ages, shades the forest floor. The natural forest has natural breaks and break-ups.

So now, the logging industry can’t insure their crops. What do they do? They bank on fire suppression. Every fire has to be put out. Since 1910 the fire service has committed to the “10:00 AM rule”: every fire has to be put out by 10:00 AM the following morning. No fire. Keep fire out. Smokey the Bear. No fires.

What could possibly go wrong? The fuel piles up and piles up and piles up. And when fire doesn’t burn regularly through these forests, you get all these ladder fuels, and you get these out-of-control forests. It used to be that much more of the forest composition was completely different in California. You used to have much more savanna situations, bigger trees spaced further apart. Then, when the fire did burn through, it was much smaller, because there was only low, new fuel on the ground.

TTW: So how do we use fire? What did you learn?

LW: When I got to California, I went camping among those Sequoia trees. And again, with my European mindset, I was actually freaked out because there was smoke, and there were little fires, and there were all these volunteers and employees burning fire. And I thought, well, what if that gets out of control? I don’t know. I’m hiking. Do I want this smoke?

But I was very intrigued. Why are they burning deliberately among these treasures of gigantic trees? Well, they’re burning, because on a day like yesterday, you’ve previously burned the huge flame lengths—which are not normal—that are derived from the fact that these areas, traditionally, will have burned regularly. Now, when the fire comes through, there’s so much fuel piled up.

The fires will burn way hotter, way bigger, incinerate everything, crust on the ground—just a totally different thing that will kill the ultimate fire-adapted species, which is what we’re seeing more than ever in history in recent years.

When the very first Europeans made contact in California, it was [in the area of] Los Angeles. They sailed up and called it the Bahia de las Fumas because it was so smoky. And this was Los Angeles. It was already on fire when the Europeans showed up. But the Europeans banned the Native burning practices. The Native Americans knew to deliberately set fire around homestead areas, created areas in order to stop homes going up. They also fire farmed. The Indigenous people had a whole different relationship with fire, knowing it was going to come through inevitably, and using it as a tool in many brilliant ways.

This wisdom has been preserved, despite unbelievable genocide and horrible efforts to suppress it. Remarkably, there’s a great deal of wisdom in the communities, and everyone agrees this is the solution. And yet, it is difficult, politically, to implement. Because who wants smoke?

If you could perhaps consider a cause for optimism, it is that the smoke and these fires are carrying this message that we are on fire, that this is not sustainable, and that we can’t ignore it.

But I think the problem is coming into focus. And, actually, if you could perhaps consider a cause for optimism, it is that the smoke and these fires are carrying this message that we are on fire, that this is not sustainable, and that we can’t ignore it—not when we can’t leave our houses in the most affluent places and the most happy, beautiful dream places that we have, when people are dying, when homes are burning, when people can’t get insurance, when everything seems to be falling apart.

Maybe that is going to be when we can come together, because we haven’t been.

I was very much inspired by Mike Davis, who wrote a fantastic essay, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” which contrasted a poor inner-city Los Angeles community to Malibu during some fires decades ago. Today, we see the destruction across the state—the same wind event in Paradise and Malibu drove the fires.

Paradise is somewhat of a red hill in a blue state, a lot of guns, a lot of Trump voters. Malibu is more of a Democratic celebrity paradise. The median home price in Malibu is over $2 million. In Paradise, it’s less than $200,000. They are at opposite ends of the state geographically, politically, and economically. It was fascinating for me to map the differences and the similarities in these very different communities in how things played out, including the rebuilding plans.

When I filmed in Paradise, I saw a hope in my discourse with these more conservative, rural people. I found that once we got past the awful tension—I mean, I was terrified of these people, not least of all their guns. I found myself politically such a fish out of water, I was actually truly anxious at points—we became true friends, I found that beyond the what we’re “supposed” to think level, we all agree. The people I spoke with would tell me, “Mother Nature is pissed.” They would tell me that plastic bags had ruined their town. I thought, why are we not engaging each other on this deeper level? How can we get rid of this political divide? Because the divide is dangerous.

In our hearts, if we can connect as friends and have nuanced discussions, we are actually all feeling the same things. They don’t want their homes to burn. They know it’s wrong. We have to find a way to have these difficult, but ultimately beautiful, bonding conversations, because we’re all human beings.

Our skin burns just the same. They know that, and I know that. How can we not be having that conversation?

It is a dimensional issue. It’s a complicated issue. It’s a nuanced issue. People have different points of view. And some of them are factually wrong at points. The unreliability of their understanding is actually part of the story. Human frailty, our inability to understand and act together in responding to these fires is why we’re in this mess.

We also haven’t figured out what to do with all this fossil fuel. It’s broken our relationship. We’re so clever that we’ve managed to dig up all this fossil fuel that we can burn. But we’re not clever enough to have figured out what to do to balance it out again. So we’re burning ourselves up. And that, again, in a larger sense, is what the film is about.

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