Making Sense of the Flames

Written by Elena Aurora, Edited by Layel Camargo

People have been describing the toxic sauna of smoke as “apocalyptic”, “the new norm”, and related to climate change. I’ve had so many conversations since November 8th when the Butte Fire broke out about how and why these fires are happening. It wasn’t until Movement Generation posted this blog, a conversation between two of its members, that the haze lifted and I began to seriously connect the dots around what is ACTUALLY happening.

I’m not super savvy about these things, I consider myself your average queer-fighting-for-liberation against capitalism, white supremacy, ableism, and transphobia, I’m not an expert on climate. Living in West Oakland for the past five years, I am at the frontlines of climate change. I am actively zero waste and on the #climatewoke tip. But once I go down the rabbit hole of connecting all these things together, I can get a little lost. SO here we go, let’s see if we can tease this situation out together…

Explaining Climate Change
Created by Woke n Wasteless, photo from google search

I spoke to my mom yesterday, and she expressed what I’d call a bit of despair around “what can we do?” in the wake of these fires and sadness. Thousands of people across the state are praying their loved ones are alive, stunned by the loss of homes, and the entire town of Paradise: gone. Loss, grief, confusion around every corner. I immediately jumped into, “well there’s a lot you can do! You can divest from oil companies, you can encourage local governance for independent energy grids, you can help take down the prison industrial complex and new Jim Crow cuz incarcerated-mostly-Black firefighters are the ones getting injuries and being compensated $1/hr. There’s so much you can do!”. My mom responded, “well I donated money to the victims of Paradise, CA”.

And I stopped there. “Oh, ya that’s good too… Thanks for doing that”, I responded. I certainly don’t have money to donate in lieu of the above things I’m doing to stop these unnatural natural disasters*. Everyone has their role to play in this work.

Scope of Smoke

Two days after the fire began, on the morning of November 10th, I happened to fly out of SFO. My eyes sealed to the window as I tried to comprehend the scale of the smoke cover. The plane took off, through the haze, and while we were still on a steep incline, we were nowhere out of the smoke line. On this otherwise clear day, I could not see the Bay Bridge, or any other land markers below me.

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Flying over California
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Somewhere over central Nevada










You see, the smoke isn’t just affecting California, it’s affecting the GLOBE. Check out this satellite image of the pathway the smoke on November 17th, 9 days after the fire began. See how there is a faint, but distinct smoke blurb just off the coast of the Carolinas? Yup, that’s right, the Atlantic Ocean is also absorbing smoke particles from these fires.

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Satellite images of the smoke from the 2018 California Fires. See GIF here.

“The worst and biggest symptom of colonization, which we have yet to see reach its total devastation, is climate change.”

So how did this happen?

Colonization. And colonization begets slavery so it can function. Several hundred years of colonization and slavery facilitated the exploitation of labor in order to exploit natural resources (coal, oil, people, minerals ect). This led to many symptoms (prison industrial complex, food deserts and so on…) but the worst and biggest symptom of colonization, which we have yet to see reach its total devastation, is climate change. Climate change and climate-facilitated disasters such as the California fires are the next iterations of colonial function. We are fooled into thinking we still need to lean on our current systems to function. Dependance on PG&E is a prime example.

For those of you who don’t know, PG&E is responsible for this fire, and for last year’s Santa Rosa fire (although still in legal battles over this statement). In 2017 wildfires swept across California, breaking records of most destructive fire one after another. So what will happen to PG&E? Will it go bankrupt?

What will happen?

To be honest, I have no idea. I know that in 2016 Governor Jerry Brown’s vetoed a bill that would have made power lines safer. And that he signed a measure in 2017 which helps PG&E avoid bankruptcy from wildfire related costs, at the price of its customers.

I for one, would love to see PG&E go bankrupt. It would open the opportunity for localized energy governance. We could see our energy grid decentralized! However, is it too late? We can see that Governor Jerry Brown is in the back pocket of the 13.27 billion dollar PG&E Corporation. And the common people of California are expected to pay for these wildfires.

And what does it mean for California to depend on incarcerated labor for fighting fires? Our current system of modern slavery through incarceration continues. I work with doulas in the local Santa Rita Jail, and one of our former clients is thrilled to enter the firefighting force, it’s something for her to do, it’s skilled labor while in prison with the promise of a career once she gets out. If she gets out. As the flames engulf California, I keep wondering, is she out there? Is she ok? She’s young, younger than me. Black, queer, and her only option while serving her prison sentence is to fight fires. Fires caused by the same colonization that put her ancestors in chains. That put her in chains.

So many more questions, and not many answers. Will we see more and more criminalization of Black and Brown communities to maintain the labor forces needed to fight the effects of climate change and the collapse of the oil industry? How will our current system supply the labor force needed for the oncoming climate shifts under the poorly funded aid of the Trump era? Will we rely on detention centers as well? Was that part of the plan all along? Is that why Obama greyed so quickly in the White House?

These questions will be ones we will need to grapple with in the next coming months and years of the climate crisis, however I write this piece not to overwhelm you but to warn you that these questions hide the truth of the problem. Take or leave the Obama question…

Art by Ella Mendoza @kuruchitx

We have consumed our way into this problem through a fabricated demand. I humbly provide these points to hold while moving forward:

  1. The forceful and state-sanctioned violent removal of indigenous people from their lands has put many lives in danger. It has put people alongside fire lines, sea level rise and hurricanes. We must remember our way forward and demand that lands be returned to native stewardship and practices.
  2. Our current energy consumption is detrimental to whether we overcome this glooming present condition. We must, I repeat, we must, find better ways to get energy without the continual extraction of resources. Equally so, we must stop buying so many things designed to be obsolete. Our current waste stream holds 99% of everything ever manufactured.
  3. We must continue being each other’s allies, support system and advocates; we cannot do anything moving forward alone. We will need the creativity of Black, Brown, Indigenous, disabled, queer, transgender and everyone else at the table.

We believe that this is not a difficult task if we continue innovation (without technology) and if we use what we currently have access to: indigenous knowledge, zero waste practices, and a whole lot of resilience.

*There is a lot of controversy around donating to disaster efforts. The American Red Cross, receives money at almost every natural disaster, however their overhead cost is huge, and only a small portion of what is donated ever ends up with the survivors. Also they have homophobic questions on their blood donation forms. Consider donating to a direct disaster relief fund instead. No, I don’t know any, I have no money to donate.

2 thoughts on “Making Sense of the Flames

  1. Thank you so much Elena. My only point of contention is that you are a scholar. Poverty scholar. We need more of you and those in this world. Holla!

    Love always,

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